US soldier loses 1 Afghan translator; fights to save another

BREMEN, Germany (AP) — The two men risked their lives together nearly a decade ago trying to eliminate the Taliban, dodging bullets and forever bonding in a way that can only be forged in war.

Now the American soldier and his Afghan translator were together again in Germany, shopping for a suit. Abdulhaq Sodais’s future hinges on an asylum hearing in a German court after he was denied a U.S. visa, and U.S. Army Veteran Spencer Sullivan was there to help him prepare.

Together, they watched videos from Sodais’ hometown: The crackle of gunfire, dead bodies being carted off as black smoke billowed. Once U.S. troops withdrew, the fragile government built over years by people like Sodais and Sullivan collapsed in just days.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” Sodais said. “My father said the Taliban were knocking on every single door in Herat looking for guys who worked for the coalition forces.”

Sullivan already lost another translator, Sayed Masoud, who was killed by the Taliban while waiting for a U.S. visa. It’s a scar Sullivan carries deeply, the realization that the U.S. government is capable of the one thing he never believed: betrayal.

Sullivan was determined not to let Sodais, who used smugglers to get to Europe, suffer the same fate. So he’s been helping Sodais prepare for his Sept. 6 asylum hearing.

“I made a promise to him just as America made a promise to him to protect him and save his life,” Sullivan said. “I mean how can you turn your back on that promise?”

Sullivan is among scores of U.S. combat veterans working on their own to rescue the Afghans who served alongside them.

Their efforts started long before this month’s chaotic rush to evacuate Afghans after the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdraw from America’s forever war.

Thousands of Afghans who aided US troops have spent years stuck in a backlogged and beleaguered U.S. Special Immigrant Visa program. The program was meant to award Afghans for their support by giving them a pathway to the United States. But it has fallen far short, with Congress failing to approve enough visas each year, while the former Trump administration added new security requirements and bureaucratic hurdles that turned the average wait time from a few months into nearly three years. Others have been denied over what immigration attorneys say were minor or unjust discrepancies in their performance records.

For Sullivan, saving Sodais is about protecting a U.S. ally. Both of his interpreters worked with the platoon Sullivan led in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013. They went on dozens of missions into villages controlled by the Taliban, taking on fire while unarmed.

In 2013, Masoud applied for a special immigrant visa after receiving death threats for his work. His application included a letter of recommendation from Sullivan.

Two years later, Masoud’s application was denied. The U.S. embassy said he had not worked for the U.S. government or its military, but for a U.S. firm that had a contract with the Department of Defense.

Masoud appealed and Sullivan wrote another letter to the Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, Kabul, but he got no response.

In the summer of 2017, Masoud’s brother told Sullivan that Masoud had been shot by the Taliban after returning home for a relative’s funeral and was dead.

Sullivan was consumed by sadness and guilt.

Like Masoud, Sodais also had applied for a special immigrant visa in 2013 and was denied. He applied again in 2015 and 2016. Sullivan sent the U.S. embassy in Kabul letters to support his case.

His last rejection came in 2017. After Sodais’ uncle was beheaded, Sodais decided he had to find another way out.

His brother, who knew someone in a travel agency, helped him get a tourist visa to Iran, and his family knew an Afghan man living there who would end up connecting Sodais to the first of a long line of smugglers.

He decided to head to Germany, and his family sold their small general store in Afghanistan to fund his journey.

In the end, it took him seven months and would cost his family $15,000 to get to Germany. Once there, he applied for asylum but was lacking sufficient photos or documentation to support his claims and was immediately denied.

He called Sullivan, who he had not spoken to in more than a year.

“I was like ‘oh my God, he’s alive!’” Sullivan recounted, feeling overjoyed.

Four months later, Sullivan went to see him in Germany and offered to help his case, working to communicate with officials in the U.S. and Germany.

For now, Sodais is safe. On Aug. 11, Germany temporarily halted the deportation of all Afghans due to the upheaval but did not specify how long the order would last. But Sodais worries his luck will run out once deportations resume.

“Really sometimes, it’s really hard for me to fight against this life,” he said on a Zoom call with Sullivan as he rattled off his fears over what’s happening in Afghanistan, his guilt over leaving his family, and his anxiety over his future.

And how will he ever get to the United States, where he wants to live? he asks.

Sullivan interrupts, stopping his downward spiral, and reminds him to stay focused on the Sept. 6 asylum hearing.

“Step one is we keep you alive,” he said. “We get you asylum in Germany and everything else will follow.”

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Watson reported from San Diego.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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