The New York Post
February 29, 2008
AS a Marine, I was taught never to leave a comrade-in-arms behind on the battlefield. But that’s exactly what the State Department is doing to men and women who’ve sacrificed everything to help our troops – our Iraqi interpreters.When I last left Iraq 12 months ago, I promised to save two “terps” marked for assassination. Last month, I received a desperate e-mail from one of them: “Sir my situatione is so bad naw please save my life. Please help me sir.”
A year after making my promise, I’m deeply ashamed that I haven’t completed the mission. And I’m not alone: To help “their” terps, Marines and soldiers across the country are battling a bureaucracy that is at times more maddening than the Iraqi insurgency.
Shunning those who risk death to help us deliver freedom is un-American.
On my second tour in Iraq in 2006-7, I was posted to an obscure town outside Ramadi to advise an Iraqi battalion. They were hardy soldiers with a hard mission – roadside bombs were commonplace in the area. My team couldn’t have functioned without our two interpreters, who I’ll call Alex and Reyes.
Soon after a childhood friend accused Alex of collaboration for serving as an interpreter, his brother was tortured to death in a dump. His father disowned him.
Reyes was wounded in a bombing that targeted the US troops for whom he was translating. When he went home to reassure his family, a neighbor saw the neat bandages – and spread the word that Reyes worked for the Americans, making him a marked man.
Iraqi interpreters are men and women without a country. By helping our troops, they’re building a better future for Iraq – but they become prime targets for the enemy, and are forsaken even by ordinary Iraqis. Spies and assassins lurk in every city. The police and the army, with their scams and tribal loyalties, don’t protect the terps – whose loyalty therefore lies with the Americans.
Alex and Reyes – two combat veterans, proven in loyalty and fluent in Arabic – wanted to become US Marines. Given the challenging stateside recruiting environment, I tried to get them fast-tracked – getting a general to write glowing letters of endorsement.
It took me two months after returning home to assemble the initial documents to apply for a special visa, which included two security screenings by the US military.
The packages then made their way through another screening by the Department of Homeland Security – which eventually forwarded them to State for its own lengthy screening and an entirely new set of paperwork.
Then a State Department clerk wrote to say that both “interrupters” needed new Iraqi passports. It was already clear that interrupting was exactly what State thought the terps were doing.
Bizarrely, State said the new passports were needed to prevent fraud. Yet State knows full well that anyone can get an Iraqi passport by forking over enough cash – top terrorists have two or three.
But you also have to apply in person, waiting in chaotic lines at one of just a few ministry offices. As marked men, the terps had to dress in sweat suits and infiltrate their hometowns to survive in the hours-long wait.
Alex had to pay $750 to get his new passport. Reyes was left in tears when told to come back with his father (who’s dead) to prove his identity – or more cash.
Nine months into the whole process, State e-mailed Alex, telling him to report to Jordan with $380 for a visa interview. Another State e-mail informed Reyes that, since he’d served in the Iraqi Army, State needed his military record for its review.
State’s requirement of Reyes – finding his Iraqi Ministry of Defense records – is dangerous, meaningless and probably impossible. Trying to get the file would expose him to assassins, and just about the only file you can easily (again, for cash) get from Iraqi government clerks is a forged one.
The problem for Alex was getting into Jordan – where most Iraqis are turned away at the border. (The lucky ones get herded into bribery-infested processing pens like cattle.) I asked State to help him get into Jordan – and last month was told he could pick up an “entry letter” – inside Jordan.
Meanwhile, though, State had cancelled his interview. The closest date it had available would come after his State Department security clearance had expired. He had to start over.
Now I understand why some of my peers have established underground railroads to Jordan – sneaking their terps through like hunted slaves. They’ve lost faith in their own government.
Iraq vets and terps now call State’s paper maze the “waiting to die list” – because it requires interpreters to risk death to purchase passports and cross the border undisguised.
Congress has held hearings. Reporters have done newspaper and TV stories; there’s even a play about State’s obscene mess. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the top US civilian in Iraq, has complained, citing “major bottlenecks” in a terse memo to State.
President Bush has a duty to intervene. The honorable remedy is to trust the US military: Let a returning brigade that wants to bring some of its interpreters home simply fill out the visa paperwork on base, then carry them along on the aircraft.
Whom should America trust more, the judgment of a Marine or Army brigade commander – or a faceless bureaucrat in Nebraska or Amman?
Owen West, a commodities trader, has served two tours in Iraq with the Marines.