• Save Our Terps! How (and Why) to Write Congress Now

    September 28, 2013 // 12 Comments »

    From time to time I offer this space to guest bloggers with something important to say.

    Today, our guest is long-time friend of this blog, Charlie Sherpa. Sherpa runs his own blog at Red Bull Rising. It’s one of the best milblogs out there, and always worth your time. This guest piece tells of how we can help save some of the Iraqis and Afghans who served as interpreters (‘Terps to the trade) during our adventures in their countries. These folks saved regular Americans’ lives in many cases, and helped us make the best of the crappy situation our national leaders flung us into. Many of them did this at great personal risk, and they were promised in return that they would get visas to the U.S. for themselves and their immediate families. This would save their lives from the revenge and retribution that is even now sweeping through their countries as the U.S. once again grows tired of another quagmire and abandons it.

    Not such a surprise as much as an expectation, America’s promise to give them visas had as much validity as what drunk men say to drunk women they pick up from a bar. The next morning it all seems embarrassing and awkward to even bring up those promises, at least to the man. The woman’s opinion is usually not given much air time.

    I’ve written myself on this topic in the past. A core problem is that this program was set up to do one thing, circumstances changed, and the program became unattractive to the government but was never canceled. State has always given out Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), typically to foreign nationals who had worked in our embassies, and typically at retirement. The SIV program for Terps was intended the same way, a thank you for what was expected to have been years of service. This of course presumed the U.S. had won quickly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and service to the U.S. there was similar to what it was in London, Kenya or Bonn. When the wars went a different way, the SIV program morphed into a way to save the lives of Terps, which a) flooded what was supposed to be a limited pool of older, well-vetted applicants with many young less-known people and b) was an embarrassment to the USG, a daily reminder of all the good we failed to accomplish. Congress was afraid to just do away with or radically change the program and generate bad PR while the wars still dragged on, and State had no bureaucratic interest in sticking its neck out to approve what it saw as risky cases. Now, with Iraq a distant memory and Afghanistan about to be, the plan in Washington seems to be to just allow the program to fade away, sorry to the Terps. Hence, a human quagmire.

    Not leaving a comrade behind does not just apply to fellow soldiers. According to Charlie Sherpa, here’s how to help.

    In the days before the Internet, I pulled a few short stints in the offices of a couple of U.S. senators. A couple of times as an “intern,” one time as a “Congressional fellow.” In such capacities, not only did I get opportunities to open the daily mail and prepare internal media summaries, I regularly answered letters from constituents. I even learned to use the machine that signed the senator’s name—before some idiot co-worker started writing and signing his own job references.

    Through those experiences, I learned that a letter “written by a senator” on behalf of a constituent was often like applying the Penetrating Oil of Helpfulness to the Stuck Machine Bolt of Bureaucracy. I helped get retirees their Social Security checks, veterans their missing medals, and school kids their answers to social studies tests. Small and concrete victories. Democracy in action. Your tax dollar at work.

    To this day, I still write business letters like a certain senator from Iowa:


    Thank you for contacting me regarding PROBLEM X. I am glad to be of help. […]

    I have a sent a letter to AGENCY Y regarding this matter. I will contact you again when I receive a response. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to let me or my staff know if I may be of additional assistance. Keep in touch!

    Later, after I’d joined the Army, I was on the receiving end of a few of these Congressional inquiries. Troops would write their representatives about pay concerns, food quality, or other matters. No matter how seemingly silly some of the questions were, the military put an emphasis on quickly investigating and responding to each query. Whether because of the legislative power of the purse or the War Powers Act, when Congress calls, soldiers listen.

    On Capitol Hill, constituent letters also factored into senators’ legislative calculations. So-called “legislative correspondents,” specialized research staffers who kept up-to-date on where their senators stood on matters of policies and politics, were more likely to respond to such letters. The whole office would see the weekly contact summaries, however—that was our feel for the pulse of opinions back home.

