30″ x 24″ • Acrylics on Canvas
This is the third painting I’ve done for Bullets & Bandaids within the last 10 years. It has always been a product of love and responsibility for me. Responsibility to the veteran’s life source, their sacrifices, their blood, their capacity to still breathe and tell their story. Love for my craft, love for my fellow humans, love for the type of sacrifices that only some make and experience, love for what Bullets & Bandaids stands for.
Each painting has been an excellent challenge for me, each in their own individual way. The idea of trying to capture someone else’s crucial and sometimes most traumatic life experiences is a massively daunting task for me. Especially without actually knowing the individual. However, that’s what makes this challenge so special for me and so worthy of undertaking. It’s always been humbling and quite reflective for me.
With Zia’s painting, the challenge was trying to convey the many different layers that I interpreted from his story and Ed’s words. Usually there is one thing that you can grab and focus on, but with his story I felt like there were several main threads that were equally important to portraying what this man had been through. It was very difficult to focus on just one, I felt as if by choosing only one I would be betraying the other factors that made his experience and story so poignant within what he experienced.
Instead, I chose to attempt at addressing all of it within my painting. It took a while, lots of thinking and research. Eventually the threads spoke to me towards an idea, a bit of an abstract and surreal idea. The threads spoke to me about sacrifice. They spoke to me about commitment and dedication to ideals and standards above the self. They spoke to me about disillusionment and disappointment as well as hope, resolve and regeneration. Hopefully I was able to convey those voices into this painting and you too can feel what I felt.
I don’t like to do play by play descriptions of my works, I’d rather you the viewer, come up with your own opinions, inspirations and commentary. That said, since this is a collaboration and telling of a part of someone’s crucial life journey, I’ll mention a couple of important details from my attempts at honoring Zia’s journey. You may spot an American flag in the background, proud and looming, while also flaming out of the sky with no regard for ideals and sacrifices. The purple you see in the painting is meant to honor him with a slice of one of the many things that should have been recompensed to this man for his commitment and sacrifice. Some of the other details may be a little more obscure, some a little more literal. I’ll let you figure them out for yourself.
Thank you Zia, for allowing me to share some of your story.
by Ed Madden
When she came back from the doctor, my wife wanted to tell me the news. I had spread all my gear and equipment out. I had a convoy the next day. I was leaving the next day.
Inside the house, color. Red and gold, rugs, cushions. Outside, sand, harsh light. Kabul is a city the color of sand. Houses with flat roofs, walled compounds, Neighborhoods drift across the valley and up the sides of the hills around the city.
One of my friends was an interpreter with the U.S. Army. He told me, “They need people to speak English.”
I said, “I don’t know those military phrases. That’s a complete different world.”
He said, “You will get it.”
So I went there. They gave me all those uniforms, helmets, everything. I brought it home. I was 18 that day. I got married when I was in the 11th grade. When my wife came home, she saw it all spread out. I was trying to get it all organized and put it in the bag and pack it. She was trying to tell me the news, and then—“What is this?” She was shocked. I was leaving the next day.
I was in third grade when the Taliban took over.
As a child in Afghanistan, Zia witnessed the brutality of the Taliban and strict Islamic rule in his own neighborhood. His sisters were not allowed to attend school. His older brother was beaten and imprisoned..
My father decided we had to leave. We went to Pakistan. When I was in sixth grade in Pakistan, I decided to learn English, so that I could talk about what the Taliban was doing in Afghanistan. What I had seen. And I said, if I grow up—because we were not sure we would still be alive—one day I will fight against these people, these butchers.
In 2001, when the United States came to Afghanistan, we moved back. In Kabul, I started to teach other children the language.
We were the eye and tongue of the military.
Zia signed up as an interpreter in 2002. He was 18 years old. Interpreters were more than simply translators. They were fixers, diplomats, guides, able to translate terrain and customs and people as much as languages.
They sent me to the border of Pakistan. I was there for six months. For six months I couldn’t even see my family, anything. There was no communication. I didn’t know I had a daughter.
