When I served in Afghanistan, I was in the 734th Agribusiness Development Team — a unit made of Army National Guard soldiers, Air Guard, and Air Force soldiers. We all came from various units with a background that was needed for the mission. I was an MP, or Military Police. When there, I depended on interpreters, for my mission, and my life.
Interpreters were integral to the missions, understanding of Afghan culture, understanding of the Afghan forces who worked and lived on the base. The interpreters and Afghan professionals on Forward Operating Base (FOB) Wright were mostly people who had been working on the FOB for years. I remember a couple of them had been at FOB Wright for 7 years, and another 5. That was in 2010 when we left.
The interpreters provided more than just help. In my case, they led me to where I am today — teaching here in Iowa. While I was on the FOB, I made friends and conversed with Afghans. At one point they said, “John” (referring to the 2nd half of my last name) “will you teach me English?” At first I said no, I didn’t know how. But after some persistence on their behalf and the realization they had taught me a little Pashto, I said yes. We met a few times in a tiny laundry room at night after everyone was done working. By collecting children’s books and finding resources online, I was able to give them some practice materials, but I had no idea how to actually teach them. Everything seemed too easy or too hard. Dumbfounded, curious and motivated, I decided that was what I wanted to do with my life. Their passion to learn English and the desire for a better future resulted in me being passionate about learning how to teach.
But, they also faced danger. While we were there, a dentist who had been working on the FOB was captured and held for ransom. These people put their lives on the line to help me, and the United States
Indeed, thousands of Afghans are in danger because they worked for the United States. Yet, the United States is breaking the promise that U.S. service members, diplomats, and other government personnel made to our local allies. The program that Congress created to protect these wartime allies, the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program, has run short of visas after the limited number that Congress authorized in 2016 ran out.
Two months ago I had the opportunity to see two Afghans from FOB Wright at a retirement party for a member of the Ag team. They are now living near Seattle, Washington and are waiting their family’s arrival. However, with the new ban on visas their family may not make it.
Let me be clear: this program is critical to the safety of our troops, to the ability of the United States to obtain assistance now and in present conflicts, and to our country’s national security. The interpreters, security guards, political advisers, and other local nationals protected me and my fellow soldiers. There is no question that these allies have saved thousands of American lives.
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Protecting our allies is central to protecting our troops, diplomats, and government employees who serve overseas. Astonishingly, our own Senator Chuck Grassley bears responsibility for the breakdown in the SIV process. As Senate Judiciary Chair, he is in a position to green-light or to oppose additional visas, and so far, despite broad bipartisan support and loud advocacy from military and diplomatic leaders, he has chosen the latter path.
After being confronted by a former Afghan interpreter at a recent town hall, Senator Grassley pledged to help this man with his asylum application. But Senator Grassley cannot claim to support these allies until he commits himself to support the full number of visas that the program needs without demanding future cuts to the program. The last two years, Congress has approved additional visas for these mission-essential allies only at the cost of restricting eligibility for future applicants. We would never tell our soldiers that, as a trade-off for safety equipment today, they will have to give up their helmets next year, but that is what we are telling U.S. Government personnel with their critical wartime allies.
Senator Grassley: our Afghan supporters are waiting in indefinite limbo until more visas are authorized, which leaves our troops, diplomats, and government personnel at risk. What is your plan to protect our troops and ensure that the United States will keep its promise to our allies?
• Jessica St. John of Cedar Falls is a veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.