By Jake Tapper and Eric Marrapodi
It is military creed that you do not leave your battle buddies behind. But in many ways the U.S. government is doing just that.
Thousands of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who served U.S. soldiers in those respective wars – not only translating, but serving as eyes and ears for troops – have been left behind, and in some cases were killed. Those trying to avoid this fate by pursuing visas to come to this country have been trapped in a maze of U.S. bureaucracy, weighed down by post-9/11 security.
The Washington Post last week wrote in an editorial, "We find it incomprehensible that the State Department is dragging its feet in providing these interpreters with U.S. visas."
Here is one such story.
For years former Army Capt. Brian Larson has been waging a battle, not in Iraq, where he served from 2006 to 2008, but against the State Department bureaucracy and red tape.
Larson said his job in Iraq would have been impossible without the critical help of his Iraqi interpreter, for security reasons we are calling him Sam.
"He was part of our team, and it feels like you left one of your soldiers behind," Larson said.
Because he helped Larson, Sam's life is now at real risk. Every day, Larson worries he'll get that tragic call that Sam is dead.
The U.S. promised interpreters like Sam that they could come to the U.S. on special immigration visas if they are persecuted for having helped U.S. servicemen and women.
Congress approved up to 7,500 such visas for Afghans, and 25,000 for Iraqis. But only a fraction have been given out. The U.S. requires that those applying prove they are really in danger, so far granting only 1,600 or so visas in Afghanistan, and 6,600 in Iraq.
And in the meantime?
On this Facebook page for Afghan interpreters seeking visas you can see Mustafa – he worked with Americans in Khost Province, the post says. A few weeks ago the Taliban kidnapped and killed him.
One Facebook user commented, writing, "Dear American bureaucrats take your time in administrative process no need to hurry its only ours and our families lives to lose, and maybe that's good news for you, it reduces pressure on you. Insurgents visa is faster than yours."
Larson is terrified Sam faces the same fate.
"Without getting him out of there it's a broken promise. And it's a daily threat. The threat to his life would not exist if we hadn't been there and he hadn't chosen to serve with us," said Larson.
Buried in red tape, Larson has been working with Sam and his family to bring them to the United States.
"Their current living situation, they're on the run, they're in hiding outside of Baghdad, taken in by a sympathetic family," said Larson. "They're relying on generosity of others, essentially, to hide him, and help provide for his family on a day-to-day basis."
At one point Sam's visa application lapsed, when officials repeatedly failed to reach him. Turns out he'd been shot and was in a hospital, Larson said.
"The United States is not making good, certainly not rapidly enough on the issue of bringing these people who helped us and literally saved American lives, to this country," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said.
McCain and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, are working to cut through the red tape and hold the State Department accountable.
"There are bureaucratic delays which are absolutely unacceptable. Hopefully our legislative action agreed to by every member of Congress, will move both the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department in a much more rapid fashion," said McCain.
"How can we refuse to let these people come to the United States after what they did to help Americans? It's just not fair and it's not acceptable," said Shaheen.
McCain and Shaheen are proposing a time limit of nine months on the application process, and greater transparency on visa decisions for interpreters.
The Obama administration argues that it inherited a flawed system and has worked hard to improve it.
We have a responsibility to the American people to make sure we have a proper vetting process, that any of this goes through," said State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki.
Psaki points out that last year saw the biggest increase in the number of interpreters and their families granted these visas.
"All of this is being done with the important balance in mind of helping people who helped U.S. men and women serving around the world, while also having the proper vetting process in place to ensure we're not bringing anyone into the United States that would do American citizens harm," said Psaki.
U.S. government officials say the reason Iraqi and Afghan interpreters represent a small fraction of those taken in from Vietnam and the Balkans, is the enhanced security checks in the post-9/11 era, as well as some evidence that al Qaeda has targeted these programs.
Larson hopes it will all be soon enough for the battle buddy he said was left behind.
"He's more than earned this. Everyone who fights in war gets to come home," said Larson.