Trump Left These Men Behind. One Soldier Made It His Mission to Save Them.
Inside one man’s quest to save interpreters who risked their lives helping American soldiers abroad
Matt Zeller steps into the air-conditioned sanctum of the U.S. Senate offices, wondering if today will be any different. He will meet with five senators this morning and afternoon, each of whom has strong opinions on Zeller’s work and life calling. His face is flushed from the summer heat and a little bloated from stress. He puts his cellphone, wallet, and keys through security.
When I met Zeller last winter, he looked not exactly young but like a man coming into his own, with the taut frame and footnote-citing erudition of, say, a promising lawyer who’d just appeared before the Supreme Court. Now the 36-year-old wears all of his concerns. Ulcers line his esophagus, a rash spreads under his right cheek, and his physique carries extra weight. He is determined, however, walking quickly in his pinstripe suit even though he’s early for his 10 a.m. appointment with Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania.
“He doesn’t want to talk to me,” says Zeller in the elevator up.
He reaches Toomey’s office, and, as predicted, the senator’s legislative aides say they alone will see Zeller. They promise to pass along relevant information to Toomey. Zeller smirks. The group moves to a conference room and closes the door behind them.
Zeller is lobbying on behalf of a bill that might save thousands of people from execution and also save the nonprofit Zeller co-founded. To the uninitiated, the bill Zeller champions can sound arcane, and so he often feels the best way to illustrate the legislation’s power is with a story. It begins like this.
The Zeller clan has fought in every U.S. war dating back to the Revolution. On 9/11, Matt Zeller was in Clinton, New York, a sophomore at Hamilton College who realized that money and prestige alone could not rescue the powerful people trapped in the Twin Towers. What seemed to matter in the hours after the towers fell and then in the months and years following was to lead a life that honored those victims, where “this type of evil” didn’t happen again, he said.
By 2008, Zeller had earned a bachelor’s degree from Hamilton and graduate degrees from Syracuse in public administration and international relations. He was stationed in the province of Ghazni, in central Afghanistan, with a dual assignment as a U.S. Army intelligence officer and CIA operative. The CIA would not respond to questions about Zeller’s service, but his Army unit’s mission was to train the Afghan security forces — its army and law enforcement agencies. The thinking went that if local cops kept the peace, the populace wouldn’t turn to radical groups that promised order but fomented terrorism. Zeller’s Army job basically required heading to various outposts in Ghazni to see if the Afghan personnel were actually doing the job the U.S. soldiers had trained them for.
One day, the convoy of Zeller and 14 other U.S. soldiers in three heavily fortified vehicles was told to head to a district center called Waghez and then to a tiny outpost beyond that in an arid stretch of land high in the mountains. The soldiers made it to Waghez but then got lost. The dirt road they were traveling became a creek stream. The maps they consulted were the wrong scale: 1:100,000 instead of 1:50,000, on which the Army had trained. The soldiers eventually ditched the creek stream for another dirt road and then asked a farmer how to get back to the highway. His directions led them through an agrarian village that Zeller had never visited. It was a strange place, where no farmers were tilling the ground even though it was a beautiful spring day — a place where no people at all, in fact, stepped out of their squat homes to greet the Americans. A ghost town.
Zeller heard a concussive boom. He looked toward the blast, ahead of him, and saw the lead vehicle, a so-called MRAP, already high in the air and then its engine and front tire crashing down mere feet from his vehicle — clearly the result of an IED.
Tense moments passed: 30 seconds before the captain in the lead MRAP said all soldiers were alive. Ten minutes before those soldiers had repositioned themselves within and around Zeller’s MRAP and the medic said many of the men had suffered severe concussions and new orders from the base came in to not abandon the destroyed vehicle. One hour before the cavalry, in the form of the 101st Airborne, said they were on their way to the site.
The soldiers assessed their situation. They were in a valley of wheat fields on the outskirts of the village. A mountainous cliff rose above them to the west. To the north, a line of trees separated the soldiers from the rest of the village. If a fight broke out amid those open fields, in that low-lying valley, the soldiers would be easy targets.
Time slowed and fear crept in: Was that motorcyclist from the village in the cherry-red helmet circling them, committing their positions to memory? Was the paterfamilias who briefly popped out of the squat compound nearest to Zeller equipped with a military-grade radio? Were the father’s prepubescent daughters, who walked their sheep before the Americans, counting each and every soldier as they moved back and forth?
The soldiers spread out on the dirt, scanning everything, fingers on triggers. Sweat poured down their faces. It was 110 degrees, and they wore 70 pounds of gear. They made a plan: Each soldier would get 10 minutes inside the other undamaged MRAP to cool down in the air conditioning while stocking up on water and ammo for the group.
Zeller’s turn came. He raced to the MRAP and felt cool enough to step back out after five minutes inside. He lit a cigarette.
A second boom. Zeller flew threw the air, a rocket-propelled grenade torching the MRAP he’d been standing next to and knocking him unconscious. When he came to, the dirt around him hopped with machine-gun fire. The fight had begun.
“I’m one of the translators,” replied the Afghan, calmly glancing around before adding, “You’re not safe.”
