By Drew F. Lawrence, CNN
Updated: Wed, 26 Jan 2022 21:48:50 GMT
It was Tom Brady's name that got his family out of Afghanistan, and it was a Buccaneers game that helped the former Afghan interpreter turned US Army soldier reunite with a veteran friend he hadn't seen for a decade.
The game on Sunday in Tampa was the first time Said Noor and Steve Morse had seen each other since a 2011 firefight against the Taliban in Afghanistan and it was thanks to an unlikely series of events that included a US congressman, a Tom Brady code word, and a pair of VIP tickets courtesy of the Bucs.
"It's like a dream coming true," Noor said.
The game came as a stark change since the last time the two met -- especially for Noor, who, within the past year and a half, went from being a Taliban target trying to get his family out of Afghanistan to watching Brady and the Bucs rout the Eagles in a 31-15 playoff game. The reunion was as joyous as the path to get there was arduous.
Interpreter turned soldier
Noor began his term as an American ally when, in 2007, he began interpreting for US service members in his home country of Afghanistan.
He earned a green card under the State Department's special immigrant visa (SIV) program and in 2016, he joined the US Army himself as an interpreter, this time donning army rank and uniform at Fort Polk, Louisiana.
He deployed to Afghanistan, translating for senior US officials across the southeastern portion of the country for almost a year, according to Task & Purpose, which originally profiled Noor.
Noor was honorably discharged in 2020 as a sergeant and settled in Houston. That year, as US plans to withdraw from his home country materialized, he made numerous attempts from the States to evacuate his family from Afghanistan, and even returned to Kabul for two weeks to try to get them out in person. Ultimately, he could not, and he had to return to Houston without his family.
Code word: 'Tom Brady'
As some US officials worked to increase the pace of Afghan evacuations last August, US Reps. Seth Moulton and Peter Meijer, both veterans, made an unannounced trip to Kabul to "conduct oversight on the mission to evacuate Americans and our allies," as they said in a statement.
Moulton had read about Noor in a report in The Boston Globe, and as he and Meijer faced sharp criticism from House leaders for their trip, Moulton added Noor's family to the list of Afghans they were trying to help evacuate. And a Marine captain whom Moulton met during the trip helped solidify the plan.
In an internal memo shared with CNN by Moulton's office, Neesha Suarez, the congressman's director of constituent services, detailed the escape efforts. They centered on getting Noor's family through a separate gate into Kabul's Hamid Karzai International Airport.
The Marine captain messaged Suarez to say, "I'm at the gate. I'm gonna send a guy by the name of 'Omar.' He's gonna ask who knows 'Tom Brady.' Have Seth's priority group respond with 'I do.' Relay these instructions and I'll give you a time...when my guy is heading over."
The escape came soon after the suicide bombing at the airport's Abbey Gate that killed 13 US service members and wounded hundreds of Afghans in August 2021.
"He gave me the instructions," Suarez wrote in her memo, "and when I read them, I actually laughed out loud. (Thousands of) miles away, a day after the devastating loss of service members, and with the emotional toll this evacuation had taken, it was Tom Brady that was going to give me hope and potentially get these people to safety."
Noor was still in Houston when Suarez delivered good news: that hope and potential had turned into action. His most vulnerable family members -- including his mother, pregnant sister and 2-year-old niece -- plus many other Afghans Moulton's team had worked with made it safely into the airport and onto a flight out of Afghanistan.
A firefight, missed connections and a reunion
After Noor's family was evacuated, they joined him in Houston, and word got back to Brady about the role he unknowingly played in getting the family out.
"Tom came across Said's story earlier this season and personally wanted to invite him to a game," Brady's PR office told CNN. Brady's reps alerted the Buccaneers organization, a team spokesperson said, and they all started working to bring Noor to a game.
When Noor found out, he was excited. "I felt the kindness, you know? The care in my heart of somebody like him. I mean, he doesn't even know me. ... For someone just to go out of their way, who doesn't know nothing about you and just wants you there."
Noor told CNN he wanted to bring his sister, who was evacuated during the Moulton-orchestrated escape, but she was sick -- so he instead reached out to Morse, an Army friend he hadn't seen in 10 years.
"I worked with Steve as his interpreter in Afghanistan," Noor said, "We got into (a) firefight there together. I was like his right-hand man for the platoon."
Morse concurred, confirming that the last time the two had seen each other was after combat in Afghanistan.
'We were both kids," he recalled. "I was 21. I think he was 20. And we're still good buddies."
Morse said that in 2011 his platoon, a unit within the Massachusetts National Guard's 181st Infantry Regiment, took enemy fire in Khost Province -- and Noor was instrumental as an interpreter during and after the firefight.
"You could tell that he believed in the mission," he added. "It wasn't just a job for him."
Morse served for four years as an infantryman and was the lead driver for his platoon, also spending time with his units' mortar section. A few weeks after the firefight, Noor was reassigned, and the two men split ways.
"We all loved him," he said. "It sucked."
So when Noor asked whether he wanted to go to the playoff game, Morse -- a Massachusetts native and longtime Brady fan already -- said he was thrilled. "Oh my God, I was so excited."
Morse's mother, Cindy, a first-grade special education teacher in Massachusetts, had organized clothes, bedding and other necessities for Noor's family once they settled in Houston. She had invited Noor for Christmas, Morse said, hoping to offer him some semblance of family as he tried to evacuate his own, but he couldn't make the connection given the circumstances.
But now, with his family's resettlement in Houston, those missed connections made the pair's reunion that much more of a celebration.
When Noor and Morse finally met in Tampa ahead of last Sunday's game, Morse said, "It was like seeing a family member. I hadn't seen him in over 10 years and he picked me up from the airport and it was like we didn't miss a beat. It was just like 10 years ago."
Tom Brady, captain
Tampa Bay Buccaneers spokesperson Allen Barrett said Noor and Morse were given "tickets to sit in the 'Gronk Spike Zone' -- a ticket section courtesy of tight end Rob Gronkowski, as well as Buccaneers swag and a signed item from Rob." The two veterans also cheered on the team from the Raymond James Stadium's famed pirate ship overlooking the north side of the field. Noor will also be receiving a signed jersey from Brady, Barrett said.
While Noor's case is special in that not all Afghan interpreters or SIV beneficiaries join the US military after their tenure, Moulton said the event also shows Afghanistan is still in the public spotlight.
"Veterans don't need a reminder that this is important," he said. "They keep working every single day to get out those that we left behind. But it's a great sign that icons like Tom Brady recognize how important this commitment is as well."
Over Christmas, one of Noor's friends gave him a shirt that reads "Tom Freakin' Brady." That's what he wore to the game. He didn't get to meet the star quarterback, but said, "I would like to thank him from the bottom of my heart for the warm invitation and welcome."
Before his family used Brady's name as a code word for their escape, Noor said, he wasn't sure who the NFL quarterback was. But as he started sharing his story, it didn't take him long to find out.
"I started Googling him and looked him up and was, like, 'Wow, he's a big deal.'"
Moulton recalled that when the evacuees met the Marine captain after getting through the airport gate, they even said, "Tom Brady! Tom Brady!" thinking that was the captain's name.
"The thing is that his family never knew who Tom Brady was, and of course now they'll never forget," Moulton said.