Heroes Left to Die
I could barely make out the words through the weeping and static on the other end of the line. It was still early morning dark at Fort Bragg when one of my teammates called from Afghanistan with bad news.
“Both Juma and Ish have been killed,” he said.
It was May 2006 and we were one month away from another deployment to Afghanistan. Two of our best interpreters had been stopped at a Taliban checkpoint. A fighter recognized them as individuals who worked with the Americans. Their bodies were found the next morning, brutally tortured and mutilated.
I went numb. I scrambled for a note pad to try to capture all the information. It was too much to process. As soon as everyone mustered in the team room, I broke the news. The impact was immediate. To us, it was no different than losing a fellow American soldier.
With the end of the war on the horizon, we are turning our backs on thousands of Afghan interpreters. Congress had authorized 8,750 visas for Afghan interpreters as of 2013, but only 1,982 had been issued by December of that year. Thousands of interpreters are in jeopardy as the State Department tries to clear the logjam of applications for the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV.
The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which also assists Afghan refugees, told the Los Angeles Times that the SIV process is “prohibitively complicated, bureaucratic and opaque.” The group ran into the same problem at the end of the Iraq war. Only slightly over 6,500 out of 25,000 visas were issued to Iraqi interpreters.
As a Special Forces officer with eight deployments, I can tell you without a doubt that Afghans who have risked their lives, families and futures are going to be left behind to face horrific consequences, like Juma and Ish, for aiding the United States.
This will have a lasting impact on future wars and U.S. strategic interests. As American forces track terrorists in the Arabian Peninsula and across the African continent, we will need local assistance at many levels, specifically interpreters. If we leave our Afghan allies to die, it is a clear warning to anyone who would ever assist the U.S. in its foreign initiatives that unless you are on the Department of State or CIA payroll, you will be left to die. This will become all too apparent after the U.S. withdraws and the Taliban begin to once again hold public executions, but increasingly in front of a worldwide media audience.
Interpreters are our eyes and ears when deployed. They know the local customs, cultural norms and religion. They can see when things are out of place and, particularly in the complex social terrain of Afghanistan, they understand the nuances of villages and tribes. When American forces arrived in the country in 2001, we knew nothing. Our interpreters kept us safe and in some cases even helped us fight. They became part of our units, teams and families.
Take Jerry, for example.
Jerry (the nickname we gave him) was my personal interpreter during Operation Medusa, the largest Coalition operation in ISAF history. A 22-year-old kid, he emulated our speech, dressed in our uniform and even chewed neswar, the Afghan version of Copenhagen, like the other members of the team. Prior to the mission, he had gotten married. We told him he could sit this operation out since we knew it was going to be very dangerous and he was a newlywed.
“Ze ficker na khoum zma roor,” he said in Pashtu – “I don’t think so, my brother.”
Jerry liked to make me practice my Pashtu, so that I understood what was being said in tribal meetings behind my back. I remember him smiling like a Cheshire cat, his short thick beard and black curly hair sticking out from under the Special Forces ball cap I had given him.
“If you go, I go. If you die, I die” he said.
Two months after the battle, we were maneuvering through a village in Kandahar Province when one of our vehicles struck an IED. As I approached the mangled truck, the first thing I saw in the dirt was Jerry’s burned ball cap. He was sitting in the back of the vehicle when it struck the IED and was blown nearly 30 feet into the air.
I turned to go call in a MEDEVAC. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jerry struggling to stand against a mud wall. While most units did not allow their interpreters to carry weapons, many special operations units armed theirs. Now, despite his wounds, Jerry was holding his broken weapon and pulling security. His scrawny legs wobbled in misery. He was bloody and covered in dirt. He was medically evacuated with my wounded, and thankfully, he lived. He lived up to his promise to die with us. I made the commitment then and there that I would not leave him, or our others interpreters like him, behind.
Since I left Afghanistan in 2012, Jerry has been attacked in his mosque, moved his family nearly a dozen times and survived being shot three times. His last email to me was a desperate plea.
“I’m twenty four hour in house not coming out like jailer bro,” he wrote. “Thanks again for keeping asking me brother. I wish I didn’t have my two daughters suffer if I die. I would be (in) paradise if I see you in the State with my Family. Please help us.”
What would you do? I’ve written letters, emails, and made hundreds of phone calls trying to pry loose a half dozen applications of interpreters I worked with in Afghanistan. I am disgusted by my country’s immigration policy and the blatant, in this case deadly, double standard it represents. Immigration represents an excruciatingly complex policy area. Ultimately, a very limited and monitored type of amnesty might need to be part of any sustainable solution. But if so, that means allowing immigrants who were smuggled or snuck across our borders illegally to stay. How can we accept this but at the same time deny the right to come here to those who have served our nation and its cause? There is a rock solid difference between those who come here through the back door and those who are knocking, pleading at the front. They only want a safe place to escape to and live in peace.
I hear all the time about security concerns. The Department of State (DoS) is concerned about admitting Afghan interpreters for fear that al-Qaeda operatives will use the program to enter the United States. This is a loaded excuse. Apparently the State Department is not talking to the FBI, because al-Qaeda is already here. And even if they weren’t, they will not get here through this program. To be sure, there might be unsavory elements among any immigrant population. You don’t think some of the crime problems we have come from Mexican cartels and gangs? But unlike other potential immigrants, our intelligence staffs vet every Afghan interpreter numerous times. We trusted them with mission details, automatic weapons and our lives. The Afghans I sponsor and fully support to come to this country can live under my roof any day. I have vetted them time and again and they have proved themselves to be true, doing so under fire and in the most challenging of circumstances. Who could more deserving of the right to live, work, and enjoy our freedoms then them?
Afghan interpreters are throwing themselves at the altar of freedom only to be left to die. To State Department bureaucrats, these men are pieces of paper. To thousands of American soldiers, however, these men and their families are brothers in arms. They should be allowed to live in peace and freedom.
I know they’ve earned it.
MAJ (ret.) Rusty Bradley deployed to Afghanistan eight times, most recently in 2012. After 21 years in the Army, he medically retired in 2013. Bradley is also the author of the book “Lions of Kandahar.”
Photo credit: isafmedia