Afghan and Iraqi wartime allies who fought with us should be named 'Honorary Veterans' by Congress

Two types of people come back from the war in Afghanistan, those who say “that wasn’t for me” and those who come home in love with the country where they fought - it gets in your blood. For the latter, one often leaves a piece of themselves behind in that strange, stark, foreign land. I’m of the latter.

I came home craving to go back - not as some kind of war junkie, but because I fell in love with Afghan people and I wanted to help them. Which is why I’m profoundly torn at the prospect of this truly being a forever war – both the Afghan and the American people deserve an end to this conflict.

But, after 16 years of war – during which I’ve served a combat tour in the Army and several years with the CIA’s Afghan Desk – I’ve come to but one conclusion: I don’t know how or when the fighting in Afghanistan will end, but I do believe that it will end sooner, and on better terms for U.S. national security, when the Taliban and those who support them in Pakistan and elsewhere, become convinced that we will support our Afghan allies as long as they need it. 

The Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS all practice the policy of no forgiveness for “traitors.” They hunt down our translators, fixers and other essential local personnel, hold sham trials at which they find them guilty of being “apostates” and then make snuff films of their murders.

Keeping faith with the interpreters who make it possible for us to do that can help convince them.

I have no idea if President Trump’s surge will work. I pray that it does. I pray that this war ends today.  But however and whenever it ends, the president is right that it is in our national security interest to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist safe haven.

What is guaranteed, however, is that our enduring commitment to Afghanistan, and the Afghan people, will result in the continued need for the Special Immigration Visa (SIV) program – a lifesaving promise we extend to those brave Afghans who voluntarily joined our mutual cause knowing that doing so could likely result in a death sentence.

The Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS all practice the policy of no forgiveness for “traitors.” They hunt down our translators, fixers, intelligence sources, and other essential local personnel, hold sham trials at which they find them guilty of being “apostates” and then make snuff films of their murders.

My Afghan translator - Janis - was the most important factor to my survival in the war. He saved my life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill me in a battle. He was my eyes and ears, my voice to the Afghan people, and their voice to me. He was the critical link – without him I could not have conducted my mission to train and develop the Afghan Army and Police.

The Taliban knew the importance of our translators, it’s why they would target them during battles. Kill the “Terp” and we couldn’t communicate with the world around us, let alone begin to understand it. 

As I watched the speech from Pittsburgh where my organization No One Left Behind just launched a new chapter with the help of Steelers left tackle (#78) and Army Ranger Alejandro Villanueva, I couldn’t help but think of all the Afghans who will continue to stand Shona ba Shona – Shoulder to Shoulder – with us. Will we do right by them and uphold our promise to bring them and their families to safety in exchange for their years of honorable, faithful, and valuable service to our country? Only Congress can answer that.

Congress is currently debating whether or not they should even keep the SIV program. And, should they make it home to America, will our nation pull together to help them begin their new lives? Will we honor them for their profound sacrifice?

These men and women have served our country with the same valor as my fellow soldiers. Veterans’ status is earned through service to our country, not placement in the birth lottery. Just because Janis was born in Afghanistan, doesn’t make his eight years of combat service any less honorable than my one tour. In fact, I’d argue, he’s the real veteran between the two of us. I got to come home at the end of my tour. He went on to the next unit and the next mission.

If we are going to continue our commitment to Afghanistan, I believe two things must occur.

First, Congress must make the SIV program permanent. Currently, it must be reauthorized annually, and, in years past, we’ve nearly lost it.

Second, Congress should declare the Afghan and Iraqi wartime allies who fought with us to be “Honorary Veterans.” I’ve lost count at the number of times I’ve tried to enlist other veteran organizations to help No One Left Behind in our mission to resettle our wartime allies only to be told, “Well, we can’t assist you because they’re not technically veterans.” Yet, no less than General Pete Chiarelli, former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has said that these brave people were “just as much a soldier as I am."

All five post-9/11 Secretaries of Defense have endorsed this idea as a united show of respect for our wartime allies.

Congress has the power to unleash the power of the private sector to help us care for these fellow veterans.

The world is watching. Please stand with No One Left Behind and let Congress know these people deserve our profound thanks by signing our Change.org petition:

https://www.change.org/p/afghan-and-iraqi-translators-saved-american-lives-make-them-honorary-veterans

Matt Zeller is founder of No One Left Behind, a privately funded non-profit. Since 2013, No One Left Behind has resettled 5,000 Afghan and Iraqi combat translators who have received Special Immigrant Visas. They help these brave men and women re-build their lives in communities all across the United States.