Ajmal Achekzai was five years old when he first left his homeland. It was 1980, and his family was among the first Afghans to seek asylum in the United States after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
“All I remember is crying, hearing tank sounds,” said Achekzai, now 46, recalling the Soviet-Afghan war during a StoryCorps interview in Los Angeles last month.
Achekzai’s father, who was a university professor in Kabul, was tipped off by one of his students that the Russian regime suspected him of being a supporter of the anti-Soviet mujahedeen rebels.
The Achekzai family fled in the middle of the night, eventually finding refuge in the U.S.
“We came to the country with basically a suitcase and a few hundred dollars. So we had to start from zero,” Achekzai said.
He didn’t think a war would bring him back to his home country
At age 26, Achekzai enlisted in the military, he said, “to serve the country that allowed me to come.”
The following year saw the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, setting off what would become America’s longest war.
Achekzai’s commanding officer knew that he spoke Dari and Pashto, the two main languages of Afghanistan. That November, he returned to his homeland as a Marine for what would be his first of two deployments in the country.
“I told myself I was gonna go back to Afghanistan, but never thought I would go back in a time of war,” he said.
He said he was among the first 300 Marines sent there. Upon returning to Kabul, his birthplace, he said he found himself squarely in between two cultures he loved. “It was a lot of emotions from both ends,” he said.
“I was trying to teach the Marines about the Afghan culture,” said Achekzai. “And then I was teaching the Afghans about the military and what we were about.”
Cpl. Achekzai, who served as a translator for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, befriended many locals whom he said “saw me as one of their own.”
“They would bring food, like, ‘My mom made some food for you,’ ” he said. “Afghan people are one of the most honorable and hospitable people in the world.”
In the face of decades of war, then and now, he said, Afghans are also a resilient people.
“Afghanistan, to me, is my motherland. Beauty, poetry. And they’re survivors, that’s what they are. Forty years of war, they wake up every day, dust the dirt off their shoulder and keep going.”
Twenty years after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, President Biden officially declared an end to the war on Tuesday after the U.S. pulled the last of its ground troops out of the country. The war cost thousands of American and Afghan lives.
He feels that he let down Afghans
As for Achekzai, he was honorably discharged in 2004 after four years of service in the Marines.
“We told them that we’re here for their safety. We’re here to make sure that they progress,” he said. “But, I feel like I failed the Afghan people ’cause I lied to them. I had to escape, just like them.”
Since then, Achekzai has spent much of his time trying to support others who served. Today, he’s a team member with Merging Vets and Players, a peer-to-peer support group for combat veterans and retired pro athletes. They work out together to “assist with transition, promote personal development, and show them they are never alone.”
Today, his mission is to help others
“As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized what my part in this world is, it’s to help others,” he said. “It’s the rent we pay to live in this country.”
He still has family and friends in Afghanistan who are trying to get out after the Taliban seized control of the country in a swift takeover last month.
“If there was something I would say to the people of Afghanistan that are waiting to come — I’m sorry, we failed you, but keep hope alive,” Achekzai said. “Always fight until you get that freedom again.”
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Eleanor Vassili.
StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.