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.