His training took over. There was at least one machine gun in the ridgeline above Zeller to the west. The Taliban could see him much better than he could see them, though, so Zeller fired indiscriminately as he ran for cover behind one of the smaller buildings in the village, where other U.S. soldiers were located. As he ran, a gunner in the U.S. forces’ undamaged Humvee fired hundreds of big, .50-caliber rounds into the ridge. The Taliban were as relentless as the Americans: more machine-gun fire and more RPGs and from new positions until it felt like a 360-degree fight. There were about 50 Taliban insurgents and 15 U.S. soldiers.
“I’m really fucking scared,” Zeller shouted at his captain, Jason Dean.
“Yeah, I know, buddy. I’m scared too,” Dean said. “Just keep fighting, and we’ll get out of this.”
The Taliban fired artillery, the first mortar splashing up earth in front of the Americans, then another cratering and raining debris behind them, then a third exploding a little bit closer before the soldiers, and then a fourth landing still closer behind. “They’re bracketing us,” Zeller thought. He and others maneuvered to new positions. The fighting went on like this for an hour: artillery, machine guns, and RPGs from above, behind, and straight on. At one point, a mortar exploded near Zeller, and the force threw him into an actual Afghan gravesite.
When Zeller came to after that, he had one thought: “I’m gonna die.” He was unharmed by the blast but knew there would be another. The artillery was now as unrelenting as the machine gun from the ridgeline. Zeller checked his watch: 4:50 in the afternoon, Monday, April 28, 2008. He was 26 years old, and he thought he was about to die.
He said a prayer and, resigned to fight until the end, stood up, rifle butt at his shoulder, staring down the scope.
“Zeller: Friendlies to your rear! Don’t shoot!” a voice said.
He turned and saw three armored Humvees: more soldiers from their base in Ghazni. They’d defied orders and rushed to the battle site. They were there to save their buddies even though it meant leaving only four men to protect the whole of the base back in Ghazni.
One sergeant, Mark Robinson from South Carolina, shouted at Zeller, “We heard y’all were in a pickle!” Robinson had brought a Humvee with an MK19 attached, a machine gun that fires grenades — “a battle-fucking-ending weapon,” as the Army liked to call it. Zeller told Robinson to fire the MK19 at the western ridgeline and turned to watch it rain death. Then something pitched him ahead once more into the gravesite.
Zeller was sure he was shot through. He was sure he was dead. From above, he saw the strangest sight: an Afghan staring at him, wearing an old U.S. uniform — the jungle camouflage of the 1980s — and carrying a Soviet-era AK-47.
“Who the fuck are you?” Zeller asked.
“I’m Janis. I’m one of the translators,” replied the Afghan, calmly glancing around before adding, “You’re not safe.”
Bullets snipped and hit dirt behind him, tiny plumes of dust everywhere. Zeller scoffed. “Understatement of the year,” he thought. Zeller extended his hand, and Janis pulled him from the gravesite. Just beyond it were two dead Taliban fighters.
In an instant, Zeller pieced together what had happened. He’d wanted so badly to see the MK19 destroy the western ridgeline that he’d failed to notice the two Taliban fighters approaching behind him. This Janis guy had recognized the danger Zeller had been in and, without a word, had run toward him, bodychecked him to the ground, and killed the two insurgents before they could kill Zeller.
Some Afghan interpreter, some guy not aligned with Zeller’s team — a stranger, even — had just saved Zeller’s life.
The door to Toomey’s conference room opens, and Zeller is all sturdy handshakes and appreciative goodbyes for the senator’s legislative aides. He walks out and barely waits for the door to close before letting loose his frustration.
“I don’t think they’ll go for it,” he says.
Zeller moves even faster as he relays the details of the meeting. The aides had said that not every veterans organization was behind Zeller’s proposed bill, including the Pennsylvania chapter of the VFW.
“My retort to that is that the VFW is not representative of today’s veterans,” says Zeller, stepping into the elevator. He starts to riff on this idea and then stops himself. Sen. Joe Donnelly of Indiana is next on the agenda. Zeller shouldn’t muddy his thinking with what-could-have-been bon mots. He needs to move on. He needs to focus.
Zeller saw Janis the day after the firefight, eating breakfast alone in the dining hall at the U.S. base in Ghazni. Without the combat gear, Janis appeared thinner than Zeller, but he was taller, too, bending his frame to his food. Janis swept his hair back, and the dark locks curled near his shoulders.
“Can I sit with you?” Zeller asked.
“Sure,” Janis replied.
Zeller had prepared himself for war, for firefights, for the possibility even of his life being saved by another soldier’s. He just never thought that soldier would be an Afghan interpreter. Those guys weren’t technically supposed to carry weapons.
“I want to know everything about you,” Zeller blurted out. “I don’t even know your full name.”
His name was Janis Shinwari. His father had been the head of the Afghan Air Force before the Soviet invasion in 1979, and Janis had known war his whole life. As a five-year-old during the Soviet occupation, he had been standing in line with his mother outside a cinema in Kabul when he felt and heard the blowback of something powerful: a mujahideen-placed bomb. Janis saw people fleeing the cinema and screaming, some with no hands and bleeding everywhere and others crying for the dead they carried out. This was one of his first memories.
The Afghan civil war was even worse. Artillery fire shelled Janis’ school and then later his home as the Shinwaris ate dinner. They survived and moved from Kabul to Jalalabad. When the Taliban took control in 1996, its leaders searched for Janis’ father there, an infidel in the insurgents’ eyes for his decades of service to the Afghan government.
