SAN DIEGO (AP) — U.S. combat veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan say they are outraged at the temporary ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries that has blocked visas for Iraqi interpreters who risked their lives to help American troops on the battlefield.
Thousands of veterans have signed petitions. One soldier says he has bought a plane ticket for his Afghan translator in case that country is added to the list of banned nations.
Many veterans say they feel betrayed by the executive order signed by President Donald Trump on Friday that also suspends the admission of all refugees to the U.S. for 120 days and all Syrian refugees indefinitely.
They say the fight feels personal because they gave their word to people who aided American troops that the United States would protect them and their families.
"This administration just made me a liar in a very significant way, and I'm not willing to accept this," said Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran Michael Breen, president and CEO of the Truman National Security Project, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank.
The Pentagon is compiling the names of Iraqis who have supported U.S. and coalition personnel to help exempt them from the 90-day immigration ban.
The list will include those who have tangibly demonstrated their commitment to supporting U.S. forces, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said. It will contain several categories of people, such as translators, drivers and Iraqi forces who may be training in the U.S.
California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter, a combat Marine veteran who endorsed Trump's presidential campaign, sent the president a bipartisan letter signed by other lawmakers who served in the military, expressing support for the exemption list.
"Doing so would send a strong signal to those who show such immense courage to advance U.S. security interests at a risk to their own safety, as well as the many veterans and warfighters who've relied on the service of these individuals for their own protection and to accomplish their objectives," the letter states.
His spokesman, Joe Kasper, said Hunter supports the intent of the travel ban but questions how it was executed.
Veterans who have been aiding translators say it would be difficult to get everyone on the list.
What's more, they say the ban sends a message to Iraqi soldiers and other Muslims fighting insurgents that the United States does not want them.
"Not only is this executive order a death sentence for Iraqis and Afghans who have served faithfully alongside U.S. troops, but it feels like a death sentence for our service members who are in the Middle East," said former Army Capt. Matt Zeller, who runs the nonprofit No One Left Behind, an organization working to get interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan to the United States.
"I'm only alive because my Afghan Muslim translator saved my life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill me in battle," he said.
Zeller said that's why he grabbed the American flag that flew over his base in Afghanistan and waved it outside the White House this weekend, joining thousands of protesters who demanded an immediate end to the travel ban.
Afghanistan is not among the seven countries on the ban list, but suspension of the refugee program is affecting Afghan translators who have been given special immigrant visas for helping U.S. troops.
Zeller said two Afghan translators have had their flights cancelled since Friday's order. The interpreters waited for years to get the visas, going through a lengthy vetting process, he said.
Army Capt. Matthew Ball said his interpreter, Qismat Amin, who has been living in hiding after getting threats from Taliban and Islamic state fighters, got his visa Sunday, after nearly four years of interviews. Ball bought him a $1,000 plane ticket to San Francisco and plans to meet him at the airport with an attorney.
"The ban is terrible. It's terrible for what it says about our country. It's terrible for what it says to our allies who we fight with overseas. It's terrible for what it does to real people, struggling to flee terrorism in their home countries, who now have nowhere to go," said Ball, who now serves in the Reserves.
Amin, who talked to The Associated Press by phone, said he had mixed feelings.
"I feel kind of hesitant to be honest," he said. "I'm hopeful it's going to be OK. I've never been out of my country, so I don't know the rules, and I've been watching the news. I'm a Muslim, and there are different stories saying the United States is banning Muslims, banning immigrants. I'm immigrant plus I'm Muslim, so I don't know."
"I'm very excited at the moment right now and kind of terrified," he said.