Marine captain refused to leave Afghan interpreter behind
BERKELEY, Calif. — Long after completing a 2010 tour of duty in Afghanistan, Marine Capt. Adrian Kinsella felt haunted by the sense that he didn't uphold a core military commitment: Leave no one behind.
There, in the war-torn region and still in harm's way, remained Kinsella's Afghan combat interpreter, Mohammad — a slim, reserved man who had stood by his side in moments of looming danger. Marked for death by the Taliban because he helped the Americans, Mohammad's father had been tortured and murdered, and his younger brother held for ransom.
"Until I got him out of there," Kinsella said, "all of my men weren't home."
After 3½ years of frustrating efforts to get Mohammad a visa, Kinsella finally stood at San Francisco International Airport in January, waiting to embrace a man he calls his brother.
"It was like I was being born again," said Mohammad, whose last name is not being used by this newspaper because his family remains in peril.
Today, they are roommates as Kinsella attends the UC Berkeley School of Law. Mohammad works at a high-tech company after a chance meeting with the CEO at a Super Bowl party, drives a used Prius and is making plans to become a U.S. citizen.
As American forces draw down from Afghanistan, the pair also are focusing attention on the plight of interpreters. They have traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby lawmakers and shine a spotlight on combat translators who haven't received the sanctuary they were promised in return for their service. They also have sought — unsuccessfully, so far — a change in the special immigrant visa program that would allow Mohammad's family, still in hiding, to join him in the United States.
Together again in Northern California, they marvel at how their roles are reversed.
"Adrian is my interpreter now," Mohammad said. He paused to look at Kinsella, breaking into a sly smile. "But he's still not as good as I was for him."
Friends in a war zone
Sitting at a Berkeley restaurant patio with friends on a recent sun-bleached Saturday, Kinsella and Mohammad couldn't be more different.
Kinsella, 28 — the type of no-nonsense Marine who sees a project through once he sets his mind — attended Cornell as an undergraduate and will become a Marine judge advocate when he graduates from UC Berkeley next year.
Mohammad, 25, was raised in Kandahar and became a translator simply as a way to help support his family. He also radiates a quiet calm. There's a reason why American service members nicknamed him "Yoda" — much to his chagrin when he later was shown a picture of the "Star Wars" character.
They met during Kinsella's seven-month tour in Helmand province. Then a second lieutenant, Kinsella led a 35-man platoon that often patrolled the countryside. Kinsella said his time in Afghanistan largely was peaceful and that they "only" were shot at once. But every time they left the base, they were on edge.
"You just didn't know who the good guys or the bad guys were," Kinsella said.
Mohammad did. Kinsella, well aware that the safety of his men and him rested at least partially in the hands of the interpreter, came to trust him completely.
"He gave you the context needed in a war zone," Kinsella said. "He would tell you what was really going on when he translated. He would say, 'They're lying, and this is why.' This was a man who really wanted to have a hand in creating a better place."
Mohammad paid a terrible price.
When they found his father's body in 2009, he had been grotesquely mutilated, including missing fingers and holes in his head. Mohammad's work as a translator had been discovered by the Taliban.
"I never tried to hurt anyone," said Mohammad, who survived improvised bomb blasts. "I only helped. But my attitude became: 'Well, if you are against me, then I can be against you, too.' My responsibility was not only to help Adrian, but to help my country. I couldn't find the bad people by myself. But I could help the Marines, and I could do that by telling them: 'That's a bad guy.' "
When he asked for assistance getting a visa, Kinsella immediately agreed. And at the end of his tour, Kinsella told him: See you in America soon.
Program to help translators
A special visa program was created for Iraqi and Afghan citizens who have assisted American forces at great personal risk during the post-9/11 wars and now were targeted for reprisals.
By late 2012, only a handful of visas had been granted to Afghans — a combination of State Department bureaucracy and concerns that a terrorist could slip through the process.
As Mohammad's application went nowhere, Kinsella reached out to legislators and officials, as well as organizing a group of about 100 people to advocate for his friend. But nothing cut through the red tape. He worried that Mohammad would turn up dead while waiting.
"The bond Adrian and Mohammad have is incredibly special, but it's also not unique," said Katherine Reisner, the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project's national policy director. "Interpreters end up being these brothers-in-arms without whom countless scores of Americans would have died in action. Leaving them behind to suffer a pretty certain death sentence is something that men like Adrian have to grapple with when they're back home safe."
Whenever they talked or communicated through social media, Mohammad would reassure Kinsella. Don't worry, it's going to work out. But in February 2013, he called Kinsella, frantic. His 3-year-old brother had been kidnapped.
Mohammad would pay a ransom of about $35,000 — most of his savings from translating. Cruelly, he was told to leave the money at their father's grave.
Once the little boy was released, frightened but unharmed, Mohammad took his mother and seven younger siblings into hiding in Pakistan.
"I just felt so helpless," Kinsella said. "I couldn't do anything to help him."
But then this past December, a Facebook message from Mohammad to Kinsella carried the long-awaited news. Kinsella had a hard time believing it.
"He just said, 'Mohammad got his visa,' " recalled Kinsella's girlfriend, Bevan Dowd, a UC Berkeley law student. "Then he was speechless, and then there were tears."
With Dowd's parents paying for his plane ticket, Mohammad arrived at SFO on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, stunned by the sight of Kinsella and 25 others waiting to greet him.
"I was back with my big brother," Mohammad said.
Life in America
Now there is a "Mohammad calendar." If Kinsella or their other roommate, Aram Boghosian, are busy with law school studies, other friends will spend time with Mohammad.
But he has acclimated to his new life quickly. Mohammad gets around the Bay Area in the Prius he bought with a down payment from donations. He paid off the rest with a technician job he got after meeting Edward Priest, a Coast Guard veteran who founded Richmond-based Black Diamond Video, at a Super Bowl party.
"When we learned of Mohammad's story, determination and perseverance, we were inspired to help him," Priest said in an email provided by the company. "We hoped that in doing so, we could offer Mohammad our appreciation and a well-deserved path to success in America."
Mohammad and Kinsella are uncomfortable with media attention. But telling his story, they think, is a way to raise attention about other interpreters — and Mohammad's family — who still need help.
Secretary of State John Kerry recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times that past visa problems largely have been corrected. Officials say about 9,000 translators, spouses and children have been granted asylum. But another 6,000 interpreters are in the pipeline, and without action by Congress, the allotted visas will run out this summer.
Mohammad's mother and siblings are not eligible under the current policy. So there is only the long-shot options of asking for a humanitarian parole or a special bill approved by Congress on their behalf.
"Mohammad might be here, but his heart and mind is still with his family," Kinsella said. "They're counting on us to not give up."
So while his bedroom is adorned with a large American flag and medals for his service, Mohammad also has something else — his brother's ransom note.
It serves as a reminder.
"I feel comfortable here, and I'm so grateful to Adrian," Mohammad said. "The only thing I'm worried about is my family."