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Final Fight: Berkeley Marine’s Battle to Get his Afghan Interpreter and Family to Safety

August 6, 2014
by Glen Martin

Why do we fight? Soldiers and Marines will have varied secondary answers: for national security, or a patriotic ideal, or even because your peers were enlisting. But there is another, overriding reason. You fight for those ahead of you or behind you on patrol, for the people in your squad or platoon, for the people who are fighting for—and protecting—you.

Hence, “brother in arms” is no cliché, no matter how much it’s invoked. Getting shot at not only focuses the mind: It forges bonds, as strong as any that exist between siblings. In the end, a soldier or Marine doesn’t risk life and limb to retrieve a fallen comrade because a CO says to do it. It’s because a comrade feels like family.

That explains why U.S. Marine Captain Adrian Kinsella didn’t feel simple unmitigated relief after his tour was up in Afghanistan in 2010. Kinsella—a third year law student at UC Berkeley—had been forced to leave someone behind. And he was determined to get him back.

That someone was Mohammad, the interpreter for Kinsella’s platoon. (Out of concern for the safety of Mohammad’s family, only his first name will be used.) Mohammad learned English from his father, an Afghani businessman. He signed up as a translator for American forces, and was working in Helmand Province in 2009 when he was recognized by a Taliban operative or one of their sympathizers. In short order, he recalls, his father was kidnapped, tortured and murdered. 

That hardened Mohammad’s opposition to the Taliban rather than inducing him to bend. He continued his work with American forces, and ultimately was assigned to Kinsella, then a second lieutenant, and his platoon in 2010.

“He was the guy who looked behind the curtain for us, who told us what was really going on,” says Kinsella, who emphasizes his comments are personal and not necessarily a reflection of Marine Corps policy. “We depended on him for our daily survival, and also for the basic success of our mission. We were involved more in hearts and minds work than active (combat) patrols, and it would’ve been impossible to determine the motivations of the people we dealt with, the true context of the situations we found ourselves in, without Mohammad.”

The platoon came to esteem—maybe love is not too strong a word—Mohammad. They nicknamed him “Yoda,” both as a subterfuge to hide his identification from the Taliban, and because of his wise counsel.

But Mohammad’s situation became increasingly untenable, especially after Kinsella finished his tour.  In 2013, he says, the Taliban kidnapped his 3-year-old brother and held him for ransom:

“They told me they would kill him if I didn’t pay in two days,” says Mohammad, adding he forked over his life savings, worth $35,000. “They finally released him, and he wasn’t physically harmed, but he also wasn’t the same. He cries a lot now, he’s very afraid. He’s a different little boy.”

Mohammad fled Afghanistan for Pakistan. Meanwhile, Kinsella worked ceaselessly to secure U.S. visas for the interpreter and his family.

“It took us three-and-a-half years just to get Mohammad out,” says Kinsella, who worked with his fellow law students, the Berkeley Chapter of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), and the Boalt Association of Military Veterans. “I have to say I was very discouraged at times. This man had given so much, had suffered so much, had contributed so much to the safety of the United States, and it seemed at times we weren’t going to be able to help him.”

Ultimately, Kinsella and his allies took the issue to Capitol Hill, where several members of Congress got involved. Last autumn, Berkeley Rep. Barbara Lee convinced the State Department to intervene, and Mohammad secured his visa. And last Friday, in what was hailed as a rare bipartisan agreement, the Senate joined the House in agreeing to a provision that will award visas to an additional 1,000 Afghans who worked as U.S. interpreters during the war and now wish to come to the United States.

“That vote extends a program to get a thousand more interpreters out, which is certainly a positive step,” says Kinsella, “But unfortunately it doesn’t do anything to help their families, who also desperately need our help. That was triaged out of the legislation.”

Mohammed celebrating with Adrian Kinsella, photo via Berkeley Law

Today Kinsella and Mohammad are roommates in Berkeley, where Mohammad works as a medical integration technician at Black Diamond Video in Richmond. (The company’s CEO, a Coast Guard vet, hired him after meeting him at a Super Bowl party less than two weeks after Mohammad’s arrival in the States.) He is also the sole breadwinner for his mother and siblings; they remain in hiding waiting for visas of their own. Both men are trying to secure the remaining visas for Mohammad’s family.

“They hardly ever come out of their house,” says Mohammad. “Just because they’re out of Afghanistan doesn’t mean they’re safe. So I’m here in America physically but not mentally. I’m thinking about them every second of every day.”

To date, 9,000 translators and their relatives have been granted visas; another 6,000 are being processed. Families such as Mohammad’s have not qualified for immigration under existing policies—their only options are “humanitarian parole,” or Congressional bills that specifically grant them asylum.

Small pockets of opposition exist: A few American politicians suggest a broadening of U.S. immigration could increase the risk of terrorism on U.S. territory, and at least one captain penned a column for Forbes in which he argued that “by giving interpreters the expectation that they should be rewarded with American citizenry for their service, we’re actively robbing Iraq and Afghanistan of their best human capital, the citizens they need for a stable future.”

Nonetheless, the idea enjoys broad support. Last Friday’s Senate approval came on a voice vote.

Still, “the problem is that there is no sense of urgency about this,” Kinsella says, “when in fact it’s a matter of life and death. We went through all the official prescribed steps when we were trying to get Mohammad over here, and we didn’t get anywhere. It was only when we engaged Congress and the press that things started to happen.”

Richard Weir, the director of the Berkeley chapter of IRAP, is a Marine veteran who served In Iraq and is now a second year student at Berkeley Law. He concurs with Kinsella on all counts.

“Anyone who helped U.S. forces is now being hunted down and killed by ISIS and the Taliban,” says Weir. “That’s how it is. The gifted interpreters like Mohammad made all the difference. Without them, we were walking around blind. So we owe them….The farther we get from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the less urgent it all seems, including our obligation to the people who helped us and who need our help now.”

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