U.S. Marine Maj. Thomas Schueman, who spent months working to evacuate an Afghan interpreter who aided his platoon, inspired colleagues with his patriotism and commitment to service at William Blair’s annual Veterans Day celebration held November 11.
Schueman, a Chicago native, is a Marine infantry officer attending the Naval War College in Rhode Island. He also taught English literature at the U.S. Naval Academy. Schueman served in Afghanistan as both a platoon commander with the 3rd Battalion 5th Marines and a joint terminal attack controller with the Afghan National Army. Schueman was awarded a Purple Heart after he and others were ambushed in 2010.
In commemorating the day, Schueman reminded the audience of the faithfulness fellow service men and women live in fulfilling their oath to support and defend their country.
“When I think of veterans on this Veterans Day, I think of people who are always faithful,” said Schueman.
William Blair’s Veterans’ Alliance, which has 62 members, hosted this year’s veterans event in partnership with ONE Alliance, another firm business resource group formed to nurture all cultures and ethnicities.
Semper Fi: Always Faithful
Schueman often repeats the Marine Corps ethos—Semper Fidelis, Latin for “always faithful”— in remembering the many he has served alongside. Among those was his Afghan interpreter.
In recent months, Schueman captured headlines across the country as he worked desperately to get his friend and former interpreter, known only as Zak, out of the chaos in Afghanistan where he lived with his wife and four children. Schueman met Zak in 2010 when he was deployed to the Helmand Province District, the deadliest area of Afghanistan, where Schueman served as a rifle platoon commander.
Zak was a daring 19-year-old guy looking for an adventure, a better future for his country, and a way to support his family. He spoke English and two dialects—the local Pashto and Dari, which was what the Afghan Army spoke.
“What turned out was that Zak ended up becoming much more than just a translator. He became one of our brothers,” said Schueman.
Schueman shared a litany of stories of Zak’s courage, including one when the Marines were entering a village and while monitoring the Taliban’s radio conversation discovered they were about to initiate an ambush. Zak sprinted ahead through a minefield to their compound, tackled and detained the assumed Taliban commander until the Marines could arrive.
“When the bullets would start to fly, Zak was never more than one arm’s distance from me,” Schueman said.
Zak, who spent three years working for the military, was assured his reward for risking his life would be a U.S. visa. He began the application process in 2016. But even with Schueman’s help with applications, letters, calls and pleading on his behalf, Zak waited for approval.
Then came President Biden’s April 14 announcement that U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by the end of August. Schueman immediately contacted Zak, who said he had just received another threatening letter from the Taliban stating they were going to kill him and his family once U.S. forces left.
From April Onward
Starting in April, Schueman began a full court press effort to draw attention to Zak and his efforts to secure a visa. Schueman contacted every media outlet he could think of. The story was picked up by the Chicago Sun Times and the New York Times and featured on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow’s show. He wrote letters to Illinois senators Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth. Sen. Durbin raised the plea with Antony Blinken during his Secretary of State hearings. He also had the support of 25 Congressional members.
“It seemed that no matter what we did—nothing was moving the needle with this application.”
Finally, by late August Schueman received word that Zak’s family got to Kabul, navigating Taliban checkpoints and thousands of others fleeing before the Taliban took control. But the day Zak was out getting passports for his family, the Taliban had entered Kabul. Over the next 96 hours, the team working to help Zak made three escape attempts. The first two failed with his family coming under fire, bullets flying over Zak’s head as he was holding his daughter.
“On the third attempt we were actually failing again, nothing was going as planned,” Schueman said. “A friend of mine who I went to Basic School with was there. He ran out into the fire, into the crowd and pulled Zak and his family out.”
After stops in Qatar and Germany, Zak and his family were flown to the United States and are adjusting to a new life in the states.
“When I think of Zak’s story, I think of the Marine Corps ethos of Semper Fidelis … the idea of always being faithful. Zak undoubtedly lived that ethos. He was always faithful to us.”
Aiding Those Who Served
William Blair has supported veterans since its founding and has partnered with organizations to aid veterans and their families. Among those is Patrol Base Abbate, a nonprofit founded by Schueman that provides warriors space to rest and adjust back to their communities. William Blair also recognized its community partner, Refugee and Immigrant Transitions, a San Francisco–based nonprofit that provides education and community programs for refugees.