“I’m not supposed to be standing here today—I’m supposed to be dead and buried in Arlington,” Matt Zeller ’04 told members of the Hamilton community who attended his talk, “No One Left Behind: A Bond Forged in Combat.” The lecture was sponsored by the Levitt Center and the Tuggle Fund.
On April 28, 2008, Zeller, a U.S. army captain in Afghanistan, found himself ambushed by the Taliban, who outnumbered the American soldiers 50 to 15. Unbeknownst to him, two fighters of the Afghan insurgent group had begun to sneak up behind him, ready to kill. Janis Shinwari, an Afghan combat interpreter for the U.S. Army, made the split-second decision to shoot the enemy combatants and save Zeller’s life.
Zeller and Shinwari took turns recounting this harrowing event and Shinwari’s difficult journey to enter America with a striking amount of verve and details, making the well-attended auditorium seem intimate.
“He’s provided me the gift of life,” Zeller said. “I didn’t even know his name.” He then directly addressed Shinwari, who he now calls his brother: “Why did you, man? Why did you save my life?”
Calmly, Shinwari replied, “We are Afghans. We like our guests. We don’t want someone to kill our guests in front of our eyes. You left your beautiful country and family to come here and fight for my freedom. At least, I can do something for you and save your life—that’s it.”
Shinwari served the U.S. military as a translator for eight years, during which he saved several American soldiers’ lives and as a result made it onto a Taliban death list. Like tens of thousands of other Afghan and Iraqi translators, Shinwari applied for a Special Immigrant Visa. But this system, which was specifically designed to save wartime allies and give them asylum in the United States, is woefully broken, he said. Shinwari waited years before finally being informed that he and his family had been approved. He quit his job and sold his house, but a false and baseless tip—presumably from the Taliban—revoked his visa as well as his family’s, forcing them into hiding.
“Translators protected us better than our personal weapons,” Zeller explained. “He’s the real veteran in the room—not me.” The United States' failure to protect those who protect our troops is nothing short of betrayal. In Washington, it would seem that the military principle of ‘No One Left Behind’ was lost in translation, particularly when applied to Afghan and Iraqi translators.
Zeller reflects on his Hamilton experience and the support he received from members of the Hamilton faculty.
Shinwari had saved Zeller, and now the time had come for Zeller to save Shinwari. Zeller contacted multiple members of Congress and relentlessly pressured Washington to act on a remarkably bipartisan issue. With the subsequent media coverage and public interest, Zeller succeeded. Shinwari, his wife and their children finally made it to the United States.
This success story is far from over, however. Zeller recalled Shinwari’s reaction to what looked like a happy ending on the surface: “What about all the other translators still on our base? Don’t they deserve to be here too?”
In 2013, just five years after the two crossed paths, they founded No One Left Behind, an organization dedicated to fulfilling the heretofore unkept promises of the U.S. government to protect local interpreters supporting the American operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, bridging the gap between the current U.S. State Department and NGO refugee relief programs and helping interpreters and their families not only immigrate to the United States, but also thrive here. Since its founding, the organization has raised almost $1 million and helped nearly 3,000 people, but there are still tens of thousands left behind.
“This is now my charge to you,” Zeller concluded. “We actually need you—right now. This is something that only the American people can change. It involves congressional action and welcoming these people in your communities.” Those interested in joining this cause were invited to visit nooneleft.org for more information on how to help.
The audience was deeply moved by the presentation and gave the duo a standing ovation for their time, service, bravery, and continued humanitarian efforts to address this urgent problem.
Hamilton's Men's Lacrosse team, all of whose members attended the lecture, volunteers with the organization's Rochester, N.Y., chapter. Last year they raised more than $5,000 for the group. When they played St. John Fisher in Rochester, a number of interpreters came to their game. Afterward they stayed for the tailgate and shared a meal with the team. The stories the interpreters shared of their service with the U.S. military really had a profound impact on the team. The members continue raising funds for the Rochester chapter.