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‘First in, last out’: North Carolina community welcomes Afghan translator who served the 82nd Airborne

The 82nd Airborne’s motto is “first in, last out.” They were the last soldiers to leave Afghanistan on the final military flight, and this week one of their valued translators, Zabiullah R. affectionately known by the troops as Johnny, arrived with his family at his new home in rural North Carolina.

“We’ll do whatever we can do to welcome them here and make them comfortable and make them feel like they are at home now,” said Tracy Byrd, one of several hundred neighbors to line the roadway and welcome this Afghan family to Waxhaw County near Charlotte. 

Johnny, who served with U.S. infantry units for more than six years, was rescued at the end of August by a U.S. Senator, a private veterans group, and members of the 82nd Airborne, one of the last combat translators to make it out before the war’s end.

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As he exited the car which drove him and his wife and three daughters from Fort Lee, Virginia on the last part of this perilous journey that started in the chaos outside the Kabul airport, Johnny hugged Sgt. Mike Verardo, with whom he served in southern Afghanistan a decade ago.

“Mike and Johnny last saw each other in southern Afghanistan before Mike was put on a medical helicopter to evacuate because of his life-threatening injuries,” Sarah Verardo, Mike’s wife, explained. Sgt Verardo was with the 2-508 in Arghandab when he was blown up by an IED in April 2010.

Johnny was visibly moved when he saw the wounded paratrooper, who also suffers from a traumatic brain injury and has had more than 100 surgeries at Walter Reed.

“He lost his leg. I’m so sorry for him,” Johnny said, as he and his family were shown their new home. “He did a great job for my country, for my people. Also for his country. He came to Afghanistan to try to help the Afghan people.”

Their new home was provided by a veteran and his wife who bought a second home in North Carolina to be near her parents, who also served in the military.

“We looked at each other and said, ‘You know, if we can do something, let’s do it,” Paul Cruz told Fox News. “These people, like Johnny have risked their lives with the American forces for many years. And we felt that we owed it to them to be able to at least help and get them off on the right foot as they make their way.” 

The family also gave Johnny a car.

“Being a husband and a father knowing that if that were me, I would just fear for my life. I would hope that someone would be able to help,” said Cruz. “We just happened to be in a place and time where we were able to do that.”

Sarah Verardo, the CEO of The Independence Fund, helped form Save Our Allies with The Mighty Oaks Foundation when the Taliban took Kabul. To date, they have rescued 12,500 Afghans using private charter flights.

“We are going to weave these combat interpreters right into the fabric of the veterans community,” Verardo said. 

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Now this 82nd Airborne veteran’s three young daughters will be neighbors with their father’s Afghan translator’s 3 daughters on a farm in North Carolina, where Sen. Thom Tillis worked nonstop to get the US government to rescue Johnny. 

“It was late nights, two or three o’clock in the morning. We were uncertain if we were going to be successful and I told Mike I wouldn’t rest until I heard wheels up,” Tillis said as he welcomed Johnny and his family from Afghanistan as a band played “God Bless America” in the background. “We took a lot of scissors to the red tape,” he said, referring to the chaotic US government evacuation efforts.

Tillis, like many others on Capitol Hill, still has a list of 900 Afghan allies he is trying to evacuate.

“One of the things that we did, and that’s what the American people need to know, the information that we gathered or service records, recommendations from unit commanders, photographs, documentation, we did all of that work so that we can make it very clear to the State Department and people controlling the airport perimeter that we had somebody who deserved to get out of the country,” Tillis said. “If Johnny and his family had been left there, I’m sorry, they would have been one of the Taliban’s top targets, because he had a record of service to the U.S. military, and that’s a death sentence for anyone who’s still in Afghanistan.” 

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Danica Thomas’ husband also served with Johnny. Staff Sgt Allen Thomas, a two-time Purple Heart recipient and member of the 82nd Airborne, died by suicide after returning home.

“I lost a lot of my husband in Afghanistan, and being able to have Johnny here with us is just incredible. I am here to embrace him, support him, his family, and see a community do the same.

Jennifer Griffin currently serves as a national security correspondent for FOX News Channel . She joined FNC in October 1999 as a Jerusalem-based correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter at @JenGriffinFNC.




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