Army Lt. Jason Pak met Shams Ghaznavi, an interpreter, 11 years ago in Panjwai, Afghanistan.
The two didn’t know it at the time, but a routine reconnaissance patrol on December 12, 2012, would soon launch a series of events that would forge a lifelong friendship even 7,000 miles of separation could not break.
Though they became friends earlier in Pak’s deployment to Kandahar Province, the duo’s true trial by fire began that day in December when Pak stepped on an explosive device.
“We dismounted our Strykers at the time, and we set out on foot,” he told Military Times. “I stepped on a 10-pound pressure plate IED.”
Ghaznavi, who was traveling with the unit, rushed to save Pak’s life.
“When the incident happened, the only thing in my mind at the moment was to save Jason, to put the tourniquets on him and to be clear for the bird to pick him up,” he said. “It was a bad day for me. One of my best friends on the team stepped on an IED, and that was a big blow for me and our team.”
Pak lost both of his legs in the blast and was airlifted to Kandahar Airfield. He reached Walter Reed Medical Center around six days later. Throughout a grueling recovery, he never forgot the interpreter who helped save his life.
“I received a lot of encouraging words, from both Shams [and] my other soldiers that were still downrange,” he noted.
The pair continued to correspond for nearly a decade after the incident, with Ghaznavi eventually being offered a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) to come to the U.S. But when COVID-19 hit, the process stalled completely. Ghaznavi’s family was trapped in Kabul, he told Pak, and Taliban fighters were in town.
The time that ensued set the stage for the massive withdrawal of U.S. troops in August 2021. Pak knew he had to do whatever he could to get Ghaznavi out.
“I contacted the embassy via email,” Pak said. “We were trying to scramble and trying to find anybody and everybody that we knew that were trying to evacuate and help in that process of getting folks out of Afghanistan.”
As the Taliban seized control, concerns among a newly married Ghaznavi and his wife grew. The country was collapsing, but he fully believed the U.S. government would make good on its word to get the couple out of Afghanistan and to safety.
“I believe in these people,” he said. “I expected them to do something for me because I knew that they always supported me in the job and after the job. And I just thank God that Jason made it possible for me, and I will be appreciative for the rest of my life.”
Pak, who was located in Virginia at the time, tapped his network of military members, nonprofits and legislators to ensure Ghaznavi got out.
“It was scramble mode for me,” Pak said. “I immediately hopped on to helping with evacuation efforts or getting behind organizations that were a part of this, including Semper Fi & America’s Fund. I reached out to anybody and everybody that I could, through my personal networks to my professional networks, and eventually came upon one.”
In what’s now known as “Digital Dunkirk,” a coalition of veterans used WhatsApp and Signal chat groups to help facilitate the evacuations of allies and translators from the war-torn country. One chat group in particular would prove to be Ghaznavi’s ticket to the U.S., and it came on one of the last flights out.
“I knew of an operator that was in the grounds of Karzai airport, facilitating personal extractions, and in particular at Abbey gate,” Pak said.
Pak told Ghaznavi to write his call sign — “Jolly” — on a poster as a code for Marines coordinating the extraction. The sign was spotted, and wound up being just what Ghaznavi and his wife needed to make it through thousands of others desperate to escape.
Ghaznavi now recalls the day as pure chaos.
“I showed him the code, they led me to go through the canal, and I couldn’t stop my tears,” he said. “I was so happy. The 10 days before that, I was expecting I was going to die.”
Beyond the canal adjacent to Abbey Gate, Ghaznavi made contact with a group of translators and families evacuating, Pak said.
“It was a very emotional almost-48 hours-plus because of the turnaround time and convincing Shams to leave everything behind,” Pak recalled.
After spending time in both Qatar and Germany, Ghaznavi finally landed at Dulles Airport in Virginia on March 15, 2022. For the interpreter, getting out of Afghanistan was a massive step toward a new life, but adjusting to life in America has also proven difficult.
“There’s a lot of challenges living in the States,” he said. “The way of life is different — the system, the government, the laws, rules, everything is different from Afghanistan. My wife … still can’t speak English.”
Shams now lives in Pennsylvania, and his wife has since given birth to a daughter. Though he is working in construction and building a life here, he continues to learn that even everyday tasks can be complicated.
“You don’t know how to get a license or find a DMV,” he joked. “I didn’t know how to buy groceries at Walmart. It was the first time I scanned food in a scanner.”
But Pak has continued to help. He and the Semper Fi & America’s Fund made sure Ghaznavi, along with other interpreters and allies who made it to the U.S., was set up for success. And in December, Pak’s and Ghaznavi’s families celebrated the 10-year anniversary of the day Ghaznavi saved Pak’s life.
“Im glad that I have Jason in my life,” Ghaznavi said. “Everyone has been so supportive to the people that they came from nowhere to a country like the United States.”
Sarah Sicard is a Senior Editor with Military Times. She previously served as the Digitial Editor of Military Times and the Army Times Editor. Other work can be found at National Defense Magazine, Task & Purpose, and Defense News.