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Vet fights to get valiant Afghan to safety of U.S.

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Published:   |   Updated: September 27, 2013 at 10:08 AM

Ty Edwards was lying on the ground, his head tilted to the left, just enough to see the small river of blood pouring out of the hole in his forehead created by a Taliban bullet.

A short while earlier, on the morning of Oct. 18, 2008, Edwards, a Marine lieutenant colonel, was leading a team of Marines, Navy corpsmen and Afghan army troops on a resupply mission in Afghanistan's rugged and deadly Kunar province. As the convoy rounded a bend along a river, Taliban from positions in the hills above opened up with machine guns and AK-47s. The Afghan troops were out of their trucks and pinned down in the open on the dirt floor of the valley.

Edwards, who rushed to help the Afghans, almost died. His life was saved by two men who ran through a hail of gunfire to rescue him. One of them was an Afghan interpreter. Fearing retribution from the Taliban for working for the U.S. military, the interpreter has been trying to come to the United States for the past four years under a program created by Congress in 2009 called the Afghan Allies Protection Act.

As he recuperated from his wounds, Edwards led an all-out effort to bring the interpreter to the United States, but until Thursday, the man's status appeared to be in limbo. That's when the interpreter, called Farhad here out of concern for his safety, received a phone call from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

His long wait may be nearing an end.

The call came after a series of emails and phone calls from The Tampa Tribune during the past week to the State Department and members of Congress who have been working on the translator's behalf.

“Based on what we're hearing and seeing now, we might be inside the 5-yard line,” said a spokesman for Sen. Bill Nelson.

“Its a call I have been waiting for years,” said Farhad, in an email Thursday from Afghanistan to the men who have been working since 2009 to bring him to the United States. “I don't know how to say thank you to each single one of you. ... I am so happy and feeling that I almost got another life with this phone call. You guys are my heroes.”

***

After the ambush began, Edwards grabbed his M-4 rifle, jumped out of his armored Humvee and tried to figure out what was happening. With the Afghans under fire, he rushed forward to help, bullets whizzing all around him, until one bored through his cranium.

As the battle raged, Edwards lay on the ground, thinking he was about to die. If not for Farhad and a Navy corpsman, he likely would have.

Though injured by a rocket propelled grenade that hit the Humvee, Farhad grabbed a rifle and, firing back at the Taliban, risked his life to run over to Edwards, taking up a position between the wounded Marine and the enemy. After running out of ammo, and with his radio not working, Farhad again ran through enemy fire to the Humvee to get Navy corpsman Stephen Albright. As 1st. Lt. Sean McQuiston covered them with the vehicle's machine gun, the two ran back through the firefight to Edwards' side. While Albright provided medical attention, Farhad used his body to shield Edwards from the Taliban volleys, the men's actions saving Edwards' life.

Now Edwards, 43, is trying to return the favor from his home in Tampa Palms.

“I have no doubt that I would not be alive today if not for the heroic actions” of Farhad, Edwards wrote in a letter to his congressman, Rep. Dennis Ross.

In 2009, Farhad, who received a medal for risking his life to save Edwards, applied for two special immigrant visas under the Afghan Allies Protection Act, one for interpreters and one for those who worked for the U.S. government.

He received approval for his request from the chief of mission in Kabul nearly two years ago. His brother, also an interpreter, was already approved and came to the United States and enlisted in the Army.

Thursday, Farhad received a letter from the embassy saying the administrative process is “almost done.” But despite all that, and the ongoing campaign by Edwards — with help from a retired Marine Corps major general, Sen. Nelson, Rep. Ross and Mark Van Trees of Support Our Troops — Farhad is still stuck in Kabul. Ross said the delay, to “ensure proper verification” to prevent insurgent infiltrators, is “outrageous.”

And the is clock ticking.

The Afghan Allies program expires next year. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul is well aware of the consequences.

“Each Special Immigrant Visa applicant by the very nature of the program is in danger and we are very aware of that as we live and work here in Kabul ourselves,” wrote Valerie J. Chittenden, the consular section chief in a response to an April letter from Nelson's office asking why Farhad's visa was still being held up. “It is frustrating to us especially seeing all of these men and women who have served the U.S. government faithfully waiting for their visa.”

***

Farhad, now 30, said he began working with the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2005 and with the U.S. armed forces in 2007.

“I wanted to be part of the mission (of Operation) Enduring Freedom and to support my family,” he said via email from Kabul. “I have worked with Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and special forces. I have also had a chance to work with Afghan National Army and Police. Being an interpreter you get to learn something new everyday.”