After a few months, my captain brought a letter to me. It was from my wife. He said, you have to go. I said, no, now it was too late. I was supposed to be there at that moment, but now I have to be with you guys. Until we have someone else, I said, then I will go to see my family.
We were their eyes and tongues.
My family thought I’d already got killed. There was no communication, nothing at all. They didn’t even know where I was. After a couple of months, we got a new interpreter. Then I went home. I saw my first child.
Zia is wearing a black Hawaiian shirt with peach flowers, a khaki-colored Condor tactical cap, the bill curved over his forehead. He speaks carefully, deliberately.
When she walked in to tell me, I had my gear and equipment spread out. My uniform, helmets, everything.
Interviewer: Did she tell you that day?
Ghafoori: She told me but I was—. [He pauses.] Like tough days.
They knew we were coming.
They had already set up their kill zone. By the time that we got close to the buildings, there was fire all around us. The bullets were coming like rain. Like you could hear everything flying over you. You could see the bullets hitting next to you, the RPGs flying over.
On April 6, 2008, two U.S. Army Special Forces detachments, ODA 3336 and ODA 3312, with more than 100 Afghan commandos and an air assault force, launched an attack against a fortified village above the Shok Valley. The mission of the joint raid was to kill or capture Haji Ghafour a leader of the militant force Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin (HIG) and one of the most feared and most wanted terrorists in Afghanistan.
I saw CK, one of my best friends—not far from me. I told CK, I said, “CK, get cover!”
There are no roads into Shok Valley.
We had two assault teams. I was attached with the second assault team. The plan was that we could do a fast rope. The helicopters dropped us in the valley. I looked all around. You could feel the silence, like nobody lives here, but I feel like we are not—. Something will happen.
The valley—really a narrow wadi or ravine—was filled with loose rock, surrounded by high mountains. When they arrived, the river cutting through the valley was fast-moving and cold, nearby rocks slick with ice. The village looked down from a thin finger of cliff at the top of a mountain. The buildings were fortified structures built on the cliff and into the side of the mountain.
The terrain was very bad. We didn’t have a clear route to go up. We had to go through sheep paddocks to work our way up.
High cliffs overlooked the valley. There were no easy routes up. Just steep cliffs and switchbacks, terraced farm plots. Anyone in the village could see—and hear—movement in the valley.
I was trying to pull CK towards me so that he could get cover. CK put his knee down and he was looking. [Zia lifts his arms as if holding a gun and looking up through the scope.] He said, “I found him.” He found a sniper that was shooting at us. Right as he said “I found him,” he got shot.
CK was just laying down on his weapon, like this. [Zia leans forward, head down.] You wouldn’t even know he died. That he got killed. [He pauses.]
His gunstock was here at his shoulder. [He places his hand at his shoulder to demonstrate.] And the barrel was touching the ground. And he was on top of it, like this. [He leans forward, head bowed.]
When I moved him, I saw the blood.
My captain was talking to the plane. He was asking them to drop the bombs, and the pilots would not drop the bombs because we were too close to the building. The commandoes in the valley couldn’t get to us, and they couldn’t shoot because we were in front of them. So many of our soldiers were wounded and everybody was pinned down.
Of the 15 members of the Special Forces team, 7 were critically wounded.
They dropped the bombs.
I told my other buddy, Blade, it’s me and you. Everybody’s wounded. We need to do something. We know we are gonna get killed. Let’s do what we can. Me and Blade were helping to carry our guys from the kill zone to the HLZ [Helicopter Landing Zone]. We were coming down and bullets were flying all over us and we were carrying the guys. We would shoot, get the guy, then shoot. Get your teammate out. We pulled out nine people,
And my best friend CK’s body.
I had one bullet for myself. At the end, I said, this will be for myself. I don’t want to hand myself over to them and tomorrow my family get a video and they will watch that for the rest of their lives. No, it’s not going to happen.
When we were carrying our teammates, the last guy from the kill zone, the RPG hit the same exact spot where I had just been standing seconds before that.
