November 18th, 2013
07:35 PM ET

A soldier fights to get a battle buddy back from Iraq

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.

Filed under: Security Brief
soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. NNN

    These people served the U.S. military in the war effort as much as any soldier, sailor or Marine, and they come recommended by honorable and responsible American military personnel. The State Department has all the information they need to fast track the approval process for them, and if it doesn't then it does serious and material harm to the posture of military operations anyplace in the world where our troops are dependent on local expertise and guidance to conduct operations, because people will be reluctant to be associated with them. The State Department is clearly strengthening the ability of insurgents to intmidate potential allies the world over.

    November 20, 2013 at 9:07 am | Reply
  2. john smith

    America is the root of all terror. America has invaded sixty countries since world war 2.
    In 1953 America overthrow Iran's democratic government Mohammad Mosaddegh and installed a brutal dictator Shah. America helped Shah of Iran to establish secret police and killed thousands of Iranian people.
    During Iran-Iraq war evil America supported Suddam Hossain and killed millions of Iranian people. In 1989, America, is the only country ever, shot down Iran's civilian air plane, killing 290 people.
    In 2003,America invaded Iraq and killed 1,000,000+ innocent Iraqi people and 4,000,000+ Iraqi people were displaced.
    Now America is a failed state with huge debt. Its debt will be 22 trillion by 2015.

    November 20, 2013 at 1:23 am | Reply
    • DurkaDurka Mohammed Jihad

      Islam is the root of evil

      November 20, 2013 at 4:11 am | Reply
  3. Wayne

    Reblogged this on luvsiesous and commented:

    This topic is difficult for me.

    On the one hand, I feel for people who do want to immigrate to America. And the other hand, we have a lot of people from groups like al-Qaeda who want to sneak into America to harm US.

    What do you think?


    November 20, 2013 at 1:21 am | Reply
  4. Random

    this is a double edged sword. Historically it seems this has been the outcome of many of our situations in the ME. At one point the right thing to do was to open the flood gates and let as many come as wanted to. Sadly over the 25 years of wars most of those people got slaughtered. Doing so now would not be good. I understand the hesitation but , especially when our guys are willing to sponsor the ones they relied on, we should see them as an extremely finite resource. We cant keep doing this. Im sure a percentage of them are spies or plants. But the rest risked their lives to help. Don't leave them hanging. They don't need toget exactly what they want, but we could get them and their families somewhere else.

    November 19, 2013 at 3:26 am | Reply
    • Wayne

      I am also torn by this.

      But, why is the State Department so quick to bring in people like the Boston Bombers? I honestly think it would be best to leave all refugees over there, instead of bringing in 100,000 muslim war refugees per year .....

      I have blogged on this before at ... and it is a difficult conversation. It is difficult. But, it angers me that we focus upon this, and the war refugees south in Mexico are ignored ....

      Yet, I understand the Captain feeling he wants to bring this guy home ....

      What should we do? What do you think?


      November 20, 2013 at 1:19 am | Reply
  5. Portland tony

    We have allowed thousands of nationals from Vietnam, Cambodia Korea etc who fought with our side to immigrate with special Visas......Oh, the Afghans, Iraqis, etc must be Muslim and therefore "suspect"!

    November 18, 2013 at 8:09 pm | Reply
    • Wayne


      If you do not understand that, I feel for you.

      But, the rioting in France, Denmark, Holland, Germany, Spain, and other countries by Muslims is real. As were the Boston Bombers ....

      So, what do we do? It is a difficult decision. But, at the same time, I wonder why it was easy to let the Boston bombers in, and ignore the Russians telling US they were a threat, and it is not easy to let in people who have fought beside our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan?

      It is a hard decision. Don't you think?


      November 20, 2013 at 1:23 am | Reply

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