TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Seven hours into the long flight from Dubai, Qudratullah Hakimi fell asleep, not waking up until the jet touched down at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
As the plane slowly headed to the taxiway, Hakimi looked around in amazement.
"I can't believe I am in America," he says he thought to himself. "I have waited for a long time."
It was Oct. 16. Almost exactly five years earlier, Hakimi, working as an interpreter with a team of Marines training Afghan troops, risked his life to save a Marine lieutenant colonel. Ty Edwards, now medically retired and living in Tampa Palms, spent the past four years, during an often painful rehabilitation, fighting State Department bureaucracy to bring Hakimi to the United States.
Hakimi was greeted at the airport by his brother Hewad, who also served as an interpreter for the U.S. military in Afghanistan until getting his visa 18 months ago. After a joyful reunion, the brothers drove to Fort Polk, La., where Hewad Hakimi is stationed as a specialist in the Army. A week later, he arrived at the home of the man he saved.
"I was overwhelmed," says Edwards, sitting in a wheelchair in his living room, recalling the moment he saw Hakimi at his door. "I knew what we had been through for this to happen. I am so grateful."
On the morning of Oct. 18, 2008, Qudratullah Hakimi had been Edwards personal interpreter for about seven months, living and working together at a forward operating base along the Kunar River in the foothills of the Hindu Kush.
He climbed in a Humvee and took a seat behind Edwards, who was not only the truck commander, but he was in charge of the convoy of Marines, soldiers and Afghan National Army troops heading out on a resupply mission. Navy corpsman Stephen Albright was driving and Lt. Sean McQuiston stood up in the turret manning the M240G machine gun.
"We were the last vehicle in the convoy and after leaving a checkpoint, we heard gunfire up ahead," says Hakimi, sitting at the dining room table of his new, temporary home he is sharing with Edwards and his family.
Edwards got out of the Humvee to check on the Afghans.
"I saw him get shot," Hakimi says with barely a trace of an accent. "I was scared. I was just 20 years old."
Edwards was lying on the ground.
"I thought he was dead," Hakimi says. As Hakimi recalls what he calls "the accident," Edwards wheels off to another part of the room.
For Hakimi and the others still in the Humvee, there wasn't much time to think. Insurgents about 150 meters away were peppering the vehicle with small arms fire. McQuiston was hit in the hand, his machine gun destroyed.
After Hakimi bandaged McQuiston, the Humvee rocked and hot metal spewed down from the turret where McQuiston had been moments before. The truck had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, knocking Hakimi out, sending searing shrapnel into his arm, leg and back.
"When I came to, everyone was out of the Humvee, which was smoking," Hakimi says. "I had a choice, stay in and be burned alive, or take my chances against the Taliban bullets."
He opted for the bullets, grabbing McQuiston's M4 rifle and running over to Edwards.
"I didn't want to get taken alive," Hakimi says. "They would have cut my throat with a wire. They would have made a video. My death would have been hard. They would make me suffer every second."
Hakimi fired at the enemy until the magazine was empty. Then he got down on the ground and crawled toward Edwards.
"I could tell they were still shooting at me because the bullets kicked up dust," he says.
When he finally reached Edwards, Hakimi dragged him behind a rock.
"He was alive, but breathing heavy," Hakimi says. After taking off Edwards' helmet, Hakimi could see how badly wounded he was. He put a bandage in the hole in Edwards' head.
"Then I told him, 'don't die,' and I started crying, like I was hopeless,'?" Hakimi says. "He needed help. He was dying in front of me and when I got on the radio, I asked for help, but it was all jammed up with people talking."
Desperate for help, Hakimi used Edwards' call sign.
"This is Sheepdog 6," he shouted over the sounds of gunfire and friendly artillery exploding close by. "Officer down."
Getting no response, Hakimi grabbed Edwards' rifle, which was locked and loaded, and fired away at the enemy as he made his way back to the Humvee, where McQuiston and Albright had taken cover, also firing at the Taliban.
Hakimi, his uniform full of blood from his own wounds, and Albright crawled through the gunfire, getting up every few feet to shoot back, until they reached Edwards. With Hakimi providing cover, Albright worked on Edwards, saving him until a quick reaction force arrived.
The wounded were taken eventually to Bagram Air Field.
"I saw Lt. Col. Ty in the ICU," says Hakimi, whose hearing in his left ear is still virtually gone as the result of the RPG explosion. "That was the last time I saw him for five years."
Until last Thursday, when Hakimi arrived at the big house in the wooded Tampa subdivision.
"We kept in touch, emailing or Skype-ing several times a week," Hakimi says. "But it was so good to see him when I got here."
For four years, Hakimi tried to come to the United States under a program created by Congress in 2009 called the Afghan Allies Protection Act. Despite the efforts of Edwards, Sen. Bill Nelson, Rep. Dennis Ross, retired Marine Maj. Gen. J.D. Lynch and Mark Van Trees of Support The Troops, Hakimi, like thousands of other Afghan interpreters, languished in Afghanistan.
Shortly after a story appeared in The Tampa Tribune, Hakimi got his visa and was able to leave Afghanistan.
"A lot of interpreters are starting to leave," he says. "All the media attention has helped."
But the journey to America was not without sadness.
Hakimi had to leave behind his mother, another brother who is an interpreter and other family members.
"I had no option," he says. "Something would have happened to me if I stayed."
So now, Hakimi is adjusting to life in Tampa.
"Everything is different here," he says. "The roads aren't rutted. I don't have to worry about people shooting at me. This house is so big and beautiful."
And there are new challenges.
"Afghan men are so spoiled," he says. "The women do all the work."
Now that he is in America, Hakimi says he is learning to cook.
"I also learned to iron my own clothes," he says. "Doing the laundry is next. Then learning how to clean up."
The Edwards family "has been wonderful to me," Hakimi says. But as soon as he gets his green card and driver's license and other identification, he will move out on his own.
But that will also require a job.
"I speak four languages," he says. "As an interpreter, I was always learning and picked up a lot of skills."
Edwards says he will introduce Hakimi to as many people as possible to help him find employment.
"He saved my life," Edwards says. "I will do whatever I can for him."
Information from: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, http://www.tampatrib.com