Retired Army Lt. Col. Michael Tachias knows his way around Afghanistan, where he recruited and trained over 5,000 translators and now plans to return to spirit his friends to freedom.
“I made some promises,” the Palo Pinto County resident said recently. “We gave our word as a country and we need to keep that word. We owe them so much. … I was saved dozens of times by these guys.”
Seated next to Tachias, his wife Rowena said she knows her husband of 25 years is not yet home for good.
“Michael’s ready to go back,” she said. “He’s looking for a ride — you can post that — he’s looking for a ride, and him and a dozen or a half dozen people will go get these people back.”
“I’ve got to get in there and open up the back door for these guys,” the veteran said last week, as today’s deadline for American withdrawal loomed. “You are not going to fly out of the (Kabul) airport. We’ve got to be the back door there out of Kabul … The Taliban’s tracking the highways. It’s all these little roads that go out. We know them.”
Tachias learned those roads during two tours in Afghanistan, from 2004-2005 and 2008-2010. The second tour was when he took the reins of the Linguist Program, traveling to dusty villages recruiting mostly young people to bridge the language gap between U.S. troops and their Afghan allies — and their enemy.
“They would tell us the Taliban put (Improvised Explosive Devices) down the road and would save us,” he said. “They would say, ‘Hey! They set up something down the road for you.’ Even little kids would tell us, and old people.”
Tachias’ affection for the Afghans who risked their lives to help America in its longest war was not lost on his wife, who said she came to think of the country as the other woman in her husband’s life. So, when he suggested she come see for herself after he retired in 2013, Rowena accompanied her husband on a 16-day crash course in his military memories.
“It is a complete assault on your senses,”she said. “You feel like you’re in a Star Wars movie and Indiana Jones and some future-war movie … Everybody’s got an AK-47, and they’re driving down the roads.”
The most jarring sight for Rowena, a self-described “donkey mom” who has six of the quirky beasts, might have been seeing their treatment on the streets of Kabul.
“I’m seeing these donkeys that are skin and bone getting whipped, with these carts,” she said. “They’re carrying these vegetables through town.”
But, she also saw the mark her husband had made on many. While Michael was trying, and failing, to convince the military police to let them in the gate to the Camp Phoenix military base, Rowena saw a young Afghan out of the corner of her eye.
“He stops as he’s going into a building and says, ‘Do I hear Col. T?’ “ she recalled. “And I turned around and go, ‘Do you mean Col. Tachias?’ And he goes, ‘Yes!’ He literally jumps on my husband’s back. He made a phone call and got us on the base.”
Esmat Formuli had been a teen when he worked as one of Tachias’ translators. He now is an American citizen, one of a dozen Tachias has sponsored.
“And every one of those people learned English on their own, came over to the U.S. and went to college,” Rowena said. “They are hard-working people who would give you anything. They are heart-felt, fun-loving humorous people. The kids, they smile. I can’t imagine…”
She did not finish her last sentence, stopped perhaps by its dark implications.
Her husband said Esmat’s family remains “ …stuck in Afghanistan. We’re trying to get them out.”
They are among three families in Kabul with whom Tachias remains in contact. He refuses to leave them behind, crediting a military code he says was drilled into him that a soldier keeps his or her word and never leaves a comrade behind.
The logistics of his new mission are touchy. The Kabul airport was set to see its last Americans flown out by Tuesday — and it never was a reliable destination for Afghan allies, ringed by a Taliban perimeter Tachias said was part of the U.S. withdrawal agreement.
“The only way you can divert (people out of the country) is to go to some other country and divert in,” he said, after noting he has learned the U.S. State Department is forbidding Americans from entering the country. “I’m sure I’m going to take a lot of flak from upstairs. They could come after me and take my pension. We were taught in the U.S. Army to speak up when something’s not right. And if something is not right, you have to stand up. These are the values and ethics of the U.S. Army.”