Sher Mohammad Haidari heard the radio crackle with Taliban chatter as the Army platoon he was with trudged through a valley in eastern Afghanistan looking for a U.S. soldier who had abandoned his post.
The enemy, hidden in the vegetation, reported “24 flowers” approaching them that could easily be picked off with rocket-propelled grenades. Be patient, let them pass into the kill zone and spring the ambush, ordered the Taliban commander.
The platoon, unaware of the Taliban’s presence, was searching for Private Bowe Bergdahl.
After listening to more of the enemy’s radio traffic, Haidari, the platoon’s interpreter, realized that the 24 flowers were the soliders he was with. “Sir, we’re all about to get killed! Get on the ground!” he yelled at the platoon leader. Seconds later the enemy initiated contact, wounding four Americans in the face and back and shooting Haidari “in my ass.”
The AK-47 round exited through his inner thigh, barely missing the family jewels — which is a good thing, otherwise Haidari’s eight-month-old son would not have been around to interrupt his father while he talked to a reporter in their El Cajon apartment on Halloween night.
As for Bergdahl, he became a Taliban prisoner for almost five years and was swapped for five Taliban detainees at Guantanamo in 2014. He was promoted to sergeant and then charged with desertion and endangering American troops. He will face a court martial early next year.
This incident was one of several firefights Haidari, 26, survived while serving with U.S. troops, earning him the right to immigrate with his wife Tamana, 18, and son Ahamad after getting death threats from the Taliban. They arrived in October with the aid of an international relief group that also helps refugees fleeing war zones.
Ramona resident Dave Sossaman, a Department of Defense contractor in Afghanistan, worked with Haidari for two years on security details. He took Haidari and his family under his wing when they arrived. The Haidaris received their permanent resident cards in November.
Sossaman, a former cop, is helping the family assimilate in their new country. He and his wife took them in for a few days while he helped Haidari find an apartment that could be rented on a month-to-month basis. The Sossamans also helped the family acquire used household items for their new home, which is sparsely furnished.
Haidari has been around the U.S. military most of his life and is still rough around the edges. He punctuates conversations with the four-letter word favored by American soldiers to express feelings and opinions about anything and anybody and to describe combat situations good or bad. Blithely unaware that some of the words he uses are offensive in polite circles, Haidari had to be squared away by Sossaman.
He also uses other military-speak such as “roger that” instead of yes and “negative” instead of no.
“When I was young I saw the U.S. military, and I wanted to be just like them. When I was with the U.S. Army I was crazy. I was doing stupid stuff,” he said.
One example: Haidari let an American soldier tattoo concertina wire wrapped around his right arm from top to just above the wrist. The tattoo, which symbolized that he was “an Army gangster, a soldier fighting the Taliban,” was problematic when he began courting Tamana, who is also called Tammy. Her mother did not like it.
Short and muscular, Haidari — nicknamed Mike by Army troops — grew up a child of war. Sher, his first name, is fitting for the life he has led; it means tiger or lion. His dark eyes do not exhibit emotion, which reflects his natural stoicism. He has a tendency to stare away from the person to whom he is talking. He became a soldier at 17, when he went to work for the Army, and was earning $750 a month when he left Afghanistan. Haidari said he could have earned almost twice more working for the British but his father, a former major in the Afghan army, forbid it.
“The British were never our friend. They invaded us twice. My father said no, even if they paid me $3000 a month,” said Haidari.
His family went into exile in Pakistan when the Taliban took over the country. They returned to Kabul in 2001, when U.S. Special Forces teams slipped into Afghanistan to join local fighters in the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the Taliban. Haidari was ten and remembers his family — parents and 11 brothers and sisters — packed in a 40-foot truck with all their belongings. It was one of hundreds of vehicles winding slowly on mountain roads in a convoy that stretched for miles. The trip home took two grueling days under the cameras of U.S. drones flying overhead.
In 2010, two years after he began working for the Army, a terrorist wearing a suicide vest blew himself up inside Combat Outpost (COP) Chergotah in Khost Province, killing and wounding several soldiers, including some Americans. Haidari, who was at the base, joined an Army unit that went looking for Taliban insurgents who were tied to the bombing. It was a routine operation by Afghanistan standards, but it put Haidari’s name on a Taliban hit list and led to 20 death threats over the years.
“We went to each house, and I told the man at each house, this is my telephone number if you see Taliban. We have helicopters above. We have drones. Call me and we’ll come and we’ll kill them,” said Haidari.
A short time later, Haidari said he was on a mission with U.S. troops when his cell phone rang. It was a local Taliban commander calling.
“He said, ‘Either help us or we’ll send another [suicide bomber] inside and kill Americans. If you don’t do this we’ll have two suicide bombers only for you to blow you up and chop your head off.’ They were after me,” he said.
Later, the Taliban threatened to kill his family in Kabul.
The Army took the threats seriously. Several soldiers whom Haidari worked with wrote letters vouching for his loyalty to help him get out of Afghanistan. A general wrote Homeland Security and Immigration Service officials recommending that Haidari receive “special immigrant status” and be allowed to enter the U.S.
A platoon sergeant wrote that Haidari “has proven himself to be a powerful weapon and tremendous asset” in the 25th Infantry Division’s counter-insurgency fight. He said Haidari was “continuously putting his life in danger.”
“While occupying a remote combat outpost [Haidari] received multiple threatening phone calls from senior Taliban leaders in our area. He was told on more than one occasion that if he did not cooperate with them he and his family would be attacked and targeted by insurgents,” the sergeant wrote.
