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War vet Jack McCain wants Congress to help the Afghan pilots who kept him safe

Col. Salim Faqiri, 32, flew Black Hawk Helicopters for the Afghan Air Force. He and his family have been resettled in Phoenix.
Adriana Zehbrauskas for NPR
Col. Salim Faqiri, 32, flew Black Hawk Helicopters for the Afghan Air Force. He and his family have been resettled in Phoenix.

PHOENIX — Veterans of the war in Afghanistan say that without passage of the Afghan Adjustment Act, tens of thousands of people who helped U.S. forces during the 20-year war could be abandoned in Afghanistan, or even lose the right to stay if they're already in the U.S.

On Tuesday, Congress did propose to expand the number of Special Immigrant Visas for Afghans, but advocates say that program is not currently functioning, and the SIV program is still only open to Afghans who worked for Americans, not those who enlisted in their own armed forces.

Among those pushing to change that is Jack McCain, a Navy pilot who served in Afghanistan, and the son of the late Sen. John McCain of Arizona. The younger McCain tried to keep a low profile when he deployed to Afghanistan for one year in 2018.

"It became known to me about three quarters away through my deployment, that they knew exactly who I was," says McCain.

Any doubts disappeared when McCain took an emergency leave in August 2018 to attend his father's funeral in Arizona.

"If one of them had wanted to, or had a family member coerced, to make a high profile target out of me, they could have," says McCain. "It never happened, even when I was the lone air adviser in (Taliban-dominated) Helmand, where it would've been extremely easy.

"They protected me, or at least kept the secret. I can't overstate how important that is to me," says McCain.

Training the Afghan Eagles

As for the pilots he was training, McCain passed a key test for Afghans – courage under threat. Afghan Air Force Col. Salim Faqiri says he and McCain became friends after their first flight together ended with an emergency landing, miles outside their base in Kandahar.

"Not a safe area! I was worried about Jack and other advisers who were with me," Faqiri recalls. "But Jack was just relaxed. He was contacting other people on the ground, [saying], 'We need a helicopter. This aircraft will not fly.' And I said, OK, how brave he is!"

The Afghan pilots McCain helped train to fly American-made Black Hawk helicopters became known as the Afghan Eagles, and they played a key part in helping the Afghan government transport its elite special forces to different trouble spots around the vast country. Faqiri said McCain talked about inviting him to Arizona one day, but Faqiri wanted to stay and fight for his country's future.

Col. Salim Faqiri, 32, poses for a photo after an interview in Phoenix, on Dec. 8, 2022.
/ Adriana Zehbrauskas for NPR
/
Adriana Zehbrauskas for NPR
Col. Salim Faqiri, 32, poses for a photo after an interview in Phoenix, on Dec. 8, 2022.

"We were the victim of terrorists for many years, and that was the big reason for me and to stand up and fight," says Faqiri.

Kabul falls

Faqiri and the Afghan Eagles were still flying missions after Kabul fell in August 2021, and U.S. forces retreated to the Kabul airport. Faqiri tried ferrying supplies to a pocket of resistance in the Panjshir Mountains, but he soon realized it was over.

"The resistance forces cannot fight against the Taliban anymore. And they asked me to come to the Kabul airport," says Faqiri.

The concern was not only to save the lives of his pilots, but to keep the Black Hawk helicopters and the only Afghans who knew how to fly them out of Taliban hands. For Faqiri, the decision to flee was jarring, after spending his adult life fighting.

"We did it for 20 years and in 24 hours everything's opposite and instead of the helping to fight, everybody was getting out," he says.

Faqiri knows he was fortunate, though. By that time, the Afghan Eagles had some friends trying to help them in the United States. Maggie Feldman-Piltch, with the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, teamed up with Jack McCain during the chaos of the Kabul Airlift.

