Afghan refugee who fought alongside Americans reunites with vet in North Dakota
American Army platoon leader George Mackin and Afghan soldier Saeed fought the Taliban together eight years ago. After Saeed's improbable escape from Afghanistan last year, the two men who consider themselves brothers reunited in Bismarck.
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — As Saeed looked upon the vast crowd gathered outside the Hamid Karzai International Airport, he knew the hulking blue U.S. Air Force planes flying overhead represented his best, and maybe only, chance of survival.
The Taliban had captured Kabul a few days before on Aug. 15, and Saeed would soon be a marked man.
During a decade of combat-laden service in the Afghan Army, he led dozens of successful missions, snuffed out many enemy soldiers and aided American troops in beating back rebel forces.
He suffered several serious injuries, including a bullet to the leg and bomb shrapnel to the head.
To some in Afghanistan, Saeed’s war record made him a hero, but the Taliban fighters who had finally overthrown the U.S.-backed government after two decades of battle held no such admiration for their old foes.
Saeed’s real name has been altered for this story to protect his identity and his family. An interpreter translated his responses to Forum News Service’s questions from Dari Persian.
Cutting through the chaotic mass at the airport, Saeed reached the front gate — close enough to speak with the U.S. and NATO soldiers standing guard.
He handed the nearest one a weathered piece of paper. It was a letter written by George Mackin, an American platoon leader with whom he had served eight years prior.
In the letter dated Nov. 18, 2013, Mackin recommended Saeed for promotion and “any other opportunities,” noting that his Afghan comrade showed “great bravery, courage, determination, and respect” during the 10 months their units partnered.
Saeed wasn’t among the groups prioritized for evacuation from Kabul — he didn’t hold U.S. citizenship or permanent residency.
But after reading over Mackin’s letter, the guards let him through the gate.
Hours later, Saeed boarded a plane that would take him far from Kabul. He was finally out of danger, but his five children, wife and mother couldn’t accompany him.
The Afghan understood he had a long trip ahead of him, but he hoped it would deliver him to North Dakota. There, he could reunite with Mackin, bring over his family and start a new life on the prairie.
Brothers born a world apart
Mackin comes from a family with deep American military roots. Both of his grandfathers fought in World War II, and at least one member of each subsequent generation has served in the armed forces.
He moved around a lot as a kid, but upstate New York felt most like home.
After high school in New York and Massachusetts, Mackin studied Arabic at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.
He enlisted as an infantryman in the U.S. Army in 2010 and later graduated from Airborne and Ranger schools.
Mackin, now 38, said he felt a responsibility to continue the family tradition during the generation-defining war on terror.
Saeed, now 33, had similar reasons for answering his country’s call to service. In the rural province where he grew up, his father was a well-known military officer who had fought against Mujahideen rebels in the 1980s.
Like his father before him, Saeed felt an obligation to protect Afghanistan and preserve the hope that his children could become the nation’s future. He joined the Afghan Army in his early 20s, also around 2010.
In February 2013, Mackin shipped off to eastern Afghanistan, where he led a platoon of about 20 American soldiers. They trained members of the Afghan military and carried out missions that often included violent encounters with the Taliban and other rebel forces.
The Americans relied heavily on their Afghan colleagues, who knew the country’s people and terrain as only locals could. The Afghans made it a top priority to protect their American guests in perilous situations, Saeed said.
As their paths began to overlap, Mackin and Saeed recognized admirable qualities in each other.
Mackin stood out among the Americans because he treated Afghan soldiers as equals and tried to bridge gaps between their respective cultures, Saeed said.
Saeed was “a hard-charger” who motivated his compatriots and refused to accept the status quo, Mackin said. The American said he was happy to write his friend a letter of recommendation in 2013.
“It wasn’t the best atmosphere, but we definitely created a bond,” Mackin said.
To this day, the two men refer to each other as “my brother.”
Mackin remembers one story from his service with Saeed more clearly than the rest.
American forces had maintained a small “fire base” on top of a ridge — a strategically positioned encampment where soldiers could shoot at enemies and hole up for a night as needed.
Mackin’s unit was ordered to leave the fire base, but his superiors had not arranged a proper handoff of the site to Afghan soldiers, leaving it vulnerable to enemy combatants.
