‘No one left behind’ means interpreters too

As the Taliban moved back into power in Afghanistan, veterans across America posted heartbreaking messages on social media. The themes are clear: They are wondering if their service counted, they are asking if the sacrifice of people they love like family was all for nothing and they are expressing urgent fear about those we left behind.

Yes, we left our own behind. Those we left behind grew up in Iraq and Afghanistan and the surrounding areas. They are people who took continual risks, whose families made extreme sacrifices, and in so doing they became tied by bonds as close as blood to our service members. One of these interpreters goes by the call sign “Johnny Walker.”

“JW” as our Navy SEALS refer to him, is “a brother in arms” whose courage and ability to provide insight and intel had much to do with our victories on the ground. He is so beloved by the SEALS that he was given a Trident for his service with the SEAL teams.

JW and his family paid a great price for his service to our country. His brother was executed in the street, shot in the face three times. His wife and children went into hiding for several years. As he explains: “They had no life. My kids couldn’t go to school or the mall or the candy shop. My family had to move every two weeks to keep from getting killed.”

JW himself has survived multiple attempts on his life, both on missions and when driving home to see his family in broad daylight.

In Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s powerful documentary film “Korengal,” U.S. Army Sgt. Kyle Steiner says this about the bonds between fellow warriors: “You might have your family’s blood running through your veins, but you didn’t shed it with them.” Such is the case with our Navy SEALS and men like JW. One of the SEAL team leaders, Jason Tuschen, started working to get Johnny out of the country in 2006 due to continuous threats on his life.

Chaos at Kabul airport

Crowds swarmed the runway at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul as people desperately tried to get flights out of the country in the hours after the Taliban took over the Afghanistan capital. U.S. forces secured the military side of the airport amid tense scenes of Afghans doing anything they could to get on a plane, including rushing aircraft and clinging to landing gear.

Tuschen describes a multiyear process fraught with delay after delay, a continual quagmire of bureaucratic inefficiency. As he explains: “It took the efforts of hundreds of people over more than three years. I’d fill out the paperwork for a special visa for Johnny and his family, and it would take months to get a response. The response was that we had forgotten to cross a ‘t’ or dot an ‘i’ — so we had to start all over, again and again.”

The process took a serious mental toll on Tuschen, who said: “I had a continual feeling of dread. Every single day I was afraid to check my email for fear that I would get a message that said, ‘Thank you for your efforts but Johnny and his family were killed last night.’ ”

Eventually, the toll became so great that Tuschen and several of his SEAL brothers agreed to smuggle Johnny and his family out of the country if they didn’t get resolution by the end of a particular tour. Their desperate plan was to put Johnny and his family into a shipping container with ventilation holes, food and water, and try to get him into the U.S. on a cargo plane. Had they acted on this, they understood that the penalty would be a court martial, a dishonorable discharge, and several years in a federal penitentiary. Tuschen said, “I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t do everything in my power to get Johnny and his family to safety – everyone on the SEAL teams felt the same way.”

Such is their love for those who risk their lives and spill their blood with us. They are not “foreign assets” — these interpreters are us. Our failure to protect them is causing serious moral injury today for veterans across the country. And breaking our promise to leave no one behind is endangering our place of trust for future conflicts. As Tuschen points out: “This is a pattern. We did it in Iraq, and we did it in Vietnam. We are leaving our brothers and sisters behind where they will be hunted down and slaughtered.”

One of our mutual contacts has been working for five years to get another interpreter out of Afghanistan, with no movement. They are currently in hiding. The Taliban have taken over the cellphone towers and banned the use of smartphones. The interpreter is in a dire situation, and the individual’s hope of escaping to safety is dwindling.

As JW explains: “These people have nothing to stop them now from hunting down and killing anyone who supported the Americans. And that’s what they are going to do.”

In JW’s case, after three years of bureaucratic delays, a visa was approved. He and his family have now been relocated to the United States. He recalls landing in Chicago and taking his son for a walk around the local Target store. He said: “It might be a small thing for an American to walk with their child in public, but for me, I had not been able to walk in public with any of my children for many years. My dream is a simple one: to be able to live where we can be safe and free.”

We can urge our elected leaders to dedicate resources to getting our interpreters and other allies to safety. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
We can urge our elected leaders to dedicate resources to getting our interpreters and other allies to safety. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

During our conversation about the dire situation of our interpreters, Tuschen made an interesting observation: “Why is it so much easier to come across our border than to get safe passage to America for someone who has risked their life repeatedly for our nation?”

After my conversations with Johnny and Tusch, I have a few questions of my own:

  • Why are we repeating the same history of leaving behind those who have become family to our troops — in war and after war?
  • Why can we not see that our failure to protect our interpreters and allies as a core part of the withdrawal effort compromises national security, erodes trust in the U.S. government and creates deep moral injuries for our troops?
  • If we say that we support our troops, what can we do to right this injustice?

I don’t have answers to the first two questions, but to the third, one thing we can do is call our elected members of Congress and express urgent concern about those we have left behind. We can urge our elected leaders to dedicate resources to getting our interpreters and other allies to safety; if not to the U.S., then at least to a country where they will not be hunted down and slaughtered because of their support of our nation.

Don’t know how to find your elected leaders? Visit this website. You’ll quickly learn who your elected representative is and what phone number you can call to make your voice heard.

If you care, please take action. You’ll be supporting our troops if you do. They need us to take action to protect their brothers and sisters, people like Johnny Walker and his family.

Shauna “Doc” Springer is an expert on psychological trauma, military transition, suicide prevention and close relationships. She is the author of “Warrior: How to Support Those Who Protect Us” and the co-author of “Beyond the Military: A Leader’s Handbook for Warrior Reintegration.”

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