'I am begging you guys': Fort Myers veteran fights to bring Afghan interpreter home to America

Kate Cimini
Fort Myers News-Press

In the past week, U.S. Army veteran Jeff Trammell has called and tweeted at congresspeople, spoken to old Army and law school contacts, and pleaded with aid groups, hoping to find someone, anyone who can get Afghan interpreter Najeeb Rahimi and his family safely to the U.S.

With the Taliban nearly fully in control of the country after a U.S. exit, there is a lot riding on this, and Trammell knows it. Five lives hang in the balance.

"In my estimate, once those soldiers leave Kabul airport, he’s done," said Trammell, of Fort Myers. "Once they’re gone, then it’s game on."

'Heartbroken and shattered' Afghan-Americans worry about loved ones in Afghanistan

Najeeb Rahimi, his wife, and their three daughters, a 9-year-old and twin 6-year-olds, are desperate. The Taliban has begun searching for anyone who worked with the U.S. military, and the consequences for the former interpreters and their families are rape, sex slavery and death.

Rahimi worked more than two years with U.S. security forces, he said, and with the withdrawal of U.S. forces he fears their days are numbered.

"I am (begging) you guys to help me out as soon you can," Rahimi said. "I am the father of three daughters...and I don't want my family to be killed (at) the hands of Taliban.

For subscribers:Why Afghan security forces crumbled so quickly to the Taliban

Tens of thousands asking for help

Rahimi is not alone in his plight. There is still a chance he and his family could get on a flight out of Afghanistan and find a new home in the U.S., but he is somewhere in a very, very, very long line.

According to reporting from USA TODAY, over the last 24 hours, Afghan women, journalists, human rights advocates and former translators for the U.S. military have flooded U.S.-based refugee groups with desperate messages seeking a way out of their country now that the Taliban have taken control.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, said her staff has been overwhelmed with gut-wrenching requests for help.

"It is emails, calls, texts, Twitter DMs (direct messages) of people desperately seeking to flee a country being overtaken by the Taliban," she said. "In some ways we feel so powerless because at this point the situation on the ground is just constantly changing, and what we’re seeing on TV and hearing on the ground is complete chaos."

The Lutheran immigration service is specifically focused on helping Afghans who worked for the U.S. military during the war – a group that Vignarajah says numbers about 80,000, assuming the Afghans bring multiple family members with them to the U.S. 

The Biden administration has already evacuated about 1,200 Afghans who served alongside American troops to Fort Lee, a base in Virginia. The Pentagon is looking for two additional military bases in the United States to house additional evacuated Afghans, said spokesman John Kirby. As many as 22,000 Afghans may be housed at those bases. 

State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Monday the Biden administration will continue to evacuate people as long as the airport is secure. He said the U.S. is prioritizing American citizens, then Afghan nationals employed by the now-closed embassy, Afghans who worked for the military and then other at-risk Afghans.

Trammell, a lifelong Democrat who voted for President Joe Biden, was infuriated after Biden's speech Monday.

"I'm not saying we had to be there for 20 more years," Trammell said. "But the idea that you couldn't get these people out? This is such a violation of that trust of people who worked for us. These people have been waiting 10 years to come home."

'The slow realization he might get left behind'

Trammell met Rahimi when both of them worked in Baylough, a base in the Deychopin district in Zabul province, a poor, rural province that sits in the south of Afghanistan, just east of Kandahar.

There, Trammell directed U.S. and Afghan troops. Rahimi interpreted for him on trips to visit village elders or when working with Afghan police and military forces. 

"I couldn't do my job without him," Trammell said, adding that Rahimi was the best interpreter he ever worked with. A kind man who only wanted to help others, Rahimi radiated joyfulness, even when their base was under fire -- he just believed that much in the U.S. and its mission in the region, Trammell said. 

Trammell left the base in 2010, and a few years later, resigned from the Army to become a lawyer. He moved home to Fort Myers about a year ago. Still, he said, they stayed in touch through Facebook, and he gladly wrote several letters of recommendation to the U.S. State Department at Rahimi's request.

Despite Trammell's belief in the process and in Rahimi, he still has not been able to find asylum in the U.S., even with the growing danger from the Taliban. When they talk, his friend's normally-joyful voice instead is heavy with despair.

Trammell simply cannot understand why, in the decade he has been applying for a spot in the U.S., that Rahimi hasn't already been welcomed by the U.S. government. Why his letters of recommendation haven't been enough.

"The process has blown up," Trammell said. "As a 24-year-old infantry lieutenant, I had the ability and authority to level buildings and send white phosphorous mortar rounds onto hilltops. I don’t understand how you can give me that authority, but if I write a letter of recommendation, it's suspect.

"He really believed in the mission," Trammell said. "He really believed in the United States. I think that’s the hardest thing about all of it, that slow realization that he might get left behind."

'I don't have anywhere to go'

Right now, Rahimi is afraid to go outside. The Taliban have set up checkpoints throughout his neighborhood -- like a DUI checkpoint, but instead, they're looking for people who worked for the U.S. government.

As an interpreter, Rahimi spent years as the face of the U.S. military in Zabul, meaning Taliban soldiers know him by sight. If, by some luck, they don't recognize him, his paperwork makes it clear that he worked for the U.S. military.

Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace after the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled the country, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Zabi Karimi)

It's a catch-22: he needs that paperwork if he is to find safety in the U.S. Destroying it leaves him stranded; keeping it means death.

If Rahimi is caught, Trammell said, the future that awaits him, his wife and daughters is both graphic and devastating.

First, Trammell said, they will rape Rahimi's wife and their daughters. Then they will rape him. His wife and daughters will either be married to Taliban soldiers or sold into sex slavery. Finally, they will behead Rahimi.

"If they're merciful, they'll just slit their throats," said Trammell. 

Here, Bibi Aisha Rahimi, 9, poses with her younger sisters, Rana and Awesta Rahimi, both just six years old.

He said he knows that from his own experience in Afghanistan: that is what he saw done to people who worked with the U.S. government in '09 - '10.

Trammell spoke with staff from the offices of U.S. Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and Byron Donalds (R-Florida), requesting help for Rahimi. Both Schiff and Donalds have reached out to the State Department this week requesting they prioritize Rahimi's case. 

At nonprofit charity and veteran organization No One Left Behind, staff told Trammell they have put Rahimi's name on a manifest, but Trammell isn't going to rest until his friend is on a plane.

"I told Najeeb, 'we'll end our conversation when you can take a picture of yourself getting on a plane. Then I'm going to sleep for three days,'" said Trammell.

Rahimi told Trammell that a friend of his who worked for the U.S. government has already gotten a call telling him he should be packed and ready to go at any time. As of late Tuesday, Rahimi still hasn't gotten a call, and he's getting more and more nervous, with the planes leaving all the time.

In recent days, Rahimi has sent Trammell photos of planes taking off from Kabul's airport, their bodies dark against the sky. He wishes he and his family were on them.

"I wanted to serve my country," Rahimi said. But now, "I don't have anywhere else to (go) once (the) Americans leave."

Reporter Deirdre ShessgreenUSA TODAY contributed to this story.

Kate Cimini is an investigative journalist. Share your story at (831) 776-5137 or email kcimini@gannett.com.