Sgt. Maj. Joshua Paullus speaks to his old friend Hussein once or twice a week. The longtime Pendleton resident listens to the 32-year-old Afghan relate his family’s plight in Kabul, Afghanistan, the high-desert metropolis where the two met at a military base seven years ago.
For weeks, half of Hussein’s family has been stuck at home, watching the Taliban patrol the streets day and night in trucks and armored military vehicles, perhaps searching for Afghans like them who worked for the United States during the 20-year war.
The other half, including his mother and father, were stuck at the airport alongside thousands of Afghans, awaiting their escape until nearby explosions killed and wounded scores of Afghan civilians and American service members on Aug. 26. Hussein’s family fled back to their home.
“They don’t sleep,” Hussein said of his family.
Out of concern for his family’s safety, Hussein asked the East Oregonian not to publish his last name.
“When I get note from the embassy, I will tell them, ‘Go to the airport.’ I tell them, don’t take any bags and wear your hijab,” he said. “I will tell them to burn everything. If (the Taliban) finds any military document, they will shoot them.”
Hussein worked for the U.S. Armed Forces for 15 years, first as a linguist and then as a contractor. By 2015, as Paullus was nearing the end of his eight-month deployment, the two had discussed that Hussein’s life would be in danger as the U.S. evacuated. He was receiving threats against his life. He knew his time was almost up. Paullus wanted to help.
A 30-year member of the Oregon Army National Guard, Paullus wrote a letter sponsoring Hussein as he immigrated to the U.S. with his family. He liked Hussein and vouched for his character, work ethic and financial stability. With Paullus’ help, Hussein received approval from the federal government in 2019 to move to America with his wife and three daughters. Now he lives in San Diego County, selling jewelry to get by.
“He felt that, when the U.S. does leave, he and his family would potentially be in harm’s way,” said Paullus, 47, a parole and probation officer for Umatilla County Community Corrections. “But as long as he was there, he wanted to see that good things were done, and he did his part to do as much as he could for his country. At the end of the day, if he wasn’t able to get his U.S. citizenship, he would have dealt with it as many of his friends currently are.”
Running in circles
In recent weeks, Hussein has been glued to his phone. From nearly 7,800 miles away, he has watched the Taliban seize the city where he grew up. He seldom goes to work, despite his expensive rent.
He takes calls from friends and family members, most of whom worked for the U.S. and fear the worst. Just a few weeks ago, he received images from his brother, who he said was beaten by the Taliban while on a grocery run.
(Hussein provided the East Oregonian with videos and recordings as evidence of his family’s account. He asked the newspaper not to publish those images out of fear the Taliban would find his family.)
Meanwhile, Paullus talks to Hussein every week as he and his family attempt to navigate the maze of U.S. immigration and its mountain of paperwork. Paullus said he recently wrote a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, urging for his support in the safe evacuation of Hussein’s family. He said he feels a responsibility to Hussein’s family.
“I wish there was more I could do for Hussein and his family,” he said. “During COVID, the majority of the (immigration) offices are closed. Everything has to be done through email. Very few offices have anyone that answers the phones. It goes to a voice message. I can feel his frustration with the process and the circles he’s running in.”
A waiting game
Their story is not unique. Servicemen nationwide have been calling on dignitaries to support the safe and quick withdrawal of Afghan allies at risk of the Taliban’s retribution amid the U.S. evacuation.
The U.S. has called Afghan military interpreters and other close U.S. allies a priority group in the withdrawal. Yet American officials are rejecting some Afghan allies to give priority to U.S. citizens and green card holders, The New York Times has reported.
Many of those allies, including Hussein’s family, are waiting for Special Immigrant Visas. But only a fraction of the tens of thousands of Afghans who worked for the U.S. government or U.S. organizations and applied for those visas have been evacuated as the Taliban has rolled into Kabul.
The Times estimates that at least 250,000 Afghans eligible for expedited American visas remain in Afghanistan.
‘They treated me like family’
In 2014, Paullus deployed with 2nd Battalion, 162nd Infantry, out of Springfield to Kabul, where he would serve for eight months. Upon arrival, he remarked on the city’s congested traffic, its Soviet-era structures, its nightlife and its air, polluted with arsenic and lead.
As Joint Operations Sergeant Major at the New Kabul Compound, his team’s mission was the security of Kabul. They secured the city’s entry points, escorted dignitaries and contractors and provided base security for the compound. Among their many projects, they helped reconstruct a park that had been damaged by artillery fire and set up barriers to protect polling sites during elections.
Paullus met Hussein in 2014. As a projects manager, he worked with Hussein, a contractor, at the New Kabul Compound. Hussein cooked meals and helped improve the base’s infrastructure, building walls, gates and connecting wires and cable. He also had a small gift shop on the base, where Paullus would often stop by to chat.
Most of Hussein’s family worked for the U.S. Armed Forces. It was how they made a living in a city where finding good-paying work is difficult.
Prior to working for the government, Hussein worked eight hours a day for $5 an hour cleaning his neighbor’s home and taking care of their chickens. He said it was just enough to pay for bread, electricity and rent. When he went to work for the armed forces, he made as much as $500 a month.
“At least I could feed my family,” he said, adding that servicemen such as Paullus “treated me like family.”
To Paullus, Hussein was a clear professional who believed in the U.S.’s mission in Afghanistan. They shared values: Hussein as a muslim and Paullus with a faith in a higher power. He appreciated Hussein’s straight-forward demeanor and how he helped his community, traits he likened to his own. Over meals and tea, the two became friends, speaking often of their families and children.
“His religion and him being in Afghanistan had nothing to do with me liking him or not,” Paullus said. “It was about the person and the quality they show.”
Yearning to do more
The war in Afghanistan ended Aug. 30 with the final evacuation flights out of the Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul. Nearly 130,000 people were airlifted from the country, according to the Associated Press.
Most of Hussein’s family, including his mother and father, remain stuck. But a lucky few, like his brother and other extended family members, escaped with the military to neighboring countries and America. He said he feels some semblance of relief, but his wife, whose family remains in the country, cries through the night.
Watching the news unfold, Paullus recognizes that leaving Afghanistan had been the plan from the beginning. Three consecutive U.S. presidents had said it was. He said he believes the evacuation should have been done sooner, but it’s not his place to question the manner of the pullout.
“This was what the plan was,” Paullus said. “We knew there were going to be repercussions to that plan one way or another as a country.”
Now that the U.S. has departed, Paullus said he hopes the U.S. intensifies its efforts to bring to safety those who were integral to its mission.
“With anyone in his situation, you wish that you could do more to help them,” Paullus said. “It’d be interesting to meet a person that wouldn’t. Because you know that the potential for end of life is a reality for them, because of their close support of U.S. forces.”
When Paullus told Hussein he was preparing to head back home to Eastern Oregon at the end of his eight-month deployment in 2015, the Afghan brought him a gift: a kirkuk knife with a handle made of rock coral, obsidian and jade. Paullus keeps the blade in a safe at his home in Pendleton.
Inscribed along the side in Dari, Afghanistan’s most common language, it says: “As friends we part.”