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A veteran in Seattle, trying to help his interpreter escape the Taliban

Hundreds of people, some holding documents, gather near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021.
Wali Sabawoon
The Associated Press
Hundreds of people, some holding documents, gather near an evacuation control checkpoint on the perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021.

An Afghan interpreter kept Brian Olsen safe, and now faces possible retribution from the Taliban. Olsen is scrambling to try and get him and his family out of the country.

When he was a first lieutenant in 2012 and 2013, Brian Olsen commanded a group of 60 people from the Utah National Guard as they repaired and built roads and bridges in Afghanistan and trained Afghan forces.

In recent days, the Seattle resident has been working the phones, sending messages to members of Congress and government agencies, and speaking frequently with his former interpreter and his family as they try to get into Kabul's airport and away from danger.

In writing about the situation on social media, Olsen refers to his translator as “David.” KNKX knows David’s real name, but is not revealing it out of concerns for his safety.

“David and his family are marked people,” Olsen said. “When David left as an interpreter and went back to his home province, he found his property was occupied by people friendly with militants in that province. His family had been threatened.”

Olsen is worried that if circumstances become more desperate in Afghanistan, people who know what David did for the United States and the Afghan army might be more inclined to sell that information in order to feed their own families.

Getting out is essential.

On Thursday, there was some help. David’s brother and sister-in-law, who live in Texas and are legal permanent residents of the U.S., made it into the airport and were awaiting a flight out. Separating was strategic. Olsen and the family hoped if the two relatives who hold green cards could get into the airport, they’d be in a better position to advocate for David, his wife and their six kids, all of whom have applied for special immigrant visas.

But their prospects remain bleak.

Forming a bond

When he was in Afghanistan, Olsen was a first lieutenant, working as an engineer commanding 60 soldiers repairing roads and infrastructure and training the Afghan military. He worked with seven interpreters to help facilitate those conversations. Not just to bridge language barriers, but to help understand the local culture and steer clear of danger as much as possible.

David was the most talented, and quickly earned his trust.

“You have to trust the other person,” Olsen said. “And when they show through their actions how you work together in those situations, like driving in a convoy and being hit by rockets — how do you respond to that situation? He could have run out of the vehicle and left us. But he stayed. Those situations accumulate over time.”

The day after Kabul fell to the Taliban, Olsen reached out to David. He heard back a few days later and quickly realized that the situation in Afghanistan was worse than the initial reports.

Trying to help

Olsen opened an official inquiry with members of Washington state’s Congressional delegation. He connected in a Whatsapp group with other people also trying to help Afghans get out of the country, many with more connections than he has. He's relaying information from them and their contacts at the airport to David and his family, in hopes of giving them a better shot at making it in.

And he’s telling David's story to anyone who can help, is safe, and will listen.

“I think I’ve entered them on 20 different lists of government agencies, (non-governmental aid organizations), private citizen groups that I can authenticate, just to get people in the airport aware of their situation, among 200,000 (other people seeking refuge),” Olsen said. “I thought a congressional inquiry would help. None of that has apparently helped.”

U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal's office tells us they're actively working with Olsen and have submitted an inquiry on behalf of David and his family.

Olsen says it's tough to reconcile his feelings ... knowing that he's here, comfortable in Seattle, when so many are in harm's way in Afghanistan, including the U.S. service members working to protect the airport, and those who were killed in the bomb attack.

When he first reached out to David, Olsen thought the processes would be orderly and that David and family would be able to safely leave. As crowds built up around the airport, Olsen says he realized it would be more complicated.

And then came Thursday’s bombing at the airport.

“I am gutted. I don’t know what lies ahead,” Olsen said. “I will keep giving David and his family hope, because what else do they have?”

What’s next

David and his family were safe after the bomb attack. They got in touch with Olsen to let him know. He could hear a television in the background of the call, broadcasting updates on the ever-changing situation.

After repeated attempts to be let into the airport, efforts are now shifting to getting into hiding and removing identifying information from the internet. Olsen works in tech, and he's been reaching out to friends in the industry to try and protect the identities of David and his family.

The future is uncertain for them. Olsen says he feels anger, sadness and guilt.

“I just look at the pictures of his kids and the situation that they are in, and the little bit of information that he shares to explain what it’s like around him, and I can’t conceive of what that’s like,” he said. “The sacrifices he made for my safety, probably saving my life and the lives of my 60 men — his family and him deserve better.”

Reporting this story: KNKX verified Olsen's service with the Utah National Guard, and the office of U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal confirmed they've been working with Olsen to help the family. Olsen also shared documentation with us revealing the names and photos of the Afghans involved in this story. We are not revealing them, for safety reasons.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.