The word “Saint” isn’t used as much today as it used to be. Maybe it should be; it’s a word in my world for sure. By definition a saint is a person acknowledged as holy or virtuous and typically regarded as going to heaven after death. That’s the only way I can describe Janis, the Afghan translator who saved my life: The man that gave me everything I am today, everything; the man, that when he saved me, I didn’t even know his name.
That day, April 28, was a crazy day. I was in a convoy in Afghanistan, heading back to our base after a long patrol in the mountains of Afghanistan. Boom. We got hit by an IED; no casualties but a now useless vehicle.
I know his name now – Janis. He’s the saint who saved my life 9 years ago today, April 28. He saved 4 other guys during his service to America. Think on that – 5 lives. That’s a saint. And it’s more than that; Janis’ selfless actions have already had a generational impact. I now have this beautiful little girl, alive and well because I’m alive and well. Because of Janis. And there are other sons and daughters who are here because of him, too. And I didn’t even know his name.
Instead of blowing up the disabled MRAP, they wanted us to guard it. Don’t ask. We were stuck in a wide open area with a ridgeline above – just perfect for an ambush, a virtual kill zone. We set ourselves up about 100 yards from the disabled truck, and covered ourselves by rotating guys to the other MRAP to cool off and restock ammo and other needed supplies. Back and forth, back and forth. When it was my turn in the truck with the A/C, I joined Farid, a translator who’d suffered a massive concussion from the first blast, and a medic named Scott keeping his eyes on Farid. Farid has to pee so he and the medic get out; no way I’m hanging in the truck by myself. I join them, ask Farid for a smoke. Suddenly the shit hits the fan – a giant explosion, I’m blown off my feet, no idea what or where. The dirt is dancing. Explosions all around me, bullets flying from every direction. We were surrounded, sitting ducks.
The firefight lasted about an hour, comms went down and the Taliban artillery had us clear in their sights. You can’t begin to imagine just how much it sucks to be on the receiving end of artillery. You can’t see it coming, but you know it is. A second explosion knocked me into a ditch. My bell was rung. They were ranging me. It’s too close. I just know the next one has my name on it – big letters – Matt Zeller – and I got nowhere to go. No where. I glance at my cheap Timex watch – it’s 4:50 in the afternoon on April 28 and I’m gonna die guarding a fucking paperweight! Scared? Oh yes. Terrified, crying.
But I won’t go without a fight – get up, dust yourself off, prepare to fire. Suddenly there’s 3 Humvees rolling in, armed and ready to help. Firing at the ridgeline – I want to see those fuckers die. I lose my military bearing to cheer on their deaths. I turn to watch the bullets arcing toward the ridge and suddenly this guy runs up and hits me hard, checks me with his shoulder down into the ditch. The unmistakable sounds of AK-47 fire. I bounce and roll, look up, stunned, at some crazy Afghan in his old American BDUs. Matter of factly he says – I’m Janis, your translator and you’re not safe. I look passed him and see the two Taliban he killed on his way to decking me. How did I not see them? Two Taliban dead. Two lying in wait for me to slip up. Two dead because of Janis. I don’t remember a thing over the next hour. But I remember Janis. I’ll remember him forever. He’s a saint.