The Shinwaris fled for Pakistan that same day. They and other refugees walked over the peaks of the Shamshad mountain for two days. At night, people slipped off the mountain trails and screamed to their deaths. The Shinwari family made it to Pakistan alive and settled in a one-room shack in Peshawar. In time, 22 members of the extended family would squeeze in there, the dwelling’s lone luxury a black-and-white TV with an attached VCR. A teenage Janis watched and rewatched Commando starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie was how Janis learned English.
Around the time U.S. forces entered Afghanistan in late 2001, Janis’ eldest sister got sick with cancer. She had six kids and a deadbeat husband. Medicine was expensive, and Janis’ father had retired. The family needed money. Janis heard he could put his English to use as an interpreter for U.S. soldiers. The Americans paid well. He also wanted to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban, this “virus,” as he said, that forbade children to fly kites and married couples to dance and all girls to learn. He returned home and became a translator for the U.S. Army.
“Janis, we thought you quit your job, but you didn’t,” the man said. “You’re still working with the Americans. There are no more warnings for you… We’re coming to kill you or a member of your family.”
Shinwari relayed most of this story in the dining hall, the sweep of it amazing Zeller.
“I owe you a life debt,” Zeller said.
He thought more about the battle the day before and said, “You’re a hell of a shot. I’m glad you’re on our side.”
Shinwari shrugged off the compliment, and they talked more — about Afghanistan and mothers who allowed their sons to join the Taliban and the need to educate girls so they wouldn’t become the mothers who repeated the cycle and blessed terrorism. Zeller hadn’t heard observations that astute in any briefing. When they finished breakfast, Zeller tracked down his boss, Maj. Nick Teta.
“Sir, I’ve found my translator,” Zeller said and started to talk about Shinwari, but Teta interrupted him. He wanted to keep an attack like yesterday’s from happening again, so he told Zeller that the young officer would now head up intelligence for the whole base. “Your job,” Teta said, “is to keep the rest of us alive.”
He continued: “What do you need to get the job done?”
“I need Janis,” Zeller said. “He’s the only guy I can trust.”
“Done,” Teta said.
And so it went: Shinwari translating for Zeller at a Shura, a meeting of tribal elders, in the district of Andar; Shinwari translating for Zeller when the two ate in a politician’s palace and Zeller accused the sitting governor of smuggling drugs; Shinwari translating for Zeller when U.S. forces seized seven tons of hashish with a street value of $6.3 million and Zeller compelled that same governor to burn the drugs on national television.
All of this work was dangerous, more for Shinwari than Zeller. Shinwari knew of a translator the Taliban had captured a year before. They castrated, beheaded, and disemboweled the man, sending his remains to his family and fellow interpreters as a warning. Many translators wore masks when they headed out with Americans. Shinwari refused. He wanted the Taliban to know his face so they could fear it. He was an expert marksman and a proud patriot. “Let them come fight me,” he said. Zeller loved his courage.
Shinwari had a young wife and infant son, and Zeller had a longtime girlfriend; the men understood that their own bond was just as intimate. They called each other “brother.”
Zeller’s tour ended after a year. Leaving Shinwari, as Zeller wrote to his family in an email, was “the most difficult goodbye.” He told Shinwari the day he left the base in Ghazni, “I’ll do whatever it takes to get you to the United States.”
Shinwari was grateful but said he would stay in Afghanistan. The next unit of Americans wanted him to fight alongside them.
Zeller leaves Donnelly’s office and is joined by David Ferguson, a plump, red-haired external affairs consultant with the drawl of an Alabamian and the insight of a K Street lifer. Ferguson helped organize today’s series of meetings.
“They’ve got a tough re-election,” Ferguson says of Donnelly and his staff. Vice President Mike Pence has attacked the Indiana Democrat. Zeller nods. He says the legislative guys were enthused, but he bets they won’t push Donnelly to endorse Zeller’s bill until November — if they’re even here in November. Ferguson and Zeller snort as the elevator doors open for them.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you setting all this up,” Zeller says.
“Hopefully we build some momentum,” Ferguson says.
They decide they should eat. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia is first on the afternoon docket.
America was strange: too loud and large and with too many choices. Too many threats. The nation had been attacked on 9/11, and yet no one was acting as if it could happen again. Consider a traffic jam in Virginia that Zeller found himself in with his girlfriend, Precila. No one else was bothered that the cars wouldn’t part for Zeller as they had for American vehicles in Afghanistan. And his Toyota Avalon didn’t have a turret or a gunner, “which freaked me out even more,” he later wrote. He decided to improve his position by crossing the highway’s double yellow lines. He sped up to 65 mph. Oncoming cars swerved wildly out of his way. Precila screamed louder and louder. “I took their movements as threats and aimed my car to hit them and remove them as a threat,” Zeller recalled.
Blue lights and a siren roared up behind him. Zeller pulled over. A Virginia State Police officer walked to his window, and Zeller handed over his license, registration, and military ID.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?” the officer asked. Zeller said he understood what he’d done.
The officer eyed Zeller’s blank face, his military identification. “When’d you get back?” he asked.
“Um, last week,” Zeller said.
