I’ve been thinking a lot about Johnny Pockets lately.

That wasn’t his real name. It was the moniker given him by the Maine Army National Guard’s Bravo Company, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry during its nine-month deployment to eastern Afghanistan in 2010.

One of the company’s interpreters, or “terps,” Johnny filled a critical need as the soldiers went about trying to connect with the tribal elders and Afghan security forces in and around Dand wa Patan in Paktia Province. It was there that the 148 Mainers occupied a small combat outpost, or COP, just a quarter-mile from the Pakistan border.

One night early that June, while embedded with Bravo Company, I found myself squeezed inside a rusted metal shipping container high atop a mountain ridge four miles from the company’s base of operations. I was on an overnight trek to Observation Post 13, where platoons from Bravo Company rotated in and out to keep an eye on the restive Pesho Ghar valley on the other side of the ridge.

Things were tense that evening – reliable reports of a possible ambush after dark had come up from the COP and most of the soldiers would spend the night scanning the rocky terrain through their night-vision goggles for an attack that, thank God, never came.

I found a piece of cardboard on the floor of the container, which served as an improvised bunkhouse, and rolled out my sleeping bag. But falling asleep that night proved next to impossible.

Lying next to me was Johnny Pockets.

I don’t recall how he got that name – all of the Afghans who helped the Americans went by nicknames to help conceal their identity from the Taliban and other insurgents. But I will forever remember our quiet conversation.

Johnny was 27. Looking back on his childhood, he told me he had no memories from growing up in Kabul, about 65 miles to the northwest, that did not involve war.

He was here, dressed in combat fatigues, in part to support his aging parents and siblings still back in Kabul.

“But it’s not just for the money that I come here,” he confided in the near-perfect English that he’d learned to enhance his employment options.

He was there, his life on the line, because he’d known the perils of extremist rule after the Soviets left in 1989, the Afghanistan central government fell in 1992 and the Taliban took over in 1996.

“It was terrible, just terrible,” Johnny recalled of those years when the Taliban’s perversion of Islamic law produced countless executions, oppressions and a culture of abject terror. “No one should live that way. We deserve freedom just like you do, like everyone does.”

Eleven years later, Afghanistan is all but a lost cause. The rapid pullout of American forces, punctuated by the overnight abandonment of the massive Bagram Airfield by U.S. troops just over a week ago, portends a return to Taliban rule that most analysts expect will happen only months, maybe even weeks, after the Biden administration completes its rapid withdrawal of remaining U.S. forces.

And then? What will become of the estimated 18,000 Afghan civilians who assisted the United States over the course of this country’s longest-ever war?

“I have a friend who’s a special forces guy and just left (Afghanistan) and he said it’s already started. People are being murdered,” Sen. Angus King said in an interview on Friday.

King has been among the loudest voices on Capitol Hill in recent weeks calling for a stepped-up effort to get those at risk out of Afghanistan while there’s still time. While he applauds President Biden’s promise to provide them safe haven in the United States, King fears that time is running out: The New York Times reported on Friday that Taliban forces have entered Kandahar City, the country’s second largest, and have taken over two critical checkpoints on the borders with Iran and Turkmenistan. Also on Friday, the Taliban claimed without independent verification that it now controls 85 percent of the country.

King, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he fully supports plans now in their early stages for the United States and its NATO allies to relocate the increasingly desperate Afghan partners to a friendly Middle East country or perhaps to Guam, which served as a way station for Vietnamese fleeing their homeland back in the mid-1970s. But with the wait for Afghans seeking a special immigrant visa now averaging more than 900 days, he told reporters last week, “I want the White House’s hair on fire” over the fast-closing window to get these people out of harm’s way.

In our interview, King said he’s dismayed by the quickness with which Bagram was closed on July 2 – it could have provided a perfect staging area for those fleeing the ever-advancing Taliban.

“It’s solvable. … The U.S. military is very good at this,” he said. “We can’t save the Afghan people from the depredations of the Taliban, but we can at least save those who stood up for us and saved our lives. It’s a human tragedy, but part of it we own.”

For too many Americans, those 18,000 Afghans who stood by us are just another number, much like the 2,442 American troops who died serving in Afghanistan and the more than  20,000 who were wounded there. But as I sit here looking back 11 years to the U.S. military surge that was supposed to end it all, to the Counter Insurgency Doctrine that was supposed to win the war by winning over the Afghan people, I don’t see numbers.

I see the face of a 27-year-old man steadfastly putting hope above history. A man running on the fumes of optimism because the reality on the ground, even back then, led nowhere. A man risking his and his family’s lives in the name of freedom.

As our conversation waned that dark, chilly night, a call to prayers wafted up from the valley below. Johnny Pockets, propped up on his elbow, listened with his eyes closed.

”My country, it needs peace,” he finally said. ”Someday, it is my hope and prayer, Afghanistan will know peace.”

It breaks my heart to read those words today. And so, with peace once again off the table, I will pray for his safety.


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