Shukraan for Your Service

Silhouette of a soldier against the sun.

Never Forgetting the Words

Today I want to focus on an organization.

For some reasons languages come easily to me. While I’ve been too lazy to achieve the fluency I should attain, I do have a working knowledge of a few languages, with accents that, though not even close to perfect, are anything but embarrassing. Maybe that’s why I find the mission of this group so compelling: No One Left Behind, a US non-profit that brings Iraqi and Afghan military interpreters and their families to the United States.

Combat vet Matt Zeller, the organization’s founder, opens up his bio page on the website with a line that could just as easily have been the opening of the latest New York Times best-selling thriller: “I should have died on April 28, 2008.”

Yes, he should have.

Janis Shinwari, however, an Afghan interpreter, thwarted the two Taliban fighters who were planning to introduce Mr. Zeller to their weapons.

Mr. Zeller is clearly a man who does not forget a favor— and clearly a man who expects his fellow citizens to do the same. He worked three years to get Mr. Shinwari and his family safely to the United States, and he is determined to make sure that other interpreters have the same opportunity.

What I find so compelling about his organization’s mission, though: not only are they committed to getting these men and women out of their dangerous situations back home, they are equally committed to making sure the interpreters and their families can have a chance to build meaningful lives in the US, lives in which they can learn to navigate the complexities of American urban life, in which they can have access to a working car to get them to interviews and to jobs, in which spouses too can begin to communicate in a foreign tongue that once made their partners invaluable to strangers in their own country—and detestable to many of their fellow countrymen.

Politics aside, these interpreters and the service members they accompanied became connected not only in language, but in life itself, in the day-to-day of getting through blood-boiling summer days and bone-cracking winter nights, in the fires of engagement, in the surprise of sleep. Many of both did not survive, leaving families in Tikrit and in Peoria wondering, “What now?”

Both had what it took.

Mr. Zeller now reminds his fellow veterans—and his own countrymen—that having what it took still requires a commitment that didn’t end when that plane took off for stateside, carrying the fortunate ones to a quiet life that those with the talent for languages could only dream about. Dreams should become realities, whether in English, Arabic, or Persian, that are worth looking for, striving for, and living for.

Had I been a younger man who’d picked up English on the shortwave way back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth (i.e., the 1970s), would I have taken a chance on a Joe or Jane who happened by? If they had looked at me with eyes that had said to me, “Hey, kid: not only am I human, but so are you. Wanna talk?”

I don’t know. But if I had done so, I sure hope that the Joe would have been a Matt Zeller of another time, another place, who would have remembered my name, and even if he could have never pronounced shukraan correctly, would have not only said “thank you,” but lived it.

In 2016, may we all do so now.

Until tomorrow, be well,


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