Returning the favor

I had a Vietnamese friend who didn’t make it out when we abandoned his country more than 30 years ago. I wondered for years what happened to him amid reports of the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who had worked with and trusted us to stand by them in their fight against the communists.

One can only imagine the sense of abandonment he and his friends must have felt as they watched the last of our helicopters, with desperate and panicked Vietnamese clinging to their skids, lift off from the abandoned U.S. Embassy in Saigon. The footage of that scene remains burned into the consciousness of many of those who watched it from the comfort of their homes back then, but many more of us simply changed the channel and chose to forget what happened to those left behind.

It turned out that my friend was one of the “lucky” ones. He wasn’t executed, but was sentenced to three years in one of Ho’s camps, which he somehow managed to survive. Once he got out, he rounded up his family and fled, eventually making it to this country, where he lives to this day.

There are in Iraq today untold numbers of people like my Vietnamese friend who rushed to our aid when we arrived and have worked with us since. If we abandon them, they may not be so lucky.

My daughter is in the Army and recently returned from a year in and around Baghdad, where she and fellow members of her unit worked closely with an interpreter they came to know as “Timmy.”

When she told me about what might await Timmy if we leave his country, I was reminded of Vietnamese friend.

In many ways, Timmy is much like thousands of other Iraqis who threw in with us in the fight against tyranny and terrorism after our troops arrived in his country. At age 21, Saddam Hussein’s goons arrested him as an enemy of the regime and sentenced him to four years in prison, where he was tortured and witnessed the deaths of thousands of his fellow prisoners.

After the arrival of U.S. forces and the fall of Saddam Hussein, he joined the New Iraqi Army’s Special Forces. In the next
couple of years his unit suffered heavy casualties and he won numerous medals.

By 2005, Timmy had been promoted, but after being reprimanded on several occasions by superiors who caught him saluting “infidel occupiers,” he left the army and signed on as a contract interpreter, or “terp,” as our troops call people like him.

Offered a choice of assignments, Timmy picked the most dangerous forward operations base in Baghdad because, as he put it, “It’s where I can do the most good.” That’s where he met my daughter and those who served with her.

“Terps” aren’t armed, but Timmy put his own life at risk on a daily basis, saved the lives of many of our people and, as a result of just one such incident, was nominated by Gen. George Casey for the secretary of defense’s “Medal for Valor.”

Timmy was married at the time he decided to work with us and his wife was expecting, but when her father learned what he was up to, he had her kidnapped and the marriage annulled. Timmy has never seen his child and is now so well-known in Baghdad that those who work with him say he will be killed within days if we leave.

My daughter called me before she left Baghdad to tell me she and those who served with her want Timmy out. “If we leave him,” she said, “we will be sentencing him to death and we can’t do that because he’s one of us and we owe him our lives.”
Then she put Timmy on the phone, introduced us and before she hung up said, “I wanted you to say hello to him so that you’ll remember that he’s a person and not just a name on a piece of paper.”

Sadly, we have allowed very, very few Timmies into this country. He and thousands like him have risked everything in a common struggle for which many here and in Iraq have no stomach. But we have allowed fewer than 800 of them into the U.S. since 2003.

Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon and Republican Rep. Christopher Shays of Connecticut want to expand that number. H.R. 2265, which they introduced, would help us deliver on Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky’s promise that “we are committed to those Iraqis who have provided assistance to the U.S. military and embassy.”     

It’s the least we can do for Timmy and those like him who have risked everything to help us.


Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.