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SPOTLIGHT
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We've got a promise to keep

Published on -7/10/2014, 9:33 AM

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What if you had a chance to prevent a national tragedy?

No kidding, all cynicism and politics aside, what if you -- yes, you -- could help America keep its promise to Afghans who translated for U.S. troops? The bad news is if you don't, the Taliban will hunt them down and chop off their heads with their children watching. The good news is we've got a chance to do the right thing because of Capt. Matt Zeller, and he needs help.

A National Guard intelligence officer, Zeller almost was out of ammo in a firefight with the Taliban in southern Afghanistan when his interpreter, Janis Shinwari, saved his life. During the next few years in other firefights, Shinwari saved five other service members. Shinwari had our back in Afghanistan, and Zeller promised to watch his.

For that, the Taliban marked him for assassination.

"In 2009, my name was added to the Taliban kill list. They were trying to kill me," Shinwari said. "They had my description, all my information. They were sending messages to my number and telling me they were going to kill me. They said I was a traitor to Islam and an American spy."

You didn't have to pick up a gun in a fight with the Taliban for them to want to murder you. All you had to do was translate for the American troops. Any interpreter was added to the death list. Other interpreters, or 'terps in military slang, received "night letters" containing death threats the Taliban would throw over the walls of military bases at night.

These locals helped our troops on the explicit promise we would protect them, but lately -- with American troops leaving -- it's been hard for them to cash in on that promise. Former Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general who served in Afghanistan, ordered embassy staff to deny visa applications because losing "our partners, the Afghan employees" could hurt military morale.

Also, no embassy employee wants to be responsible for letting a terrorist into the country, so all locals are suspects, even one with heroic credentials such as Shinwari who wanted for years to get a visa. The Taliban even called in an anonymous tip that Shinwari was an al-Qaida spy, delaying his family's escape.

But always, there was Zeller. He buttonholed more senators and congressman than LBJ, pleaded Shinwari's case to the media, and begged -- literally begged -- the State Department to save his friend's life. Eventually, after passing four polygraph tests administered by the CIA, Shinwari was allowed to move to the D.C. area with his wife and two children.

Zeller was not done. He raised $20,000 to ease the family's transition, furnishing his apartment and buying clothing for his family. Zeller bought groceries, took the Shinwaris to doctors and paid the bills.

Despite all that help, there was money left over from the original $20,000, which gave Shinwari an idea. Why not use this money to help other translators stuck in Afghanistan?

That's when Zeller started No One Left Behind, a project to help other interpreters like Shinwari who still were in Afghanistan. Zeller estimates he has helped 30 interpreters and their families get special immigrant visas and resettle in this country.

Zeller never has hesitated to reach into his own pocket to buy groceries or pay the rent for a former interpreter, because how could he not help those who willingly risked being beheaded for him? What's $100 to Zeller to repay that debt?

Now he is almost broke. He has just enough money to incorporate No One Left Behind as a non-profit. He's willing to risk the rest of his money because more interpreters need our help to escape the Taliban and come to America where no one wants to drag them out of their homes and chop off their heads.

This is where you come in. Go to Zeller's website at NoOneLeft.org and give what you think it's worth to save their lives. This, right here, is your chance to keep our promise.

What are you going to do?

Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner.

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