We’ve put a lot of work into building relationships in Afghanistan, and we can’t stop now
Kuna resident Robert Holmes credits his Afghan interpreters for keeping him safe. Now, it’s our turn to take care of people like them, writes editor Christina Lords.
Master Sgt. Robert Holmes, from Kuna, served in Afghanistan in 2010. He said more should and could be done to help people who helped him during his service, including family members of interpreters who helped him. (Courtesy of Robert Holmes)
Shona ba shona.
When Master Sgt. Robert Holmes was a Marine in Afghanistan, this is the phrase he would use again and again to strengthen relationships with his Afghan counterparts: interpreters, military police and Afghan service members. Holmes said they all wanted the same thing: to make whole a country at war for longer than younger generations of Americans have been alive.
Shona ba shona means shoulder to shoulder in Dari, one of two official languages spoken in Afghanistan. There were many, many others with their own regional inflections, dialects and cadences for American soldiers to identify and navigate during the War in Afghanistan.
That’s why throughout his service in 2010, interpreters, both Afghan American and native Afghans, maintain a meaningful place in Holmes’ heart.
These interpreters helped him navigate not only the language barriers, but also the religious, cultural, tribal and gendered world around him. They helped him gather valuable intelligence about the comings and goings of a community, helped him keep track of the ranks, titles and personalities of its leaders and helped him train the next generation of Afghan soldiers and military police.
Frankly, interpreters played an undisputed and invaluable role in keeping Holmes alive.
“Even though they weren’t service members, we were definitely brothers in arms,” Holmes said. “I still feel like they’re my brothers.”
Holmes, along with the rest of the world, watched in horror last month as the Taliban quickly swept across Afghanistan, regaining power across the country for the first time in 20 years.
As we all bear witness to the deadly end of the War in Afghanistan, it’s impossible and immoral for us to forgo pausing and reflecting on what the last two decades have meant for the United States and Afghanistan.
Many people my age learned of the attacks at their lockers that fateful Tuesday morning.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I had just gotten to school at Alameda Junior High in Pocatello. One of my classmates said a plane had hit one of the World Trade Towers before the first morning bell rang. In my head, I envisioned that it must be a small Cessna that malfunctioned or flew far off course. It must have been a bad accident. Indeed, even when President George W. Bush was told of the first plane crashing into the North Tower, he and his advisers came to that same conclusion — at least at first.
Having never been to the East Coast at that point in my life, I didn’t even know what the World Trade Center was. But when we were allowed to turn on the TVs in my second period English class and watch history unfold, I realized the situation was far more dire and far more dangerous.
At my school, teachers were allowed to make the decision to leave the TVs on or off in their own classrooms. I am grateful some teachers thought it was important we see the events as they happened, but it wasn’t until the end of the day that anyone could give any information on why they happened. I’ll never forget how my ninth-grade teacher, Mr. Drysdale, jumped from teaching us 18th century American history to giving us a lecture on U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan for the last 100 years. Seven months later, I would drive by the wreckage in New York City from that day on our “American Heritage” spring break trip through the Pocatello/Chubbuck School District.
Those images have never left me.
Since then, I’ve known men my age go off to war in Afghanistan and Iraq because of the events of Sept. 11. Thankfully, all of those friends have come back.
Men like Robert Holmes.
No matter the reason and outcome of the conflicts themselves, there is always a debt soldiers pay, a sacrifice they and their loved ones pay, to answer a calling many of us won’t make in our lifetimes.
A history of military service runs in Holmes’ family
For soldiers like Robert Holmes, it’s one he always knew he would make. For as long as anyone can remember, members of the Holmes family have given years of their life for love of country. Robert’s grandfather was a Marine. His father was in the Navy. He would follow these footsteps for 23 years, retiring from the Marines in 2018. He’s still serving his fellow veterans, now as the state quartermaster for Idaho’s Veterans of Foreign Wars organization.
Americans scrambled for weeks to get U.S. citizens and those that risked their lives, like the men who served as interpreters for Holmes and his fellow Americans, out of the country before the looming Aug. 31 deadline.
Nothing about the drawdown of American troops went the way any of us would have hoped or prayed for. It was especially hard for people like Holmes, who still keeps in touch with some of the interpreters who did so much for him.
Two of Holmes’ interpreters were able to get themselves out of Afghanistan and to Australia. But some of their family members still remain in Afghanistan.
It’s now Holmes’ mission to ensure Americans never forget the dedication and risk interpreters and their families took on during the war.
Many had bounties on their heads. Many went to work side by side — shoulder to shoulder — with American forces unarmed. Many weighed whether to help Afghanistan become a democratic nation or see their family members killed by the Taliban if their identities became public. These interpreters are some of the bravest men he knows, Holmes said.
“They’re very inclusive people, especially the interpreters,” Holmes said. “I used to eat a lot of MREs, and every day they would cook and offer a meal for our team. They always invited us to their events. They were willing to give their lives up. That’s how much they cared about their country, how much they cared about us.”
How to learn more about refugee, veterans’ experiences in Idaho
You can learn more about Holmes’ service and his new mission to ensure these stories are not forgotten at a virtual panel discussion hosted by Idaho’s resettlement agencies and community partners from noon to 1 p.m. Sept. 14.
- Julianne Donnelly Tzul, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Boise
- Nawid Mousa, who was resettled in Idaho as a refugee and is now helping family members through the evacuation and resettlement process
- Rob Holmes, Marine Corps veteran from Kuna who served in Afghanistan
- Zeze Rwasama, director of the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Programs in Twin Falls
This event is supported by the Idaho Office for Refugees, International Rescue Committee in Boise, Agency for New Americans and the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Programs.
These agencies do so much to give citizens of the world the things that any of us would want for ourselves and our families: a shot at a life without bombs, terrorism, discrimination, sexual harrassment and fear.
Idaho must now do everything it can to work shoulder to shoulder for those who have supported us, including refugees that may soon call Idaho home and the people who fought so hard to bring democracy to a war-torn country.
People like Robert Holmes and the families of his interpreters.
Shona ba shona.
VETERANS CRISIS HOTLINE
If you’re a veteran in crisis or need someone to talk to, you can call the Veterans Crisis Hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 1-800-273-8255 and push 1, text 838255 or chat with someone online at veteranscrisisline.net. It’s free and confidential, and you do not need to be enrolled in VA health benefits to access services.
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