When I opened my eyes, I was in Bagram Airfield. I said, what am I doing here? How did I get here? Then I remembered. I was at the mission. Then I looked at my left and right. [He turns his head left then right as if seeing the place again in memory.] I saw my teammates. Everybody’s here. One of them lost his leg, the other. . . it’s like . . . all . . . everybody’s wounded.
Then I remembered CK.
Then I remembered where I was.
The Purple Heart is awarded to members of the U.S. military wounded or killed while serving. Members of the Special Forces team to which Zia was attached gave him an unofficial Purple Heart in recognition of his wounds during the battle in Shok Valley.
We had two Medals of Honor and 11 Silver Stars from the same battle. Former President Donald Trump recognized us in two separate Medal of Honor ceremonies in 2018 and 2019.
This is the greatest number of such awards given for a single battle since the Vietnam War.
Interviewer: Why didn’t you get one of those medals?
Ghafoori: Because I didn’t have the uniform.
In No Way Out (2012), an account of the battle at Shok Valley, authors Mitch Weiss and Kevin Maurer write that CK “might have died because he was wearing an American uniform. A sniper had been targeting soldiers wearing the tan desert camouflage.”
In the October 30, 2019 ceremony, the former president acknowledged the presence of two Afghan translators, Behrouz Mohmand and Zia Ghafoori, as well as the members of the team. He joked about whether he had pronounced Zia’s name correctly, asking him in the audience if it was okay and making a so-so gesture with his hand. He then turned to the audience: “He said it was okay. He said it was okay. Thank you both very much. Fantastic job. Fantastic job.”
Mohmand’s teammates called him Blade because of the sunglasses he wore. CK’s name was Edris Khan. CK was supposedly short for Combat Killer. Zia’s teammates gave him the nickname Booyah. Booyah is a slang word that means different things in different contexts. An expression of triumph or excitement. A phatic military greeting. Another vet clarifies that in the U.S. Army, it’s an exclamation. “Of demonstration. 2+2=4. Booyah.”
Booyah. There it is. Done.
My teammates said, Zia, Booyah, leave. You’re gonna get killed. They said they had heard from sources that they were trying to get my children. The thing was, I wanted to keep fighting. I worked with military teams for 14 years. My teammates would keep coming and going, all different backgrounds. I was still there. I was still fighting with them
Zia left Afghanistan with his wife and children in 2014.
I got my visa, my tickets. They sent me and my family to Nashville, Tennessee. In Tennessee I couldn’t find any help. and I couldn’t find anyone that they could . . . like I didn’t even know where to go get food. I didn’t have a cellphone to call them back. They had said there were caseworkers. I said where is my caseworker? Who is my caseworker?
They left Tennesee for Mannassas, Virginia, having heard there were Afghan communities there.
I couldn’t find anyone.
The religious charity that I was assigned to, they sent me to a homeless shelter. They said, they will help you out. I was shocked when I got inside. Not a place for my children and my pregnant wife. I got my children out and we sat behind the homeless shelter. I was helping others for 14 years, but I’m here without any help. I was so disappointed that I started to plan to go back, but I didn’t know how to go back.
I called No One Left Behind. I said I’m at the homeless shelter with my family. I need to get help. I heard you guys are the ones helping with our SIVs.
Created in 2008, the Special Immigrant Visas [SIVs] were designed for troops and interpreters who worked and fought alongside U.S. military. It took six years for Zia SIV to be approved.
I said, I don’t know where to go. I don’t have my documents, anything, and I’m here just—
With the assistance of former military teammates, Zia and his family moved out of the shelter and eventually to Charlotte, NC.
My children know the story of what I have done They say, you give all the sacrifices, everything, you did this and you did that. And then they left you in the middle of nowhere. My son was telling me that and I was, I didn’t have a word to tell him. I didn’t know what to say to him.
Interviewer: Are you a US citizen now?
Ghafoori: Yes, US citizen. And my family.
I wanted to register the Purple Heart. I was trying to register at the DMV to get a Purple Heart license plate, so that I would remember my best friends. When I went there, they asked for my DS14 number.
