Ajmal Achekzai left Afghanistan with his family as a five-year-old only to return as a U.S. Marine nearly two decades later. He enlisted in the Marine Corps before the attacks on September 11, 2001, but knew that same day he was going back to his birthplace.
“I had chills, like humming.”
In an interview with CNN, the former Marine told them he felt “chills, like humming,” when he arrived in the country.
“My Motherland, I was born here, you know, I’m learning a lot you know every day something new about where my mom grew up, where my grandfather and [those] from my mom’s side grew up, everything.” Achekzai recalled in the interview.
His family chose to immigrate to the U.S in 1980. They were forced to leave due to rumors of Soviets searching for them during the early stages of the Soviet-Afghan war.
A normal life
Achekzai’s father was a university professor in Kabul, while his mother taught Pashto at a local high school. “We lived life, a normal life, comfortably.” said Achekzai.
He characterized his father by saying, “He wanted to make sure that every student had an open mind to different types of beliefs, religions.” Everything was fine, until one day the family got word that they were wanted.
He said, “One of my dad’s friends comes to him and tells him, ‘Hey, the Russians are looking for you and your wife.’” This rumor made the decision to leave appear timelier than ever.
When they first moved out of Afghanistan, the family went to Pakistan seeking asylum before reaching U.S. soil. “Oh it was a struggle to adapt to a different world,” Achekzai said of the transition.
He also stated that he was unhappy with where his life was going, and that joining the Marines helped him stay off that path. Achekzai ended up serving in the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
When he first enlisted, Achekzai found himself stationed in Darwin, Australia. During this time, he said that he entered into the chow hall one day, just as he would on any other.
Only, the date was September 11, 2001, and a TV hanging in the hall showed a billowing World Trade Center North Tower. Achekzai says that while he was there, surrounded by his fellow Marines, the second plane crashed into the South Tower.
He recalled the first sergeant yelling in the populated hall, “Marines, this is what we trained for.”
“Guess what? We’re going to Afghanistan.”
Achekzai’s superiors told him, “And you’re going to be attached to the Bravo Company.”
The former Marine said he’ll never forget the experience, and that “Basically, I was a bridge between two cultures and I was teaching the Marines, soldiers, airmen all about the culture of Afghanistan; religion, politics…”
In his eyes, Achekzai’s motivation was noble, and so was the U.S. military’s.
“Hopefully we can get some type of unity and compassion amongst each other. We look in their eyes and we tell them we’re here to help you. We’re here to protect you. We want you to be able to live your life and if you want to work go work; if you want to go to school, go to school. Our focus was to help the people of Afghanistan progress.” he said of the time spent.
Reflecting on the period he was in his birthplace, Achekzai concludes with a rhetorical question, and a consideration of his feelings after the Taliban takeover in August.
“I don’t know how to think right now. What’s going on in Afghanistan, I truly don’t know. I’m sad, I’m hurt, I’m embarrassed, in so many ways. How many servicemembers died because of September 11 in Afghanistan?” he said.
“We need some type of accountability for what happened. We looked in their eyes and said ‘Hey, we’re getting rid of the Taliban for you.’ Every day I feel guilty that [sic] the life they’re living in Afghanistan and how they’re struggling right now.