How a US soldier helped one Afghan to escape the Taliban

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He was a Taliban target, now he works in a car dealership; how a U.S. soldier got one Afghan to safety

Last Monday, a 36-year-old man began work at a car dealership in Alexandria, Virginia. He had no relevant experience, nothing to do with cars or sales in general. His résumé — if he’d had one — would have listed prior work as a grape farmer and armed security officer.

What he did have were a story and personality that Everett Hellmuth, the president of Passport Auto Group, which owns the dealership, found irresistible.

“This gentleman had really stepped up to help; he’d put his life on the line,” Hellmuth told Grid. “We wanted to help in any way we could.”

The man’s name is Wazir Gul. He has been in the U.S. for less than a year. As Grid reported previously, Wazir was among the more than 120,000 Afghans evacuated safely in the chaotic last days of the nearly two-decade U.S. war in Afghanistan. He had served with U.S. forces as an armed security officer. His plane left Kabul on Aug. 26, 2021. The last American troops left four days later.

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Tens of thousands of other Afghans who had worked for the U.S. have yet to make it out, despite a pledge from President Joe Biden last year: “Those who helped us are not going to be left behind.”

Wazir was not “left behind,” but his wife and children were. And although Wazir had taken great risks and saved American lives, his own escape from Afghanistan owed nothing to the U.S. government — and everything to his own courage, some remarkable luck, and the tireless work of a retired American staff sergeant named Sam Lerman.

“Afghans who supported the United States all risked their lives to do so,” Sam told Grid. “But some jobs were more dangerous than others. There were Afghans who cleaned our rooms, cleaned the dining facility. They were in danger because they worked for the United States, but their role wasn’t visible. Wazir’s job was one of the most visible, dangerous jobs you could possibly do in service to the United States. He was serving openly in a public space carrying a rifle for the United States of America and searching people to stop Taliban suicide bombers from taking out Americans.”

Hellmuth knew about Wazir because he had seen the earlier Grid story. “I read about what this man had been through,” he said, “and I reached out. Turns out he’s a great addition to the team, and we’re thrilled to have him.”

One year later, Wazir has the job, an apartment, and more important, he said, he has his safety. “Taliban wanted to kill me,” he told Grid. Indeed, armed representatives of the group came to his home just days after he left.

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But in other ways, Wazir’s odyssey is an example of what’s gone wrong since Biden and other U.S. officials made those promises. He was able to escape only after agreeing to leave his wife and children behind; his efforts to bring them here have yet to bear fruit; and his own Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) application remains in limbo.

“Should never have been this hard,” Sam told Grid. “I mean, if anyone should have been cleared, vetted and put on the first planes out of Kabul, it was Wazir Gul.”

Sam and Wazir

Wazir was just shy of 25 when he went to work for the U.S. military. He had never imagined he would work with Americans. And never imagined he would carry a gun.

He was in his prime school years when the Taliban first took control of the country in 1996. Music and other forms of popular culture were banned. English language classes ended. That all changed after the October 2001 U.S. invasion and overthrow of the Taliban. Schools reopened. A free press blossomed. In 2011, Wazir secured a job at Bagram Airfield, the sprawling U.S. base some 25 miles outside Kabul, and worked his way up. By July 2011, he was an armed security guard for an American contractor.

Sam had deployed to Afghanistan that July. He was assigned to the Bagram base’s Alpha Sector, with the principal task of defending the base from enemy attack.

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Attackers came regularly, and Sam’s squadron needed first-rate intelligence to identify and repel them. Success depended heavily on more than 100 Afghans embedded with their unit, local security officers who had proved their competence and won the trust of the Americans. Wazir Gul was among them — and he stood out.

During their first shifts together, Sam and Wazir peppered one another with questions about each other’s lives, their cultures, how each man had come to be there. They were having one such conversation on a late July evening when they heard the whoosh of an incoming rocket.

“This was probably 7 o’clock or so, around dusk,” Sam remembered. “We got rocketed, 107mm rockets impacting just outside the perimeter, pretty close to our position. The blast radius was maybe 100 to 150 meters away. And we’re standing outside on the catwalk of this tower.

