A friendship forged in wartime changed their lives — and gave them hope
Story by Hazem Amiry and Tony J. Short, as told to CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet
Photographs by Cassidy Araiza for CNN
March 25, 2022
The chaos of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan left many veterans scrambling to help their contacts escape. And for some, that battle still isn’t over. This is the story, in their own words, of two men that America’s longest war brought together — two men who refused to give up even when many things they believed in were falling apart. Their accounts have been edited for length and clarity.
Former Afghan Air Force Lt. Col. Hazem Amiry narrowly escaped after the Taliban took over. But his wife and five children were hiding in Kabul for months.
Retired US Air Force Maj. Tony J. Short pushed behind the scenes day and night to help Amiry and his family flee to safety in the United States.
It’s unbelievable that I’m here now. It is incredible. It was a dream, but it has become real.
They got my family out, at a time when it was impossible for most people to leave Kabul.
It was like a miracle.
I hate to go spiritual here. But God had a plan I guess, because look what happened.
We called our operation “Restore Hope” thinking of the Afghan people, but honestly, over the course of the last seven years since I left Afghanistan, and everything that we’ve gone through in this country alone, I had lost a lot of faith in humanity. And this restored my own hope.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, now I feel like I have a whole new purpose. I couldn’t be more grateful to this man.
And the story is so much deeper than just the two of us.
A friendship begins
When you face certain things in life, when you go through a dangerous situation, it builds an undying bond. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s like it can’t be broken.
I had done a lot of studying before I went to Kabul. I knew I was going into a combat zone. But when it came to meeting people, I didn’t know what to expect.
We were there to advise the Afghan Air Force. My first night there, we were rocket attacked. It was like, “Welcome to Afghanistan.”
An alarm would sound. People called it “the giant voice.” Because it was on speaker systems. It would say, “Incoming, incoming. Wooo, wooo.” The first time you’re scared shitless. Your heart’s jumping out of your chest. Then it just becomes business as usual. You’re numb to it after that.
You’re very lost, you’re in a country you’ve never been to. It’s a very dangerous place. Trust is a major issue. And how you can learn to overcome those fears and build trust. You must be able to build a relationship.
I got there in October 2014 and I met Hazem in mid-November, maybe around Thanksgiving. I’d heard he was a good man. Former advisers told me, “You can trust him.”
The day I learned he could speak English, that’s how it all began right there. We could communicate directly without an interpreter. Our relationship just grew tenfold. I could call him on the phone. I could say, “Hazem, how are you?” I’d bring him over to our base. I would have him come over to the campfires at night, have him come around and break bread. We were able to build a personal relationship.
We would talk about our families. I met his children. We’d talk about home — families, cultural differences, like we wanted to learn and respect one another.
We had a projector that we would put up. We would watch movies on the walls — “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “Rambo 3.” We played games on an Xbox. We’d do other dumb stuff… see how far one of us could throw a big rock — who’s the strongest, you know. I’d show pictures of my kids. “Look what they did today” … “Oh look, they carved pumpkins on Halloween” … “Here they are at Christmas.” That type of stuff.
I have had a hard time finding a true relationship in America, compared to the working relationship I had with him in Afghanistan. It was completely different. Once we determined we could trust each other, there was nothing that could stop us.
My English wasn’t that good at first. But once Short knew I could speak a little English, he pushed me to speak more. I am still trying to get better.
He supported me at that time, motivated me and encouraged me to learn English.
We stood shoulder to shoulder. We had a good relationship. We had good cooperation. He trusted me. I trusted him.
I had a good relationship with all my advisers. I knew spending one year in Afghanistan was such a long time for them. They were training our personnel. Whenever anything happened, I wanted to protect them. I was the first line. I’d tell them, “You should keep behind me. You should go back home safe. Your mom and your family are there waiting for you. You deserve to go back home.”
At that time, I was also thinking about how to make them feel comfortable and free. Some, when they got deployed to Afghanistan, they felt like they shouldn’t talk about religion, or about women. I told them, “Don’t worry about anything. Just feel free.” We had lunch and tea together.
I’d say to my advisers, “What support do you need? Thank you for coming here, for leaving your family.” Technology made the world like one room. They would show me pictures of their families, of their children. I saw that they left their life in the US to come and accept a dangerous situation in Afghanistan. And it was so difficult for them. I was so grateful for that.
I’d tell them, “Go home safe to your children, your parents.” Getting them home safe was my goal.
Standing side by side
One day we were all sitting at the chow hall. And there’s gunfire. Our ground attack alarm goes off — the “giant voice” again. Instead of saying “incoming, incoming,” it says, “ground attack, ground attack.”
