My name is Matt Zeller and I am a US Army Afghan War veteran, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project, and author of Watches Without Time (Just World Books, 2012). Today, I'm joined by my Afghan combat interpreter, Janis, who saved my life in a firefight in Ghazni, Afghanistan in 2008. The Taliban responded by putting Janis on the top of their kill list. After four years and the assistance of numerous Congressmen and media outreach, I welcomed Janis home to the US in October of 2013. He arrived in the United States with basically only the clothes on his back. I created a GoFundMe page for him to help his family restart their lives in the US - strangers donated close to $35,000. When I attempted to give Janis the check, he turned it down, asking me if we could start a nonprofit to help the interpreters who are still stuck in Afghanistan and often arrive in the United States with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Four years later, we are the Co-Founders of No One Left Behind (, a nonprofit with 10 chapters in various US cities, and we have helped nearly 5,000 people resettle in the United States. However, we know that there are another 14,000 interpreters and their families still waiting for the State Department to process their visa applications.

To learn more, click here:


Ask US Anything

Comments: 65 • Responses: 8  • Date: 

FeatheredSun83 karma

Matt or Janis: What needs to happen on the federal level to make it possible for those who have laid down their lives and livelihoods for American soldiers to be able to emigrate to the United States? What are the main roadblocks to clear, and what message would you like to give directly to the President, the Department of State, and the Department of Homeland Security.

It's awesome what you're doing guys. Amazing stuff!

No1LeftBehind86 karma

Congress needs to pass a law allocating enough visas to cover all applicants. Currently, they have only allocated enough visas to cover 2,000 of the remaining 14,000 applicants. Moreover, Congress should declare once and for all that the Special Immigration Visa Program is tied to the formal end of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq - i.e. when we aren't militarily engaged and in need of their people to translate for us. Currently, the program must be authorized every few years. In the most recent years, we barely succeeded in convincing the more conservative members of Congress on the merit and need for this program.

Additionally, Congress and the President could go the extra mile and declare our wartime allies to be "honorary veterans" of the United States.

These men and women have served our country with the same valor as my fellow soldiers.. Veterans status is earned through service to our country, not placement in the birth lottery. Just because Janis was born in Afghanistan, doesn’t make his eight years of combat service any less honorable than my one tour. In fact, I’d argue, he’s the real veteran between the two of us. I got to come home at the end of my tour. He went on to the next unit and the next mission.

If we are going to continue our commitment to Afghanistan, I believe two things must occur. Congress must make the SIV program permanent. Currently, it must be reauthorized annually, and, in years past, we’ve nearly lost it.

Moreover, Congress should declare the Afghan and Iraqi wartime allies who fought with us to be “Honorary Veterans.”

Granting Honorary Veteran status to Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) recipients and Priority 2 Refugee Admissions Program recipients will give the private sector the option to provide support to this population. Right now there are 56,000 501(c)3 organizations who work to support veterans, and many are interested in also supporting those wartime allies who stood with us in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Importantly, declaring our Afghan and Iraqi wartime allies as "Honorary Veterans" will NOT: • Take away any benefits from veterans already in place • Give them any VA or GI Bill benefits • Give them priority in any way over U.S. born veterans

Matt: I’ve lost count at the number of times I’ve tried to enlist other veteran organizations to help No One Left Behind in our mission to resettle our wartime allies only to be told, “Well, we can’t assist you because they’re not technically veterans.” Yet, no less than General Pete Chiarelli, former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has said, these brave people were “just as much a soldier as I am" -

Thankfully, we have some movement around the "Honorary Veterans" provision.

To date we have received endorsements from:

  • All post 9/11 former Secretaries of Defense: Rumsfeld, Gates, Panetta, Hagel, and Carter
  • Generals Pete Pace, David Petraeus, and many others,
  • Ambassadors Bolton, Crocker, Jeffrey, & Wolfowitz
  • Former House Intel Chairman Mike Rogers
  • Medal of Honor recipient Sen. Bob Kerrey
  • The Vietnam Veterans of America
  • Wounded Warrior Project
  • NYC Veterans Alliance
  • 17,000 have signed our Honorary Veteran petition on

Here is the link to our recent Fox News interview with Pete Hegseth and Abby Huntsman:

Bipartisan Senate resolution would help combat translators

arabscarab20 karma

For Janis: Why did you risk your life for someone you barely knew? For Matt: What is the worst reason you've heard from Americans who want to keep interpreters out of the US? For both: What do you think is most important for Americans to know about the current situation with the interpreters?

No1LeftBehind40 karma

Janis: He was a guest in my country. It was my duty to protect him. He came from the other side of the planet to help our people be free of the Taliban. We had to help the Americans and do all we could to keep them safe.

Matt: Sadly, in our current climate, too many (one is too many in my opinion) Americans don't realize who these people are (the translators from Afghanistan and Iraq) and what they've done to help us. All they see is a Muslim and they think that also means "terrorist." This view is most often held by people who've never met an Afghan or an Iraqi, let alone served in a war with them. I find these views disgusting. To those of us who served with heroes like Janis, these men and women are our fellow veterans. We should be doing all we can to save them from being murdered by the very people we asked them to help us fight.

Another all too common view is that many of these people are totally safe remaining in their own countries. By serving the Americans, these people have fundamentally excommunicated themselves from the society around them - they are hunted not just by our common enemies, but often by their fellow citizens who've come to view them as American spies.