One of the things he has learned is to stay within the confines of Kabul, which for now is protected by the U.S. military.

“If we go outside the city we know that (the Taliban) will cause us big problem,” he said, “and therefore we don't travel outside the city.

“I have completed all kind of paperwork that are required for this program,” he said of the Afghan Allies program. “I have recommendation and approval letters from U.S. General officers. After submitting my packages for both SIV programs, I have been interviewed twice here at the U.S. embassy in Kabul. I have had the first interview in March 21, 2012 and the next one was on April 2013. So far every time I asked them about my visa case status, they answer me with same typed email saying your case is under administrative processing. I have no idea what this really means and when they will be done with it.”

The delay only increases the danger, Farhad said.

“The Taliban is waiting for the right time to either kill or kidnap us and it happened in the past with people working for U.S. government,” Farhad said.

***

As Farhad began his effort to come to the United States, Edwards was engaged in a fight of his own.

For Edwards, just surviving was a miracle. His arduous recuperation took him to the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa, where he was a patient at the Polytrauma Center.

Even though he was paralyzed and recovering from a traumatic brain injury that nearly killed him, Edwards worried about Farhad, whom he kept in touch with via email.

Retired Marine Maj. Gen. J.D. Lynch said he and Edwards developed what they called “the Anaconda Strategy. We got around the problem and attacked it from every direction we could think of. We contacted the offices of our two senators, and Ty contacted the office of Rep. Dennis Ross.”

Ross' office began reaching out to the State Department in December, with Nelson's office weighing in beginning in April.

“The delay is caused by administrative processing to ensure proper verification,” Ross said. “I understand the need to exercise caution and that administrative processing often lasts 90 days or longer. It has been four years. The length of this delay is outrageous. This is another unfortunate example of the serious need for visa reform.”

In June, the most recent response from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to Nelson was not promising.

“Unfortunately, this visa application is still undergoing administrative review,” consular section chief Chittenden informed Nelson. “While we understand the frustration this may cause, the administrative review is a process over which we, at Embassy Kabul, have no control. Nor can we give you an estimated time when it will be completed. We understand and appreciate (Farhad's) service to the U.S. government but do not have any additional updates at this time.”

However, days after the Tribune reached out to the State Department, Farhad got an update on Thursday.

“The administrative processing of your Special Immigrant Visa is almost done,” the letter states. “In order to complete the processing of your case, we request that you bring the following documents to the Embassy in Kabul as soon as possible.”

The embassy asked Farhad to provide, among other things, his passports and updated medical records. But it also warned him that “this email does not mean that your visa has been issued. Do not resign from your job or make any life changes until you have your passport in your hand with a valid visa printed in it. We CANNOT give you a date that your visa will be issued.”

***

The State Department does not comment on individual cases, but spokeswoman Laura Seal said that overall, “more than 2,500 Afghans who have worked for the United States in Afghanistan and their family members have benefited from special immigrant visa programs.

“Across the U.S. government, every effort is being made to ensure qualified applicants are processed in a timely fashion,” Seal said. “We have redirected and increased resources to improve efficiency at all stages of the SIV process without compromising national security. As a result of these processing improvements, wait times for initial visa interviews at the Embassy in Kabul have been drastically reduced.”

Edwards said that the email Farhad received means that “he is not out of the woods yet, but a step closer.”

In March, 16 members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama to share their concern over a program they said has seen only a little more than 1,000 Afghans who worked for the U.S. given visas out of 8,000 available under the program. The legislators asked that the program, and one for Iraqis that expires Monday, be extended and improved.

“Innumerable Afghans who served the U.S. government wait in peril,” they wrote. “Their lives and family are threatened. The extension and reform of these programs is a matter of national security and these programs represent an important tool for the U.S. operations in Afghanistan.”

The Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, which has been working to help interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan, said the letter to Farhad “is cold comfort because administrative processing wait times vary from weeks to years unpredictably. Like so many applicants who served with the U.S., he remains one crucial step from safety” until he receives his visa.

Farhad “remains under serious threat,” said project spokesman Stephen Poellot.

Thursday, Nelson and Ross said they were happy to see progress on at least one of those cases.

“Sen. Nelson was glad to hear that this is moving along,” said Ryan Brown, a spokesman.

“After months of delays, we are now hopeful that (Farhad) may be able to escape the closing grip of the Taliban,” Ross said. “We are grateful to have been able to play a small role in moving aside the bureaucratic red tape to help (Farhad) get one step closer to safety after he protected Lt. Col. Edwards.”

 

 

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

Twitter: @haltman

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