Newtown Resident, Former Marine, Rescues Afghans From Taliban
Chris and Trinh DiNoto promised Karim Ahmadi, who until recently was trapped in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, that someday he would be at their dinner table. A few months later, they kept their promise.
“I was told that when a Marine makes a promise, he will do it,” said Ahmadi.
Former US Marine Corps Captain Chris DiNoto, 37, a lifelong Newtown resident, served with Ahmadi, 28, an Afghani translator for his Marine advisor team in Musa Qala in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in 2013. It was DiNoto’s wife, Trinh, who made the promise, but DiNoto felt honor-bound to keep it.
The area they served in, according to DiNoto, was the northernmost district held by coalition forces in 2013, and was a “tumultuous” place, “one of the most violent” areas in Afghanistan.
“We made contact with enemy forces almost every day,” said DiNoto. “Any day that we didn’t, was made up for by days when we made contact multiple times. They engaged our perimeter every day and set [improvised explosive devices] by night.”
The area held by coalition forces was a walled, fortified section of the city surrounded by Taliban-controlled areas.
“It would be like if we controlled Newtown, and Danbury, Brookfield, Bethel, and Southbury were under enemy control,” DiNoto said.
DiNoto’s 20-man advisor team was embedded in that area with the 3rd Infantry Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. His advisor team was specially trained to work with the local police security forces, trained in the language and culture of the area.
“These were not the regular, run-of-the-mill marines. These dudes knew local politics,” said DiNoto.
Their mission was to help the Afghani security forces get through “the fighting season.” Marines held the district center and about 50 outposts manned by Afghan forces held a circle around it. The only way out was by air, as leaving by ground was too dangerous.
“Our job was to manage the security forces around the area so that the city would not fall,” said DiNoto. “[Ahmadi] was with me every step of the way.”
DiNoto understood Dari, the most widely spoken language in Afghanistan, but Ahmadi also spoke Pashto, and knew people in the local security forces. That made him invaluable to the marine advisor team. DiNoto met Ahmadi and worked with him during his third tour of duty as a marine. DiNoto said Ahmadi was “always by my side,” acting as a translator and assisting with local knowledge.
“He was my voice piece,” said DiNoto.
DiNoto said that for him and other Marines, they went into a war zone, fought their battles, and came home. That was not the case for Ahmadi, who would simply rotate over to the next unit assigned to the area.
Trinh DiNoto stated that “Karim was always looking out for Chris and his safety.” She pointed to one instance where DiNoto, Ahmadi, and others were celebrating Eid, a holiday equivalent to Christmas. Instead of wearing his traditional clothes, Ahmadi wore western clothing to make DiNoto and his team feel at ease and welcomed.
“That is Karim in a nutshell,” said Trinh DiNoto.
Ahmadi said that even though Musa Qala was a very dangerous place, his job was easy because DiNoto knew a lot about Afghan culture and spoke Farsi. Ahmadi said the group did operation coordination, and worked to get information for defense of their outpost. They worked together for five months.
“When we left at the end of Summer 2013, it was still a pretty violent place,” said DiNoto, who said that shortly after his team left, Afghan security forces took 27 casualties that were not replaced. “Our orders came down, we were the last advisor team there. The Afghans would have to hold down the area by themselves.”
DiNoto said that his advisor team as well as some locals like Ahmadi were helicoptered out of Musa Qala early in the morning. They did not even tell the Afghan security forces, as there was suspicion there were “inside guys” who might inform the Taliban, who would then attack the helicopters.
“It was not a good feeling to do that, and leave behind people we lived and trained with,” DiNoto said.
Two years later, on August 25, 2015, Musa Qala fell to the Taliban.
“I found out when [Ahmadi] messaged me,” said DiNoto. “He told me who was killed, and who managed to flee. Many were killed.”
The fall of Musa Qala was “quite honestly predicted,” said DiNoto.
“It was surrounded, attacked every day, and not resupplied,” he added. “The locals in that area did not support them.”
A Deteriorating Situation
DiNoto and Ahmadi stayed in contact, messaging each other by phone. DiNoto began working to help Ahmadi leave Afghanistan; five other interpreters who worked with DiNoto’s team had made it to the United States through a “special visa process” that the US had worked out with the former Afghan government.
Ahmadi began the visa process in 2015, and at the time, neither Ahmadi nor DiNoto understood “how complex the process was.” Minor hiccups with information, often due to lack of record keeping in Afghanistan, such as Ahmadi’s exact birthday, derailed the process multiple times. Trinh DiNoto, a refugee herself from Viet Nam, assisted as well, coordinating paperwork and assisting in other ways.
“We spent years trying to appeal and reapply,” said DiNoto, with Trinh DiNoto doing much of that work.