Afghan helicopter pilot Rashid Ahmad Muslim, 25, looks out the window at home in Chandler, Ariz., on Dec. 11, 2022.
/ Adriana Zehbrauskas for NPR
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Adriana Zehbrauskas for NPR
Afghan helicopter pilot Rashid Ahmad Muslim, 25, looks out the window at home in Chandler, Ariz., on Dec. 11, 2022.

"It was a lot of trial and error. It was not pretty," says Feldman-Piltch. "It happened because of luck and sustained effort."

Sustained effort, as in two weeks of calling every connection they could, enlisting help from friends and family, and sleeping very little.

"During the day I would work on the American side to try to help gin up support. And then at night, I would start messaging all the Afghan groups to try to move them or get them across the line," says McCain.

In one of the largest airlifts in history, U.S. forces rescued more than 120,000 people as the Americans withdrew and Afghanistan fell back into the hands of the Taliban. But the vast majority still don't have legal status in the United States, says Feldman-Piltch.

"If the Afghan Adjustment Act does not pass, by no fault of their own, despite that they have followed all the rules, they will suddenly be here illegally," she says.

Despite support from American generals and diplomats and bipartisan support in Congress, the bill appeared to have been stalled Tuesday, with proponents hoping for a long-shot floor amendment in the Senate.

Afghan helicopter pilot Rashid Ahmad Muslim, 25, with his wife, Nasrin Halimi, 22, who is three months pregnant, and their son Mohammad, 14 months, in their home in Chandler, Ariz., on Dec. 11, 2022.
/ Adriana Zehbrauskas for NPR
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Adriana Zehbrauskas for NPR
Afghan helicopter pilot Rashid Ahmad Muslim, 25, with his wife, Nasrin Halimi, 22, who is three months pregnant, and their son Mohammad, 14 months, in their home in Chandler, Ariz., on Dec. 11, 2022.

Resettled

Faqiri and about 300 of the Afghan Eagles and their family members have been resettled in Arizona, where they're plugging away at the difficult work of being a refugee.

"I had a skill. I had a degree. But I lost it. It's become a zero here," says one of the Afghan pilots, Rashid Ahmad Muslim, 25.

His mother and sister are taking English classes. His younger brothers have already become near fluent.

"I would like them to graduate from the school, go to college, go to university for highest degree," Muslim says.

Muslim himself is working at a coffee company to support the family. His wife gave birth to their first child last year at a U.S. base in Germany. He and many of the Afghan Eagles have asylum applications, which should allow them to stay in the U.S. But he has ambitions beyond that. Rashid says he and all the other Afghan Eagles want to fly again.

"[We] have such good skill, so I hope to use it. They are brave pilots. They are smart pilots. If that's not possible, we will not give up. Even if I couldn't now, in future I can study privately," he says.

Even though the U.S. trained them to fly in combat, they can't be pilots in the United States without a permanent resident visa – even as the country faces a shortage of commercial pilots and U.S. military recruits.

Jack McCain says he shares their frustration. He says he saw the Afghans take risks worthy of the highest combat medals, and they did it rescuing both Afghan and American troops under fire.

"I lost several pilots while I was there, and so they are absolutely deserving of everything we can do for them. They fought on behalf of the United States," he says. "A huge number of these pilots would want to go back to flying, but they can't. And that's difficult for them to accept because the U.S. trained them."

Afghan helicopter pilot Rashid Ahmad Muslim, 25, with his 14-month-old son, Mohammad, in their home in Chandler, Ariz. Mohammad was born on a U.S. military base in Germany.
/ Adriana Zehbrauskas for NPR
/
Adriana Zehbrauskas for NPR
Afghan helicopter pilot Rashid Ahmad Muslim, 25, with his 14-month-old son, Mohammad, in their home in Chandler, Ariz. Mohammad was born on a U.S. military base in Germany.

McCain believes that without their honorable service, he might have never made it home.

They're earned the right to stay, he says, and to fly in the United States.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Quil Lawrence
Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.