FORT PICKETT, Va. --
After 12 years and traveling over 7,000 miles Matiullah Matie, an Afghan guest at Fort Pickett, Virginia, was reunited with Maj. Michael Kuiper, the executive officer of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, which he worked with in Afghanistan in 2009.
Kuiper met Matie shortly after arriving in Helmand Province during Operation Khanjari, a large offensive targeting Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan.
“When I first arrived, there was heavy fighting. We didn’t see many women or children in the streets,” said Kuiper. The majority of the local population didn’t speak to or work with the Marines due to fear of retaliation from the Taliban.
Nawa, Afghanistan, was primarily a farming town. There was a lack of schools, no medical clinics, and only two businesses in the city. Kuiper explained how Matie was one of the first members of the local community to work with the Marines. He even agreed to build a government center in two months’ time.
“Not only did he finish the job in half the time, but he returned over half the funds,” said Kuiper.
He further explained how this inspired others within the community to seek employment and improve their community.
“Following Matie’s example, others began to work with us. Within three months there were nine schools open, more than 60 stores, and three medical clinics.”
Matie reflects on this experience as the moment when he and Kuiper became family.
“Michael Kuiper was a very kind person, and he did a lot for the people of Afghanistan. After he helped open the bazaar and the schools, we became brothers.”
Although Kuiper left Afghanistan, they would remain in contact over the next decade, their relationship becoming a critical factor in Matie’s family leaving Afghanistan.
One night in Kabul, Matie answered a knock at his door. “Where is Matiullah’s residence?” Asked the men at the door. “Down the street,” Matie responded, as he closed the door, grabbed his AK-47, and awaited for a return that never occurred. At that moment, he knew it was time for his family to leave Afghanistan.
Matie encountered what he describes as great challenges on his journey out of Afghanistan. He remembers one instance where he was stuck at a chaotic Taliban checkpoint where they used gas and fired rubber bullets into the crowd, and another where he and his family spent 23 hours trying to get to the airport before running out of water and having to return home.
A battalion in Kuiper’s regiment was guarding Hamid Karzai International Airport. The area was crowded with thousands of civilians so he needed a message to help the Marines identify his family.
“I knew Matiullah and his family needed to stand out amongst the crowd,” said Kuiper. “I recommended they hold signs with Teufelhunden, our battalion’s motto; Chesty Puller, the most decorated Marine in history; and the date of the Marine Corps birthday.”
The family holding signs covered in Marine Corps history stood out amongst the mass of individuals outside of the airport and was a factor in their subsequent escort into the perimeter.
Kuiper recalls the immense feeling of relief when he was able to hear Matie’s voice from within the perimeter.
“Once they were inside, the Sergeant escorting Matiullah was able to place him on the phone with me. I asked him if he was safe and he responded, ‘of course I am safe, I am with the Marines.’”
Weeks after that phone call Kuiper and Matie were reunited at Fort Pickett, where he was able to meet his wife and six children for the first time.
“Seeing Matiullah and his family here was a moment of joy, knowing that they are safe and that they are going to have a better life,” said Kuiper.
Matie is optimistic about his resettlement. He looks forward to starting a business in the United States and living in a country where his children can pursue an education.
“This is my children’s time to go to school. They can now go to a university and choose a career,” said Matie, holding his son’s hand, who is dressed in a children’s replica of the Marine Corps dress blue uniform. “This is all due to the help from my brother, Michael. He is the one who saved my family.”