When attorney Jonathan Gremminger of Haddon Heights was a 22-year-old MP in Now Zad, his translator was an invaluable ally. Years later, he works to save his friend’s family as they flee the vengeance of the Taliban.
By Matt Skoufalos | September 10, 2021
In 2009, Jonathan Gremminger was a U.S. Marine Corps reservist who was making his way through law school at Drexel University when his unit was activated for a seven-month stint in Afghanistan.
From February through September 2010, Gremminger, whose specialty was military police, was dispatched to the town of Now Zad in Helmand Province to help train and equip local security forces there.
The city, which was meant to provide a foothold for coalition troops to press further into the south of the country, had been the site of intense fighting since the Marines arrived in 2008 to reinforce British and Estonian soldiers.
By late 2009, America had committed additional forces in hopes that a surge in personnel would allow the Afghan people to re-establish their own government and security forces en route to a broader rebuild of the country.
“It was hard living there,” Gremminger said. “It’s probably one of the poorest places on Earth. No electricity, no water, no sewer; probably 95-percent illiterate, and very rough terrain.”
The mission logistics also were challenging. Food and water were airlifted to avoid the traps of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and mines that Taliban forces had laid along the few paths in and out of Now Zad, and they had plenty of opportunity to take potshots at any travelers from the surrounding mountains. Only the largest and most heavily armored convoys dared the journey.
Moreover, the recruiting and training work that Gremminger and the 40 USMC reservists with which he arrived were tasked with was also complicated. They didn’t know much about the local culture, they didn’t speak the language, and although the locals had no love of the Taliban, they were far from presenting a unified political front.
“One of the fundamental [strategic] failures in trying to create a national [Afghan] government over the last 20 years is they tried to make it look like America,” Gremminger said.
“We generally think of ourselves as Americans, and there’s a national identity behind it,” he said. “In these rural places, there’s no unifying Afghan identity; they’re more concerned with their tribe or their district.”
Under such conditions, the most vital links between the U.S. forces and the local community were their translators: Afghans who were willing to take on the dangerous work of liaising between the native people and the occupying forces.
For something like $700 a month, these translators ate, slept, and trained alongside American soldiers, walking the same ambush-lined paths, occasionally carrying weapons into a firefight, and brokering important conversations with the people around them.
In a theater of battle where troops and defense contractors cycled in and out, translators represented “all the institutional knowledge,” Gremminger said.
“They knew the terrain, the people, the language, the politics,” he said. “They were the only constant. You had to have a translator with you at all times.”
A Manhattanite in Alabama
Despite the necessity of a translator, the quality of those who did the job was highly variable. Some were “barely useful,” Gremminger said, but one particular translator—called “Nick” here to protect his anonymity—was instrumental to his own survival as a 23-year-old MP.
Nick was “very much a talker, very social, very hard-working,” Gremminger said. He contrasted greatly from the more rural locals in both disposition and appearance. A Kabul native who wore a Harley-Davidson bandanna beneath his helmet, Nick “had pretty much nothing in common with the locals” of Now Zad, Gremminger said.
“He was culturally different,” Gremminger said. “It’s like someone raised in Manhattan trying to get along with farm boys in Alabama. What’s even more impressive is that Pashto,” the most common dialect in Helmand, “isn’t his first language.”
Nick went out on patrols without complaint, Gremminger said, and sometimes left Now Zad to support other Marine units in heavy combat zones. The translator also sustained fire along with the troops with whom he was embedded, and once was wounded by a round that tore through his bicep. Even in moments like those, Gremminger recalls Nick’s personality shining through.
“[Nick] normally didn’t carry a weapon, but [in one circumstance], he wanted to carry one based on where the patrol was going,” he said. “The guy that was leading the team said, ‘Tell me the first weapon safety rule.’ Nick said, ‘The first weapon safety rule is don’t be a p—y.’ The guy said, ‘That’s good enough, here’s a shotgun.’
Although the American mission in Afghanistan was precipitated by Osama bin Laden orchestrating the September 11 attacks, the Taliban had already made a mortal enemy of Nick years earlier.
