They helped US troops at war. Now he’s on a mission to save their lives.

Matt Saintsing
October 18, 2018 - 4:09 pm

Photo Courtesy of Matt Zeller

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Matt Zeller was in Afghanistan for only two weeks when his unit came under a Taliban ambush in April, 2018. With the convoy’s lead vehicle destroyed from an explosive improvised device (IED), a firefight broke out lasting more than two hours resulting in multiple U.S. injuries and a brush with death for Zeller. 

“The next thing I know, I’m on the ground and being shot at,” Zeller tells Connecting Vets. A rocket-propelled grenade had hit the side of his vehicle, ejecting him as bullets and mortars rained down on his position. 

That was the Taliban’s opening salvo of an intense battle. 

Photo Courtesy of Matt Zeller

Another nearby explosion sent him through the air once again. When he gained consciousness, Zeller made peace with the fact he was going to die guarding what was mostly an incredibly expensive paperweight in the middle of a field with no cover or concealment. 

That’s when three American up-armored vehicles came barreling down to assist Zeller’s pinned down position. The next thing he remembers, an unknown force struck him knocking him to the ground yet again. With the wind knocked out of him, Zeller says heard the “unmistakable sound of an AK-47” firing next to his head. 

“I rolled on my back and saw an old Afghan man wearing old U.S. Army fatigues with ill-fitted body armor,” he says. “Who in the hell are you?” asks Zeller. “I’m Janis,” the man responds. “I’m one of your translators.” 

Zeller saw the bodies of two dead Taliban fighters nearby, and it was immediately clear what had just happened. Janis Shinwari, a man who had met Zeller just days before, had saved his life. 

And so began the journey of a deep friendship between the two. 

After Zeller returned home from war, the Taliban placed a bounty on Shinwari. Wanting to help him out in his time of need, Zeller pledged to move heaven and earth to bring his friend to the United States. It took more than four years, but Zeller helped Shinwari gain a Special Immigrant Visa, which connects interpreters who worked with U.S. service members in combat with a chance to live in the United States. 

After Shinwari was welcomed with open arms by Zeller, the pair realized there were thousands of interpreters just like him in Iraq and Afghanistan who needed help. 

Photo Courtesy of Matt Zeller

In 2013, they co-founded No One Left Behind, a nonprofit that helps war-time local interpreters who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with American service members in combat move with their families to the U.S. 

More than 5,000 Iraqi and Afghan interpreters and their families have come to the U.S. through the group, which guides them through the arduous process. The organization also offers resettlement services in 10 cities nationwide, in addition to helping them with food, work, and furniture. 

The Special Immigrant Visa allows for former interpreters who offered at least 24-months of service to the U.S. military in combat the chance for a new life in America. Beyond that, the interpreters have to be recommended by U.S. service members and pass what Zeller calls the “gold standard” of background checks. 

“So long as they can pass the most comprehensive national security background investigation, if you’re able to meet that criteria you can come to the United States,” he says. 

Interpreters like Shinwari are often blacklisted from other employment in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they must evade enemy fighters who want nothing more than to kill those who help the U.S. military. “They aren’t held up as heroes, or thanked for their service,” adds Zeller. 

“They’re looked down as traitors, and they’re hunted,” he says. “They’re often killed by the very people they helped us fight against.” 

For Zeller, the issue is a moral responsibility this nation has to those who stepped up when they had every incentive not to. 

“When people talk about merit-based immigration, I can’t think of anything with more merit than saving an American’s life in combat, or serving with them in a war effort,” says Zeller. “I don’t know of any other merit that should come before that.” 

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