“I remember diving for cover behind the sandbags. I expected Wazir to fall on top of me. There wasn’t a whole lot of area on that catwalk.”

Crouched low, waiting for the attack to subside, Sam looked for his new friend.


“I didn’t feel him hit the deck. And so I look up, and Wazir’s standing on top of the sandbags and has my binoculars in his hand, looking for a launch position.”

Wazir smiled at the memory. Why hadn’t he followed suit and ducked for cover?

“No, it’s my job,” he said. “I look for enemies.”

Had he feared for his own life?

Wazir deflected the question: “I have grown up with war, fighting the Russians. Our fathers fighting. U.S. helping us. And now U.S. helping us again. And so I am helping them.”

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It was clear, he said, that “bad people” were attacking the Americans and that his job was to learn, as he put it, “this one is bad people, this one is good … and this is my job. Look for bad people.”

“After that attack,” Sam said, “I thought, here’s a guy who clearly knew what he was doing and was willing and ready as I had just seen to die defending American forces.”

Tour of duty

They worked together for seven months. To hear them describe that time is to imagine the cadence of a firefighter’s job — long periods of calm, even boredom, punctuated by adrenaline bursts when danger visits. At Bagram, such bursts came roughly twice a week, rockets or small-arms fire striking inside or near the base perimeter.

“We had one very serious attack,” Sam remembered, “on Sept. 10, 2011, the 10th anniversary of 9/11. It was the Taliban celebration of that. And we got hit for three-and-a-half hours.”

The attack killed two Afghan security guards and injured nine others, including three U.S. soldiers. Sam brought two critically wounded Afghans to the Bagram hospital. Both survived. Now Wazir saw that Americans were willing to risk their lives to save Afghan security officers. Trust was building on both sides of their relationship.

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Sam’s tour in Afghanistan coincided with a spate of “green-on-blue” killings — attacks on Americans by armed Afghans, typically members of the Taliban who had infiltrated the international forces. For obvious reasons, friendship with an Afghan security officer was often tainted by an undercurrent of fear.

Sam had no doubts.

“There was this mantra about never turning your back, even with your allies, because you never know when the wrong guy has been turned. But Wazir I came to trust 100 percent, to the point where I’d give him my weapon. The only Afghan I ever did give my weapon to.

“I can’t estimate how many lives Wazir saved through the knowledge that he imparted to Americans,” Sam said. “Wazir was the most trusted Afghan who worked with us. Everybody knew: If you need to understand something, if there’s something you don’t get and you want ground truth on, find Wazir.”

Farewell

Sam left Afghanistan in January 2012. The hardest part was saying goodbye to Wazir.

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“I had this American flag that I had planned to bring home and put up in my house. I’d carried it with me for much of the deployment, in my pack,” Sam said. “And on the last day, I went and found Wazir. And I gave it to Wazir as a thank you for his service to the United States.”

Sam did one more thing before he left. He and his fellow servicemen at Bagram felt Wazir deserved a higher rank and salary. Sam went to his superiors and told them Wazir was the only Afghan his team worked with who they all “trusted 100 percent.” They would be “idiots,” he said, if they didn’t make him a supervisor.

And then, on Jan. 15, 2012, Sam and Wazir embraced and said their farewells.

“It was so hard for me,” Wazir remembered. “Very hard for me to say goodbye.”

2021: Return of the Taliban

For nearly a decade, they had no contact.

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Wazir had daily reminders of Sam, thanks to the gifts he had left behind — a DVD player, videos and the American flag. “Every day I’m seeing the flag, I am remembering Sam,” he said.

Sam thought of Wazir whenever major news came from Afghanistan — another attack, another new U.S. policy. By early 2021, the news came regularly. And the news was rarely good.

In 2020, the Trump administration had cut a deal with the Taliban to pull the last U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan. In April 2021, Biden announced his intent to stick to the agreement. American troops would come home.

The Taliban launched a fresh offensive against Afghan security forces in May; by mid-July, the rebels controlled half the country’s districts.

