Always Faithful recounts the deadly fight for Sangin, the fall of Kabul, and a Marine and Afghan interpreter's unbreakable devotion to one another. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
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.
Schueman on his second deployment to Afghanistan in 2013. Photo courtesy of Thomas Schueman.
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 continues to serve in the Marine Corps. Photo by Mac Caltrider/Coffee or Die Magazine.
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.
Zak providing security on patrol in Sangin, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Harper Collins.
Zak and Schueman’s close friendship was not typical among Marines and interpreters. As their deployment became increasingly more dangerous, their relationship grew beyond that of mere co-workers into something more like a brotherhood. Once, when Schueman was knocked unconscious by an improvised explosive device, he awoke to Zak standing over him with Schueman’s rifle raised, scanning the area for threats. In that moment — as well as in many others during their time together — Zak seemed prepared to die for Schueman. The two men kept each other safe over the seven-month deployment that ultimately cost the lives of 25 of their comrades. When Schueman and Zak parted ways at the end of the deployment, neither thought they’d ever see the other again, but they also knew that the bond they’d forged in combat was eternal.
In the spring of 2021, the world began to take notice of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The American withdrawal was accelerating, and signs were mounting that the final outcome would be a complete Taliban takeover of the country. As former interpreters and other local allies of the Americans were scrambling to flee Afghanistan, Schueman and I were on the other side of the world, attending a writer’s workshop in Maine. Even then, as we were busy critiquing each other’s poems and short stories, Schueman was quietly working to arrange for Zak and his family to escape Afghanistan. As the summer progressed, and the Taliban continued their rapid advance toward Kabul, Schueman and Zak doubled down on their efforts. In July, Schueman made his campaign public via social media, hoping to catch the attention of anyone who might be able to help. As people began to take notice, he was invited to appear on popular news shows and podcasts, like MSNBC and The Daily, to discuss Zak’s plight.
I followed Zak’s story from a distance, hoping for the best possible outcome but convinced that Zak’s story would likely end in tragedy — at the hands of the Taliban tormentors who were sending him and his family daily death threats. But for all the interviews and updates from Schueman, I had no idea of the lengths that he and Zak were going to in order to ensure the latter’s survival until I read Always Faithful.
Schueman holding an RPG-7 rocket launcher found by Zak. Photo courtesy of Harper Collins.
The book begins along the winding path that eventually led Schueman to a remote corner of Helmand, Afghanistan. Schueman grew up in Chicago, raised by a single mother who worked as a local police officer. When he joined naval ROTC in college, he found himself disappointed with the way the naval officers he encountered conducted themselves, and so he decided to set his sights instead on joining the smallest branch in the Department of Defense — the Marine Corps.
“There was an ascetic aspect to the Marines that appealed to me,” Schueman writes in Always Faithful. “They seemed to be a rejection of the male examples I was running from, men who relied on anger, intimidation, and physical force to make up for their own deficiencies and inabilities to effectively communicate. The Marines never stopped talking about attention to detail. They projected self-control and restraint while being forceful and aggressive. Physically, the Marines had a uniform hardness and physical fitness the Navy people just did not seem to possess. They were clearly more disciplined, more demanding.”
After graduating from Loyola University Chicago in 2008, Schueman accepted a commission in the Marine Corps and became an infantry officer. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, Zak was witnessing the Taliban’s alarming resurgence.
“I had seen the Taliban’s Afghanistan and by 2010 they were coming back in places like Kandahar and Helmand,” Zak writes. “In the east, where I was from, they were coming back out of the valleys. I did not want to go back to a time when there was no free expression and no education. I did not want my sisters to grow up in a place where they could be beaten for not covering their faces. I was willing to fight for those things. I was willing to die if I had to.”
A Marine lifts an evacuee Aug. 26, 2021, at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz.
Schueman and Zak’s paths crossed in the fall of 2010, when Zak was assigned to work as an interpreter with the Marines of Kilo 3/5, where Schueman was a platoon commander. Over the next seven months, the pair endured countless firefights and IED attacks in the fields and alleyways of Helmand’s deadly Sangin district. During this time, Zak went above and beyond his duties as an interpreter. He personally identified IEDs (even spotting three overlooked by Marines on a single patrol), felt the wind-sucking punch of explosions, and once even tackled and disarmed a Taliban fighter. He was just as committed to the mission as the Marines and sailors fighting and dying beside him.
The co-authored memoir offers one of the best written accounts of what combat was like in southern Afghanistan, where daily gunfights always took place within a minefield. But it’s not Zak and Schueman’s descriptions of combat that make Always Faithful the important book that it is; their love and commitment to each other elevates it above other war memoirs, so that, ultimately, it’s a story of true friendship. At the same time, it is also a testament to the Marines’ unwavering loyalty to one another and how the men who served under Schueman embodied the Corps’ motto of "Semper Fidelis."