The son of a government official who was displaced from office when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in the late 1990s, Nick was just a child when his family fled Kabul out of fear for their lives.
After a week in the mountains, they returned to discover their family grocery business had been destroyed.
“Everything was looking so messed up once we returned,” he said.
“They took the cash from the grocery store, broke the locks on our houses, and took everything.”
It didn’t end there. When Nick and his brother reopened the store, they saw Taliban fighters clocking their work. Eventually, their father was arrested, and tortured to the point of partial paralysis. Although he was eventually released by his captors, the family had no money left to pay for medical treatment, and their father eventually died from his injuries.
“They tortured him so badly that once they realized he’s not going to be alive, they released him,” Nick said.
“We couldn’t help him out,” he said. “The Taliban stole everything, and we didn’t have money to spend on him.”
The fatal interrogation had been meant to get Nick’s father to confess the location of any weapons that could be used against the Taliban. But by killing him and destroying his family’s ability to earn a living, they had turned the young man into a living weapon all on his own.
“I have experienced a lot of war,” he said. “We grew up in the war. My friends started working with the U.S. Army and Marines before I started. When I talked to them, I realized that Americans are here to help everybody out; to build the schools, clinics; to do good things for our kids, our future, our families.
“Americans needed a personality, a translator, to help them out; to show them the right things,” Nick said. “Most of the linguists were not that active, that helpful, to explain everything—’this is our culture, this is what our people like, what they don’t like’—regarding their safety.”
Nick was 15 years old when his father died, and it would be another two years before the U.S. military arrived in Afghanistan. After learning English at school in Kabul, he applied at Camp Phoenix to become a translator. His first assignment would be to travel to Helmand Province, where the fighting was thickest, to support Marines there.
Of the 53 Afghans who passed the English test, 23 refused to take the assignment when they learned it was in Helmand. Nick’s mother also forbade him to go.
“I said to my mother, ‘You know what they did to my father, and you remember all these things, and I remember it, and that’s why I studied English,’” Nick said. “I worked with the U.S. Marines so I could defend my family.
“I said, ‘If you let me go, I will appreciate it, but if you don’t let me go, I will leave home.’”
‘If we work together, no one can break us’
Eventually, Nick secured his mother’s blessing, and flew to Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan.
From there, they traveled to Camp Leatherneck in Helmand.
Nick’s older brother stayed behind to care for the rest of the family, taking a job in the Kabul Zoo.
On his first assignment, Nick remembers traveling to a remote American outpost as part of a 110-vehicle convoy. What should have been a 12-hour drive took three days, as vehicles were hit with mines and explosives.
Even for someone who had known war all of his life, the journey underscored the danger of his task. Nonetheless, Nick accompanied U.S. forces on missions from 2008 to 2014, and treated the soldiers with whom he worked “like a family.”
“It was my responsibility for every single Marine team; I had to explain every single thing to make them okay with me, and make them feel like family,” he said. “I explained to every single one of them, ‘this is safe, this is not safe, and when we go out, no one is our friend. Our best friend is our rifle.’
“Friendship, to be among the [Afghan] people, those kinds of steps are very important [for American soldiers],” he said. “If I protect these people, they will protect me. If we’re going to be together, explain everything to each other, no one will be able to break us.”
When Nick learned how the Taliban marked their hidden explosives, he shared that information with American forces. Twice on patrol, he saved the entire squad from getting blown up; on a third time, he saved them from an imminent ambush. When he was shot in the arm, the team transferred him out of active duty, but he went back to work for another year anyway.
Eventually, Nick earned a visa, and emigrated to the United States, where he found work with defense contractors; on a subsequent return to Afghanistan in 2018, he worked for another year in Jalalabad before coming back to the United States for good.
Throughout that time, he kept in touch with Gremminger, whom Nick calls “my real brother.” When Nick first arrived in the United States, Gremminger traveled from Philadelphia to Dulles International Airport to meet him, and drove Nick to a home rented by other naturalized Afghan translators, where Nick began his life in America.
After the United States announced its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, however, Nick soon realized that the family he’d left behind was in mortal danger.
