In satellite images, a jade-colored river snakes across a barren landscape, then gives life to fields of poppies, corn and pomegranates.
There’s another map of the Sangin district in Afghanistan’s Helmand River Valley — one that a U.S. Marine back said in 2010 looked as if someone had “sneezed blood” all over it. Marked with red dots, the map showed all of the places where Taliban forces had opened fire.
Marine Maj. Thomas Schueman, a Chicago native and graduate of Marist High School, was there during the hell of it, a seven-month stretch in which 25 Marines died and more than 200 were wounded during a campaign to flush out Taliban fighters. Schueman earned a Purple Heart when he and other troops were ambushed in a field on Nov. 9, 2010.
“My squad leader stepped on an improvised explosive device, and he lost his leg,” says Schueman, who remains on active duty but now teaches English literature at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. “I was blown up. And then my platoon sergeant was blown up in that same blast on that day. It was one of a couple of times I was blown up on that deployment.”
When Schueman left Afghanistan, he left behind a young Afghan he says probably saved his life and those of many other U.S. Marines while working as an interpreter for them in Helmand Province.
Schueman says the Taliban have made it known that the interpreter — he doesn’t want to use his real name out of fear for his life, so he calls him Zach — is a traitor and that, if they find him, they will kill him.
So he’s trying to get him out and bring him to the United States.
“This man — and many like him — literally put their lives on the line,” he says. “We owe him the opportunity to come to this country and to have some hope, some freedom to build a better life for him and his family.”
Five years after Schueman helped Zach apply for a visa designed for Afghans under threat because they helped U.S. forces, he says the application is still in limbo.
He says that, after working with the Marines, Zach worked as an interpreter for an American contractor, working with the Army, but can’t find any record of the company. He says Zach needs a letter from that company to get the visa.
And Schueman fears time could be running out. He says he recently got a Facebook message from the interpreter that read, in part: “Sir, you may better know the situation is the worst in Afghanistan than ever. I would be lucky if I get a chance to travel to the US to save myself and my family.”
A State Department spokeswoman, citing visa confidentiality, says she can’t talk about Zach’s case but, “Speaking generally, the Biden administration is committed to supporting those who have helped U.S. military and other government personnel perform their duties, often at great personal risk to themselves and their families.
“We at the Department of State take seriously our role in managing the Special Immigrant Visa program, and we are engaged at the highest levels to ensure we are serving SIV applicants as promptly as possible,” the spokeswoman says.
Adam Bates, an attorney with the Washington-based International Refugee Assistance Project, says the holdup is that there’s a backlog of 18,000 such visa applications.
“Even at the most optimistic processing rates, the current backlog would take more than four years to get through,” Bates says, adding, “The idea of leaving someone behind on some technicality is unconscionable.”
Schueman’s mother Grace Picard has written to President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, trying to draw attention to Zach’s case.
“There’s been enough death and enough pain,” says Picard, a retired Chicago cop. “Let’s do the right thing and bring this guy and his children and his wife out of there.”
Schueman, who grew up in Mount Greenwood, was one of thousands of Marines who poured into Sangin in 2010. They took over from British forces in a place that one English newspaper called a “deathtrap.”
Strategically important because it connects one Afghan province to another, Sangin’s also home to a thriving opium trade. Schueman, who arrived there in October 2010, says he’d never seen anything like it.
“No plumbing, no running water,” he says. “People had wells. There’s generally no electricity.”
His first day in Afghanistan, he came under fire.
“I took 94 Marines on my very first patrol,” he says. “I didn’t even have half my platoon outside of the base yet, and we already had found an IED and were being shot at by multiple machine guns.”
One of Schueman’s best buddies, Lt. William Donnelly, was shot and killed on Thanksgiving Day 2010. Schueman and his Marines needed all the help they could get. That’s when Zach, a 19-year-old interpreter with a hatred for the Taliban and a daring streak, came in.
The Marines intercepted Taliban radio communications, and Zach would listen in. On one occasion, he heard enough to gather where enemy fighters were hiding. Schueman told him he’d dispatch some Marines as quickly as possible but that it would be slow going because an engineer with a mine detector would need to lead the way.
Schueman says he trusted Zach enough that he was given a rifle at one point to hold when another Marine stepped on an IED and had a leg blown off.
“He became one of my Marines, basically,” Schueman says.
Talking with a reporter via WhatsApp, Zach says: “We did a lot of things, crazy things — like fight with the Taliban, capture them and kick them in the ass.”
Zach is 31 now, married with four children. He lives with his parents and his five brothers in a house in an Afghan province that’s partly under Taliban control. He says he especially fears for the safety of his family now that Biden has announced plans to withdraw all remaining American troops from the country by Sept. 11.
He says the Taliban has his cellphone number, that he last heard from them in February 2020 and was told: “You are an infidel because you work with the Americans.”
Asked what he knows about America, he says, “I know there is no Taliban, no terrorists.”
Also, he says, he has relatives living in Texas and California.
Carlos Gonzales served under Schueman in Afghanistan and now lives in Rio Rico, Ariz. He says he’d do anything to help Zach.
“He was a brother, and I’d really love to have him back over here in the States,” Gonzales says, where he’d be welcome in Arizona.
He says there’s an empty lot next to his home where Zach could build a house.
“Hopefully he can come down to my house and have a barbecue and let our kids play together,” he says. “That would be amazing.”