Matt Zeller, then a captain, with his interpreter Janis Shinwari. (Courtesy Matt Zeller)
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The Afghan interpreter credited with saving the life of an Army intelligence officer has been granted a visa and could be coming to the United States as soon as next month.
But Janis Shinwari, who saved vet Matt Zeller by killing an approaching insurgent in 2008, is still on a Taliban hit list, Zeller said.
“For the last five years this is what I’ve worried about, he’s a member of my unit still in Afghanistan,” Zeller, formerly a captain, told Army Times. “I will breathe a sigh of relief when I can hug him at the airport. From this point until he gets on the plane is when he’s most vulnerable.”
After Shinwari and his family received their visas from the American embassy in Kabul on Sept. 9, the two celebrated in a phone call.
“He called me and said, ‘I’ve got my visa,’ and I’ve honestly never heard him that happy,” Zeller said. “We just talked about, okay, our kids are going to grow up together, and reminiscing about the last time when we saw each other in 2008. The last thing he said to me was, ‘Matt, you have to get me my visa, or I’m going to be killed.’ I told him I’d do everything I possibly can.”
Without the protection of U.S. forces, now due to withdraw in 2014, such interpreters are in real danger, Zeller said. Shinwari has received threatening phone calls and letters, and Zeller knew of an interpreter who was dismembered by insurgents.
The good news came two years after Shinwari applied to move to the U.S. under a special immigration program for interpreters who worked for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fed up with the red tape, Zeller lobbied several receptive members of Congress and launched a petition on Change.org. The cause attracted 100,000 signatures and the support of Medal of Honor recipient and Marine Dakota Meyer.
They were also helped by the Truman National Security Project, where Zeller is a fellow, and the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, Zeller said.
“I have had numerous people write me to say they wrote their members of Congress,” he said. “It galvanized into something everyone got behind. There was no one against this.”
But the fight is not over for Zeller. Unless Congress acts, the special visa program for Afghan interpreters could expire in September 2014.
Against the odds, Zeller is hoping lightning strikes a second time, for an intepreter he identified as Ehsan , who is now in hiding from the Taliban.
“Ehsan did exactly the same stuff that Janis did for me and I’m happy to help him any way I can,” Zeller told Army Times. “I cried help very loudly, but I’m afraid that I can’t replicate that process.”