GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, the deadly threat to thousands of Afghans who helped American troops is greater than ever.
“My fear is they will hunt him down,” said retired U.S. Army 1st Sgt. Gerald Keen, referring to the Taliban’s threat to kill a young Afghan interpreter who worked on Keen’s base.
“Not only him, his family,” Keen added. “He’ll be the last one killed if they find him. They’ll kill his brothers, sisters, kids, wife and then, they’ll kill him. And they’ll behead him. They have no remorse.”
It will soon be five years since Keen returned to Grand Haven, Michigan after a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, his third and final deployment after 36 years in the Army.
But Keen’s mission is not complete.
“I made a connection with him and a promise to him,” Keen said of his pledge to help the Afghan interpreter and his family get to America. “They’re putting their lives on the line. Just like we did. It’s like leaving a soldier behind, and we leave nobody behind.”
18,000 Afghan applications await approval
American troops did not fight alone in Afghanistan. Thousands of Afghan nationals, many of them interpreters, risked their own lives to protect and serve U.S. troops. In return, America promised them fast-track visa consideration for those who want a chance at a better life here in the United States.
In 2006, the U.S. created a Special Immigrant Visa program to ensure expedited processing for Aghan and Iraqi nationals who worked with American troops. According to federal law, these special visas are to be processed within nine months.
Instead, it’s taking years — a potential death sentence for Afghan allies targeted by the Taliban.
Right now, there are 18,000 applications from Afghan allies in the special visa pipeline.
The Truman National Security Project recently published a report exposing systemic flaws in the SIV program and urging prompt action to fix them.
In addition, the U.S. State Department’s Office of Inspector General published an audit that uncovered multiple problems impacting the program’s effectiveness.
“Every day I pray for him and his family to be saved,” Keen said of the interpreter with whom he built a close bond. “Every day. I wish I could just write a check and get them here tomorrow. I’d do it in a heartbeat.”
Veteran: ‘I trusted him with my life’
The interpreter, who won’t be identified for security reasons, lived on Keen’s Army base during the week, returning to his wife and children in a nearby village on weekends.
“I’d pack him up a box of candies for his kids, toothbrushes, toothpaste,” Keen recalled, noting how grateful the man and his family were for the gifts.
Keen, who had adult sons around the interpreter’s age, developed an almost father-son relationship with the young man, who was in his early 20s.
“He’s a young, smart kid,” Keen said. “We went through some pretty hard times with the Taliban, and the camaraderie that we built, and the trust that we built, I mean, I trusted him my life. I kind of took him under my wing.”
Before he left, Keen promised the translator he would do whatever he could to help him and his family obtain visas and find a new home in West Michigan.
“He’s just as much a soldier as I am because he helped the Americans and the coalition through the worst times of the war,” he said.
Keen, who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, struggles to talk about what he saw in Afghanistan.
“They’re under attack constantly over there,” he said. “We went through several of them. Two o’clock in the morning. Two o’clock in the afternoon. Didn’t matter.”
Keen recalled that once he had checked on his troops after an attack, he sought out the interpreter next.
“During mortar attacks, after you take shelter or return fire, after all my men were accounted for, he was the first person I asked for, and he was always looking for me after an attack,” he said. “He always came out no matter where he was, on the compound, in the village, he always checked in after an attack.”
In September 2016, shortly before leaving Afghanistan, Keen wrote a letter to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
“I am writing today on behalf of my friend and co-worker,” it read. “I wish to lend him my personal support in his desire to immigrate with his family to the United States.
“He has shown tremendous strength and courage, while accepting a high degree of personal risk to himself, and family members. He and his family have been threatened and intimidated by Taliban, due to his faithful work with us. Additionally, rocket attacks occur near his village on a daily basis, which I, too, have experienced firsthand. As a result, he is afraid of what could happen if his family remains in Afghanistan.”
It’s been nearly five years since Keen wrote that letter, three years since the interpreter was deemed eligible for the special visa program and two years since he submitted his official application.
Still, he waits.
“This is our family. We need to get them out of there,” said Keen’s wife, Lynnette Keen, who’s also developed a close relationship with the translator and his family through weekly video chats.
The interpreter’s four young children call Lynnette Keen “grandmama.”
The interpreter’s 24-year-old wife will soon give birth to a fifth child.
Lynnette Keen stressed that America made promises to its Afghan and Iraqi allies.
“It’s not an option not to bring them here,” she said. “With all the latest news of the troop withdrawal, it increasingly heightens our fear of time running out.”