Sam reached Wazir by phone in late July. In the intervening years, Wazir had gotten his promotion at Bagram, only to leave soon after to care for his ailing father. After his father died in 2013, Wazir and his wife returned to the family farm, where they harvested grapes. They had six more children — bringing the total to eight. He never returned to Bagram.

Wazir couldn’t believe what he heard of the Taliban advance. He had known the day might come. But now it was coming fast. And it posed enormous risks for him and his family.

He hadn’t just worked with Sam and the other Americans; he had shot at Taliban fighters. And he had made his feelings known. At the village mosque, Wazir told Grid, everyone was aware, as he put it, that “this guy worked for U.S. Everybody knows I am for America. I hate Taliban.”

“America is leaving,” he recalled thinking. “I’m scared. I’m understanding that Taliban maybe come back to my village.”

Fifteen minutes into their July 2021 conversation, Wazir put the question to Sam: “Can you help me get out?”

Sam said he wasn’t sure. Then he added quickly, “I’ll try everything I can.”

“Rush to the exits”

By Aug. 1, the Taliban march threatened the country’s largest cities. On Aug. 6, the U.S. and U.K. urged all their nationals to leave the country.

Subsequent reporting showed that the U.S. and its European allies delayed evacuations of their forces and Afghans who had worked with them because, as the New Yorker’s Steve Coll and Adam Entous put it, it would “look like a rush to the exits.” On Aug. 13, the Taliban captured Herat and Kandahar. Kabul would be next.

Now the “rush to the exits” was on.

Sam had just begun learning about the Special Immigration Visa program; he called lawyers and refugee aid organizations, trying to start the process for Wazir. But with the situation in Afghanistan spiraling badly, Sam called Wazir and urged him to leave his home and go to Kabul. Wazir knew a place he and his family could stay.

Meanwhile, Wazir emailed Sam photos of personal documents that would support the SIV application — the ID badge from his time working with the U.S., certificates of appreciation, his family’s IDs, his passport. The SIV was intended for Afghan nationals who had been employed “by or on behalf of the U.S. government in Afghanistan”; it was, in essence, the document to support Biden’s pledge that no Afghan who had worked for the U.S. mission would be left behind.

“I spent several days putting together his application,” Sam said. “I submitted it just before Kabul fell.”

The Taliban took the capital on Aug. 15 without a fight. Wazir learned from a friend that Taliban gunmen had come to his home two days after he left.

Sam called Wazir and told him the paperwork had been filed; he could go to the airport and say he was an SIV applicant. The airlift had begun.

But Sam knew that Wazir’s chances were slim. Wazir was merely an applicant; he didn’t hold an SIV. Sam had a Rolodex of Capitol Hill connections from work in the defense industry; he wrote to members of Congress, to ambassadors, to the State Department. He sent information and testimonials about Wazir. None could offer much help. Many were hearing similar pleas from other veterans, working on behalf of Afghans they had known.

Escape plan

When the break came, it had nothing to do with members of Congress, ambassadors or others in high places. It came via the friend of Sam’s who told him to find Justin Peele.

Justin works for the Diplomatic Security Service (DSS), the Secret Service’s equivalent for the U.S. diplomatic community. DSS agents are posted in foreign capitals, typically for two-year missions to protect diplomats and diplomatic installations.

Justin had recently been assigned to Kabul. It would be a shorter mission — one year — because Afghanistan was considered a hardship post.

He landed in the first week of August and almost immediately saw that the situation in Kabul was tenuous. “The writing was on the wall,” he told Grid. “Things are always fine until they’re not. And they were very quickly — not.”

Four days after his arrival, Justin was redeployed to the Kabul airport. His mission of diplomatic protection was over. Now he was to assist in the evacuation of American citizens and Afghans who had served with the U.S. He would be based at Abbey Gate, inside the airport’s perimeter.

In addition to helping maintain security, Justin’s job would involve vetting arrivals at the gate and clearing as many Afghans as possible for evacuation. He watched for particular documents — U.S. passports, the yellow badge that signified employment with the U.S. embassy, and the SIV.