The officer told Zeller to get out of the car and told Precila to get behind the wheel. The officer looked at Zeller and said, “Son, take a seat in the passenger side and remain silent.” The officer turned back to Precila. “Ma’am, take him to the VA as soon as you can.”
Zeller was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and a mild case of traumatic brain injury. He said the VA didn’t tell him which clinic to attend for treatment and kept referring him to different doctors, so he self-medicated: bourbon, nightly. He went to President Barack Obama’s inauguration, sure that he’d be the one to prevent a terrorist attack. He went to work for the CIA but found it “unimportant and meaningless… Nothing came close to the sense of purpose I knew I had left behind in Afghanistan.” He longed to return. At night, when he wasn’t drinking or reading blogs about Afghanistan, he was Skyping or phoning with Shinwari at three in the morning. They talked about their families and how the war kept getting worse, more dangerous.
An Afghan intelligence officer told Shinwari that the Taliban had a picture of him. The insurgents distributed the photo to all their cells and placed Shinwari on a “kill list.” That unnerving meeting was followed days later by a phone call from an unfamiliar number and a man who refused to identify himself to Shinwari. “We know who you are,” the man said. “We know where you live. We know your entire family.” Click.
Shinwari admitted to Zeller that this last bit haunted him. He had been transferred from the Ghazni base to one in Kabul, and he had tried not to be seen beyond the base, in public, with his wife and daughter. If it were true that the Taliban knew where they lived — well, Shinwari now had a question for Zeller.
“Brother,” he said, “does the promise of getting to the States still stand?”
It did. In 2009, Congress passed a bill for a special immigration visa (SIV) program designed primarily for the interpreters of Iraq and Afghanistan. If the interpreters could show they’d served alongside U.S. forces for two years and faced grave threats as a result, the government would offer the translators and their families new lives in the United States.
Zeller said it would take time to fill out the paperwork but that they’d get Shinwari and his family to safety. Zeller promised his brother that.
Shinwari signed off, feeling better, but soon chastised himself again. How many times had he been on a mission and heard an Afghan whisper “American spy” or “traitor of Islam”? How many of his countrymen had been Taliban informants? Was refusing to wear a mask truly brave or only foolish? No more risks, Shinwari decided. He would take his family into hiding, train new translators on base, and live there too. He would not leave the wire.
Years passed. Zeller gathered the mountains of paperwork. The mundane task brought him alive again for the first time since Ghazni. He left his job at the CIA to run for Congress in his home district of Rochester, New York. The task of bringing Shinwari to the States broadened his outlook: Who else could he help? Idealism had its limits as a platform, and he had lost his Democratic primary. Zeller went to work for Deloitte, a job he hated and eventually left. His marriage dissolved a short time after Precila gave birth to their baby daughter.
Shinwari, meanwhile, put in the hours at the base, hoping his exhaustion would spread and envelop his pain, his longing for his wife and little girl and newborn son. He risked his life, and theirs, every time he deigned to slip among Kabul’s shadows and visit them.
Videos of interpreters being executed whipped around the radical Islamic web, their message never needing subtitles to be understood: “See what happens when you place your faith in the Americans, who will abandon you?”
By January 2011, Shinwari had signed the last of the SIV documents. He and Zeller submitted the Shinwaris’ visas for approval.
But the work was for naught. In February that year, the SIV program ground to a halt when two Iraqi refugees in Kentucky were arrested on terrorism charges. It didn’t matter that the Iraqis hadn’t been interpreters and hadn’t served alongside U.S. forces nor did it matter that the Iraq and Afghan interpreters who had done so and applied through the SIV program were as rigorously background-checked as any visa applicant on the planet. What mattered was that the United States had inadvertently let in two terrorist suspects. From the White House to the State Department to the intelligence agencies, the message remained the same: Every visa program for Iraqis and Afghans must be reassessed. New and even more robust vetting processes should be created. Shinwari’s visa application went nowhere.
One day, as Shinwari and Zeller searched for other ways to get Shinwari and his family to the States, Shinwari got a call. He didn’t recognize the local number, but by then he had trained about 250 translators and thought maybe one of them had a new phone. The man on the other end, however, didn’t give up his name.
“Janis, we thought you quit your job, but you didn’t,” the man said. “You’re still working with the Americans. There are no more warnings for you… We’re coming to kill you or a member of your family.”
Shinwari made another call to Zeller and then did another round of relocations, this time with the Americans assisting him: Shinwari’s wife and two children first hid at Shinwari’s parents’ place, then with his wife’s parents, then with his brother. Sometimes his family stayed in a hideout only two miles from the base. It might as well have been 1,000. Shinwari wouldn’t allow himself to think about visiting them. He worked on the base to ensure he had the money for protection off the base.
In July 2013, Shinwari learned the Americans were drawing down their presence in Afghanistan. The soldiers were to leave the base that fall. Shinwari contacted Zeller again: “You’ve got until October to make good on your promise.”
Zeller at that time was consulting and had a new apartment and girlfriend in Virginia. He’d leveled out. Shinwari’s message sent him into a frenzy, his rebuilt life at risk of crumbling into the black void of his singular obsession.
Zeller started making calls. The military brass he’d served under, the politicians he’d met during his congressional run: “I started calling in every favor I had,” he said. He cold-called news outlets. Berated bureaucrats. Pulled rank on fellow intelligence officers: “I have a higher clearance than you,” he told them.
