Afghan interpreter hoping for asylum gets little help from those he worked for
By THE DAILY NEWS, JACKSONVILLE, N.C. Published: November 28, 2015
He describes Afghanistan as hell.
“I am from hell and continue to live in hell,” says “Finch,” an Afghan interpreter who still lives in his home country.
And that’s where he’ll likely remain thanks to the combination of a lack of money and the complex bureaucracy between the U.S. Embassy in Kabul and the Ohio-based military contracting company, Mission Essential Personal (MEP), that hired him.
“For God’s sake, don’t throw me back. I swear to God, I’m not a bad guy, if I were a bad guy, then why did they give me all of these awards,” asks Finch, a pseudonym being used to protect the man who is one of many Afghan interpreters, who worked for U.S. and Coalition forces are still inside Afghanistan — hiding — and actively being hunted by the Taliban. “I went on risky missions with my teams and I am left behind for no reason…If the Taliban find me they will cut my head off.”
Finch says lying low in his parent’s upstairs bedroom has not been easy. At night, he said, the Taliban started sending Finch’s father death threats.
“[Seeing] you die has become essential to us,” the letter Finch provided reads. “…These infidels with whom you are translating for killed a lot of our Mujahideen…(Finch), when we cut your head off, it means that we killed 10 infidels.”
Faithful and Valuable Service Revoked
In 2004, three men with backgrounds in law enforcement and military special operations created Mission Essential Personal with the aim of providing language and security training specialists to various U.S. government agencies and private corporations. The company is currently led by CEO Sunil Ramchand, a former White House staffer and U.S. Navy veteran.
For the post-9/11 wars, MEP specifically focused on providing linguists to the State Department and the Department of Defense in Iraq.
Finch was hired in 2009 as an interpreter with MEP. According to documents obtained by The Daily News, Finch worked in multiple U.S. Army and Marine Corps commands that specialized in everything from ground infantry operations to field artillery and embedded training teams, whose sole mission was to train the Afghan National Army (ANA) for the eventual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
- During Finch’s three-year period of providing language support to the U.S. military, he along with all interpreters employed by MEB, were routinely scrutinized.
Periodic language tests were administered in Dari, Pashto, Arabic, Urdu and English by MEP or one of its subcontractors in order to make sure translators continuously remained proficient in language conversions. Interpreters also underwent regular polygraph and counter intelligence (CI) tests that involve tactical questioning with no approach, meaning there is no interrogation aspect to the line of questioning. The tests are routine and seek to assess if a linguist is remaining faithful to the U.S. military and MEP.
Finch passed every one of them while also receiving numerous awards and decorations from the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, according to documents obtained by The Daily News.
One letter of commendation and follow-on recommendation written by a U.S. Army Capt. Jesse L. Wood in October 2013 for the State Department’s Special Immigrant Visa program reads: “His charisma and positive attitude have allowed us to forge long lasting and productive relationships that contributed greatly to the success of our mission. His loyalty and support have been tested many times, as both he and his family have received threats due to his allegiance to American units; however, Finch continued to perform at an exceptional level and sought opportunities to improve his skills…I would gladly serve with him again.”
Former Marine Capt. Lee J. Mersek presented another award to Finch in February 2010. The Daily News spoke to Mersek by phone from his current home in Thessaloniki, Greece, where he is currently attending graduate school.
Mersek described Finch as a “nice guy, very easygoing… He was not belligerent and always gave his best, even if it wasn’t always up to par.”
In 2010, Finch was assigned to Mersek’s embedded training team in the Khogyani district, located in the southwest region of Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan and was home to many senior Taliban leaders as well as 250 militants from various Taliban fractions who operated within the district, according to Mersek.
Finch was instrumental in the “Training the Trainers” program where U.S. Marines were teaching Afghan soldiers how to educate and instruct other soldiers within their ranks the fundamentals of combat marksmanship, according to Mersek. After three months of training, all of the Afghan National Army forces under Mersek’s command qualified in marksmanship.
“Finch was absolutely instrumental in translating the training requirements,” Mersek said.
Over the course of three years, Finch received eight letters of commendation and five letters of recommendation written on his behalf to the State Department from senior officers and enlisted in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. Included in the awards is an endorsement written by Army Lt. Col. Sean Seibert, the director of International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Customs Coordination Cell, two by former Marine Lt. Col. Ted Adams and one from Army Lt. Col. James P. Lowe.