Wazir had none of these. His best bet was the SIV application, the powerful case it contained and then the hope of finding a sympathetic ear.

From his home in Virginia, Sam devised a plan. Wazir would have a photograph of an American flag on his phone that he would hold high; he would search the walls at Abbey Gate for Justin — whose photo Sam had sent — and he would yell “Justin” as often and loudly as possible. For his part, Justin would carry a blue glow stick and wear a baseball cap instead of his usual helmet. And he would keep an eye out for Wazir.

“Sam sent me a photograph of Wazir, which admittedly didn’t do a whole lot for me,” Justin recalled. “Looked like a lot of photographs I’d seen. I worked at night, so it’s also very dark, which didn’t help.”

Sam would keep them both on a WhatsApp link. Directing traffic, as it were. Justin told him there were no guarantees.

“He stressed many times, no promises,” Sam said. “And even best-case scenario, it was going to be extraordinarily dangerous just to try to get into the right place where he could get him out.”

Wazir went three times to the airport with his family, each time navigating Taliban checkpoints that ringed the airport. They would have to reach a sewage canal that flowed like a moat around the airport walls, and which was already crowded with thousands of people. Each trip was more chaotic than the last. He and his wife grew more worried about their children. Wazir thought the youngest might be trampled.

On their third try, they spent nearly 30 hours trying to enter the airport perimeter. There was sporadic gunfire and a crush of people. Every time Wazir and his wife pushed forward, trying to keep the children close, they were pushed back. At one point he was struck with a rifle by an American service member.

“Too many people,” Wazir said. “Everyone coming to airport. People were pushing against us. My little 1-year-old son fell. My wife says, ‘It’s too scary.’ She says, ‘Maybe you go. Maybe I stay here. For children to go, it’s too scary.’”

They returned to the Kabul house. Wazir called it the most difficult conversation he has ever had — the one when he agreed to return to the airport without them.

“It’s so hard for me. Because my family is there,” Wazir said. “I call Sam, he says, ‘OK, you come. Maybe after you, your family come. But you have to go.’”

Abbey Gate

On the night of Aug. 25, Wazir returned to the airport, this time with his brother. It was easier for the two of them to move through the checkpoints. After less than two hours, they had reached the canal near Abbey Gate.

Then Wazir did as Sam had instructed. He pulled up the American flag on his phone, walked along the wall and held the phone high. And he started yelling.

“All the time I’m shouting, ‘Justin! Justin!’ So many times I’m shouting this name,” he said.

Seven thousand miles away, Sam was beside himself: “I’m sitting there, going nuts. Justin can’t see or hear Wazir. Wazir just keeps hollering.”

Justin — who had never met either man — felt suddenly caught up in the drama and helpless from his post at Abbey Gate.

“I mean, it’s dark. It’s loud. Sam has this great plan, sounds good, and I’m trying, but there’s just a lot going on in that moment.”

“Wazir couldn’t find Justin,” Sam said. “He’s fighting his way through this crowd, in that sewer water. And I’m going back and forth between Justin and Wazir via phone and WhatsApp trying to get them onto each other’s location.”

It was just after 6 p.m. in Woodbridge, Virginia. Three in the morning in Kabul.

“Justin! Justin!”

It might have been the hundredth time Wazir had yelled the name. This time, Justin heard it.

“I looked — just to be sure — to see his face,” Justin said. “I looked for that flag on his phone. And he’s yelling my name like it’s the last thing he’s gonna do.”

Wazir grinned at the memory: “This man says, ‘What’s your name?’ I told him, ‘My name is Wazir Gul!’ He says, ‘OK, I’m Justin.’ I’m so happy. I almost fall in the water!”

A minute later, Justin lifted Wazir and his brother over the wall.

“I dead-lifted them both out of the sewage canal. A lot of people have said that being an agent is 95 percent cerebral, 5 percent physical. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. But these situations in Kabul, I think that was that 5 percent. It definitely paid to be fit and strong.”

Within an hour, Wazir and his brother were aboard an American C-17, en route to Doha, Qatar. By dawn, they had landed.

