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The Wagner Review: How We Have Failed Our Interpreters

About once a year, I get the same message from one of the soldiers I served with: “I’m trying to help my former interpreter move to the United States, what can be done?” Sadly my answer is almost always the same: “very little.”

The process the interpreters have to go through to come to a nation that many have put their lives on the line for is beyond convoluted. Many of these interpreters can’t even get through the miles of paperwork and those that do face years of waiting in Iraq or Afghanistan, in harms way, for approval.

My soldiers and I had one of the most rewarding jobs in the modern military, Civil Affairs. Basically, this boiled down to working with the local population on reconstruction projects and being the primary liaison between the local population and military commanders. As such, our job had us directly interacting with the Iraqi population on a daily basis. My Arabic then, and even now after a year of Arabic in college, is barely conversational and the use of interpreters was essential.

In my experience these interpreters were some of the bravest men and women I served with and I was fortunate to work with them. They put themselves in harms way with very little protection, very little money and did it all to make their country a better place. When I went on patrol I always had three things with me – my body armor, my weapon, and my interpreter. Interpreters can make or break a mission, especially a civil affairs mission. Their skill could mean the difference between a good or bad relationship with the local populace. And a good interpreter can save your life.

I had one interpreter who was worth his weight in gold. He was a little older, probably in his 50s, and originally from Baghdad. He was kind and incredibly soft spoken, until we needed him not to be. But for us, more importantly, he was an engineer who helped us create statements of work for many projects around Mosul. Translating the highly technical specifications that we needed from English to Arabic took a very special type of interpreter – and there was no question that ours got the job done.

There have been so many great interpreters who have served the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan only to be left behind in a war zone where their service to America is a huge liability that could potentially cost them their life. Unfortunately, since we left Iraq – and as we leave Afghanistan – there are no good estimates on how many interpreters lost their lives because of their involvement with Coalition Forces.

Worse, the process to apply for a visa to immigrate to the United States, a nation many of these interpreters served honorably, is incredibly long and difficult. For interpreters who have made it through the process it could take years, all the while their lives and the lives of their families are in danger. And these, the ones who are ultimately able to make the move, are the lucky ones. Far more are left behind to meet whatever fate is in store for them – likely intimidation or death. There are numerous organizations that help interpreters with legal representation, such at the Iraq Refugee Assistance Project and The List Project, but broader advocacy on this issue has been slow.

As a nation we owe a debt a gratitude to these interpreters and should afford them every opportunity to resettle in America. The current system is beyond broken. In a time when our nation would bend over backwards for our veterans, we are doing less than nothing for those who ensured – in no small part – our security while in Iraq and Afghanistan. We owe them so much more.

Jason is a graduate of the University of Washington and a veteran of the war in Iraq where he served in 2004 as part of the U.S. Army. Currently he is the Director of External Program Relations at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). All views are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IAVA or any other entity. You can find his other views on Twitter at @jasonhansman

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