Every Soldier has a story to tell of their life and reasons for joining the military. But few, if any, have one close to that of 2nd Lt. Ahmad Rashid Mahmoodi.
Born and raised in Afghanistan, the thought of joining the U.S. military did not cross Mahmoodi’s mind until early adulthood. Struggling to survive in a warzone, and with his parents’ permission, he began working as an interpreter for U.S. forces during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2008. He was 17 at the time and had dreams of becoming a doctor, but those dreams would change as the cost of war began taking its toll.
“We were poor, so I literally got this job as an interpreter so I could make money in order to help my mom and help feed my family,” Mahmoodi said.
The first few years were particularly rough. Aware that he was taking a significant risk by working for the U.S. government, Mahmoodi’s family pleaded with him to quit his job. But he resisted.
“I told my family, ‘If these U.S. troops came from the other side of the earth to help Afghanistan, why shouldn’t I help them?’ My family agreed, and I continued helping,” he said.
As his involvement with U.S. forces continued, and the war against the Taliban evolved, Mahmoodi proved himself a tremendous asset. In 2011, he was transferred to his hometown of Kabul where he began working for North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Ministry of Interior translating leaders’ documents and interpreting meetings. He also enrolled in college, giving up his first dream of becoming a doctor and instead pursued his second option: political science. Despite the demands of being an interpreter, going to college, and encountering death threats, Mahmoodi succeeded in earning his bachelors degree.
It was also during this time that Mahmoodi learned he was eligible to apply for a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV), which would allow him to go to the U.S., if approved. It was something he not previously considered because he had no idea that being an interpreter could lead to such an opportunity. One of Mahmoodi’s longtime American allies, a now-retired colonel, encouraged Mahmoodi to apply and sponsored him.
“That’s when I said, ‘If I ever make it to the U.S., I am joining the Army,’” Mahmoodi said.
Feeling hopeful, the young Afghan was also anxious.
“Throughout this time as an interpreter, I was followed to my house, people came to my house … when you work for the U.S. government, you are a big target for the enemy, and they were following me and my family everywhere,” he explained. “We had to keep moving our house from one place to another place.”
Mahmoodi feared for his family’s safety even if he was to leave Afghanistan, but he didn’t let that fear stop him, convinced it would be surrendering to the enemy if he did. He trusted the process, pressed forward, and in 2016, was approved for his SIV. In September 2016, Mahmoodi moved to Dallas, Texas, and enlisted in the Army 10 months later as an automated logistical specialist (92A). Mahmoodi reported to Fort Carson, Colorado, for his first duty station, with ambitions of becoming an officer.
“I knew from the beginning that I wanted to be an officer but had to wait because I didn’t have my U.S. citizenship,” he said.
On Feb. 21, 2019, Mahmoodi took a leap closer to fulfilling his goal by being sworn in as a U.S. citizen while stationed at Fort Carson. Soon after, he submitted a packet for Officer Candidate School (OCS) and was commissioned in May 2022. Having spent a significant amount of time as an alternative communications specialist while enlisted and fascinated by “new technology,” Mahmoodi’s experiences led him to research – and ultimately pursue – the Signal Corps.
“I had to work very hard in OCS to get on top of the (Order of Merit List) to get into the Signal Branch because everyone wants to be signal, and they only had three slots for 60-plus people, but I got it,” he said.
And while there were many reasons to celebrate, Mahmoodi could not fully bask in his accomplishments; not until he knew his family was safe, which meant getting them out of Afghanistan.
By that point, the Taliban had taken over the neighborhood in which his family lived, and his family’s home was raided on the second day. Former neighbors became Taliban spies, which made his family targets because they heard about Mahmoodi’s work with the U.S. government. Mahmoodi had to strategically move his family from house-to-house, province-to-province, in an effort to keep them alive – all while from the United States – and still, they could not escape danger. At one point, the safehouse where his mom, sister and niece escaped to was compromised. His niece would later tell Mahmoodi a horrific account of how she was held at gunpoint for nine hours.
Then in October of last year, there was a major breakthrough in Mahmoodi’s efforts, and his family – every single member except for his father – made it to the U.S. and joined him in Colorado. Sadly, his father passed away from COVID in May 2020.
“He was shot in the head during internal wars, got hit by a rocket while he was moving our household goods because our town was on the front line … he survived all of those but dies due to COVID,” Mahmoodi said.
Mahmoodi’s family will soon join him at his new duty station, Fort Hood, Texas, where he was assigned to 57th Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 11th Corps Signal Brigade, upon graduating from the Signal Basic Officer Leaders Course at Fort Gordon, Georgia, on Jan. 20. Now that his family is out of Afghanistan, Mahmoodi said he can focus his energy on giving back to the country that gave so much to his.
“Every morning that I wake up, I thank God that I woke up again, and I always thank the United States government,” he said. “They helped me, they helped my family … the Afghan government never helped me.”
And while there’s no question that the U.S. helped Mahmoodi, those who worked with him in Afghanistan say that he helped the U.S. just as much, if not more.
Maj. Daniel Harrison was a first lieutenant assigned to 4th Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, on a 12-month deployment when he met Mahmoodi. Harrison said that Mahmoodi was a critical member of his team from the very beginning until the end.
“We spent countless hours working with our Afghan police and National Army partners in planning, patrolling, and at times combat,” Harrison said. “He helped us understand the human terrain as well as the physical, and saved my life more than once despite his young age at the time.”
In addition to saving Harrison’s life, the two developed a bond over more lighthearted experiences such as the occasional soccer game, ping pong, and electronics.
“I inducted him into the world of videogames with an Xbox in our Day Room,” Harrison said. “We built a close mutual bond, and it was rewarding to know that a fan that I gave him during that year he re-gifted to his mother, who used it until they left Afghanistan last year.”
To this day, the two stay in close contact, with Harrison’s own children affectionately referring to Mahmoodi as “Uncle Rashid.”
“We consider him family,” Harrison said. “I have found that there is family you are born into and there is family you choose. We choose him!”
Reflecting on his life’s journey, Mahmoodi said he has no regrets and can’t imagine he would have done anything differently, adding that his reasons for being an interpreter changed the longer he was in the position.
“I have a lot of good memories and a lot of very sad memories from that time … I lost a lot of good people,” he said. “Once I started realizing that the U.S. troops were sacrificing their lives for Afghanistan, then I was like, ‘I have to help them even if it costs my life.’ I met great people, and they became like brothers to me, and we all fought together.”