    Usually, responses to individual constituents were kept non-committal. A letter about a hot-button issue like gun control, for example, would likely receive a boilerplate response, blandly marking out the senator’s current positions. The response to a “pro” letter would often be very similar to the one for a “con” letter. In one senator’s office, we called such letters “robo-letters.” I preferred the more-punny term “Frankenmail,” a nod to Congressional members’ power to send official mail without paying postage.

    Staffers would tally letters and telephone calls they the senator’s office had received on given topics. Letters from constituents mattered more than letters from out of state. It didn’t matter whether a constituent identified themselves as Republican, Democrat, or Independent: A constituent was a constituent. We were all in this together. We called it “representative democracy.”

    Letters that were obviously written by individuals, citing specific examples and requesting specific actions, were valued more than fill-in-the-blank form-letters. The latter were considered more as evidence of Astroturf by special interests than actual grassroots support. Bottom line: Constituent contacts were like straw polls. People who write letters are people who are motivated to vote. A senator might not vote your way every time, the thinking went, but he or she was bound to listen.

    Despite the gridlock and partisan gameplay that generate so much of today’s headlines, I’d like to think that Congress, fundamentally, still operates that way. Our legislative branch has to listen, right?

    If it doesn’t, what values are we fighting for?

    Write an Email Today

    I was recently inspired to dust-off my letter-writing skills (developed at taxpayer expense!) regarding the plight of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who are seeking to immigrate to the United States. These are men and women who have risked their families and their futures to help U.S. forces. Troops call them “terps” for short.

    I’ve posted my letter below, as an example. I am sending similar letters to other U.S. senators and representatives—and note that many Iowa and Minnesota members (“Red Bull” country) of Congress are involved in immigration policy.

    Check out who’s on the senate House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Border Security, for example, or the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security.

    I hope that you might be similarly motivated to voice your own opinions to Congress, whether about this or other topics.

    For more how-to-write-Congress tips, click here. There’s also a list of Congressional e-mail and contact info here.

    Dear Senator Grassley:

    I am retired Iowa Army National Guard soldier who deployed under Operation Enduring Freedom orders in 2003. In 2011, I also traveled to Afghanistan as civilian media, during the largest deployment of Iowa National Guard soldiers since World War II. I am writing to you regarding the need to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles to granting special visas to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who have fought alongside U.S. soldiers, and who have placed themselves and their families at great risk on our behalf.

    It is my understanding that an extension of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007 and Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2013. Without extension, these programs will soon expire. In your response to this correspondence, I would appreciate an update regarding the status of this and other efforts to deliver upon America’s promise to our allies.

    According to recent news reports, including those in the Washington Post and National Public Radio, the U.S. State Department has failed to effectively or efficiently implement the special immigrant visa program authorized by Congress. According to the above-cited news reports, as of late 2012, only 32 visas had been issued. As of June 2013, only 1,120 visas of the 8,750 authorized had been issued.

    I am not going to suggest that all interpreters are saints. To be honest, some seemed suspect in their actions, attitudes, and interactions with U.S. soldiers. Others, however, were shining examples of Afghan bravery and American ideals. All are worthy of consideration, and safety after we leave Afghanistan. We owe them that.

    Please help our citizen-soldiers—past, present, and future—deliver on our country’s promises.

    Thank you for your attention. Keep in touch!


    /Charlie Sherpa/

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Military

    Visas for our Iraqi Translators and ‘Terps

    November 8, 2011 // 10 Comments »

    US Immigration law is denser and longer than the US federal tax code, and likely screws over more people. We’ll offer you today a short history of the programs to give visas to the Iraqis who worked with the US Government as translators and ‘terp (interpreters). The story is amusing, as changes to once-obscure visa laws mirror the situation on the ground in Iraq. For those in a hurry: most Iraqis who helped us are marked men and women at home, targeted as collaborators and the visa program isn’t going to help many of them.


    The images from the end of the Vietnam war are iconic: desperate Vietnamese, clambering to board the last helicopters off the roof of the Embassy, followed by thousands of boat people fleeing Vietnam. An enormous number of Vietnamese were resettled abroad, many to the US, many for their own safety after having been accused of being American collaborators.

