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4 Star Army General: Afghan Interpreters ‘As Veteran As I Am’

Afghan interpreter
U.S. Marine 1st Lt. Zachary Bennett talks with Afghan interpreter who goes by HM, during a joint patrol in Helmand province in 2009 / AP
• June 28, 2016 4:16 pm

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A former top Army commander called on lawmakers to bring more Afghan veteran interpreters who worked with U.S. personnel overseas into the United States.

Peter Chiarelli (Ret.), a former Army vice chief of staff general, stressed the importance of helping the interpreters at a small gathering of military personnel, lawmakers, and donors in Washington D.C. to raise money for No One Left Behind, a veteran-owned non-profit that serves interpreters.

"I can’t tell you how many times I went into the confines of the [Forward Operating Base] at night, only to find out that an interpreter who went back to his house that night had been murdered," he said. "These are real no kidding heroes, they are as veteran as I am veteran and they deserve to treated like heroes."

Chiarelli said he was disappointed that higher level officers had not done more to help interpreters. The U.S. program to give visas began in 2006. Several thousand interpreters and their families have since been admitted to the United States, but more than thousands of Iraqis and Afghans remain at some stage in the application process.

"It should have started with the higher levels of the officer corps and it’s quite frankly embarrassing," Chiarelli said.

No One Left Behind was founded by Matt Zeller, a former Army intelligence officer whose interpreter, Janis Shinwari, saved his life during a firefight in Afghanistan. After four years waiting for a visa, Zeller was able to help re-locate Shinwari to the United States.

The experience prompted Zeller to start the small organization run by four staff members and 250 volunteers across eight cities that has helped resettle 500 families since 2014.

These interpreters face dire conditions back in Afghanistan after serving multiple tours with U.S. servicemen and personnel.

They "will not be accepted by their friends and neighbors because they have been ex-communicated by the society around them" due to their service with the United States, Zeller said.

"This is a strategic importance because I promise you, we’re being watched right now in how we take care of these folks," Chiarelli said.

The interpreters go through stringent background investigations to receive U.S. visas. Not only are they given random polygraph exams during their service to the U.S. government, they must submit to extensive vetting from three government departments in order to get a visa. It takes an average of three and a half years to get cleared, says Zeller.

The interpreters use Special Immigrant Visas to enter the United States, which has been stalled, after the 2017 Senate defense authorization bill failed to grant more visas from the State Department earlier this month.

"They've earned their spot here, they served our nation at war and quite frankly the only difference between me and them is that is that I had the privilege of winning the birth lottery," Zeller said, adding that lawmakers should "have the courage and conviction do the right thing, but if we get this wrong it’s going to haunt us for generations."