When the allied Afghan forces arrived at the base a few days later, Saeed stepped in the door and triggered a landmine planted by the insurgents. The explosion blasted shrapnel into his head, neck and hand, Mackin recalls.
“To this day, I feel a responsibility for that,” Mackin said.
After a 10-month tour, Mackin departed Afghanistan in December 2013. He doesn’t exactly recall the last time he saw Saeed, who was likely still bandaged up from the explosion at the time.
What Mackin remembers clearly is the uneasiness he felt leaving behind his Afghan partners.
He and his American colleagues would be heading back to safety and reuniting with their loved ones. Their Afghan counterparts — who fought just as hard, lost more men and constantly feared for their families’ security — would get no such refuge.
In a larger sense, Afghan soldiers like Saeed didn’t get the credit or care they deserved, Mackin said.
Mackin received a Purple Heart after suffering a shrapnel injury that he said “wasn’t as serious” as Saeed’s.
“Everybody comes and shakes my hand, and tells me, ‘Thank you for your service,’ but these (Afghan) guys don’t get any of that,” Mackin said. “They don’t get medals or community recognition or health care the way that we do. A lot of times, they didn’t even get paid on time. Food and uniforms were always a problem.”
Mackin was given a desk job at an Army base in Georgia upon his return stateside. A few years after he was discharged, Mackin moved back to Bismarck, where he had briefly lived before joining the Army. He became an elementary school teacher, got married and started a family.
After Mackin left, Saeed continued to face near-constant danger within the line of duty and outside of it.
First, Taliban fighters attacked him at his rural home. He later moved his family to Kabul, where they could more easily blend in.
Then, Saeed suffered injuries when a suicide bomber self-detonated in a bank where he was picking up his Army paycheck. Saeed said he jumped out of a second-floor window to evade the explosion.
While serving west of Kabul, a vehicle transporting Saeed and his comrades hit a landmine and flipped. He escaped the wreckage and exchanged fire with Taliban assailants.
Saeed said he didn’t even notice until after the shooting died down that he had taken an AK-47 round to the thigh.
About three years ago, a more minor landmine-induced shrapnel wound finally landed Saeed on the Afghan Army’s injured reserve. He started driving a taxi in the capital city, returning occasionally to farm back home.
In the end, being unable to continue fighting may have saved Saeed’s life. Mackin estimates three-quarters of his and Saeed’s mutual acquaintances in the Afghan military were killed in the two years preceding the Taliban takeover.
Saeed and Mackin stayed in touch through email and WhatsApp over the years. Saeed occasionally messaged his American friend questions about immigrating to the U.S. with his young family — inquiries that increased in frequency and urgency as the Taliban gained ground.
Mackin hoped Saeed would find a way out of Afghanistan, but truthfully, he never expected to see him again.
The road to North Dakota
When the Afghan government collapsed in mid-August, Saeed knew he had to try his luck at the airport. He also knew his family couldn’t come with him.
The risk of being trampled in a human stampede or struck by a stray bullet made it far too dangerous for Saeed’s five children, who range in age from 1 to 8.
“Everybody just crowded from all the provinces of Afghanistan right in front of the airport. Everybody was trying to get out,” Saeed said in Dari. “It was madness.”
Saeed didn’t expect to get on a plane that day, which he believes was Aug. 19 or 20. But after presenting Mackin’s letter and a few other documents to the guards, he found himself on the right side of the airport walls with thousands of other relieved Afghans and foreign nationals.
He believes the letter gave him legitimacy in the guards’ eyes and may have been his key to escaping Afghanistan.
Once inside, Saeed tried to arrange for his family to be evacuated.
But when his wife and kids came to the airport, they couldn’t pass through the crowd to reach the door. The guards suggested it wouldn’t be safe for the young children to go into the masses, especially with Taliban fighters picking people out and killing them.
Saeed said the guards told him, “We’ll get you out and think about your family later.”
Praying his family would somehow get through to the airport’s front gate, a distressed Saeed boarded a plane out of Kabul.
His wife and children waited outside the airport for a few days, but it was no use. They left the capital city and returned to their rural homestead.
Some Afghan refugees had their minds made up about resettling in Europe, Australia or Canada. Saeed was dead set on coming to the U.S.
He had come to know America and its culture through soldiers like Mackin. He even picked up some of their habits, like drinking Monster Energy and chewing tobacco.
