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In Stafford, Virginia, more than 7,000 miles from the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, an Illinois Army National Guard Soldier anxiously awaited reports on the status of his family as they made their way from Herat, Afghanistan to Kabul in August.
The ultimate goal was to get the Soldier’s family inside the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul and aboard one of the flights leaving Afghanistan with Afghan refugees.
Thanks to the efforts of the Illinois National Guard, the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C., and several agencies within the intelligence community, the family of 2nd Lt. Fahim Masoud, an intelligence officer assigned to Company D, 766th Brigade Engineer Battalion, based in Bloomington, Illinois, is now being processed and vetted at Quantico, Virginia.
“My family had no intention of leaving Afghanistan,” Masoud said. “Once the Taliban started taking control of the country, I started getting quite worried.”
Masoud said he was hesitant to reach out to Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, of Springfield, the Adjutant General of Illinois and Commander of the Illinois National Guard, to ask if he would write a letter on his behalf as Taliban forces started capturing outlying areas as American troops began its withdrawal. But as the Taliban forces gained a stronger hold, Masoud contacted 1st Lt. Eileen Figueroa, of Springfield, Neely’s Aide-de-Camp, for help in talking to Neely.
“I asked Lieutenant Figueroa if she thought Major General Neely would be willing to draft a letter for me, such as was done for me by the South Carolina National Guard’s TAG,” Masoud said. “She spoke with Major General Neely to get his thoughts and he was immediately supportive.”
Neely said he didn’t hesitate in writing a letter on Masoud’s behalf.
“Lieutenant Masoud provided an invaluable service to the United States as a translator. He sought out that job and did it very well,” Neely said. “I wrote the letter to attest to his good character and the invaluable work he has done for not only the Illinois National Guard but for the U.S. Armed Forces in hopes it would help in the process of moving his family to safety.”
Masoud said Neely went above and beyond in writing the letter.
“Here I was, one of the most junior officers in the Illinois National Guard and he did this for my family,” Masoud said.
Neely said that Masoud’s story is one of a kind.
“Lieutenant Masoud has a unique story to tell,” Neely said. “He worked as a translator for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, came to the United States to pursue educational opportunities and a dream to serve in the military, ultimately becoming a commissioned officer in the Illinois Army National Guard.”
Neely’s efforts to help Masoud extended far beyond writing a letter. Once the Afghan government fell and the Taliban took over, Neely sent a message to the Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, Chief of the National Guard Bureau. The message was then forwarded to others in an effort to help Masoud.
Masoud, who began working as an interpreter for the U.S. Army at age 17, came to the United States in 2007 to fulfill two dreams – an education and to serve in the U.S. military. His first dream became reality when he graduated from Washington University in St. Louis. But it wasn’t until 2017 that Masoud would fulfill his second dream by enlisting in the Illinois Army National Guard.
Masoud said his work with the U.S. Army as an interpreter, coupled with his status in the Illinois National Guard and his civilian job as an intelligence analyst placed his family in danger. But it wasn’t until Kabul fell Aug. 15 that time became of the essence.
“They were in a safe house when Kabul was captured by the Taliban Aug. 15,” Masoud said. “Agencies within the intelligence community thought it would hold longer. When it fell, we knew the time had come to act and get them out.”
Masoud said on Aug. 26 he was put in touch with Col. Amanda Evans, the executive officer for Gen. Daniel R. Hokanson, Chief of the National Guard Bureau.
“We talked a couple times a day with daily updates on what was going on in Afghanistan and the efforts to get my family out safely,” Masoud said.
One morning, Masoud received an unexpected telephone call from Hokanson.
“He told me ‘we’re working on this situation’,” Masoud said. “He said he knew the commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division and they’re on the ground in Kabul right now. That phone call really boosted my morale.”
For the family to get out of Afghanistan, Masoud said they had to apply for the Priority-2, or P-2, program.
“Priority 2 is a special designation granting U.S. Refugee Admissions Program access for certain Afghan nationals and their eligible family members,” he said. “We were able to get my family’s details sent to the U.S. Central Command for the special designation.”
On Aug. 26, Masoud said his family was in the general area of the suicide bomber which killed 13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghans.
“I was in nearly constant contact with my family and the intelligence community as they traveled through Kabul to the airport,” he said. “I asked them to take selfies and send to me so I could pass along to the military and intelligence community. The plan was to locate them and get them inside the airport.”
Masoud said he was monitoring reports coming from outside the airport as thousands of Afghan nationals gathered in a last effort to escape certain extremely barbaric treatment by the Taliban.
“Even with a plan in place, my family didn’t know if they would get into the airport,” Masoud said. “When my family finally got to the airport, the State Department’s rules had changed and they were only allowing green card holders, U.S. citizens and those holding a letter from at least a two-star general to enter the airport. The letter they had in their possession was from Major General Neely.”
Masoud said the initial photos taken outside the airport showed how scared his family was, but photos taken after they were inside the airport, and aboard the C-17, showed a very happy, and relieved, family.
“It was like the weight of the world had been lifted off their shoulders,” he said.
Masoud said it was teamwork that helped his family get out of Afghanistan.
“It was a collective effort from the Illinois National Guard, the National Guard Bureau and the intelligence community,” Masoud said. “Each organization went above and beyond to help get my family out of Afghanistan.”
Masoud’s family was transported to Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, where they spent a couple of weeks before arriving in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 10.
“My family is extremely grateful,” Masoud said. “My mother has a medical condition and those special cases received the medical care they need. They have been treated so kindly by the U.S. military.”
Masoud said that for two to three weeks, resistance fighters battled the Taliban in Herat.
“They tried and died, taking the fight to the streets,” Masoud said. “Once the Taliban took over in Kabul, society went through a radical transformation.”
Masoud said his two younger siblings, one born shortly before, and the second born after the U.S. arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, grew up under the security of the United States.
The return to Taliban rule has been very traumatic for them.
“Before the Taliban, they were free to travel and dress more liberally,” he said. “Now it’s obviously different for them and they didn’t know what to do – they could only travel as a family and had to dress more conservatively.”
Masoud said for his younger siblings, the future looks bright, as they begin a new life in the United States.
“I want them to become a version of me,” he said. “I want them to join the military, whether full time or part time, and use the educational benefits, work hard and repay the United States for all it has done for them.”
Masoud said his story is special.
“I don’t think there is any other service member who worked for the U.S. military as an interpreter, came to the United States to pursue a dream, and eventually join the military as an intelligence officer,” said Masoud.
Neely said he hopes Masoud’s family feels welcome as they make the United States their new home.
“America welcomed Lieutenant Masoud as a young man and offered him an opportunity to pursue a dream,” Neely said. “I hope the United States will again be that beacon of hope to his family as they pursue their dreams.”
Figueroa, whose own family immigrated to the United States, agrees.
“It was a pretty stressful time. As a person of color whose family immigrated to the United States, it was really hard not to feel so personally invested in Fahim’s situation,” she said. “And as a fellow human being, it was even harder to feel the desperation in someone’s voice and not feel a personal obligation to help in any way I could, even if my efforts were small.”
Once Masoud’s family completes the vetting process, they will live with him, his wife and their children in Virginia.