It worked. Rep. Louise Slaughter of New York spoke with top aides to Secretary of State John Kerry. Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia wrote a personal letter to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington, a Korean War vet, threatened to hold hearings until the Shinwaris arrived in the States. Meanwhile, stories about Shinwari appeared in the press. An online petition asked people to support Shinwari and his family’s passage to the United States. More than 100,000 people signed it.
In September 2013, one month before U.S. forces left Afghanistan, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued the Shinwaris their visas. Within 24 hours, the family put what belongings they had into four small suitcases. As the plane took off, Shinwari looked one last time at Afghanistan. For nine years, he’d fought to rid the land of the Taliban, serving with U.S. forces. Was his departure proof of his failure? Could he ever return?
A reporting crew from CBS News followed Zeller to Reagan National Airport, outside Washington, D.C. The Shinwari family was one of the last off the flight; they looked haggard and overwhelmed when the cameras captured them.
Zeller rushed Shinwari, bear-hugging him before Shinwari could even put down his bags. There they stayed, embracing each other, for a long time. The cameras couldn’t record every aspect of the reunion, though. As Zeller walked with his brother through the terminal, he had a strange sensation. For the first time since Afghanistan, he felt whole.
Zeller placed the family in a two-bedroom apartment that friends and relatives had found and helped to furnish. One night a short time later, Zeller came to Shinwari’s place with a surprise: a $35,000 check, courtesy of a GoFundMe page Zeller had started. “Brother, this is a gift from the American people,” Zeller said. “It might not be enough to cover our nation’s debt to you, but it’s enough to cover your first year’s rent.”
Shinwari looked at the check.
“I can’t take the money,” he said.
“What do you mean you can’t take the money?” Zeller replied.
Shinwari studied Zeller as if he were dense. “What about Ehasan? And Habib? And Maiwand?” These were other translators both men knew who had also applied for special immigration visas, whose lives were in as much danger as Shinwari’s but who were still in Afghanistan.
“Brother,” Shinwari said. “Can we use this money to start an organization and do for them what you’ve done for me?”
Zeller thought for a moment. He knew Shinwari was right. He nodded. Yes, they could.
Zeller and Ferguson leave Kaine’s office, and Zeller’s cheeks flush with frustration. Kaine had written to the U.S. Embassy on Shinwari’s behalf in 2013, but now, five years later, his immigration aide is saying his boss wants a senator who’s a veteran to sponsor the bill that might save Zeller’s cause. When that happens, the aide says, Kaine will stand behind it.
Zeller sighs as he walks to his next meeting.
More than 56,000 charities in the United States work to improve the lives of veterans. Not one of those nonprofits helped the Iraqi or Afghan translators who’d been just as brave travel to the United States. Zeller and Shinwari agreed they should change that. In November 2013, they filed paperwork for their nonprofit, No One Left Behind.
They settled on a two-pronged attack. One concerned money. No one on Capitol Hill or cable news would take Zeller and Shinwari seriously if their nonprofit existed in name only. So there was another round of cold calls, this time to sympathetic corporations with large philanthropic wings, and another round of unsolicited emails, now directed to the national security team of the George W. Bush administration. Iraq and Afghanistan were Bush’s wars, and with those senior officials now leading private lives — well into Obama’s second term — perhaps they’d be more likely to contribute to a cause whose broader conflict they’d initiated.
Zeller wrote everyone from Condoleezza Rice to Douglas Feith. Only Paul Wolfowitz responded. The former deputy secretary of defense, the so-called godfather of the Iraq War, said that he’d be happy to meet Zeller. “So I went and met with him,” said Zeller, remembering the trip to Wolfowitz’s D.C. office. “And I got into my pitch about why this is important, and he stopped me and he goes, ‘I get it… Of course we’ve got to help them. What can I do for you?’”
Zeller was stunned it had been that easy. “Ah, whatever you can, sir,” he answered.
Wolfowitz not only cut Zeller a check but also got out a legal pad and wrote down contacts. Soon after, Zeller was meeting with Wolfowitz’s old boss, Donald Rumsfeld, and the former secretary of defense’s family charity, the Rumsfeld Foundation. It became a major supporter, as did Lyft and Starbucks.
The nonprofit had to try imposing its will on Congress, too. The SIV program required something close to resuscitation. Iraqis couldn’t even get visas through the SIV program; the government officially quit accepting Iraqi applicants in September 2014, siphoning them to a refugee program. Afghan interpreters could still apply for an SIV, but the government had severely limited the number of available visas: 1,500 per year at a time when perhaps 9,000 applicants submitted visas — with that number growing each year as more translators’ lives were threatened, the result of the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, according to human rights organizations.
“Everyone thinks it’s a great bill,” Zeller says. “No one wants to do anything about it.”
His eyes are glassy. “Just need someone with some courage.”
Luckily for Zeller, he wasn’t the only one who saw the scope of the problem. Sen. John McCain’s office contacted him not long after Shinwari’s arrival. McCain had seen the reunion of Zeller and Shinwari on CBS and wanted to meet Shinwari. When the two men went to McCain’s office — a meeting also attended by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, McCain’s Democratic counterpart on various veteran issues — the conversation turned to the plight of the SIV program. Zeller later wrote that McCain “leaped up with the energy of a much younger man and said, ‘Jeanne, dammit, we have to fix this immediately!’” He ordered his staff to sit with Shinwari and Zeller and come up with a plan that very day. The group headed to the Senate cafeteria and sketched their proposals on napkins.
