A soldier's quest to save Iraqi, Afghan interpreters
Targeted by insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, they find a haven in America.
Washington — Army Lt. Jason Faler stood in the Baghdad airport at 3 a.m. trying to absorb his sister's words over Iraq's scratchy cellphone network. His wife was in labor thousands of miles away in New Jersey, and now, his sister said, the baby was in distress.
The phone clicked off. The minutes crawled by. A generator's growl mixed with the cracks of a distant firefight. Finally, his phone rang. This time it was Lieutenant Faler's mother. A healthy baby boy had arrived without a scratch.
Like any new father, Faler spread the news. He dialed Walid, his interpreter and friend. "I've got a little boy," he recalls shouting. "You could hear them all cheering" in Walid's operations center.
The bonds forged with Walid and other interpreters have pulled Faler into an unexpected direction: personal philanthropy.
Besides his day job with a West Coast healthcare provider and daily duties as an Army reservist, he has worked tirelessly to help Iraqi and Afghan military interpreters come to the United States.
The results are small-scale, so far.
Over a year after they first sought to escape Iraq, Walid and two other interpreters who worked with Faler have arrived with their families. They all live near him in Oregon now. He brings their kids to doctor's appointments, takes them shopping, helps open bank accounts for them, and tries to find them jobs.
A married couple from Afghanistan, facing homelessness in San Francisco, contacted Faler last year. He convinced them to move to the cheaper environs of Oregon and helped them find odd jobs, pay the rent for a few months, and took them to Wal-Mart to buy household basics. Now the couple is on the East Coast and self-supporting.
"I feel like what I'm doing with this foundation, it's personal, but like I'm repaying a debt owed by this nation," says Faler. "Countless scores of interpreters have paid with blood. This threat is not theoretical or notional in any way."
Insurgents hunt down anyone working with the US military or government – calling them traitors – and regularly kill, kidnap, or attack them and their families.
But Faler says he is ill-suited to run a charitable organization.
"I'm not comfortable asking for money," says the man with a soft voice and tendency for thoughtful pauses before speaking. "If we've raised $40,000, I'd be surprised."
He says he doesn't have nearly enough money for all the requests he receives. His goal is to raise enough to pass the foundation on to someone who can run it fulltime – and keep it going when he is deployed again to Iraq next year.
When Faler was deployed to Iraq in January 2005, he never expected to start a foundation. He worked long days and nights with Walid and a handful of other interpreters at the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, helping to translate high-level meetings between US and Iraqi officials, among other things. A native Oregonian, he fit in particularly well. Married to an Egyptian-Lebanese woman he met while studying at the American University in Cairo, he spoke Arabic with the soft lilt of the Lebanese.
"As he spoke directly [to Iraqis in Arabic], it helped open a lot of doors" to top Iraqi officials, says Lt. Col. John Burke, who was Faler's commander during their year tour in Iraq and whose adamant support helped Faler win the Bronze Star Medal, awarded for heroic or meritorious service in combat.
Holed up for months together, working long days and nights, Faler began to make friends with the Iraqi interpreters. Faler tucked baby gifts, sent from his wife, in Walid's locker at the ministry after Walid's wife had a baby. Walid, who goes by a pseudonym to protect relatives still living in Iraq, prayed for Faler when Faler volunteered for a risky mission in northern Iraq.
"When we were deployed, they shared stories of their families. They'd sneak pictures in to show me and I'd give them pictures and they'd sneak them out to show their family," says Faler. "A bond like brotherhood developed. It was bittersweet when I left. There was a bit of survivor's guilt."
"We became like one family, his family and my family," says Walid. "He is the only guy I trust.... He was the only one who knew where I lived exactly" in Iraq.
Seven months after Faler returned to the US, the Iraqi interpreters e-mailed him asking if he could help them get special visas to the US available to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who had worked for the US military.
There was just one hitch. The military was only issuing 50 for both theaters of operation. "And I'm going to get my guys in?" Faler remembers thinking. "But I didn't tell them my doubts."
Faler researched the visas and helped them with the piles of paperwork and the largest obstacle – obtaining a general's signature on a letter vouching for the interpreters.
Knowing there were scores more like them, Faler started working on a broader scale. He studied the complex refugee application process, raised money, and organized resources until he formally started the Checkpoint One Foundation.
Life isn't necessarily easy for the interpreters once they arrive in the US. Walid tries to keep the difficult memories of what he witnessed in Iraq at bay as he struggles to make ends meet in his new life.
"We came here to start over. No bombs, no blood, no violence," he says.
A few weeks ago Walid's daughter, the artist of the family, drew a picture for Faler.
It was a rendering of a photo – the same photo that Faler had given Walid once he'd returned from Iraq after seeing his son for the first time. The drawing shows Faler in uniform, his wife in a hospital bed, and a tiny boy wrapped in a blanket between them.
"It's framed in my house," Faler says.