“My younger brother, who was a police officer working with my uncle, found a letter from the local Taliban that threatened my family,” Nick said.
“It read, ‘Stop working with police or we’ll kill you. We are looking for you.
“‘The rest of the Taliban, once they find you, they should keep you, and return you back to us.’
“For all I know, the Taliban is the same as in the past,” Nick said. “They torture people; they kill people. They proved who they are, and what I think who they are, animals are better.
“They’re trying to play a huge game with the innocent people, encourage them to return to work, and once they are there, they kill them,” he said.
The stakes were even higher for Nick, because after having been married to an Afghan woman in the past year, he was working through the long, slow immigration process to bring his wife to join him in America. Without being in Afghanistan to protect her, he feared she might be taken against her will by insurgents, or marked for death along with his other relatives.
Gremminger connected Nick with an immigration attorney, and began working with local, state, and federal government officials to expedite the process.
And then Kabul fell.
For about two weeks, neither man rested, fighting a desperate race against red tape and time, as they worked to get Nick’s family to safety.
“You try everything, and you talk to as many people as you can,” Gremminger said.
“There’s a big community of former translators, former military, former defense contractors,” he said. “There’s thousands of people like me across the country. Everyone’s trying to find who knows somebody there. They’re trying to get on a plane, get to the airport, get some support, and only a fraction of these people are going to get help.
“I’m sure the desperation’s palpable,” he said. “I’ve felt it here.”
To leave the country as the Americans were pulling out was no small feat. Those seeking to reach the airport had to pass four layers of checkpoints, starting with those of the Taliban, then other paramilitary groups, Turkish soldiers, and others. People were whipped or beaten by security forces working to hold the perimeters; some evacuees ducked gunfire as they pressed against barriers after having waited for hours in the elements without food, water, or shelter.
It took two or three attempts to help Nick’s wife navigate her way into the airport, but she finally was able to board a plane. They did not know immediately where she ended up; some refugees were sent to Qatar, some to Kuwait; others to Pakistan or Tajikistan.
Eventually, and with Gremminger’s advocacy, Nick was able to get his wife, his mother, his sister, and his older brother out of Afghanistan. His other siblings, their spouses, and children remain there.
Living in the shadow of the gun
“When you leave a country and another government comes in, this is what happens,” Gremminger said.
“This is what power transitions look like.
“We’ve been there 20 years; war takes a toll on you,” he said.
“A lot of the guys that are in [U.S. military service] now weren’t alive on 9/11, or they were very, very young.
“I bet if you asked 98 percent of the people in Now Zad what 9/11 is, they would have no idea what you were talking about,” Gremminger said.
“When the white people show up, they go, ‘Who are these? Russians?’ They’ve got no idea. They could care less about geopolitics or terrorism, they just want to be left alone.
“For us, we do a tour and come home; for those people, this is their life,” he said. “The mission creep that happened, there was no way it was ever going to be successful. We spent the money, we shed the blood, but it was never going to go our way.”
When Gremminger thinks about his time in Afghanistan, the image that most sticks out in his mind is that of the rooftop sentry post at the base in Now Zad, with its machine gun pointed down into the city below. He remembers the long shadow that tower cast over the village and the families who lived some 200 feet away from it.
“That machine gun has been looking at them for over a decade,” Gremminger said. “Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, somebody’s always up there. That’s how those kids grew up. They didn’t know anything else but this. And now they know the Taliban.”
To Nick, whether Americans or Afghans die in the fifty years of violence that his country has known is equally tragic.
“All Afghan people are tired of war, tired of fighting,” he said. “Kids grew up in darkness, away from school; their family members got killed. My mother will spend the rest of her life by herself; all she will have is me and my brothers.
“Everyone is tired of war; there is no solution for the Afghan people with the current situation,” Nick said. “It’s so tragic, especially for the kids and innocent people dying every single day under Taliban control. Most of the people are facing poverty and, at the same time, war. I feel so bad.
“I have the same feelings for American families who lost their family members in Afghanistan during this war,” he said. “If I could do anything for American families, I won’t hesitate to do it.”
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