    This is not what the Iraqi visa program was supposed to be about.

    During the first few years of the war, the official vision in Washington was that the war would transform Iraq into a happy land of prosperity and democracy. Iraqis hired by the US to translate for us were the lucky ones, nailing down a job that paid cash while getting their foot in the door for the new system. Since almost no Americans spoke any Arabic and thus could only conquer Iraq via mime, these early translators were very important to the effort.

    Congress, imaging these early ‘terps as our own Gurkas, loyal brown people serving our fat white asses, wanted to thank those who provided such service. They created an early visa program modeled after the existing Special Immigrant Visa (SIV).

    The SIV had been used by the State Department abroad for many years. Locally employed nationals, say a French accounting clerk working in Embassy Paris, who provided loyal, exceptional service to the US Government for more than 20 years could be rewarded with a Green Card, immigration to the US. The idea was that such a prize would encourage locals working with us to stay around for the full 20 year career. A perk.

    Congress had the same plan for Iraq. The Iraq SIV would encourage long careers of good service. Section 1059 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006, authorized the issuance of up to 50 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) annually to Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters working for the US military. The cap was set at 50, because the visa was intended as a prize for the very best, and besides, the ‘terps would mostly want to live in their newly prosperous and democratized countries of Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Oops, what seemed like a good idea in the hazy early days of the wars turned out to not make any sense given events on the ground. Military leaders saw their Iraqi (and Afghani) helpers murdered in their homes, labeled traitors by the growing insurgency that they acknowledged, even as Washington pretended it did not exist. The limit of 50 a year was a joke as soldiers helped their ‘terps apply by the hundreds. An early decision was made in DC that the 50 visas meant 50 actual visas, not visas for 50 families. Thus, if Mohammed (not his real name) the ‘terp, his wife and their six kids were approved, the yearly quota dropped behind them to only 42.

    Political winds in Washington went round and round over the issue. Changes were made that saw SIVs issued to a ‘terps’ spouse and children as not counting toward the 50 limit. An amendment to Section 1059 expanded the total number of visas to 500 per year for FY 2007 and FY 2008 only. Still, to help keep the pile of applications in some form of check, lower ranking soldiers could not supply the critical “Letter of Recommendation.” That still had to be signed by a General, Lieutenant General, Major General, Brigadier General in the Army, Air Force, or Marine Corps; Admiral, Rear Admiral in the Navy; or the Chief of Mission in Baghdad or Kabul.


    As awareness that the wars of terror were nothing but a huge cluster fuck seeped into the heads of Washington lawmakers, something needed to change with the SIV program. Designed to reward 50 of the best ‘terps, the program quickly evolved into a pseudo-refugee route to save the lives of locals who helped us conquer Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Therefore, largely through the efforts of Senator Edward Kennedy, Section 1244 of the Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008, authorized the issuance of up to 5000 Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) annually through fiscal year (FY) 2012 to Iraqi nationals who have worked for or on behalf of the US Government in Iraq (Afghanis got no such relief). The Act opened the SIV process to Iraqi employees and contractors who have been employed by or on behalf of the U.S. Government in Iraq on or after March 20, 2003, for a period of one year or more, and specifically added the dubious requirement “must have experienced or are experiencing an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of that employment.”

    Importantly, the critical “Letter of Recommendation” no longer had to come from an inaccessible big shot per se. Officially the Letter still had to be signed by the Ambassador (Chief of Mission, COM) but in fact would be based on something written by a lower level supervisor. The recommending supervisor would normally be the US citizen who directly supervised the ‘terp, or even one who supervised the company that employed the ‘terp (most Iraqis worked for a middle man contractor, and not directly for the Army or the Embassy). Spouses and children were not counted against the 5000 yearly limit.