I ran straight up to see what was going on. Someone’s screaming into their phone — “Someone’s shooting at us. I’ve been shot up. We don’t know what to do.” An armed Afghan Security Forces soldier patrolling outside the hangar had snuck up and opened fire on American maintenance crews working inside. They were contractors. He killed most of the security team first, and then he started shooting at the maintenance folks. Someone on the security team was at the back of the hangar going off shift. He had his handgun on him and pursued the shooter, eventually killing him.
The [Afghan] QRF [quick response force] rolled up and started getting out of their vehicles. We were all getting there at the same time. And everybody that was on the other end of that gun was yelling and screaming. It was chaos. I’ve got the general on the phone. He says, “Captain, we’ve got to get these Afghans out of there.”
The QRF was Hazem’s company. He was the commander. But it was the one night a week when he’d leave the base to be home with his family. I called Hazem immediately and said, “You need to get your QRF out of there.” And he made the call.
What felt like an eternity was over in a second. Every Afghan, they got in their vehicles and left. That immediately quelled everything. Had it not been for that relationship I had with this man, I believe it would have gone a lot worse. It was chaos. All it would have taken is one person to pull a trigger. I trust him with my life. I believe I owe him everything.
Hazem stood by my side the rest of the night.
That wasn’t the first time or the last. He was always protecting Americans.
That night was so difficult. One of the soldiers, he killed three and wounded one.
The Afghan people were blaming the US people. The US people were blaming the Afghan people.
Nobody knew what was happening.
But we worked to make sure that it didn’t happen again.
Preparing for the worst
After that attack, everything was locked down. We ran a two-week mission to basically root out any other insider attacks tied to this. We worked together to identify other insider threats. We were able to stop 15 additional people from doing what that attacker did. Had it not been for Hazem, it would not have been possible.
I left Afghanistan in October 2015. We stayed in touch regularly after that and talked at least monthly. Sometimes it was on FaceTime, sometimes it was a message just checking in — “hey, how are you doing?”
Many of us, half our hearts were left in Afghanistan with these people. So you always had a feed or a watch for things that would happen out in Kabul. If there was an attack that happened at the airport, I’d always reach out to him to make sure he was OK.
Hazem and I were talking in July. I wrote him a recommendation letter and I said, “You should go to the US embassy. You need to start trying to get your family out.”
He was an Afghan patriot, much like Americans were in 1776. He believed that Afghanistan as a country would prevail. They would survive. There was nothing I could do to talk this man into getting his family out. He believed.
So I said, “Let’s have a contingency plan.”
“Give your oldest son my information, and if something happens, tell him to contact me.“
Tony wasn’t the only one. Before Kabul fell, many times my advisers asked me if I wanted to leave. They said, we’ll sponsor you if you come. I told them I wanted to serve Afghanistan. I have five boys — they are 17, 15, 13, 5 and 1. Yes, I’d like my sons to go to the US and get a good education. Yes, I’d like my sons to go there. But I want to be here.
Suddenly Afghanistan changed. It wasn’t our decision. I am still so sad about it.
At the time I was thinking, maybe I will die. I have a responsibility to our people. I was a security commander of the Air Force. The people, they expected me to stay there and fight. My duty was to fight against Taliban terrorists.
I told my son, “If my cell phone is off, you can contact this guy. He is my friend. He will support you.”
We thought Hazem was dead.
When Kabul fell on August 15th, we lost contact with him. All the advisers lost contact.
Then we got a message saying he had likely been killed. That was heartbreaking.
I tried to reassure everybody that the first report from the battlefield is never the ground truth. Let’s just continue to hope for the best.
About two days later, I got a Facebook message.
“Hello sir. You worked with my father. You may remember me. Have you heard from him?”
It was Hazem’s son, Maher. I didn’t tell him what we’d heard. It wasn’t factual until it was factual. I said, “How are you guys? What do you need?”
I was the last one who left the base in Kabul. I was inside after the end. It was just me and one of my company commanders. All my personnel had left.
Then it was like a miracle. A pilot I knew called me and said he wanted to come and get me out. I told him, “No, the Taliban are at all the gates. If you come, they will arrest you. They will kill you.”
He wouldn’t take no for an answer. He asked how to get in the base. I told him it’s impossible. He said he would sneak past the Taliban by climbing over a wall next to the North Gate.
I realized there was no other option. I was alone.
There were two options for me at that time. Die or leave. I had to leave Kabul for my family. We were against the Taliban. Everyone knew.