- Finch was granted Chief of Mission Approval for Afghanistan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Status in November 2013 having met all the criteria for coming to the U.S., to include, the two most important tenants, “The individual has provided faithful and valuable service to the United States Government and the individual has or is experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of the employment by or on behalf of the U.S. Government,” according to a memo obtained by The Daily News that was signed by Assistant Chief of Mission Ambassador David Robinson at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
However, a redacted catch-22 was about to start working against Finch and his service.
‘They don’t even know they’re blacklisted’
Thousands of Afghans risked their lives serving alongside U.S. and Coalition forces, to include, placing their families in jeopardy if discovered by the Taliban. In return, the U.S. Congress promised that the State Department would allocate 4,000 visas for Afghan interpreters that extend to their families of linguists, according to the Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009.
To qualify for the visa, applicants need to be a resident of Afghanistan and employed for a minimum of one year between Oct. 7, 2001, and Sept. 30, 2015, and experiencing an “ongoing serious threat” as a consequence of their employment with the U.S. military or NATO ISAF forces, according to the State Department’s website.
Eight months after Finch received approval to apply for the special immigrant visa, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul sent him a letter in July 2014, informing him that his approval to access the SIV program had been revoked, citing new information, that reads, “Security checks or other information available to us revealed derogatory information.”
An inquiry to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul went unanswered.
The memo also states that Mission Essential terminated Finch for employment for cause, saying, “You do not meet the requirement of faithful service to the U.S. Government.”
“MEP gave me a heartbreaking gift, they kicked me out of a job and gave me a blacklisting for no reason…Oh my God, I don’t know why they’re doing this,” Finch told The Daily News.
According to Finch, MEP’s Resource Requirements coordinator told Finch that he was a good interpreter, but could no longer work for MEP.
“He told me I was blacklisted and I asked him, ‘What’s the reason?’ and he hang up the phone on me,” Finch said.
Questions to MEP from The Daily News were referred to MEP’s communications department.
MEP spokesman David LaRocca said Fleming’s conjectures are untrue and that Mission Essential is “very proud to have worked to support several hundred Afghanistan local national linguists in securing Special Immigrant Visas.” “We are very proud of the service these individuals provided to our Company in support of the U.S. Government’s mission in Afghanistan.”
- Former Marine Sgt. Aaron Fleming of Camp Lejeune’s 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, whose background is in the infantry and intelligence communities, attributed some of the problems to Taliban tacticts.
“I know there are a lot of Afghan interpreters who end up on a watch list or blacklisted because the Taliban will find out the names and units that interpreters are serving with and they will call the Afghan consulate or MEP or the U.S. Embassy and file erroneous allegations in order to keep the interpreters in the country and blacklist them and then kill them later,” Fleming said. “So this is a huge problem. ...
“They don’t even know they are on a blacklist until they turn in their paperwork.”
‘The gravy train is coming to an end.’
One high-ranking Department of Defense military officer, granted anonymity due to media restrictions against service members talking to the press, said the whole process needs work.
“We are supposed to be building relationships between us and our interpreters, but then we will turn around and keep them behind concertina wire with armed guards when flying up to Camp Leatherneck or Firebase Phoenix to retake a language test or a polygraph…So you’re trying to build a relationship with your interpreters and it’s like I am turning to my linguist, saying, ‘Hey, I need you to build this working relationship with you, but I don’t trust you enough to walk around, so stay behind this fence with concertina wire.”
Matt Zeller, a former U.S. Army intelligence officer and CEO of No One Left Behind, an organization of veterans who assist interpreters with their SIV packages to the State Department, said it’s a Catch-22.
“MEP is not covered under U.S. law, and when these Afghan linguists get blacklisted, there’s no one to go to bat for them,” he said. “They can’t even go into the lobby at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to address the derogatory information against them, let alone be told what the information is.”
Zeller said counting the interpreters and their families, there are 75,000 people still in Afghanistan living in danger.
“If the Taliban find out they had any association with U.S. and Coalition forces, we will have 75,000 dead,” Zeller said. “I hope we don’t come to a moment and look back and say, ‘Oh my God, we did nothing for these people.’”
©2015 The Daily News (Jacksonville, N.C.)
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