Friends and Brothers
War brought them together. Today, in Columbia, one has helped his friend begin a new life in the United States.
By Warren Hughes
Representative James E. Smith, Jr. and Mohd Amin are friends and brothers, sharing a special bond shaped on the battlefields of Zabal Province in Afghanistan.
In allegiance to that brotherhood, Smith, a Columbia attorney and member of the South Carolina House, sponsored Amin in bringing him to the United States last year. He says he owes life to Amin, who served as an Afghan guide and interpreter attached to Smith’s Army unit. He and Amin remember the harrowing experience as if it were yesterday. During a recent visit in Smith’s downtown law office, he deferred to Amin in relating the details of that September day in 2007.
While on a patrol mission, the team, with Amin as its trusted interpreter, divided into two groups, one on either side of a mountain. As was his job, Amin was monitoring Taliban radio chatter which he knew could be deceiving. The insurgents frequently spoke in code to disguise their location and intentions. Yet, he quickly realized the enemy was in the immediate area, planning an attack near Smith’s precise location. Breaking into a 200-meter run in open terrain, Amin rushed to warn Capt. Dave Perry, who relayed the alarm of the imminent danger. The alert gave Smith just enough time to shuck his field gear and take cover behind a rock where he came under fire for almost 45 minutes. In reflecting on the incident, Smith warmly called Amin “Brother” as he often does.
As a captain with the South Carolina National Guard in 2007, Smith mentored the Afghan police force. For his contributions, the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce presented him with the Sergeant William Jasper Freedom Award in 2008.
His military service follows a family tradition of serving the country in every major conflict since the American Revolution. Motivated by a surge of patriotism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Smith chose a courageous and unconventional path into combat service in Afghanistan.
He had served as an Army lawyer, but yearned for a combat assignment. To get such an assignment, the Army required him to change career fields, meaning he had to resign his commission and essentially start over. With the support of his wife, Kirkland, and their four children, Emerson, Thomas, Paul and Shannon, he completed Officer Candidate School and the Infantry Officer Basic Course at Ft. Benning, Ga.
When Smith finished his Afghanistan tour, he returned home where he became concerned that Amin’s safety was threatened by some of his countrymen angry over his service to the United States.
Despite the danger, Amin emerged from his post-combat adventures unscathed. With Smith’s sponsorship, he struggled for five years with the Afghanistan and U.S. bureaucracies before he and his family immigrated to Columbia.
Fluent in English and the principal Afghan dialects, Dari and Pashtun, Amin had been an invaluable ally for Smith and his fellow soldiers. In addition to accompanying Smith on missions, he translated talks between the Americans and village elders, supported training of local police and helped gather intelligence on insurgent activity.
Amin says that coming to the United States brings freedom from harm and the opportunity for a new life. “The average American doesn’t know that Afghan translators have truly jeopardized their lives and have become potential targets of the Taliban for helping the U.S. military. There are a large number of people all over Afghanistan who strongly stand against the current government and U.S. forces based there. Since the U.S. military’s first mission back in 2001, an increasing number of translators have either lost their lives or one of their family members because of their jobs,” he said. One of his fellow interpreters drowned recently trying to escape to Europe.
Amin came to Columbia through the U.S. Special Immigration Visa Program, a complex and lengthy process. It provides shelter and safety for men and women who have taken enormous risks in helping the U.S. military.
“It is the beginning of a new start where I can determine my destiny and work hard for a brighter and better tomorrow,” he said. Now a student at Midlands Tech, he is studying to become a paralegal while also working in Smith’s law firm office. He and his wife, Latifa, have two daughters, Qusiyah and Fariha.
Smith, a member of the legislature since 1996, is a Democrat representing House District 72. He frequently is mentioned as a promising candidate for governor in 2018. He worries about the trending animosity toward Middle Eastern immigrants, especially following the San Bernardino shootings. “Fear of terrorism should not be an excuse to bar people trying to escape war and tyranny,” he said.
“The best intelligence we receive on threats of terrorism in America comes from those in the Muslim community who want the same things that we all want – safety and security for our families. The assailants in San Bernardino were already citizens, not recent immigrants,” he noted. “The fact is my Muslim brother would take a bullet for me in a second and his greatest shame would be for harm to come to me.”
Smith remains active in the S.C. National Guard with the rank of major and devotes time supporting veterans with special concern for those with PTSD. Over the years, he has served on various non-profit boards and has volunteered with civic groups, including serving as chair for the Public Policy Committee of the United Way, Success by 6 Initiative, Board Member of S.C. First Steps and board member of South Carolina Prevent Child Abuse. He is member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and also attends Church of the Apostles.
Representative James E. Smith, Jr.
Wife, Kirkland who is an artist
Children: Emerson, Thomas, Paul and Shannon
Graduated from Heathwood Hall Episcopal School and the University of South Carolina with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science in 1990 and earned his Juris Doctor in 1995 from the University Of South Carolina School Of Law.
Congaree Riverkeeper; Red Cross; Friends of The Edisto (FRED); and Nickelodeon Theater. Trinity Episcopal Church.
On ne voit bien qu’avec le coeur. L’essentiel est invisible pour les veux.
One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to the eye.
From “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery