Near the end of his deployment to Afghanistan in January 2010, Staff Sgt. Robert Ham told his close friend how excited he was to go home — especially to see his infant son.
The friend, an Afghan interpreter, didn't smile nor congratulate him. Ham understands why.
"He looked at me, somber," the Army combat videographer recalled. "He said, 'Ham, my deployment here is never going to end.' He loves Afghanistan, but it's a deployment for him that's never ending."
Years later, the interpreter is still waiting for a U.S. visa. Ham is hoping to use his own video production skills to shed light on not only his interpreter's case, but the thousands of others fearing for their lives in their home countries.
Ham has won two Emmys for his work in the Army, and now the graduate film student (and Reservist with the 311th Expeditionary Support Command) has secured funding for a short film. Titled "The Interpreter," it will tell a fictionalized version of his friend's story. He hopes his efforts (currently he's in pre-production with plans to shoot in December) ultimately lead to a full-length feature film about an interpreter. His partner, Jenna Cavelle, is in the process of writing that script; she also wrote the short and is a producer for both.
The story is not unlike that of thousands of others from Afghanistan and Iraq who have been promised Special Immigration Visas by the U.S. for their service. Many end up stuck behind bureaucratic red tape while living among those who consider them traitors who helped foreign invaders.
Ham's translator contacted him in 2014, asking for additional help in obtaining a visa.
Earlier this year, Ham posted a video statement for his interpreter. In it, the man explains he teamed up with American forces from 2005-13. He says, with his three children by his side, that he wanted to make Afghanistan a safer place.
"Now the life of myself and the life of my kids and my family are in great danger. I would like to ask that the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to issue us visas so we can get out of this hostile and dangerous environment," said the interpreter, his identity hidden in the film and this article for safety.
Meanwhile, the State Department — under pressure from similar, increasingly publicized cases — has picked up the visa-issuing pace for Iraqi and Afghan nationals who worked for the U.S. Government. It roughly doubled the 2013 output in 2014, with about 3,900 principal employees and 6,800 family members obtaining visas. A similar pace this year (as of June 30) means the total number of SIVs issued since the program's 2008 inception has almost doubled in the past 18 months, from about 16,000 principals and family members to 31,000.
But there's still a huge backlog. The State Department has about 13,000 pending SIV applications, according to Bureau of Consular Affairs spokesman John Taylor.
"We reviewed the process, and did certainly find room to improve efficiencies," Taylor said. "We continue to look for ways to improve the process, because that's still a big number in the pipeline."
Taylor said some pending visas are still awaiting action from the applicant, but couldn't say what proportion, or provide data regarding wait times. He also couldn't say how many of those former government employees who received or who await visas worked as interpreters. A separate SIV program specifically for interpreters remains capped at 50 per year.
Cornered, some interpreters flee illegally, an expensive and risky proposition, even if staying put could ultimately cost everything. Others wait, hoping the State Department adjudicates their case before a Taliban member does.
"I don't understand why it has to take so long. Another day of administrative processing is another day he or his family could get killed," Ham said.
Ham hopes his film can further transform these interpreters into more than statistics. Ham's Kickstarter campaign for his short film has raised a goal-surpassing $27,725. A student at the University of Southern California's film school, he has also partnered with the school's Media Institute for Social Change, a nonprofit organization of film industry professionals, as well as InterpretAmerica, an international forum for the profession of interpreting. The short's executive producer is the media institute's founder and head, Michael Taylor, who produced Phenomenon (1996, starring John Travolta) and Instinct (1999, Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding Jr.).
Ham has also advocated on Capitol Hill. He said the offices of U.S. Reps Steve Knight, R-Calif., and Trent Franks, R-Ariz. have advocated on his interpreter's behalf.
Ham has also connected with former Army Capt. Matt Zeller, whose advocacy helped get his interpreter Janis Shinwari to the U.S. in 2013 after the Taliban put him on a hit list. Zeller later started No One Left Behind, a charity that helps former interpreters obtain visas and supports them when they arrive.
"He's an absolute wealth of knowledge. He knows the process in and out," Ham said of Zeller. "He said you need about 15 Congressmen to put in inquiries on behalf of one interpreter to get him to the top of the pile."
"He could have killed us at any time"
Ham described his interpreter as compassionate, sensitive and very intelligent.
"Some interpreters get by; his was very good English; sophisticated. He's well read, he speaks 4-5 languages," Ham said. "He was the kind of interpreter that not only interprets words but the meaning and cultural importance behind it."
The two spent a lot of time together: eating, sleeping, hunkering down during mortar attacks. Once they looked at one crater 50 meters from where they had taken shelter, and "began laughing."
Ham also talked about his unflappability. One time an NCO berated the interpreter for being 45 minutes late. The interpreter quietly stood there and took the tongue-lashing, without defending himself.
"The [route] he usually takes — the bridge was blown up by insurgents. That's not like L.A. traffic," Ham said. "That's the kind of guy he was. He would never argue back. He just took it. He's seen a lot. He wasn't even mad at (the NCO.)"
But that patience has been tested by government promises. Ham's interpreter first put in for a visa in 2009, four years into his service. Ham said he understands the why, at the height of the war, the U.S. was reluctant to let him go ("he was really good"), and that security checks can draw the process out.
But with troops mostly pulled out and no incidents of interpreters attacking the U.S. after getting visas, he considers such arguments cop-outs today. Especially security risks: that would have had to have been quite the incredible long-con, Ham argues.
"I slept next to him. He had access to all our stuff. He could have killed us at any time," Ham said. "We're still leaving a lot of people behind. They directly supported us. We have to make it a priority to get them over here."
Due to the work in his films, Ham has received emails from other interpreters as well. One, who Ham said had pictures with "every general in Afghanistan; he interpreted for everybody," remains in Afghanistan despite 10 years of service, unable to get out. Another, living illegally in Norway, relayed a message from an immigration official that indicated a political narrative that didn't reflect reality on the ground.
"They told him it's perfectly safe for interpreters to move back to Afghanistan." Ham said. "I believe what we did was very good there, that we did a lot of good things there, fixed a lot of stuff there. But the security situation is not ideal."
Taylor said he didn't know where that kind of statement might have originated, saying it "doesn't reflect the U.S. government's view."
"If we thought it was perfectly safe, we wouldn't be extending the program," the spokesperson said, referring to the 4,000 new slots created in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act. He also said prior-reported statements from State Department officials that expressed worry about a "brain drain" from fleeing locals did not apply: there's more slots than applicants and those who process them don't factor such considerations.
Ham hopes that his interpreter's story, along with the stories of many others, can end similarly to Shinwari's. The three-time Defense Department Military Videographer of the Year believes the power of storytelling can compel action. It can also mean a lot to those featured. After one of his award-winning films, "Level Black - PTSD and the War at Home," he got an email from the wife of the primary subject of the film.
"I got an email saying how much it changed her life. That's not me; it's storytelling;" Ham said. "Put their story out into the public; it moves people."