McCain then spearheaded an amendment to the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which added 3,000 SIVs for 2014 after it passed. An additional 1,000 SIVs for the year came from another bill, the Emergency Afghan Allies Extension Act. Zeller and Shinwari were in awe: from napkins to law, from 1,500 visas to 4,000, in just a few months.
Now they had plenty of work. They guided Afghans through the SIV application and helped them settle in the States, get a car, find a job, and enroll their kids in school. No One Left Behind increased its staff in Washington and established state chapters. The demand for visas still outnumbered their availability, and so the 4,000 visas allocated for fiscal year 2015 became 7,000 visas allocated in fiscal year 2016. The SIV program had bipartisan congressional support. The hardworking interpreters went, as Zeller put it, “from homeless to home owners in three years.” No One Left Behind settled approximately 4,000 people. Zeller had found his life’s calling, and Shinwari had found a country that was feeling more and more like home.
Then Donald Trump was elected. His hardline views — build the wall, ban the Muslims, keep out people from “shithole” countries — affected policy. Only 1,500 SIVs were granted in 2017. McCain, Shaheen, and Rep. Earl Blumenauer — author of the 2014 emergency SIV bill — went to work on their colleagues, trying to convince them of the program’s needs. Demand for the visas still outweighed the supply. Through the Consolidation Appropriations Act that May, another 2,500 visas were allocated.
This didn’t give Zeller much comfort. The tenor in D.C. had shifted. Some of the staffers of congressional Republicans who’d been elected alongside Trump or elevated into leadership roles because they’d shown him fealty sneered at Zeller when he discussed the bravery of the interpreters or the merits of the SIV program. These staffers wondered aloud — sometimes with Shinwari present — how many Afghans were actually Islamic terrorists.
All the while, members of No One Left Behind fielded plaintive questions from worried interpreters stuck in Afghanistan: “Can we still get out? What about next year? Would my family be safe in America?” What kept Zeller awake at night, though, were the translators’ demands — “I cannot hide from them much longer. Please get my five-year-old son and three-year-old daughter on a plane to the U.S. before they are killed as well.” About 100 such messages a week were coming in, but what was worse than the messages was when they stopped. No more phone calls. No more Facebook messages. Sometimes on those occasions, Zeller and Shinwari found on Islamic chat rooms proof of what they’d feared: a YouTube video of Afghan terrorists standing before a kneeling man identifying himself as a former interpreter to U.S. forces, who was then beheaded. These videos whipped around the radical Islamic web, their message never needing subtitles to be understood: “See what happens when you place your faith in the Americans, who will abandon you?”
The stress of the job ate at Zeller until ulcers bloomed up and down his esophagus. His stress worsened when McCain announced he had an aggressive form of brain cancer. By fall 2017, it appeared as though no SIVs would be granted for fiscal year 2018, the Republican-held House and Senate falling in line behind Trump’s bluster and fear of the foreigner. At the last moment, as the National Defense Authorization Act was in conference between the House and Senate, a weakened McCain applied all the legislative and procedural jujitsu he’d learned in his 35-year career and inserted an amendment that both reticent chambers of Congress would agree to. In the end, 3,500 SIVs were issued.
By the time McCain died a year later, in August 2018, the SIV program seemed to have died with him. Congress and the White House did not approve a single SIV for fiscal year 2019.
Zeller waits for his next meeting in a cavernous and empty event room on the fourth floor of the Russell building. He sits in a padded chair and sips a soda, staring at the slant of afternoon sunlight thrown onto the walls’ crown molding and golden Roman columns.
“Everyone thinks it’s a great bill,” Zeller says. “No one wants to do anything about it.”
His eyes are glassy. “Just need someone with some courage.”
He talks about No One Left Behind for a few more minutes before Kristin Kennedy Brown finds him. The nonprofit’s director of partnerships is small in size, fiercely intelligent, and a Peace Corps volunteer who later enlisted in the Army. The military had needed people to organize and develop communities in the same way that Brown’s health initiatives in Africa had brought citizens, corporations, and governments together. Now she’s enamored with No One Left Behind and the SIV program. Zeller feels lucky to have her — and happy she joined him for the afternoon’s meetings.
Brown tells Zeller they should get going. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York will be waiting. Zeller has known Gillibrand since his congressional run in 2010. “She’s a friend,” he says, but without anticipation. It’s a statement with a forlorn downbeat to it, as if he means, “If my friend won’t help me…”
Even before McCain’s death, the staff of No One Left Behind had begun to plan for a Congress and White House that wouldn’t allocate SIVs for fiscal year 2019. The Trump administration just carried too much open hostility toward immigrants and refugees. The nonprofit’s senior staff in D.C. and its eight chapter heads throughout the country exchanged ideas over a Facebook group message. How could a nonprofit that helped interpreters secure SIVs function without SIVs? What would it look like? The thread grew longer and longer until the group settled on an strategy everyone rallied behind: an honorary veterans bill.