Saeed spent one night in Qatar and six nights in Germany before landing in Washington, D.C. Federal officials then took him and other evacuees to an Army holding facility in New Jersey, where he underwent an extensive vetting process over the next six months.
Mackin wanted his friend resettled in North Dakota, but the state was accepting very few Afghan evacuees at the time. The agency in charge of Saeed’s case placed him in Minneapolis.
For a country boy from Afghanistan, the big city was unfamiliar and overwhelming.
Saeed didn’t know anyone in Minnesota, and it was hard to get around town. He felt like Mackin was the only one he could trust to help him rebuild his life, he said.
In February, Mackin bought Saeed a one-way Greyhound bus ticket from Minneapolis to Bismarck. Saeed boarded the bus with two suitcases, a bag of toiletries and $30 in his pocket.
When Saeed disembarked, he came face-to-face with Mackin for the first time in more than eight years.
“He looked old. He looked like he had been through some s*** to be honest. That’s how I looked, too,” Mackin said of the reunion.
Saeed is one of 63 Afghan evacuees to resettle in North Dakota following the Taliban takeover. The majority of the evacuees reside in the Fargo area.
Mackin and his family hosted Saeed in their Bismarck home until recently when he moved into his own apartment. The Afghan often cooked rice and green chutney for the family.
Saeed found a job handling produce at a large retailer, and his English is rapidly improving. He’s working to get his commercial driver’s license, which would allow him to begin a career as a truck driver.
So far, he loves Bismarck — the cold weather last spring reminded him of Afghanistan.
Mackin said it’s cathartic to be reunited with Saeed, knowing that a letter he wrote years ago likely played a role in saving his friend’s life.
Welcoming Saeed into his home gave Mackin a chance to return the kind of “legendary” Afghan hospitality that Saeed and other soldiers extended to him during the war, the American said.
Mackin still finds it astonishing that Saeed actually made it to his door.
“The chances of this happening at every step are so miniscule that it makes me think that it’s meant to be,” Mackin said.
An unbearable burden
Mentally, Saeed never really left Afghanistan.
The frequent phone calls with his wife and children provide a stressful reminder of what he could lose if the Taliban were to find out he worked with the U.S. military.
The tearful kids, too young to understand why their father had to escape, always ask when he’s coming home.
“My heart is torn when I hear this,” Saeed said in Dari.
The children don’t leave the house much anymore. They’re instructed to run to the schoolhouse if a car comes up the driveway.
The family had a close call after Saeed’s departure when Taliban members knocked on the door and asked the kids if their father was home. They lied and said he was at work.
None of Saeed’s relatives have been killed by the Taliban since the takeover, but his brother and cousin were briefly taken from home and beaten, Saeed said.
The fear that his family could be wiped out at any moment keeps Saeed up at night. He wants more than anything to bring them to Bismarck.
Mackin sees how his friend labors every day to carry the weight of knowing his family is under threat.
“His family, his kids are asking for him on the phone all the time — they want to be with him,” Mackin said. “He has to deal with that, hang up the phone and then come out into a totally different world and go to work. It’s a daily culture shock.”
Saeed divides most of his paycheck between Western Union money transfers to loved ones in Afghanistan and a savings fund he hopes will eventually pay his family’s way to America.
First, there’s the matter of settling his own immigration situation.
With the help of state officials and an immigration lawyer, Saeed is applying for asylum — a legal status for people forced to flee their home country that would allow him to stay in the U.S. and eventually seek permanent residence and citizenship.
If granted asylum, he could petition for his wife and kids to join him in the U.S., though it might not be a quick process, said State Refugee Coordinator Holly Triska-Dally, whose office coordinates legal services funded by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.
“I’m hopeful that within one year we will be working to bring his family home to North Dakota,” Triska-Dally said in an email. “I would love to see his family actively involved in the Bismarck community, achieving their full potential, while being seen for their contributions.”
Mackin estimates it would cost upwards of $40,000 to help Saeed’s family escape Afghanistan and become legal U.S. residents.
The passports needed to leave Afghanistan are only really attainable to those who can pay bribes of about $1,000 a piece, Saeed said.
Saeed said it would be an “indescribable feeling” to get his wife and children out of Afghanistan and on a flight to Bismarck.
“When they are here, I can build a new future for them knowing they are safe,” he said in Dari. “They can have a better life.”