In U.S. military records, the DD Form 214 is an official Report of Separation. As an Afghan interpreter attached to but not part of the military, Zia does not have this form.
I said, I don’t have that. I have everything else. I have videos that I was fighting on the front line, but I don’t have that.
BBC reports that when Zia arrived in the United States, he also still carried in his body shrapnel from that battle.
Interviewer: Do you get benefits at all in regard to medical care or any of that?
Ghafoori: No, not at all. Nothing.
Everybody saw the two Medal of Honor ceremonies. The whole world could watch. It was live. All around the world, people were watching. They said, who is Booyah, that he is recognized two times at the White House? What has he done? Who is this Blade? Who are these, two Afghans that the president appreciated their service? What have they done? We need to find out and we need to find their families.
My family in Afghanistan, they were in great danger. My brothers were targeted already. One was a police intelligence officer. They were all in the government. I had to help them get out because I didn’t want them to—they would get the punishment for what I have done.
With the assistance of U.S. military he worked with, Zia sought to evacuate his own family, targeted after the live broadcast of the medals ceremonies. Altogether, 47 members of Zia’s extended family and 31 of Behrouz (Blade) Mohmand’s family were evacuated.
Luckily, we got everybody out before something happened. They all got together in the same plane.
Interviewer: God that would have been a wild plane ride! That’s a lot of emotion going on in that plane!
Ghafoori: Yes, absolutely. I have pictures. All the stories of how we evacuated them.
Interviewer, after a pause: Does anyone miss Afghanistan?
Ghafoori: Yes, but they were happy that they got out because they would have been killed..
I knew something was going to happen. I quit my job and I went directly to Congress to advocate for the people left behind. I was the only Afghan who went there.
Two weeks before the fall of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul during the August 2021 evacuation,, Zia went to Congress to advocate for Afghan allies and interpreters.
I said time is running out and we need to get them out. I knew everybody would get killed if they leave these people. The men and women in uniform here, they wanted their battle buddies out. They left their interpreters behind. They keep calling them for help. They can’t help them. Decades of work together fighting. It hurts. It really hurts. We had a lot of people, more than 30,000 Afghan interpreters and their workers who were left behind, plus a lot of our allies who were not interpreters but they were fighting with us together. They were all left behind.
The whole government there collapsed in two days. Those butchers, those devils now control Afghanistan. Our allies still in Afghanistan, they are hiding from the butchers. Yes, I am still in touch. They are begging for help.
All those battle buddies from two nations, they were connected to each other. Afghanistan army and United States army, they were going together to the target, and they were coming back and eating at the same table, laughing, joking. There was no different.
Interviewer: Do you think you are different than most Afghans?
Ghafoori: No—we are all human beings, you know, everywhere.
I spent 14 years with different units, training other interpreters too. Fourteen years is a long time.
In 2018, after Zia learned that others faced similar problems when they were evacuated to the United States, Zia and other evacuees founded the Interpreting Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit to assist with the resettlement of Afghan interpreters.
Since August 2021, 124,000 Afghans have been evacuated.
According to The World in March 2021, at least 300 Afghan interpreters have been killed since 2014.
Along with the Bullets and Bandaids interview conducted with Zia Ghafoori on April 27, 2002, this account draws on these sources;
Campbell, Monica. “Afghan interpreters languish in visa limbo as US coalitions return home,” The World, 17 March 2021.
Honderich, Holly and Bernd Debusmann, Jr. “From Afghan interpreter to US homeless—the long road to the American dream,” BBC News, Washington, 2 August 2021.
Medal of Honor Ceremony: President Trump presented the Medal of Honor to Army Master Sergeant Matthew Williams for his bravery and actions during battle in 2008 in Afghanistan, C-SPAN, October 30, 2019, https://www.c-span.org/video/?465889-1/medal-honor-ceremony.
Weiss, Mitch and Kevin Maurer. No Way Out: A Story of Valor in the Mountains of Afghanistan. New York: Berkley Caliber, 2012.