Both: If we don't honor this promise now, we won't have allies in future wars. We just got done watching Ken Burns' excellent The Vietnam War documentary. We were struck by the final episode's 20+ min covering the experience of evacuating Saigon and leaving behind over 250,000 of our Vietnamese allies. Many of them were never heard from again. What's different about then and now, was there's no real news footage or video of what happened to those we left behind in Vietnam. We were never confronted with the visual evidence of our abandonment. Today, that won't be the case. Our enemies all have cell phones that can upload a HD quality video to the internet within seconds. They are using these cell phones to make snuff films where they execute our Afghan and Iraqi wartime allies. Before they kill our brothers and sisters, they make them confess to working with the Americans and explain on camera that that is why they are about to die. Then they butcher them. These videos are designed to send the following message to future populations who may consider working with the Americans: allying with the Americans is a death sentence - they will abandon you to us. Should that message become the prevailing narrative that the US encounters around the world, we will find ourselves without any allies.

One of our board members is Jan Scruggs ( He's warned us that should we fail to keep this promise, our current generation of veterans will suffer the moral injury suffered by Vietnam veterans who have had to live with a half-century of guilt surrounding the fates of those we left behind.

Thankfully, all of this can be prevented, by honoring our promise now and ensuring we grant the visas that Afghans and Iraqis have earned and help them start their new lives in America. This is honestly a "Never Again" moment in the making. Should we fail to keep this promise, tens of thousands will likely die and we will one again inevitably at some sad date in the future collectively mutter "what a shame, we should really resolve to never again let that happen." Or we can prevent it from ever occurring by keeping our nation's promise. All we need is the courage and conviction to do the right thing.

__chef__16 karma

That's an incredible thing you've done and I'm glad I got the chance to see this post and learn about it.

My question is how do interpreters live while helping U.S. forces over seas? Do they have their own quarters on base or opperate in an "on call" fashion nearby in their own home?

No1LeftBehind16 karma

Great question. It depends on the combat environment. In Afghanistan, it was/is common for interpreters to live on the bases on which they serve. On our base, the "terps" had their own building in which they lived. We shared every other aspect of the base - dining hall, gym, latrines, etc.

In Iraq, it was common in the larger cities for interpreters and other host nation allies to work on the base during the day or for a number of days and then return home in the evening or after a couple of days being on (depending on their work schedule).

One of the consequences of the rapid drawdown in Afghanistan is that many interpreters were suddenly laid off - forcing them to move back into the general population, where they're often the target of Taliban and ISIS death squads.

Legionodeath14 karma

Pretty awesome you were able to do that for your translator. I had a solid one who in 06 who got killed in Basra by insurgents. Luckily the next one I had survived an attack. He was just as good and was able to work the rest of my tour safe-ish.

Was your interpreter ever victim of an attack?

No1LeftBehind19 karma

Thanks for your service and sorry to hear your terp got killed - sadly that's all too common of an occurrence.

Yes. He had to outrun the Taliban on the highway on his way between Ghazni and Kabul. In 2007, he was driving through a village called Salar (which is in Wardak Province, just south of Kabul) when the Taliban began chasing him in his car. Luckily, he ran into a convoy of US Special Forces who came to his aid and drove the Taliban off and provided him with an escort to the nearest base.

Huckorris11 karma

Could either of you elaborate on the circumstances in which Janis saved Matt?

Also, how are the interpreters treated by the average citizens while out on missions? I imagine it's a range of expression, but do you have any interesting stories?

The interpreters are armed, right?

No1LeftBehind19 karma

This New Yorker Article tells the story very well:

Interpreters are often treated indifferently while on patrol with us. Average citizens realize they're just doing a job and are often grateful that there is someone who can bridge the language and cultural divides between us.

Actually, no, most interpreters are not armed. In fact, Janis technically shouldn't have been armed. But, when you're on small outpost in which everyone pulls guard duty, regulations like that die really fast. Every person who is capable of fighting back should be trained on how to do so. The Talibans' bullets don't discriminate and only target Americans.

Chtorrr9 karma

What would you most like to tell us that no one has asked about?

No1LeftBehind27 karma

Janis has a movie about his life currently in development.

cherrys138 karma

Thank you both for your service and for your continued work. Janis: do you feel welcomed in America? Do people understand the level of sacrifice you gave?

Thanks for starting this foundation. I donate goods locally and love knowing I'm helping a little.

No1LeftBehind19 karma

Janis: Yes. We feel very welcomed. But, most people have no idea about what we've done for America and how much so many Afghans and Iraqis have sacrificed.

Matt: Honestly, he's not hyperbolic when he says "sacrifice." When I went to war, my family was safe - no one threatened them because I served. Janis' entire family has been targeted. The Taliban attempted to send a suicide bomber to blow up his mom as a means of getting back at him. My mom never faced any danger like that.

Thanks for your support! We're glad you're with us and please do know that every little bit truly helps.

Hearron6 karma

How long did it take you to trust a guy you don't know or understand?

And Thank You guys.

No1LeftBehind18 karma

Matt: I've trusted Janis like a brother ever since he saved my life - which was the 14th day of my deployment. It didn't take long for us to build a rapport.

Janis: It takes awhile, but when you work so closely with people, in such a dangerous and traumatic environment, inevitably, you form very close bonds. Once formed, these bonds often are unbreakable and last a lifetime. Combat is odd like that. Even the most distant of strangers can come out of the experience like brothers - as we did.