Ahmadi was living in Kabul at the start of 2021 but it became obvious the situation was deteriorating. The Taliban was taking over an increasingly large part of the country and DiNoto became increasingly determined to get Ahmadi out of the country, but bureaucratic red tape and the large demand from Afghans to get out of the country meant that most means were likely to take longer than Ahmadi had. Then two major cities fell to Taliban control, the “equivalent of the US losing Chicago and Houston,” and plans changed to get Ahmadi to India instead of the United States. It would take ten days to complete the visa process.
It was at this point that Trinh told Karim that one day he would share a table with the DiNotos.
“She told me that, but I didn’t believe that I would get to India, never mind the US,” said Ahmadi. “My mother was happy [that Trinh said this], her eyes teared up. She said they were kind people.”
In the Afghan culture, to be told that you can be at a table with someone “means a lot,” said DiNoto.
On the night of August 14, Ghazni, Afghanistan, fell to Taliban forces.
“We no longer had time to make the India plan work,” said DiNoto. “The Taliban was right at the gates of Kabul.”
DiNoto began reaching out to the other members of the Marine advisor team. Even though they had not maintained contact, they still considered themselves close. The team included an owner of a steel mill, an owner of a tech company, and private military contractors. DiNoto pulled them together via Facebook and they began discussing and planning how to get their former translator out of the country.
“We had a man isolated in Taliban-controlled territory,” said DiNoto. “In my mind, there was no difference between [Ahmadi] and a Marine. The Marines don’t leave another Marine behind.”
Letting his fellow Marines sleep on his request and have time to figure something out, DiNoto told Karim that he needed to “be smart; Marines are smart” and to “take care.”
It was around this time that DiNoto found out that another Afghan interpreter he had worked with, who had made it out of Afghanistan previously and become an American citizen, had returned to Afghanistan after being unable to get his wife and unborn child out. The second interpreter asked to not be identified. DiNoto had reached out to him seeking ways to help Ahmadi out of the country, only to find that this second interpreter was stuck there too.
When DiNoto woke up on August 15, he found a chilling recorded message on his phone from Ahmadi.
“I think everything is finished, everything is gone. I have to go,” said Ahmadi in the message, who preferred that to texts because he found it easier to speak than write in English. “They are coming, everything is close. I think I’m left behind.”
DiNoto flipped on CNN and saw that President Joe Biden was in talks with the Taliban over the US withdrawal from the country.
“When I heard him say, ‘I think I’m left behind,’ I thought, ‘No you’re not,’” said DiNoto. “We’ll get you out.”
The advisor team, led by DiNoto, began pulling any string they could to assist Ahmadi, securing contacts in the state department, in “three-letter intelligence agencies,” former advisors, and a person in media relations “in case we wanted to go the nuclear option and go on television.”
“This force we called Task Force Rambo,” said DiNoto, who said that the movie Rambo III is very popular in Afghanistan and Ahmadi had been using the word “Rambo” as a code in his messages that it was safe to text him.
They developed a plan to get Ahmadi together with the second interpreter and his family, and get them to Abbey Gate at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. Once there, the Marines holding the gate to their defensive position could bring them inside the security bubble and eventually airlift them out of the country.
“In a way I was glad the second interpreter was there,” said DiNoto. “He was an American citizen so he’d be a priority. I didn’t realize there were hundreds and hundreds of people there who were also passport holders.”
The move also proved to be “dangerous and not practical” for the second interpreter’s wife, who was seven months pregnant. They all headed back to their homes.
During the second attempt, Ahmadi was not able to link up with the second interpreter again. While trying to make it through a checkpoint, a Taliban soldier opened fire on a crowd that Ahmadi was in. A man immediately in front of Ahmadi was hit by the gunfire. Ahmadi hid under a car, afraid for his life. Meanwhile, the second interpreter and his family made it into the US-held territory.
It took Ahmadi four tries before he successfully made it out. Ahmadi had not been sleeping and was under “enormous stress,” but the security forces at the gate had denied him access each time he made it there.
At this point, Task Force Rambo became involved in the Digital Dunkirk effort, a joint effort between US military veterans and intelligence agents who “came together behind the scenes to coordinate their efforts,” according to DiNoto. Additionally, the group’s networking had put them in touch with a private military contractor inside the US perimeter at Hamid Karzai International Airport. They asked this contractor to keep an eye out for Ahmadi and bring him inside if he is seen.
Ahmadi headed to Abbey Gate for the fourth time on August 18, with the plan being that he sit in front of the line of marines at the gate and not leave no matter what. He stayed for hours and hours. His phone, which was having difficulty getting signal, was running out of charge to the point he turned it off so that he could have some power if he desperately needed to use it.