He made it over the wall. I picked him up and we went to the plane. It was a Cessna C-208. I asked him who was his co-pilot. He told me I was. I told him I was very tired, and we ended up having another person sit in the copilot seat. I sat behind them as we flew to Uzbekistan.
I never gave up my weapon and I never obeyed the Taliban.
When we arrived, they took away my cell phone.
I got it back days later and saw all the messages.
“Are you safe?”
“Are you safe?”
“Are you safe?”
All my advisers from the US, they were asking.
My family, too, they had messaged and called me. They were so sad.
I called them. I said, “I’m alive. I’m OK. I’m here.”
‘We’re not going to stop’
It was just a huge weight lifted off my shoulders knowing that he had made it out.
And he told me, “Do not worry about me. I am fine. Worry about my family.”
So that’s what I did, what we did.
The camaraderie, the esprit de corps, amongst our group, built around Hazem, is just incredible. There were generations of veterans working together. Many don’t know each other face to face. We only know each other through him.
We stood up what we called Operation 22: Restore Hope. There were several former advisers who had served in Afghanistan with Hazem helping, and a few that really put a lot of heart and soul and effort into it. There was one in South Carolina. One in Washington, DC. One in Florida for the better part of it — now she’s in California.
We joined up with a nonprofit because there were some businesses that wanted to donate money and help. The nonprofit’s founder came up with the name “Restore Hope,” because we felt that for Hazem one of the most heartbreaking moments was when we were talking and trying to get his family out after Kabul fell. He didn’t show a lot of emotion, but I knew he was hurting inside.
That was so difficult.
I was waiting for something bad to happen to my family.
Every day I was thinking about them, worrying something bad had happened.
I spent hours upon hours every night, probably only getting about 30 minutes of sleep.
I put the refugee referral package in. Meanwhile at night I was helping his family navigate the streets of Kabul. I was like their handler, trying to help them get out. It was very, very scary.
I was talking with his 17-year-old son. Threat intel would come in. We’d hear their best chance to get in was the East Gate or the South Gate or the Abbey Gate. Things like, “There’s a Taliban checkpoint here. Try to get them around it.” One day I got them all the way up to a gate, and the Taliban rolled up and started shooting. It was heart wrenching.
Another time I got a phone call — “This is it, this is the last chance they’re going to get. Have them wait at this location and stand off on the side of the street. They need to be as inconspicuous as possible.” We set up an entire operation with this 17-year-old kid. We told him, when they call you, just hold up your phone real quick so they can see it, and they’ll come and extract you out.
But 45 minutes into pushing them to that gate, the threat came in that there was going to be an attack. I had to call them and say, “Turn around. There is a credible threat. Do not go. I am so sorry.”
Hazem’s son replied and it broke my heart. He said, “Thanks for your attention, sir. We tried to be saved.”
I told him, “We’re not going to stop. “
I wasn’t there with him to be able to walk with him step by step. He had to trust me. Again, it comes back to trust, based on the relationship I had with his father.
I was in Uzbekistan for 45 days, then in Abu Dhabi, then the Philadelphia Airport, then Fort Pickett Camp [in Virginia].
And all that time, my family was still in Afghanistan. It was so difficult, knowing I was safe and they were not.
They were trying to get my family out, over and over. They couldn’t.
But they kept trying. From that first moment when my son called him, they didn’t stop.
All I did was connect people. That’s what I spent most of my time doing, working connections.
Sneaking in and getting them was not an option. That ship sailed when the American military pulled out. We needed to do it through the diplomatic process. I didn’t like the rules. I didn’t make them. But those are the rules, and you’ve got to follow them.
A person who knew Hazem emailed me. He said, “If the family can get passports, I feel that’s critical. Please let me know if they get passports.”
Hazem was able to contact a diplomat who was in Germany that he knew and said, “I’m trying to get my family out. I was told if they can get passports, I think we can make this happen.” This guy literally produced passports at their consulate, flew them to Uzbekistan and had them hand carried to Mazar-i-Sharif to another individual. That individual delivered them to Hazem’s family in Kabul. It was incredible.
Once they had passports, they were able to get on a State Department manifest to be flown out of the country.
Hazem had faith that something good would happen. And it didn’t exactly happen as fast as we wanted it to, that’s for sure. It was not until December 1 that his family made it out. And that was by utilizing diplomatic processes, but also knowing people. Life is 90% about who you know, having the right people in the right places.
That’s a missing link to all it took to make this happen. His connections, and the true, genuine person that he is, made the difference. His reputation preceded him.
‘I never felt alone’
When I heard they had flown out of Kabul, I was speechless. I felt so grateful. I remember thinking, I will sleep well tonight.
