‘I Was Supposed To Die In Afghanistan’: Troops Recount Their Efforts To Save Interpreters Left In War’s Breach

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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The U.S. draw downs in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in most of those who fought abroad returning home, however, there are thousands left behind who risked their lives helping the coalition in both countries.

Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who aided U.S. military personnel are often marked for death in their home countries. Many of these people served side-by-side with U.S. soldiers on the battlefield, fighting, bleeding and dying with them. Though many of them served the U.S. honorably at risk to their own lives, thousands are stuck in Afghanistan and Iraq, trying desperately to come to the country they once served.

Matt Zeller and Alex Plitsas, both former U.S. Army soldiers and combat veterans, speak of their interpreters like they would fellow soldiers. Both credit their interpreters with saving their lives. During interviews with the Daily Caller News Foundation, both men spoke of their “brother,” exemplifying the bonds the men forged in combat. Zeller and Plitsas both returned home to the U.S., but they did not forget the comrades they left behind.

For most interpreters, the day they sign up to aid U.S. forces is the day they write their own death warrants. Zeller, who now runs No One Left Behind, a non-profit organization that aids interpreters relocating to the U.S., says that most of the interpreters still in-country have been “marked for death.”

Zeller created his organization when Washington stymied his attempt to arrange for his interpreter, Janis, to get asylum in the U.S. Zeller met Janis as a young lieutenant who had just arrived in Afghanistan. He recalls not thinking much of the meeting initially. Just days later, Janis would save his life.

“On April 28, 2008, I was supposed to die in Afghanistan,” Zeller told TheDCNF.

During a patrol, Zeller and his unit came under fire from a large Taliban force. He quickly realized that a 50-strong Taliban element had maneuvered on his pinned down squad. With communications knocked out and his unit pinned on a hill, the situation quickly became dire. Zeller noted how he blinked at his digital watch: “I thought I would die at 4:50 pm.”

After a long exchange of fire, a mortar round exploded near Zeller, sending him into a crater and separating him from his unit.

Just before the fight reached a point of no return, Zeller recalls seeing a convoy of armored humvees emerge from the town to the unit’s rear. Greeting him out of the window of one of the vehicles was a grizzled sergeant with a thick South Carolinian accent asking him if he could be of service.

“I told his Mark 19 to fire on the ridge line,” says Zeller, referring to the Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher that was mounted on one of the humvees.

Thinking he was safe, Zeller breathed a sigh of relief and watched the Mark 19 unleash a barrage of 40 mm grenades on the enemy, when all of a sudden he felt someone shove him to the ground just before hearing the unmistakable crack of AK-47 fire.

“Who the fuck are you?” said Zeller looking over to the Afghan man who knocked him down.

That man was Janis, and he knocked Zeller out of the line of fire of two Taliban fighters who were poised to shoot him from behind, barely missing him. Had Janis been just a second late, Zeller is confident he would have been killed only 10 days into his deployment.

Zeller explained that when the U.S. entered Afghanistan and Iraq, no visa program existed for the interpreters that U.S. forces would inevitably need. In order to remedy the situation, a program was created for each theater that would allow the Department of Defense to provide visas allowing interpreters to come to the United States. For interpreters in Iraq, 25,000 allotted visas could be given out at a maximum rate of 5,000 per year. In Afghanistan, 9,000 were allotted, at a maximum of 1,500 per year beginning in 2009.

Currently, the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Iraqis allots 2,500 visas for interpreters applying after January 1, 2014. In Afghanistan, a total of 7,000 will be given out to those who apply by December 31, 2016. A State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told theDCNF that around 10,000 Afghans are currently in the process.

“We are committed to supporting those who — at great personal risk — have helped us,” said the State Department official.

The problem faced by thousands of interpreters desperately avoiding death is the complex bureaucratic process required to obtain a visa through the program, said Zeller.  First, the interpreter must prove one total year of service to the U.S. during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. In the National Defense Authorization Act for 2016, however, the service commitment for Afghans applying after September 30, 2015 was increased to two years. For the Iraqi program, applications had to be received by September 30, 2014, for consideration.