To understand what they were thinking, it’s important to understand something else first. Designations matter in American bureaucracy. To label a person is to group him with others, and to group him with others is to aide and assist the entire collective. The problem with Afghan translators was that they weren’t quite refugees and they weren’t quite veterans. The SIV program was created in part because the interpreters didn’t fall into either category. But the inability to neatly group the translators in 2009 into pre-existing categories had led to ramifications well beyond D.C. When Zeller asked for funding from massive nonprofits like The Wounded Warrior Project — with $347 million in assets in 2017 — Wounded Warrior said it couldn’t help because the translators weren’t U.S. vets. He heard the same from multinational corporations whose philanthropic dollars went to military causes: “We’d like to help, but we only help native veterans.” The bureaucratic labels were influencing the actions of organizations outside the bureaucracy.
“Why call interpreters ‘honorary veterans’?” they asked.
Because they did so much more than translate, Zeller said.
So No One Left Behind proposed creating a new label. If a bill passed that designated Afghan interpreters as “honorary veterans,” No One Left Behind could then request funding from the tens of thousands of high-dollar charities that aided vets. Zeller and his team could get the cash to help even more translators already in the U.S. The honorary veterans bill wouldn’t address the lack of SIVs for translators wanting to get to America, at least not directly. But indirectly, an honorary veteran law could be used as a rhetorical cudgel against members of Congress with hardline views on immigration. “At that point, we can say, ‘You just called these guys honorary veterans. Why in the hell aren’t you giving them their visas?’” Zeller explained. The honorary veteran law could shame Congress into issuing more SIVs, which could in turn keep alive No One Left Behind.
So over the summer of 2018, Zeller flew around the country, talking about an honorary veteran bill to any veteran organization that would have him. The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America agreed to endorse the bill as did the Vietnam Veterans of America. The most skeptical questions came from one of the oldest and largest veteran organizations, the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“Why call interpreters ‘honorary veterans’?” they asked.
Because they did so much more than translate, Zeller said. Take Shinwari. He’d served nine years alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan; Zeller had served one. Zeller had received a Combat Action Badge and Purple Heart for his actions, but Shinwari had saved five Americans’ lives. Yet Shinwari had received no distinctions or commendations for his service from the U.S. government. “If there’s anyone who’s really a veteran in this relationship, it’s him and not me,” Zeller liked to say. And there were hundreds, if not thousands, more Afghans like Shinwari.
“Would honorary veterans receive the benefits of U.S.-born veterans?” the VFW asked.
No, Zeller said. The honorary veteran designation was simply that: a label. No taxes would be raised for it, and the translators themselves could not access VA hospitals or other things.
Zeller flew to the VFW’s national convention in Kansas City to argue his case further. He didn’t know how successful he would be; Trump was to headline the two-day event.
The VFW didn’t endorse Zeller’s measure.
Deflated, he flew back to D.C., where the new fiscal year loomed and where the honorary veteran bill was still in need of a congressional sponsor. Unless Zeller and his staff could find a politician to author the honorary veteran bill, No One Left Behind might see its financial underwriters withdraw support. After all, why give to a cause that has almost no way to be effective?
All the while, the calls and messages from interpreters stuck in Afghanistan poured in, as pressing and horrific as ever, especially as the Taliban took control of Ghazni, Zeller and Shinwari’s meeting place, and fought for control of almost half of Afghanistan’s territories. The Afghan government was losing, the translators were pleading to get out, and the U.S. was refusing to let them in.
One summer night, trying not to appear as desperate as they felt, Zeller and Shinwari attended a dinner for Republican members of Congress at the Capitol Hill Club. The evening was a military affair with various speakers and presentations. Zeller and Shinwari got the dais for 15 minutes. They took advantage of it: the firefight in 2008, the deep bond following it, the separation, reunion, and now the threat of death facing first the interpreters in Afghanistan and second the American nonprofit that might help them.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup was in the audience. He was a Republican from Ohio and a doctor who had joined the Army Reserves at age 39 because he’d known local physicians who’d enlisted during the Persian Gulf War. In 2005 and 2006, he served a tour in Iraq as a combat surgeon. He worked alongside Iraqis who wanted to study medicine and interpreted for U.S. forces. He thought about how the Americans couldn’t have done their mission without these translators. Wenstrup had stayed in touch with them and had helped get a couple to the U.S. when radical groups threatened their lives. One had received a Fulbright Scholarship; another was in residency in Texas. They were brave and good people — just like the Afghans Shinwari and Zeller talked about.
After rounds of applause for Zeller and Shinwari, Wenstrup stood up and walked to the dais to address the room. He relayed some of his own experience in Iraq and then turned to Zeller and Shinwari. The Afghans they had helped were just like the Iraqis he had. “They’re certainly honorary veterans,” Wenstrup said. The Congressman wanted a meeting with the brothers.
When that meeting came, a week later, in the back room of the House Ways and Means Committee, Wenstrup asked a lot of questions about the bill’s particulars. He left the meeting saying he needed time to think. A day later, Wenstrup’s top aide called Zeller and said the congressman would author the bill.
The brothers celebrated for only moment or two. They still needed a sponsor in the Senate.
