They fought the Taliban side by side. Now, Utah vets work with Afghan commandos to sell coffee.
(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mohammad "Wali" Tasleem prepares shirts for screening at Black Rifle Coffee Co. in Salt Lake City Tuesday March 20, 2018. Tasleem is an Afghan refugee who worked with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. He had to leave his native country or be killed. Now he works with a former friend and U.S. soldier Jeff Kirkham who helped bring Wali to Utah.
It’s about trust. It’s about loyalty. It’s about brotherhood.
Jeff Kirkham fought shoulder-to-shoulder with Mohammad “Wali” Tasleem in Afghanistan, off and on, for over a decade. Kirkham was in the U.S. Special Forces. Tasleem was an Afghan commando.
They went on midnight raids into Taliban country. They shot their way out of firefights. They depended on each other for success and survival. They grew close.
In 2013, Kirkham retired from the military and returned to Utah, where he and Evan Hafer, a longtime friend and Special Forces colleague, launched Black Rifle Coffee Company in Salt Lake City
. Hafer also knew Tasleem from his tours in Afghanistan.
The last thing they had heard was that Tasleem had been killed in an ambush, his car riddled with automatic weapons fire.
“He had risked his life to work with us,” Kirkham said. “He had to move around a lot because people were looking for him and his family wasn’t safe.”
So, a little more than a year ago, when Kirkham got a Facebook post from Tasleem, he and Hafer were overjoyed.
“We were super excited he was alive,” Hafer said. “And in the United States.”
(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mohammad "Wali" Tasleem sits with Jeff Kirkham in the Black Rifle Coffee Co. conference room in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, March 20, 2018. Tasleem is an Afghan refugee who worked with Kirkham and other U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. He had to leave his native country or be killed. He came to Utah with the help of Kirkham, and the friends are working together again.
Tasleem fought the Taliban for 13 years, beginning when he was 17 years old. He estimates he took part in some 1,500 missions.
During that time, he married his sweetheart, Rahaela, and they had five sons. But the fighting dominated his life. He would be in the field for 2 ½ months and then get just two weeks with his family before a new rotation back to combat. As the grueling war dragged on, Tasleem grew into leadership roles, but things did not get easier. The enemy knew who he was.
The Taliban had killed his uncle, tried to kill his brother and threatened to kidnap his family. To save his wife and five children, Tasleem immigrated in 2013 with the help of the U.S. government and International Rescue Committee. They landed in Virginia as refugees who qualified for special immigrant visas available to Afghans, Iraqis and others who helped American forces.
Tasleem’s family brought with them little more than a change of clothes but felt a new, peaceful life awaited them. They faced the same challenges that most refugees embrace: a new, complex culture, working menial jobs for low wages, and a disconnect from the community and lifestyle they left behind.
“I was feeling happy. We would have a happy future and my kids would go to good schools,” he said. “But in public housing [in Virginia], my neighbors were not nice to us. And they wouldn’t let their kids play with our kids.”
Tasleem worked as a cashier at a gas station in Charlottesville for $8 per hour. It was difficult financially, he recalled, with a family of five boys. On top of that, the former commando was now in a boring, dead-end job with none of the respect he once enjoyed.
(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mohammad "Wali" Tasleem at Black Rifle Coffee Co. in Salt Lake City Tuesday March 20, 2018. Tasleem is an Afghan refugee who worked with U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. He had to leave his native country or be killed. Now he works with a former friend and U.S. soldier Jeff Kirkham who helped bring Wali to Utah.
After 2 ½ years, he and his wife had had enough. As dangerous as it was, life was better in Afghanistan. They decided to return to the war-torn country.
But as luck would have it, Tasleem caught a Facebook live stream of Kirkham, who was introducing a line of products for Readymen, another of his business interests that helps people plan for emergencies, such as wildfires, earthquakes and floods.
“I looked at my wife and said, ‘I know that guy,’” Tasleem recalled. “He is my friend from Afghanistan.”
Kirkham called Hafer to relate the good news that he had hooked up with Tasleem.
“Can we hire him? Can we bring him out?” Hafer said. “Let’s offer him a job and get him out here.”
Tasleem brought his family to Utah with the help of Kirkham and Hafer. They set him up with a place to live, and now the community has embraced him.
“We are welcome in our Lehi neighborhood,” Tasleem said. “The neighborhood kids are nice to my kids.”
Recently, Tasleem’s wife gave birth to a girl — an American by birth.
Kirkham and Hafer have hired six other former Afghan fighters at Black Rifle Coffee Company.
“We very much relied on these guys,” Kirkham said, noting that they are like family.
(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeff Kirkham talks about his friendship with Mohammad "Wali" Tasleem at Black Rifle Coffee Co. in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, March 20, 2018. Tasleem is an Afghan refugee who worked with Kirkham and U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan. He had to leave his native country or be killed. With the help of Kirkham, Tasleem has come to Utah to work.
Kirkham’s father fought in Vietnam, he explained.
“The only thing that bothered him was all the people we left behind,” he said, referring to the Vietnamese who supported the U.S. only to fall into the hands of the North Vietnamese communists.
Kirkham and Hafer feel an obligation to help as many Afghan fighters as possible.
“The trust and brotherhood you develop with them, you can’t forget it. It’s with you all the time,” Hafer said. “You have to take care of the people who took care of you.”
Last week, Tasleem recalled a recent Sunday when his family visited Kirkham’s family in nearby Draper for dinner. He smiled and said, “It was very good.”
Kirkham’s 6-year-old and 3-year-old like to play with Tasleem’s kids, Kirkham said.
“His boys get together with my boys and it’s like the Manhattan Project of energy.”
That is loyalty. That is brotherhood.