Haidari has “my full confidence and trustworthiness,” he said in a 2012 letter.
In a 2011 letter, a general wrote that Haidari was a “loyal and dedicated interpreter” who risked his life in support of U.S. forces. The general, who was deputy commander of Combined Joint Task Force 1 at the time, said Haidari’s “efforts have contributed immensely to the United States Armed Forces.” The special immigrant program “was designed for people like [Haidari] who have risked much, including their lives, to support the U.S. Armed Forces in Afghanistan.”
After working with Army units, Haidari took command of about 120 Afghan fighters and began working with Department of Defense contractors like Sossaman, providing security for civilian convoys carrying supplies to Allied combat outposts and bases.
“I would trust him with my life,” said Sossaman; even though Haidari was reckless at times.
He remembers an early mission they pulled together. They were in a six-vehicle convoy going from Camp Leatherneck to Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province. The vehicles, armored Toyota SUVs, came under fire along the way. Sossaman was driving and Haidari was riding shotgun. The defensive reaction was to floor the gas pedal and barrel through, but Haidari opened the passenger door and begin firing his AK-47 while the vehicle was moving.
“The crazy bastard starts screaming, ‘We’re gangsters’ and is standing on the side. If I could’ve, I would’ve shoved him out the door,” said Sossaman. It does not do much good to be in an armored vehicle that is being shot at if one of the doors is open.
However, Sossaman admires the fighters commanded by Haidari.
“They were out in the field on their own. They were young kids, but you’ve got to hand it to them. They’re survivors,” he said.
Haidari was in his early 20s and handled millions of dollars — in cash. Sossaman and other contractors would give him up to $100,000 at a time to finance the missions he and his fighters were given.
“I’d give him $80,000 a pop for payroll [to pay the troops Haidari commanded], buy equipment, set up camps and safe houses, and get armored vehicles. They had to set up camps, build them, and get stuff for it. I’d pay Mike and he’d do it. Mike’s security detail was made up of dudes I’d also trust with my life,” said Sossaman.
Haidari is quick to express the affection he has for Sossaman, whom he looks at like an older brother.
“I’m lucky I have a brother like Dave; a good friend. He’s helped my son, too. I told Dave the other day when you get old and can’t get out of your chair, call me. I will come. I will bring my boy and I will tell him, ‘This guy helped your daddy. You stay here, clean his butt if you have to, and take care of this old man because he helped me.’
“I would take a bullet for him. Every time we would go out on a mission I would walk in front of him. I would tell my guys to circle him. It was my job to take care of him,” said Haidari.
Though he wanted to be like the U.S. soldiers, Haidari admits that the motivating factor in joining their ranks was his dream of coming to America. It was a dream he was willing to die for.
“I was doing it because of the visa. If you work for the U.S. military you can get a visa to leave for America. I wanted to help my country, but my point was to come to America,” he said.
Haidari said his family, what’s left of it in Kabul, was eager for him to get out of Afghanistan for his sake and theirs. Two brothers, both engineers, live in Germany and Turkey. A third brother who also worked as an interpreter for U.S. forces recently immigrated to Sacramento with his family.
“My family were happy for me to get out of there. Because of me, because of my work for the U.S. military they were in trouble. They said that if the government ever falls or things get really [screwed] up, the Taliban will come after us as long as you are here,” said Haidari.
It took U.S. officials five years to approve visas for Haidari, his wife, and child. Before that, he also had to get approval from Tamana’s mother to marry her. His mother-in-law did not look on him favorably. She told him that if she was going to give him her daughter the tattoo on his arm would have to go.
“She told me, ‘If you’re my son-in-law, I don’t want people to think you’re a gangster. You have to show me that you’re a respectful person. People will think you’re a gangster.’ So, I said, ‘Okay, for Tammy I’ll remove my tattoo,’” said Haidari.
He paid $2000 to a Kabul doctor to have the tattoo removed. The procedure required 380 stitches and left scars up and down his arm.
He is here now, but Haidari and his wife face serious assimilation difficulties. Tamana’s relatives in the Bay Area encouraged them to move up there, and they recently settled in the San Jose area. Haidari was desperate to get a job but could not look for work until he got his green card.
He is now working two jobs as a security guard and delivering muffins. A driving permit allows him to deliver the muffins as long as he is accompanied by a licensed driver. A man whose name is synonymous with fighting spirit, who faced death every day for years is earning a living by delivering muffins. But Haidari is not bothered by the contradiction.
“Hey, man, it’s a job, and I’ve got to start somewhere,” he said.
Tamana, still a teenager, gets hopelessly homesick and cries for her mother. She does not speak English and most days has nobody to talk to but her husband and their baby. Haidari said she was hospitalized with high blood pressure that doctors said was stress-induced.
Haidari’s plans for the future include college and becoming a police officer. If that does not work out he wants to enlist in the Army. His fervor for the Army is seen in his email address, which includes “USArmy.”
Sossaman tried to make their transition easier by driving them around and introducing them to different areas of San Diego and to American food. The relief agency that got them out of Afghanistan flew them to Los Angeles and was going to put them on a bus to San Diego. Sossaman drove to LAX instead and waited around for eight hours while the Haidaris cleared customs and brought them to his house, arriving in Ramona at around 1:30 a.m. He is determined to help his friend make his life here a success.
His effort has not gone unnoticed by Haidari.
“I’m proud to have a friend like Dave. He thinks that because he invited me to the States he has to do everything for me; take care of me and help me find a job. I came to the States to make my life better and for my boy. I know he’s doing it for my boy, too. I want my boy’s life to be better than mine.”