Zeller does not meet with Gillibrand. He, Ferguson, and Kennedy Brown meet with the senator’s legislative aide. As he’s done in every Senate office today, Zeller explains how the honorary veterans bill has a Republican sponsor in Wenstrup and even a co-sponsor in Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton, an ex-Marine who served four tours in Iraq. With the bill’s bipartisan support in the House, Zeller says, all it needs is someone to pick it up in the Senate.
Gillibrand’s staffer says the right things but adds at the end that she will need to talk with Gillibrand first. It is a soft no or maybe an easy yes, but the reality, at least for today, is that Zeller leaves Gillibrand’s office still needing a Senate sponsor. October and fiscal year 2019 is weeks away.
One meeting remains for the day: Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Wicker served in the Air Force and Air Force Reserves for a quarter century. Unlike the other four senators, Wicker is seeing the No One Left Behind contingent in person.
This gives Zeller, Ferguson, and Kennedy Brown hope: An in-person meeting sometimes signals a senator’s interest. And yet with all the “it sounds great buts” they’ve heard, Zeller and the others know better than to bet on Wicker.
He is late for their appointment. “Just meeting with constituents,” the secretary says brightly before returning her gaze to her computer screen. They try to believe her. Two of Wicker’s aides walk in, national security and military liaisons, and everyone chats nervously and a little awkwardly until a third aide emerges and says the senator will see them now. They all walk through double doors to a separate, inner room with a table in its center, then the door is closed behind them.
Wicker walks in a couple minutes late, holding printouts about No One Left Behind that Ferguson had emailed to the senator’s office earlier. “It’s a good sign,” Zeller thinks. “He’s already curious.” Wicker also had met Shinwari before at the Afghan Embassy, and he has read and saved an old story about him. With his prior interest and the printouts in his hand, Wicker cuts straight to it.
“What are you trying to get done?” he asks.
Zeller starts to outline the honorary veterans bill, and then Wicker asks another question: “How are you going to verify who you want to actually qualify for this?”
The directness delights Zeller. “This meeting is already 100 percent different than every other one,” he thinks.
“Well,” Zeller says. “If they can get an SIV, they’ve earned an honorary veteran designation.” And he waits to see if he needs to explain what an SIV is.
Wicker nods his head. He is well aware of the visa program.
“Works for me,” the senator says. “Let’s do it.” Wicker curls the printouts in his hand and slams the paper down on the conference table, like a gavel.
“Sold,” he says.
The meeting lasts only a few moments longer. Zeller walks out first, Ferguson and Kennedy Brown trailing him, all of them shaking the hands of the aides. Zeller already has a new and nervous energy as he pushes open the front door and moves into the hallway.
He smiles wide.
Ferguson and Kennedy Brown follow him out, and the three can’t hold it any more. They high five each other — in astonishment as much as joy.
For the next 10 minutes, they walk and talk beyond the Senate offices and back onto the muggy D.C. streets. They recount the meeting, relishing the details, everyone laughing at that emphatic “Sold!”
They walk even faster and soon reach the House of Representatives’ office buildings and head inside. They want to tell Wenstrup the bill has a sponsor in the Senate.
The sun begins its dip behind the halls of power when Janis Shinwari appears, joining the trio in the shadows of the Capitol. Shinwari has come from Briartek, the Virginia-based firm that manufactures safety equipment that identifies lost sailors and marines. Shinwari oversees Briartek’s inventory, a demanding job that often means he can’t accompany Zeller to meetings like today’s. Shinwari has, however, changed into something more formal for tonight’s celebration: a purple dress shirt, purple tie, and dark suit jacket that Shinwari hangs off his shoulders like a cape in the heat. It’s all too obvious the only item Shinwari feels comfortable wearing is his black wrap-around sunglasses.
Having shed his own coat and loosened his tie, Zeller gives Shinwari a hug.
“Hey, brother,” he says.
They finish embracing and study each other at arm’s length: the tall, slender, and placid Shinwari and the broad, opinionated, and emotional Zeller.
“I love you,” Zeller says.
“I love you, too,” says Shinwari.
The elation of the afternoon has leveled into the warm gratitude of evening, but there is work for the co-founders still. In a half-hour, they’ll head to a screening of a documentary at the capitol that chronicles the reunion of Zeller and Shinwari and the mission of No One Left Behind. Before that, though, the brothers need to relay the day’s bright news to the people living through an otherwise gray summer. Zeller takes out his phone and pulls Shinwari close. He begins to record a video to put on No One Left Behind’s Facebook page, where translators from across the Middle East and United States can watch the organization’s every move.
“Hey, everybody. It’s Matt Zeller.”
“Co-founders of No One Left Behind,” Zeller says, with the dome of the Capitol framing the space between him and his brother.
“We’ve been meeting with various members of the Senate,” Zeller continues, “to try and get a law passed that would name a bunch of you guys honorary veterans, and we’re actually very hopeful. We think we’ve found a sponsor in the Senate.” Zeller doesn’t want to tell his followers about Wicker’s co-sponsorship until the bill is drawn up, a bill that might be filed before the end of the year.
Shinwari nods his head as Zeller continues talking about the need for legislation and for what everyone watching wants most of all, new visas. Zeller then turns to Shinwari.
“Anything you want to say, bro?”
Shinwari thinks it over, as calm as on the day he saved Zeller’s life.
“Guys, don’t worry,” he says. “We are here to fight for you. And we have your back.”