    The Letter needed only to include a description of “faithful service” to the US Government, nothing more formal. Better yet, the standard of proof required to demonstrate the “ongoing serious threat” was only that the ‘terp write a brief statement describing the threat faced as a result of US Government employment in Iraq. Visas out of the 5000 not used in one year could be rolled over into the next year to increase the pool. Procedures allowed for documents to be submitted by email, ending the almost impossible task of accessing the fortress Embassy inside the moated Green Zone, a deal breaker for common Iraqis. The final, required, in-person interview could be done either in Baghdad or for those who lives were too much in danger to visit their own capital city, Amman or Cairo.

    Though not a refugee program per se, Iraqi special immigrants are eligible for the same resettlement assistance, entitlement programs, and other benefits as refugees admitted under the US Refugee Admissions Program, for up to eight months after being admitted to the United States. SIV families could also participate in the Department of State’s Reception and Placement Program, which covered their first 90 days in the United States. The State Department would even loan them, interest free, the travel cost to the US.

    As a special treat for the ‘terps whose lives were in danger, under some circumstances their spouses and kids could still get the visas even if the ‘terp was killed before the family completed processing.

    The State Department has a helpful PDF summary of qualifications; be sure to scroll down to the end, where family ties are illustrated with stick figures with happy smile faces.

    The SIVs for Iraqi ‘terps are wholly separate from other US programs, including US programs to admit Iraqis as old-fashioned refugees. As with the SIVs, however, US refugee policy mirrored US views of the war. In fiscal year 2006, just 202 refugees from Iraq were allowed to resettle in the United States. The US finally kicked the program into high gear under Congressional pressure, and admitted over 18,000 Iraqi refugees just this past year.


    So it seems like everything was pretty sweet for those Iraqis who, despite their country now being a democracy and all that, were under death threats.

    Except it didn’t work.

    The New York Times reported that the program has proven to be a bureaucratic failure. Of the 15,000 slots available since 2008, the US government has only granted 2145 visas.

    The Times reported that what should have been simple steps devolved into dead-ends. Minor issues — like whether the applicant provides two letters of recommendation or one letter that is co-signed, or whether the letter comes on the appropriate letterhead — have delayed applications for months. The regular delays in immigration processing were magnified given the communication difficulties with Iraq and the increasingly desperate situations of the applicants. A ‘terp being helped by his American supervisor to navigate the bureaucracy could suddenly find himself alone when the supervisor rotated back to the US and forgot all about the problems of Iraq.

    The recent arrest of two Iraqis in Kentucky on terror charges have reportedly also caused delays, as gun-shy Embassy bureaucrats grow more reluctant to grant security clearances.

    Things are no better, in fact they are much worse, in Afghanistan. The NY Times reports since the SIV program began in 2009, about 2,300 Afghans applied for visas, but the American Embassy in Kabul has finished reviewing only two cases. One was rejected. “The record is not great,” said David D. Pearce, deputy chief of mission at the embassy in what has to be something of a record for State Department understatement.

    It can be expected as the US winds down the current chapter in Iraq, with the bulk of the Army leaving by the end of this year, that the bad guys will have more of a free pass on settling old scores and killing off ‘terps who worked with us. All-around bad guy Sadr has pledged to kill Iraqis who collaborated with the US, albeit via offering those who only played minor roles a pardon if they swear new allegiance to his cause. For the ‘terps left alive in Iraq, as their American supervisors pack up and go home to their wives Betty and Wilma, getting those all-important Letters of Recommendation will become more difficult.

    We may yet end up concluding another war with people on the rooftop, scrambling for the last helicopter out of Dodge.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Military

    Tongue-Tied State Department Failing in its Core Mission (Part II)

    July 12, 2011 // Comments Off on Tongue-Tied State Department Failing in its Core Mission (Part II)

    In addition to the obvious opportunities for waste, fraud, corruption and just plain stupidity, the real problem is how lack of language capability within the State Department contributes to the further militarization of foreign policy.

