KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Thirteen-thousand interpreters who worked with U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan are still waiting for visas to the U.S., visas that were promised to them because of the risks they take when they do their work. In a lot of these cases, the promises have not been kept mainly because of red tape and bureaucracy. NPR's Quil Lawrence sent this story of one Afghan interpreter and the father of a fallen U.S. soldier who's trying to help him.
PHIL SCHMIDT: My name is Phil Schmidt, and I am the father of Staff Sgt. Jonathan P. Schmidt who was killed in action 1 September, 2012.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: That's how Phil Schmidt introduces himself to everybody. It's on the signature line of his emails. His motorcycle is custom painted with pictures of Jonathan, his medals and the date he died. He's got the same thing engraved across his body.
SCHMIDT: At the age of 52, I got my first tattoo. So I've got a total of five of them, and I'm not done.
LAWRENCE: Schmidt's son Jon worked with Special Forces in Afghanistan. The week Jon's tour would've ended, Schmidt and his wife were heading out to church when two Army officers pulled up and told them Jon was dead. The only details were that Jon had been shot in the back. That was almost worse than knowing nothing at all. So Schmidt set out to find someone who could tell him more.
AK: When there was - shooting was going on, he was really brave.
LAWRENCE: That's AK, the Afghan interpreter who worked alongside Jon. We're only using his nickname because he's still in Afghanistan, and he's a marked man because he helped U.S. soldiers. Schmidt found him on a tip from Jon's unit.
SCHMIDT: So I looked him up on Facebook, and I sent a friend request.
AK: He told me, how do you know Jon? I'm his father.
SCHMIDT: He's like, I really miss him. I loved that guy.
AK: I was always assigned to Jon for going on a mission. He became really close friend with me.
LAWRENCE: AK was there on Jon's final mission, a firefight in a remote village. A fellow soldier was down inside a mud-brick compound. Jon grabbed a heavy machine gun and sprinted toward the danger into an ambush. With medevac choppers on the way, AK helped improvise a stretcher made of tree limbs.
AK: He was shot in the neck like somebody shoot you from the top window. He was alive for 10 or 15 minutes, and then we lost Jon. It was really the worst day in my life.
LAWRENCE: It gave Schmidt some comfort hearing how brave his son had been. And as he talked more with the young Afghan on the phone and on Facebook, Schmidt reckoned that AK was pretty brave too.
SCHMIDT: This guy is 27 years old, and he's not seen a day without war from the day he was born.
LAWRENCE: AK lost his dad when he was a baby, killed by a rocket during the Soviet occupation. When the Americans came, he volunteered as an interpreter. Before long, AK was working exclusively with Special Forces in the thick of the fighting.
SCHMIDT: He's been shot at, blown up, wounds to his chest and his legs. I mean, he's been doing this since he was 19, putting himself in harm's way to help us.
LAWRENCE: Nineteen is about the same age that Phil Schmidt's son joined the Army.
SCHMIDT: Your dad was killed when you were 3 months old. And he says, your son was killed over here. I'll just call you dad.
AK: One day I was calling him, like, Phil, and he told me that his son was calling him, Pop.
SCHMIDT: And I said, I'll tell you what. Call me Pop 'cause that's what my son used to call me.
AK: Since you lost your son, I will call you Pop. And he told me that you give me some feeling that Jon is still alive.
LAWRENCE: So Pop and AK talk every day. AK asks, how's mama and they joke about doing father-son stuff around the house. There's no reason that shouldn't happen someday. A special immigrant visa was designed to reward Afghans and Iraqis just like AK. But thousands are still waiting. When AK applied for the visa, he had a glowing reference letter from the commander of all U.S. Special Operations in Afghanistan. They told him to wait about 90 days. That was four years ago.
KATIE REISNER: It's unclear what exactly is holding these folks up.
LAWRENCE: Katie Reisner is with the International Refugee Assistance Project. She's part of a lawsuit representing 16 Iraqi and Afghan interpreters including AK. They're suing the U.S. government for not delivering the visas. Reisner says even members of Congress have had trouble getting an answer about why these visas are on hold.
REISNER: They seem to be model applicants for the Special Immigrant Visa Program. The bottom line, though, is that they've been waiting far too long for an answer.
LAWRENCE: The State Department, however, says it granted 9,000 of the visas last year. That's a 600 percent increase over 2013. Jarrett Blanc, deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, says every person working on the visa program has served time in a war zone.
JARRETT BLANC: There's not one of us who does not deeply appreciate and understand that the debt that we owe to the Afghan and Iraqi colleagues who have worked with us in the field.
LAWRENCE: The State Department won't comment on the lawsuit and has moved to dismiss the case. But in court papers, the government says AK and other plaintiffs have been refused visas. That's news to AK and Phil Schmidt. When they look up his case on the State Department website, it says it's still being processed.
SCHMIDT: I pray every day for AK and his family, and I pray for the visa number to come through for him.
LAWRENCE: Phil Schmidt says he gets nervous when he doesn't hear from AK first thing in the morning, and AK's getting anxious too.
AK: They promised me a visa. I don't know for how long should I wait. Americans are withdrawing from Afghanistan. When I get targeted by someone, get killed - then you give me a visa?
LAWRENCE: That's no exaggeration. This month, strangers banged on the doors of AK's home. When his brother answered, they asked for AK by his real name. His brother shouted run and AK escaped over the back wall and got away. The men tussled with his brother and his cousin but fled before police came. AK is now in hiding, waiting for a visa.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.