Interpreter seeing more Taliban violence
In January, Afghan police notified the interpreter that he’s on a Taliban hit list and should take extra precautions to protect himself and his family.
One of his relatives — also a translator — was recently shot and killed, allegedly by Taliban.
“He was going from the house to his job,” explained the translator in an online video chat with Nexstar’s WOOD-TV and Keen’s wife.
“He was just walking, and on the way, he was shot by the Taliban. By the sniper. He was shot in the face,” he said.
The Keens keep in close touch with the interpreter and his family through weekly video chats.
“My goal is to get my kids over there to America so they can get education,” the man said from his home in Afghanistan. “One day they will be officers. They will be doctors. They will be engineers.”
But already, even months before America’s planned withdrawal, Taliban attacks have spiked.
“Every morning, every evening, the (Taliban) are coming here, and they are attacking the checkpoints,” he explained.
“They are not accepting the human rights,” he said. “There is no humanity, and there is no love. Only the people are killing the people, which is very terrible.”
The now-28-year-old husband and father said that as a child he set a goal to one day work as an interpreter for U.S. troops.
“I learned many things from the U.S. Army,” he said. He remembers the times when troops would give him and other children cookies.
In addition to contacting Congress and refugee advocacy groups on the interpreter’s behalf, Gerald and Lynnette Keen are grateful they’re able to provide financial help, too. The couple covers some basic needs for the family, including tuition for the translator’s daughters to attend private school — the only educational option for girls in Afghanistan. If you’d like to help with expenses related to these efforts, the Keens have set up a GoFundMe page.
“I’ll never forget their support,” said the Afghan interpreter of the Keens.
He refers to the veteran and his wife as “Papa” and “Mommy.”
“I am just wishing that one day, I will support them,” he said.
‘Egregious’ delay cost Afghan interpreter his life
Julie Kornfeld, an attorney with the International Refugee Assistance Program, represented another Afghan interpreter who was trying to obtain a special visa.
“It’s a race against the clock,” said Kornfeld, whose client worked as a translator for U.S. troops for more than 12 years.
For much of that time, he was also trying to obtain one of the promised special visas.
Kornfeld described Mohammad as an extraordinary man who showed great empathy even as he endured enormous challenges.
“He was just so kind, so gregarious, and his voice, he had just one of the most soothing voices,” recalled Kornfeld.
PRX’s The World, a public radio news magazine, featured Mohammad’s story.
Kornfeld described the delay in the processing of her client’s visa “egregious.”
“It took Mohammad over 10 years before a decision was rendered, and that decision was rendered by the Taliban, not the U.S. government,” she said.
In December 2020, Mohammad finally cleared the first big hurdle in the process, but it was too late.
A month later, he was shot and killed by the Taliban.
“I hold the U.S. government accountable for that,” said Kornfeld.
She believes the biggest problem is a lack of leadership in the Special Immigrant Visa program and confusion over the various agencies’ roles.
“I actually went to the National Visa Center (in New Hampshire), and I met the head of the SIV program, and she wasn’t able to tell me what an SIV was,” she said.
In the wake of Mohammad’s murder, Kornfeld is trying to bring his widow and six children to the United States. It, too, is a race against the clock as the Taliban is threatening them. Kornfeld is asking U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to grant the family “Humanitarian Parole” which she describes as the “Hail Mary” of immigration efforts.
Lakeshore Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, noted that lawmakers in December increased by 4,000 the number of SIVs available for Afghan allies. Huizenga said his office has been in direct contact with the U.S. embassy in Kabul, where he says the root of the problem — the holdup — lies.
“At this point, we know there is a real issue that needs to be taken care of, and we’re trying to get the federal government to move faster to make sure that these men and women who were integral in helping us there, that they’re taken care of now,” Huizenga said.
The office of Sen. Debbie Stabenow, the Democrat who is Michigan’s senior senator, confirmed it’s working on the case involving the Keens.
Rep. Peter Meijer, R-Grand Rapids, also a combat veteran, said America has a “moral obligation” to look out for Afghan allies who risked their lives to assist American troops over the last two decades.
“That’s why I helped form a bipartisan working group to make sure we are upholding our commitment to these Afghans and addressing the challenges facing the Afghan Special Immigrant Visas program,” Meijer said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department said it takes its role in the management of the SIV program “seriously” and is “engaged at the highest levels to ensure we are serving SIV applicants as promptly as possible.”
“The Department of State has prioritized the Afghan SIV program by identifying program needs and directing additional resources towards two stages of the Afghan SIV process,” wrote a State Department official in an email to Target 8 investigators.
Still, those 18,000 applications remain.