They were taken to Fort Dix in New Jersey. I decided I wanted to move to Arizona, where Tony lives, while I was waiting for them [to be released].
When I came here, all my advisers supported me. They took me to the doctor, to the dentist. They got me a car. They want to get me a new job. They helped me get a driver’s license. I don’t know how I can pay it all back.
The time was so hard for me, but I never felt alone. Every day, one, two, three, all of them messaged me to encourage and motivate me. That was so nice. They didn’t have to do that.
I was so surprised when I landed in Tucson. There were so many people who had come to welcome me. People hugged me. They weren’t scared about Covid. I didn’t expect that.
Since I arrived, I have never felt alone. It felt like when you are coming home and your relatives come to greet you. Tony and his friends, they’re good people. They’re always asking me about everything. I never feel like I’m here from another country. I feel like I’m from here.
People said nobody will ask how you are doing. Nobody will care about you. Nobody will help you. Nobody will have time for you. People say Americans are so busy. They don’t have any time to spend with you or talk with you. They will ignore everything. All they care about are their jobs.
But when I came here, I saw that people are so sweet. They are good. I hope one day I can pay back the debt of everyone who has been so kind to me.
The pullout of Afghanistan challenged every moral fiber of my body. I believed we had made the wrong choice as America. And that comes back to true commitments and love for fellow human beings, for who they are as people.
You know, we created that mess, and we were abandoning it. There were days, there are dark places you go. You’re like, I did all this stuff for all these people, and I did everything that was asked of me for my country, and now I’m left trying to save them. You feel abandoned.
It’s heartbreaking … can we not commit to something and actually hold true to our words?
So that was one thing that I refused to do. I was like, I committed to this man, and I will not stop, because he needs me.
Through all of this, I never felt alone because of this group of people, the advisers and the nonprofit I worked with. It restored my own hope in humanity. Because I sure as hell didn’t do this alone.
There is still greatness in humanity. There’s still trust and love in one another. And I hope that that’s what people can see in this.
This took a true tribe in order to make this happen. I just happened to be the guy that was able to bridge all this together for Hazem specifically. And he’s just one of many Afghans who need help.
The future comes into focus
Since he arrived in Tucson, we’ve been together almost every single day. I’ve cooked dinner for him and my kids. I’ve taken him out to eat at restaurants and taken him to the mall.
At my house, Hazem and I spent many hours flipping through a scrapbook my dad made of my time in Afghanistan. There are a lot of memories — just a lot of laughter, talking about all the different people we were there with.
When I saw his family arriving at the airport, I felt complete, like I’d come full circle. It was hard to believe we were all standing at the same place at the same time.
I used to tell him: Hazem, I can’t wait until the day I can come back to Afghanistan and walk with you down the safe streets of Kabul. And I would like to bring my family to meet your family.
A couple of days ago, we were sitting here in my living room. Hazem was like, “Can you imagine how we used to talk about walking down the safe streets of Kabul together with our families? But now our families are going to be right here together.”
It’s the silver lining. Even though it wasn’t quite the story we dreamed it would be, it’s still a beautiful story at the end of the day.
I feel like I can’t change what happened. But we can definitely try to change the future.
Waiting for my family was very hard. Each minute waiting was like a year. Seeing my family finally arrive at the airport in Tucson [after six months apart] was unbelievable. My youngest son was six months old the last time I saw him. Now he is close to walking. So much time has passed. But when I hugged him here at the airport, he didn’t shout or cry. He was happy with me.
Everything is better now. I’m not concerned about the future. We are all living at the hotel together now. There is a waiting list for housing. I’m hopeful they will send us somewhere soon.
I think I am lucky. I think I will find what I want. I am positive about these things. I am optimistic. I have always been a positive person. I am not looking for people to help me. I’m looking for how I can help them.
Being in the military was my dream. My goal was to serve the people. I wanted to help people. And I hope here I can find another job like that.
And one day I’ll pay back all my advisers.
We should pay back the good things, and try to give a chance to other people who need support. I will do that here, too, as soon as I can.
Right now I am nothing. I am starting at zero. But I will arrive at 100 pretty soon.
Time is so important. Since I arrived in Tucson, Tony has spent so much time with me — with his friends and his family.
You should be proud to have these guys in your country. I’m proud he’s my friend. You should be proud of all the humanitarian things they’ve done.
Yesterday my son asked me, “Why does Tony support you so much?”
I told him:
“He is my brother.”
This story is part of “With Thanks,” CNN’s series sharing stories of gratitude from people who’ve been helped by others in big and small ways. If a recent act of kindness or generosity has changed your life, we’d love to hear from you.