NEW BOOK FOLLOWS MARINE AND HIS INTERPRETER FROM AFGHAN WAR’S DEADLIEST BATTLE TO DRAMATIC ESCAPE FROM KABUL
Maj. Thomas Schueman has accomplished a lot in his 14 years of service as a Marine Corps infantry officer. He has served as both a platoon commander and an operations officer in one of the Corps’ most storied units — the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines. He has worked virtually alone as a reconnaissance adviser on a remote Afghan army outpost, participated in the deadliest battle of the Afghanistan War, started an immensely successful veterans nonprofit organization, taught English at the United States Naval Academy, and studied at the Naval War College. He’s been wounded in combat and decorated for valor.
But Schueman’s most remarkable accomplishment came unexpectedly in the summer of 2021, when the country he fought and bled for was overtaken by the Taliban. As the insurgent group closed in on Kabul, Schueman, half a world away, suddenly found himself thrust back into the war he had left nearly a decade earlier, this time with the mission of helping his Afghan former interpreter escape the crumbling nation with his family before it was too late.
I was fortunate enough to meet Schueman two years earlier through the strange medium of social media. We bonded over a shared love of literature, and soon after we connected, Schueman invited me to his home in Edgewater, Maryland, for a beer.
Pulling up to his house in a dimly lit neighborhood in Edgewater, I was a little skeptical of his motive for opening his home to me, a complete stranger. I was a recently unemployed ex-cop, and all he knew about me was that I liked to read and that I had served a single enlistment in the Marine Corps. Despite my suspicions, I decided to meet his generosity with an open mind and take the hourlong drive from Baltimore to his house.
Opening the door with one arm in a sling, Schueman ushered me inside and gestured with a trigger finger for me to be quiet so as to not wake his kids. We moved to his back porch and cracked a few beers. Before I finished my first drink, it was clear that he had no motive for having me over other than to simply share some conversation with a fellow Marine. That title — Marine — is enough for Schueman to consider anyone who earned it as part of his extended family.
Schueman was nursing a recently broken collarbone, and his 6-foot-2 frame lacked the usual muscularity I was familiar with from photos. Yet, even in this gaunt state, Schueman projected a commanding presence. We stayed up late, throwing back beers, smoking pipes, and talking about our favorite books and of our experiences fighting on the same frontier of the American empire. Schueman being almost irritatingly humble, it took time for enough alcohol to make its way into his bloodstream for him to reveal to me that not only did he serve in Afghanistan at the height of the war, but he also led a rifle platoon during the bloody fight for Sangin.
It was during that particular deployment — the deadliest for any American military unit in the entire 20-year conflict — that Schueman developed an unbreakable bond with his interpreter, Zainullah “Zak” Zaki. The two became so close, in fact, that they eventually co-authored a memoir together. Titled Always Faithful: A Story of the War in Afghanistan, the Fall of Kabul, and the Unshakable Bond Between a Marine and an Interpreter, the book captures their dramatic efforts to get Zak and his family out of Afghanistan before the last coalition aircraft took off from Kabul. In telling their story, Schueman and Zak have helped preserve the history of the war in Afghanistan and ensure that one of America’s greatest foreign policy failures of the 21st century doesn’t slip from our collective memory.