Death at the airport

A few hours later, Justin heard the order. An all-clear. There was an “imminent and confirmed threat” of a suicide bombing. Justin went to his barracks.

That afternoon, a former engineering student named Abdul Rahman al-Logari, who had escaped from a U.S. prison earlier that week, walked up to Abbey Gate. He was wearing roughly 20 pounds of explosives. At 5:36 p.m., he blew himself up.

One hundred seventy Afghans and 13 U.S. soldiers were killed. The Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Justin never returned to Abbey Gate. He and his team flew out of Afghanistan at the end of August. His one-year tour had lasted exactly one month.

“Wazir and his brother were the last people I pulled over at Abbey Gate,” he said.

The SIV application: “like a snail in molasses”

On Oct. 1, 2021, Wazir walked into the arrivals hall at Reagan National Airport. He had skipped baggage claim; his belongings filled only a small shoulder bag.

Turning a corner, his eyes brightened, and a smile spread across his face. A moment later, he was embracing a friend.

“I’m so happy to see you, Sam,” he said. “So very happy.”

“Me too, Wazir. It’s great to see you.”

Wazir had flown that day from Albuquerque; he had been at a refugee relocation center there for three weeks. Before that, nearly a month in Qatar. Doha Airport was the first Wazir had ever flown to, and Qatar the first country he had seen besides his own.

In some ways, Wazir’s time in the U.S. has been idyllic — “kind of an American dream,” Sam said. Sam and his family hosted Wazir at their two-story home in Woodbridge, Virginia, took him to see Washington, D.C. — roughly an hour’s drive away — and then on a road trip to Montana. They celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas together.

On July 29, Sam and his family threw Wazir a birthday party. He’d never had one before. And on Aug. 8, he went to work at the car dealership.

But one year later, Wazir has neither the Special Immigration Visa nor any indication that his family will be able to join him soon.

For more than seven months, he and Sam received only automatic replies from the State Department to requests about the SIV application. Without the SIV, he has no guarantee of gaining permanent residency in the U.S. and cannot begin the process of bringing his family here.

On March 30, they received a case number and request for additional information. Among other things they were asked to produce “proof of employment” and “human resources letter” from the contractor that had employed Wazir — despite the fact that the initial application had included a letter from the company’s senior vice president extolling the quality of his work.

Another four months passed with no communication. On Aug. 5, they received a request for a “signed DS-157″ form; the form had been sent a year ago without Wazir’s signature — given that it had been filled out online, during the chaos of the evacuations.

“Like a snail trying to swim through molasses,” Sam said about the SIV process. “Wazir has one of the strongest SIV applications I could imagine, and yet he received almost zero communication from the State Department, not a single reply for more than six months. It’s beyond frustrating, for him and for his family.”

Grid asked the State Department why Wazir’s application would have gone so long without a response. The department said it couldn’t discuss Wazir’s specific case due to confidentiality; a spokesperson told Grid that there are more than 74,000 Afghans currently at some stage of the SIV application process.

Wazir’s wife and children took one big step in July. Thanks to additional efforts by Sam and other individuals, they are now in Peshawar, Pakistan — free of the Taliban, and in a country from which they could fly to the U.S. But for that they would need Wazir to obtain the SIV. Without that document they have no basis for joining him

“They are right now safe,” Wazir said. “Sam is helping me. We are trying. Maybe they come here one day.”

It seems clear that without the efforts of Sam and Justin, the generosity of Everett Hellmuth and others, the courage and resilience shown by Wazir himself, and a series of serendipitous twists, he would never have made it out of Afghanistan. He might well have been jailed or killed. In these respects — a job, a home and safety above all — Wazir feels immensely fortunate.

Sam is grateful, too, but he feels that Wazir and thousands of others are owed more. Much more.

“They’ve earned it more than anyone I can imagine,” Sam said.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.

  • Jason Paladino
    Jason Paladino

    Investigative Reporter

    Jason Paladino is an investigative reporter for Grid where he focuses on national security policy, U.S. foreign involvement and corruption.