As cadets at West Point, we are taught that our word is our bond. If you say you are going to do something, you follow through because sooner or later lives will depend on it. The same should hold true for our country. If America gives its word to help those who share the burden of battle, we should honor that promise, or we risk losing all credibility with current as well as future allies.
Ask any America veteran of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he or she will tell you that the interpreters who served shoulder to shoulder with us are veterans and should be treated as such. These Iraqi and Afghan interpreters put their lives on the line in support of U.S. combat missions. Their service and sacrifice saved countless American lives. Now, it is time for our nation to keep up its end of the bargain and fulfill our promise to these brave men and women and their families.
In exchange for their service to America, we promised to protect them from harm, if they need it. And, they need it.
Terrorist in Iraq and Afghanistan have placed interpreters on kill lists because they helped Americans. Not only are interpreters targets but their families are also. In some cases, they have paid the ultimate price for their service in the form of gruesome executions.
Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) offer a path to safety and freedom for the thousands of interpreters still waiting for America to fulfill its promise to them. Securing an SIV is no easy task. It usually takes at least two years to obtain one. Interpreters are put through a rigorous vetting process by multiple U.S. intelligence agencies. If one of those agencies says no, they instantly go on a No Fly list for life.
Nearly two years ago, Muhammad Azimi (Azim), the interpreter who served with me in Afghanistan, was fortunate enough to receive an SIV.
To me and those with whom we served, Azim is a fellow veteran, a brother in arms. I saw Azim risk his own life to save the life of a wounded American during a firefight. I am thrilled that Azim was able to make his way to America, and he is able to sleep at night without worrying about who might be out there looking to harm him. However, there are thousands more like Azim who do not have that luxury because they have yet to receive their SIV.
I am proud to join with No One Left Behind (NOLB), a non-profit organization that helps interpreters get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and resettled in the U.S., in support of language in the NDAA to expand the SIV program to accommodate all those who served and deserves to see our promise kept.
NOLB is also leading the effort to have legislation passed that will make interpreters “honorary veterans,” a title they have earned. As I said, I and other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan view our interpreters as a brother in arms. They are fellow veterans.
This honorary title does not entitle interpreters to VA benefits. What it does do is show respect for our wartime allies, helps interpreters get their first job, and encourages the public to include them in their care for veterans. It is just another way to help America keep her promise. This honorarium is not unprecedented. It was previously given to those who helped America after World War II.
Yesterday I attended the launch of the Pittsburgh chapter of No One Left Behind. Elected officials, volunteers, and I welcomed these veterans to our community and thanked them for all they have done. Pittsburgh welcomes them with open arms.
Keeping your word matters, not just as a cadet at West Point but in every aspect of life. I hope you will join me in supporting the efforts that will enable America to keep its word to the Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who still fight alongside us.
Alejandro Villanueva is an Army Ranger who proudly wears number 78 for the Pittsburgh Steelers.