‘I just want them safe’: Now living in Fitchburg, former Afghan interpreter struggles to get 13 family members to safety

FITCHBURG, Wis. — After spending years serving the United States Army as a linguist, a Fitchburg man says he’s done everything he can do to get his 13 family members out Afghanistan with no luck.

After learning English from U.S. troops serving in his school in the early 2000s, the man, known during his time in the military by the alias Johnny 5, joined the fight years later.

“I took a test and everything,” he said. “They were like ‘Oh, you know three languages, you’re set. You have a flight.’ They assigned me to Helmand.”

After years of service, the Taliban eventually found him working as an advisor and linguist in the country’s southern region.

I was receiving text messages from the bad people, because I was more involved with the local people,” he said. “They were texting me and calling me, saying ‘We’re going to cut off your head. We know where you live and where you are’.”

In 2014, after qualifying for a visa, he moved to Wisconsin – one of the few places in America he had a connection to a friend. He was only in his early 20s.

I was getting so scared. As soon as I got my visa, I was like, ‘I’m not sticking around here.’ I have to get the hell out here as soon as possible,” he said. “I left everybody behind. Family, everyone was back there, because I was the one who was getting more threats.”

In the days since the Taliban has taken over, he says his one-time position helping the United States has turned his family into targets. While thousands were evacuated from Kabul, he says the process was more of a free-for-all than an organized method of saving families in danger.

Due to the crowd at the airport, all the countries like Canada, the UK, all of the other countries announcing at the same time they were saying they would accept all the immigrants, people assumed anyone could go there,” he said. “It was not true. It was only for the people that worked with the US army, the US government, and people that are in serious threat.”

When his family eventually attempted to get to the airport, they were stopped at a Taliban checkpoint. 

Their US passports were taken away, thrown in the trash, ripped. It’s all been thrown away,” he said. “The explosion (at the airport), when that happened, my family left 30 minutes before. Can you imagine? 13 people would have just been all dead. The whole entire family would have been dead.”

Johnny 5 says he’s confident his family could be saved if they could get to Pakistan or Tajikistan. In the meantime, many are concerned the Taliban’s access to biometric data means they have the ability to track calls, texts and other messages from people trying to evacuate.

I’m trying to not even contact my family, because I don’t even know when they’re going to catch them. I’m just so worried about them, because I cannot even talk freely with my family,” he said. “Even if you lie at the checkpoint and say ‘I wasn’t working with them’, they’re going to do all of the fingerprint, all of the biometric data, then they’ll pop up with your photos.”

Johnny 5 says he’s made numerous calls to Wisconsin lawmakers and other state officials – with no luck.

The state department, there’s no way you can get a hold of them,” he said. 

“I’m so disappointed the entire government fell down and just flipped over,” he said. “At this point, I just want my family to be out. I want them to be safe. I don’t want them under those rules and regulations (of the Taliban).”

“This evacuation could have been done in a better way. There’s a lot of interpreters, a lot of linguists, their families are behind,” he said. “Once the family is here, I’m alive again, because I’m dead right now.”