Wilmington Marine struggles to get interpreters out as Taliban takes over

In this Aug. 21, 2021, photo provided by the U.S. Marine Corps, a U.S. Navy medical surgeon with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) talks to an interpreter as he provides medical assistance to a family during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla/U.S. Marine Corps via AP)

RALEIGH — As many around the world watch the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, for one retired North Carolina Marine, protecting the lives of those left behind is personal and now his mission.

“To me, I feel like they are not only friends, but family,” Col. Eric Terashima told NSJ in an Aug. 23 interview. “I have a hard time not crying every day looking at everything happening over there.”

Terashima had three deployments to Afghanistan between 2010 and 2020, spending a total of more than two years in the country. He worked as an intelligence officer, an intelligence plans director and then, in his final deployment, the team police officer in charge for Task Force Southwest. During this time, he was in a small base in a provincial capital and became very close to the locals with whom he served, rubbing shoulders regularly with everyone from powerful figures — like the provincial governor and the chief of police — to more common people.

“I had daily contact with a lot of Afghans,” Terashima said. “They are the gentlest, kindest, most generous people I’ve been around. Most of them are very poor, but they, as a matter of course, would share their food and their tea with us. They’re just incredibly generous as a people. And working with them daily for nine months during my last deployment did bring us very close.”

Now, many of the people he knew like family are contacting him desperate to get out of the country. It started with just the people he was close to, but now he’s hearing from many “random Afghans that are just stuck and are looking for any help that they can get.”

“I spend a large volume of my day either on the phone or in direct messages or emails trying to facilitate these guys getting their paperwork to the right folks who can help them,” he said.

Greg Steele, communications director for Congressman Richard Hudson (NC-08), told NSJ on Aug. 23 that their office was receiving a flood of applications and extraction requests from Afghan citizens as well, 117 at his last count.

“As Fort Bragg’s congressman, I represent numerous active-duty troops and their families, as well as a large population of veterans,” Hudson said in a recent release. “I have heard from many of them about the need to assist U.S. citizens, as well as Afghan partners still on the ground who have been critical to our Armed Forces over the past two decades. I have worked for months to try and assist these people, but am disappointed in the lack of preparation and action to now evacuate them in the face of extreme danger.”

Terashima says the rules on who is being approved are too strict, which is leaving many of those who risked their lives to serve the American mission at risk. One requirement is that the Afghan citizen needs to be able to provide two years of human resource paperwork.

“One of my guys is five days short on his two-year requirement, and there’s no leniency, so he had his visa denied,” Terashima said. “And I said, ‘You need to resubmit on an appeal because that’s ridiculous to be short five days [and get denied].’”

He said he thinks Congress should change their policies to allow more people to leave who are in danger, as the more expansive refugee resettlements after the Vietnam War.

There are also logistical problems, like many of the contractors they worked for no longer exist, so the Afghans don’t know how to get human resource documents. Or they will need to get a letter from a supervisor, but they won’t know how to locate that person in the United States.

“If somebody left the military sometime in the last 10 or 15 years, that person might not be able to be found very easily,” Terashima said. “And so far, I haven’t been able to find any for some of the contacts that people have asked me to find.”

He said in a couple instances where he did find their supervisors, the person wasn’t comfortable writing the letters to help them immigrate to the United States because they didn’t remember that person.

“It’s a mixed bag of results,” Terashima said on his success so far. “There are at least two or three guys who I’m in contact with that have had their visas denied, so I’ve asked them to resubmit. One family I know just got their passports and visas last week. So they’re ready to go any minute, but I haven’t gotten any word from them on whether they’ve been evacuated. And there’s everybody in between.”

He says a lot of them don’t know how to submit paperwork, so he has to coach them through that process. But even after their paperwork has been approved, they still have to find a way to be safely extracted from the country.

“It’s complete chaos,” Terashima said on the extraction process. “The people at the airport are going through basically a triage. So they separate people by, if they have visas, they can come straight to the United States. If they don’t have visas, they are going to staging areas in Qatar, Bahrain and Germany. I personally know of two people that I’m in contact with that are in Qatar right now, and by the current policies, neither of them are going to be eligible for a visa. So until we get those policies changed, those folks may be stuck in Qatar for the foreseeable future.”

Hudson’s office agreed that the extraction process is in chaos. In one instance the State Department sent a letter to an applicant telling them to meet at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul on Sept. 28, despite the embassy already having closed. Another example was an email the State Department sent to Afghan applicants with an attachment for how American citizens can get extracted. Many of the Afghans assumed they could follow those directions too.

“A lot of them left hiding places and tried to go to the airport last week, and those were a lot of those who were blocked at the airport,” Steele said. “We had a lot of people we were talking to who were beaten up outside. So they shouldn’t have gotten that email. They went thinking they were safe.”

Terashima said, despite all the chaos, he is not aware of any of his friends falling to the Taliban yet. But because most of his contact with them is through Facebook Messenger, he thinks if something were to happen, they’d just stop responding and he wouldn’t know why.

“I may have to hear later from a friend of a friend what happened to those folks,” he said.

Terashima said President Joe Biden’s handling of the withdrawal “100% contributed to the current crisis.”

“When we telegraph for in excess of a year when we were going to leave, that allowed the Taliban all that time to prepare,” he said. “And clearly they had pre negotiated with local commanders of the Afghan National Army that there would not be a fight. That’s why they took over so quickly.”

“These missteps from the State Department are creating additional confusion in an already chaotic and tenuous situation,” Hudson said in a statement demanding President Biden protect those at risk. “The lives of our fellow citizens and allies whom we have a commitment to protect are at stake. I am requesting that you and the State Department provide immediate assistance and a clear plan to now secure their safety.”

Terashima said for Afghanistan, a stable and secure nation “is a lost cause right now,” which is why the focus for him is on getting people out rather than encouraging them to stand and fight. In his view, Afghanistan doesn’t have a future as one united nation and needs to split based on culture, like what happened after the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. He said once all the ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia were split up in their own countries, the fighting stopped, and today “you can go vacation there, and it’s pleasant.”

“That’s a reasonable solution, as opposed to trying to keep a country together that does not have those same cultural bonds,” he said.

One ethnic group that is in particular danger is the Hazaras, which is the group most of his interpreters were from. Hazaras are a Persian-speaking, religiously Shia ethnicity that is more east Asian in appearance, and he said you can see the systemic racism which affects their daily life. The Taliban is Sunni and almost entirely Pashtun, the largest ethnicity in the country. A 2003 best-selling novel, The Kite Runner, described in detail the suffering of the Hazaras as a minority under the Taliban.

“If we want to do what’s morally right as a country, we need to get everybody who feels like they’re at risk out of there as quickly as possible, get them to a safe spot, and then we can take our sweet time figuring out what policies we want to enforce,” he said.

Ultimately, Terashima said the ramp-up of processing and evacuations is beginning to work, but he believes Congress also needs to loosen the visa laws to let in more people who helped the United States and are now in grave danger from the Taliban.

But while he continues his mission to save those trapped in Afghanistan, Terashima has been able to reunite with some old friends who are now in the United States and to again experience their generosity and hospitality: “The four interpreters that I’ve been able to immigrate here to the U.S. so far, when I go to their house to visit, they all put out a big spread for me, of food, and we all sit there for several hours enjoying food and tea together.”

He hopes it’s only a matter of time before more of their friends can join them.