“It was a very stressful time, with him sitting on the ground and I was out of communication with him,” said DiNoto. “He maintained discipline and stayed there, not leaving for anything.”
Ahmadi said that for the first time in days, he felt safe within the gaze of US Marines. He told them that he had worked with the Marines and ended up assisting the soldiers there at the gate, doing some translating. They did not let them in, however. The Marines were under orders and could only allow someone through if ordered to.
DiNoto said that after 23 hours outside the gate, they finally got their contact at the airport to find where Ahmadi was and they pulled him through.
“On August 19, I sent [DiNoto] a message saying I’m in and I’m safe,” said Ahmadi. “In the base, the Marines were good people to all Afghans in there, giving us food and water. Compliments to them.”
At that point, with Ahmadi finally safe, DiNoto said that Task Force Rambo was faced with a choice, to “sit back and celebrate the rescues” of Ahmadi as well as the other interpreter and his family, or “acknowledge that we have enormous resources in contacts, people in authority in [Washington, DC], in Senate offices and private military contractors, and open the door to help other people.”
“We decided to help other people and it became exhausting,” said DiNoto, who said that Task Force Rambo directly helped 19 people in fleeing Afghanistan, and assisted with many more.
A bit more than a week after Ahmadi reached the safety of the airport, Abbey Gate was attacked by a suicide bomber, killing scores of people, including 13 US service personnel.
“At that point, they welded the gates shut, and recovery [of more people] became almost impossible,” said DiNoto.
Ahmadi was flown into the United States, where he was taken to Camp Atterbury, a refugee camp in Indiana. DiNoto received a call from the State Department on October 7 saying that he was welcome to pick up Ahmadi. He drove there on October 10, and slept in a hotel so that he could pick up Ahmadi first thing the following morning.
The I-Beam, In Person
The two took a meandering route for the trip to Newtown, giving Ahmadi a chance to drink in his new home country.
“He was amazed at overpasses,” DiNoto said. “He couldn’t believe we’d build a bridge to avoid having an intersection. He was also amazed by credit cards, and by EZ-Pass.”
Ahmadi said that his other friends in the US Marines expressed that they were glad he was here, and that he deserved to be here.
“I appreciate the US Marines,” Ahmadi said.
When he was still in the planning phases of Ahmadi’s evacuation, DiNoto would spend time at Reverie Brewing Company, and sent pictures to Ahmadi of the I-beams and the brewing tanks.
“On his third day of being free, he was in the brewery with me, having pizza and a beer,” said DiNoto. “He saw the I-beam, and he knew he was here.”
The brewery owners gave Ahmadi a free T-shirt, hat, and flight of beer, said DiNoto. People came up to him, gave him hugs and welcomed him to Newtown.
“Newtown has been great,” said DiNoto, who said that Ahmadi has received bags of donations.
“I really appreciate everyone’s kindness,” said Ahmadi, who arrived in America literally with nothing but the clothes on his back. “They have given me clothes and shoes. I really appreciate this town.”
Among places that have donated items to Ahmadi include Dad’s Consignment, Dennis Janofsky/Quality Gem, Reverie Brewing, and Butcher’s Best.
Ahmadi, at one point in Pashto says the phrase, “Yak Jahon Manon.” DiNoto said that there is not a similar word in English to express to the people of Newtown the extent of Ahmadi’s gratitude for their help.
Once he was cleared for work, Ahmadi began working for DiNoto’s company, Ancient Winds Trading Company, which sells supplies such as bags to local restaurants, as a delivery driver.
“Everywhere he delivers, he’s like a celebrity,” said DiNoto.
Trinh DiNoto has set up a GoFundMe for Ahmadi. Visit gofundme.com and search for Help Karim Rebuild His Life in The States!
According to the page: “We plan on helping Karim get on his feet and start a new life with us here. [Trinh’s] parents-in-law have been wonderful and offered to take him in for several months, rent-free. However, he will eventually want to be on his own with an apartment [at some point], clothes, household items, furniture, and such.”
As of October 20, the page had $5,780 raised of a $15,000 goal.
DiNoto was born in Newtown. He was captain of the Newtown High School Cross Country team, an Eagle Scout, and firefighter with Newtown Hook & Ladder.
“The iconic picture of a fireman on the roof of Julia Wasserman’s burning barn is Chris,” said Madeline Bunt, who has known DiNoto his entire life.
DiNoto graduated the Citadel an officer in the Marines and served eight years. He served three tours — one in Iraq and two in Afghanistan.
“This past August, he answered the call again,” said Bunt.
“He and is wife alone are responsible for rescuing 19 Afghans and US citizens. They also were part of Digital Dunkirk and saved many more. They are remarkable people; it is an honor to call them my friends.”
Reporter Jim Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.