Zeller says the year must be considered “honorable and valuable,” which essentially means an officer from the interpreter’s unit must write an official letter of recommendation on their behalf. Additionally, the interpreter must have a written letter from the hiring contractor, a stipulation where most run into their first pitfall.

“Multiple contractors held these contracts throughout the war,” explains Zeller, some of which may no longer exist, much less still have a presence in the country.

Once the letters are secured, interpreters must then prove that they are in duress by staying in their home country. Then the administrative processing begins, which consists mostly of a national security background check from multiple agencies.

The official said those applying to the program are “subject to all standard screening and vetting requirements.” The background check is conducted by multiple law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including the Department of State.

According to Zeller, the problem many interpreters run into at this point is that each agency performs its background check independently of the others, with no agency taking the lead in managing each case. He notes that while the Department of Homeland Security is technically the ultimate authority, its secretary has no authority over the other agencies in their respective processes.

The official told theDCNF that resources across the government have been devoted to aiding in the application process, while the State Department is “striving for even greater efficiencies and transparency.”

Zeller said the problem emanates from lack of communication between the agencies. For example, if the FBI gives a thumbs up on an applicant’s package, it then assigns a time limit on how long the verification may be valid. The package could then end up at Homeland Security to conduct their investigation. If DHS takes longer than the FBI’s time limit, the process must start over again, essentially creating a cycle in which Zeller says as many as thousands of interpreters could be stuck.

Fortunately for Janis, Zeller was able to help secure his visa after navigating the tumultuous process. He now lives a new life in the U.S., safe and sound.

Plitsas and his interpreter, who is referred to under the pseudonym Imad for his protection, are not as fortunate. He explains that Imad is currently stuck in the “administrative processing” phase. Their story mirrors that of Janis and Zeller, except for the fact that Imad still lives in danger on a daily basis.

“We met when I was doing the transfer of authority for the team that relieved me at a forward operating base in Baghdad in January of 2008,” said Plitsas.

“We were inseparable afterward. We lived and worked together for nearly a year after that. He would come out on two patrols every day with me in various areas of Baghdad.”

Before long, Plitsas and Imad’s friendship would endure the battle of Sadr City.

Sadr City is a suburban neighborhood in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. It became a flash point for Shia insurgent activity in 2008 when coalition forces engaged in an operation to neutralize mortar and rocket attacks aimed at the coalition-held portions of the Baghdad. The urban combat of the battle would pose a deadly challenge for Plitsas, one he may not have survived if it was not for Imad.

“He and I were shot at on a regular basis and he helped me navigate the battlefield so I didn’t get killed by the Iranian-backed militias,” said Plitsas.

Plitsas and Imad survived Sadr city, with Plitsas returning to the U.S. with his soldiers to continue his civilian life. He no longer has to worry about getting hit by an errant bullet or being caught in the blast of a rocket-propelled grenade. Imad, however, was left behind in Iraq and has to watch his back just as much as he did when he was working with U.S. forces.

Whether it is ISIS forces catching him or an Iranian-backed Shia militia under the guise of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) finding out about his past, Imad is under constant threat, according to Plitsas. All he has is the hope that he can escape to America, and a pending application that has gone nowhere for far too long.

When asked about how the State Department tracks the interpreters still abroad, the State Department told theDCNF that “while we do monitor the progress of each case in the SIV application process, the State Department does not track the whereabouts of applicants for visas.”

Plitsas continues to do what he can to fight for Imad, and the two keep in touch through social media and email whenever possible. In coordination with Zeller’s organization and other aid groups, he has spoken to officials across the government spectrum in the hope that they can get Imad, and other interpreters who served U.S. forces, to safety in the U.S.

For Plitsas, leaving no man behind is an oath he shares with Imad as much as he would any other soldier. And until Imad is safe in the U.S., he intends to do his best to honor it.

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