    There really are more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Despite the role that foreign affairs has always played in America’s drunken intercourse abroad, the State Department remains a very small part of the pageant. At the same time, Congress continues to hack away at State’s budget. As head-count shrinks, the number of FSOs who can be pulled off the assembly line and sent to Arabic training (it takes two full-time years of study in the State Department system to have a chance at qualifying as generally professionally competent in a hard language like Arabic) the so-called “training float,” also shrinks.

    There are other, more institutional problems, as well. State insists on holding at least the first year of any language training at its campus in Arlington, VA, where students joke about learning to speak Arabic, or Dutch, or Tagalong with a Virginia accent. The Arlington location limits the pool of teachers to those who happen to live in the area, a zone rich with Homeland Security contractors snapping up good Arabic speakers for higher salaries. Officers in language training are pulled out of real contention for promotions, death in State’s up or out system and a severe disincentive. Person applying to the foreign service only get credit for foreign languages they speak after otherwise being accepted; they get little advantage in the very difficult testing and evaluation process that begins with a written test so difficult most people fail. State offers some bonus pay for language skills, but has never measured the impact of the pay incentive on increasing foreign language proficiency.

    A Congressionally-funded hiring boom between 2002-2004 that was supposed to create a “training float” was instead squandered by State in staffing the world’s largest embassy in Baghdad, as well as its smaller, twin evil sister in Kabul.

    The GAO concluded however that the worst problem is State’s bureaucracy:

    In 2002, GAO reported that State had not prepared a separate strategic plan for developing its foreign language skills or a related action plan to correct long-standing proficiency shortfalls and recommended that the Department do so.

    In 2009, seven years later, GAO wrote again that “State’s efforts to meet its foreign language requirements have yielded some results but have not closed persistent gaps and reflect, in part, a lack of a comprehensive, strategic approach.” The GAO recommended arcane techniques such as “measurable goals, objectives, milestones, and feedback mechanisms” to State.

    In a 2010 follow-up report, GAO wrote again “State has efforts underway to identify foreign language needs and capabilities, but persistent shortfalls in foreign language-proficient staff highlight the need for a comprehensive, strategic approach.”

    They are really stubborn people over there in Foggy Bottom.

    In economic terms, State’s comparative advantage has always been that we could talk to foreigners. Give that up—alongside the smaller head count, the flaccid budget—and what is left? As America continues to find new countries to invade and occupy, the chances become greater and greater that the only Americans foreigners in many Middle Eastern countries will see wear green and carry a weapon, and they’ll not be in the mood to chat.

    “We cannot effectively sway our allies or adversaries if we do not speak their language,” said Senator Daniel K. Akaka, the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Oversight of Government Management Subcommittee. The tool box America uses to deal with issues abroad will shrink, as there will be fewer people around who can talk to foreigners.

    Guess we’ll just have to shoot more of ‘em.

    Read Part I of “Tongue-Tied State Department Failing in its Core Mission”

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    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Military

    Iraqi interpreters seek punishment; say contractor sexually harassed them…

    April 22, 2011 // 3 Comments »

    We all used interpreters in Iraq, as only some tiny, tiny percentage of Americans deployed spoke any Arabic at all. The people we called ‘terps typically were supplied as a commodity by various contractors– you ordered up another ‘terp like you’d order office furniture. If one did not work out, you’d call the contractor and ask for a substitute. That some people likened it to an escort service and saw the contractor companies as pimps only now seems more ironic.

    The Washington Post today has a story about how several Iraqi women employed as ‘terps by a US company faced sexual harassment. The women assert that their boss, Christopher J. Kirchmeier, a contractor in charge of security badges and clearances on a base inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, demanded sex in return for job-related approvals. Kirchmeier worked for Government Services, a Chantilly, VA-based subsidiary of super-contractor L-3 Communications. L-3 supplied the US Government with everything from simple ‘terps to trained torturers, er, interrogators, for intel work.

    The problem the women face is that it is almost impossible to successfully sue any of America’s finest contractors for things that may have happened in Iraq. Read another set of sad stories about this below, in Down the Toilet.

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    Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity.

    Posted in Afghanistan, Iraq, Military