After being born in 1988 amid the Soviet–Afghan War and having to move at the age of 11 to avoid the suffering that follows the Taliban, Fahim Masoud graduated high school in Herat, Afghanistan.
Then he had a decision to make — one that would ultimately lead him to commissioning in the Illinois Army National Guard.
Masoud’s story stands out at a time when the U.S. military is finalizing a withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the fate of many interpreters remains undecided, or at the very least, in a precarious position.
Standing at the crossroads of life at the age of 17, Masoud could’ve chosen to go to school in India, or he could’ve decided to pick up a rifle and join the Afghan Army.
“Then the opportunity came up for me to work as an interpreter for the U.S. Army,” Masoud said in a phone interview with Army Times.
After Masoud had been working with the Americans for about a year, he met an Iowa National Guardsman who was interested in getting him to the United States for college.
“I served as a maintenance advisor and was needing an interpreter. I met Fahim and there was an instant connection,” said now-retired Chief Warrant Officer 3 James Ditter in an Army press release. “My family was very supportive of the sponsorship. We got him enrolled, and accepted, in community college and things rolled from there.”
One of the biggest challenges Masoud faced was getting a visa to come study. He had to travel to Pakistan to obtain that, as the embassy in Afghanistan wouldn’t issue them.
Once he got to the United States, he was able to start his studies, first at a community college, then at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. While he was there, he took the ASVAB in the hopes of joining the Marine Corps.
“I wanted to join the Marines, I wanted to go into active duty,” Masoud said.
However, he met his now wife in 2014, and she wasn’t too keen on the idea. So, he put the plan on hold, earning his undergraduate degree in history, then a political science masters from the University of Illinois.
“A few years later, in 2015, that ambition, that dream of being part of the military hadn’t faded away,” Masoud said.
After a few more years of trying, in 2017, he was able to get his wife’s approval to join the Illinois National Guard.
Newly commissioned officers often don’t start out with the full respect of the people they command. Young lieutenants are not usually battle-tested, and the lack of experience can be an issue, Masoud noted.
“When I came in, and was commissioned in January 2019, immediately people could tell I was different,” Masoud said. “That I was seasoned, that I had a lot of experience being in the field.”
Beyond the hard skills learned in combat, Masoud also learned soft skills about communication during his time as an interpreter.
These skills, although not used to make decisions at the time, are helpful now that he does. His ability to build relationships helps him command his troops, and his ability to deal with the public is invaluable with vaccine administration sites.
While working one such site in Cook County, Illinois, Masoud even met Sen. Tammy Duckworth, herself a retired Army National Guard officer.
Masoud said that his time in the Guard has been a wonderful experience, with new ones on the horizon.
Every day brings a challenge, but nothing is a match for someone who has gone from an interpreter in Afghanistan to graduate studies in the United States and commissioning, he said.
But stories like those of Masoud are often the exception, rather than the rule.
Amid increasing public pressure, U.S. officials say they will start evacuating Afghan allies by the end of this month to a safe third-country while their visa applications are being processed.
Still, more than 18,000 Afghan nationals have applied through the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa program to become U.S. residents — a process that advocates say takes years to complete.
And many applicants remain concerned that they won’t be alive in a few months if they remain in Afghanistan.