Trump’s refugee ban is a betrayal of Iraqis who risked their lives for us

Marine Corps retired Lt. Col. Michael Zacchea
Source: Michael Zacchea
Marine Corps retired Lt. Col. Michael Zacchea

The White House's executive order banning Iraqis from entry into the United States is not only bad policy, it's a betrayal.

I returned from Iraq on March 1, 2005. I was returning from a year-long tour as an adviser to the 1st Iraqi Army battalion, built, trained, and led in combat by the U.S. military. Our undertaking was historic – no American had ever built or led in combat an Arab army. The last westerner to train and lead an Arab army in combat was T.E Lawrence, commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia.

It would be difficult to overstate the hardship and dangers the first American advisory team lived through. Our Iraqi soldiers shared the danger. Our combat included the 2nd Battle of Fallujah in November – December 2004. Several of our Iraqi soldiers were abducted and tortured. Several were assassinated, including by beheading. And their families were subject to the same atrocities.

The glue that held us together, the sine qua non without which our mission accomplishment would not have been possible – indeed, those who likely kept all of us American advisers from being betrayed and handed over to Al Qaeda in Iraq – were the Iraqi interpreters. Iraqi insurgents considered them traitors and apostate to the faith; average Iraqi civilians considered them collaborators, and treated them and their families that way. Our interpreters soon learned not to reveal what they were doing or for whom they were working. They developed elaborate cover stories and false IDs to hide their true identities and protect their families. Theirs was an experience all their own, and their story has not yet been told.

Nonetheless, they were tracked and assaulted by Al Qaeda. One of our team's interpreters was assassinated in front of his family a year after I left – in March 2006. He had survived two previous assassination attempts. His name was Arkan Abdul-razaq. He was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war. He was taken prisoner in the early months of the war, and spent 8+ years as a Prisoner of War in Iran. He was an accomplished linguist, speaking Farsi, Arabic, English, and Russian. He was murdered in front of his young son, in his own apartment in Baghdad. He dreamed of coming to America, and often spoke to me of his dreams. He hoped to bequeath to his son an American future. He believed that helping the Americans bring democracy would earn him passage to the United States.

"It would be difficult to overstate the hardship and dangers the first American advisory team lived through. Our Iraqi soldiers shared the danger."

I also survived an assassination attempt in January 2005. Had it not been for another interpreter in whom I placed my utter trust and confidence, with my life, I should not have survived my tour. This Iraqi interpreter, whom I will refer to as Abdallah, survived his own assassination attempt. He was later one of the first recipients of a Special Immigrant Visa, and came to live with me for the first 8 months he was in the United States. This man served U.S. forces in combat for 7 years, participating in the 2nd Battle of Fallujah during which he stormed buildings and accompanied advisers in the stack as we fought the insurgents room by room. He is a veteran of literally hundreds of missions, including Special Operation Forces anti-terrorist missions. He also served as an interpreter for a U.S. army general officer in Iraq. In sum, this man is one of the bravest and most dedicated men I have met in my life.

This is a man who has completely committed to the service of the United States. And despite all his service and bravery, he was still vetted extremely by the following agencies in order to get his Special Immigrant Visa: the DHS, the FBI, the DIA, the NSA, and the State Department. And he required sponsorship by a general officer.

His story at least has a partial happy ending. He settled in a town close to where I live. He married and bought a house. He became a U.S. citizen. He and his wife had a child. Several members of his family have joined him in our country. Some have found employment, others have started businesses. Theirs is an Iraqi story, but it is an American story, epic in scope and born out of a lifetime of combat and hardship, and tempered by virtue and courage.

Until Friday. The elected President signed an executive order banning people from seven countries, including Iraq.

The inclusion of Iraq, and of people already in the U.S., makes no sense. Iraq is – at least in name – an ally. We have American troops right now as I write this, working with Iraqi forces in combat against ISIS in/around Mosul. There are Iraqi interpreters right now risking their lives, their families, what treasure they might have, and their sacred honor – for the sake of the U.S. war in Iraq. The executive order signed by the President is ill-conceived, and misses its target. The extension of the ban to green card (recently reversed) and Special Immigrant Visas holders endangers our troops currently in contact, and all future troops who will need the services of interpreters, on whom their lives will depend.

It persecutes, without due process, men and women who served the U.S. in combat, and have already gone through the extensive vetting by our security and intelligence agencies. It provokes a fight with people who have survived the worst Al Qaeda and ISIS could offer, and with people who given a choice, chose America.

I was there on Jan 30th 2005, the first Iraqi free elections. I saw the Iraqis chanting and waving their purple-stained fingers in the air – despite the attacks by Al Qaeda to keep them from voting. I fought for democracy, and for people who are committed to democracy.

I did not fight, and bleed, to betray the people who hazarded all they have, for the sake of decency, for the sake of democracy.

Commentary by Michael J. Zacchea, a combat-wounded, medically retired U.S. Marine. He was awarded two bronze stars for valor and meritorious service in Iraq, and a Purple Heart. He co-authored a book with CNBC's Ted Kemp, The Ragged Edge: A US Marine's Account of Leading the Iraqi Army Fifth Battalion (Chicago Review Press), which is due to be published April 1, 2017.

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