On Nov. 24, 2010, Lance Cpl. Arden Buenagua was killed by an IED while walking point for their patrol. He was the 16th Marine from 3/5 to be killed in less than 50 days. In the moments that followed, several more Marines were severely wounded while they tried to kill those responsible for Buenagua’s death. It was in those moments following the deadly explosion that Zak realized that the Marines view their motto as more than just words.
“That was the day I understood United States Marines,” Zak writes. “The Marines are people who never quit, simply because they promise to always be faithful. That was the day I understood Tom Schueman and how much he cares for people. He never stopped working. He never stopped trying to make the situation better. It was the day I knew he would always be there for me if I needed him.”
Marines with 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment patrol through Sangin District during their deployment to Helmand province, Afghanistan in 2010. Photo by Sgt. Ned Johnson, courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps.
This marrow-deep level of commitment to the mission and their comrades is apparent on every page of Always Faithful, but it reaches new depths when the two describe the race to get Zak and his family out of Afghanistan in August 2021.
After Zak spent years jumping through hoops, his application for a Special Immigrant Visa sat stagnant somewhere in bureaucratic purgatory. Despite letters of recommendation from Schueman and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who personally vowed to make Zak’s case a priority, his visa never materialized. With the Taliban closing in, Schueman — then at the Naval War College in New Hampshire — resorted to extreme measures.
“Nothing is more central to Marine Corps leadership than ‘Mission, Men, Myself,’ in that order,” Schueman writes. “The mission required me to communicate constantly, and my man (Zak) was in Kabul, not Newport, so I sat by the classroom doors and when National Public Radio called in the middle of class I walked out and I did a thirty-minute interview with them.”
In April of 2021, Schueman ramped up his social media campaign to raise awareness for Zak’s plight and to outsource help from anyone with connections who could possibly help Zak and his family escape. He managed to muster an army of willing helpers, but few of them had the power to make any meaningful impact. After July 2 — when the last American at Bagram Airfield left in the night without informing the Afghan base commander — Schueman became desperate. He even attempted to intercept Vice President Kamala Harris in an elevator after she spoke to graduating midshipmen at the Naval Academy.
“I knew after she delivered the address she’d be heading to the elevator, so I tried to corner her there and ask for help. There were too many people in the way, so that plan fell through, which was probably a good thing,” Schueman later told me. “Another friend almost chartered a private jet to help get Zak out, but that also fell through.”
By August, Zak’s fate looked grim.
Zak and his family outside Hamid Karzai International Airport. Photo courtesy of Harper Collins.
The book, which is captivating from the first page, quickens in pace until the final section seems to move at a sprint. It reads as if you’re falling at terminal velocity — not unlike the Afghans the world watched fall from the landing gear of a C-130 — turning pages as fast as possible to see if and how Zak and his family escape the tightening stranglehold of the Taliban (they do, barely). Furthermore, by switching between Schueman's and Zak’s points of view, Always Faithful paints a more complete picture than similar books about the fall of Afghanistan. Arriving almost one year after the world watched Afghans get left on the far side of barbed-wire barriers, and one year since 13 American service members gave the last full measure of devotion guarding Hamid Karzai International Airport, Always Faithful is the most important book about the end of the Afghanistan War yet to be written.
Sitting in his new home in Texas, 11 months after escaping Afghanistan with his wife and children, Zak calls me over FaceTime to discuss Always Faithful and how his new life in America is going. It’s taken us weeks to track down a time for conversation because Zak is hard at work doing construction seven days a week to provide for his family.
“I have cousins here from Afghanistan, and a lot of people from our village and our province,” he tells me. “We have something called the Afghan Brother Society, with a lot of people here from Afghanistan to help each other with transitioning.”
Schueman and Zak reunited in the United States. Photo courtesy of Harper Collins.
Zak said he’s grateful to be in America with his wife and children, but his mother, father, three sisters, and five brothers are all still in Afghanistan.
When I ask him what it is about his relationship with Schueman that stands apart from so many similar relationships between other former interpreters and the service members they worked with, his answer is simple.
“I have other American friends from organizations like the Army and CIA, but Tom is different. He is my best friend and brother.”
Always Faithful by Maj. Tom Schueman and Zainullah Zaki, HarperCollins, 336 pages, $29.99
Mac Caltrider is a senior staff writer for Coffee or Die Magazine. He served in the US Marine Corps and is a former police officer. Caltrider earned his bachelor’s degree in history and now reads anything he can get his hands on. He is also the creator of Pipes & Pages, a site intended to increase readership among enlisted troops. Caltrider spends most of his time reading, writing, and waging a one-man war against premature hair loss.
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