CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

January 11, 2013

COMMENTARY: To a Family in Iraq, I Owe a Debt I Can't Repay

By Blake Hall
Special To The Washington Post.

— I wired $1,000 to a woman in Iraq on New Year's Eve. I sent it to repay part of a debt that I, and my country, will always owe. As I looked down at the $100 bills, stacked in two piles on the counter of a Western Union in McLean, Va., I was overwhelmed by my inability to do more for this woman. There is no amount of money that can compensate a mother for the loss of her oldest son.

His name was Mohammed; we called him Roy to protect his identity while he accompanied my platoon of scouts and snipers on combat patrols in Baghdad from December 2006 to September 2007. Roy, a mere teenager at the time, was our interpreter and a highly skilled one. He questioned insurgent leaders we had captured; he served as my eyes and ears among the local population; he was like a younger brother to me and the scout team leader responsible for him. Roy died in a house bombing in Diyala province in January of 2008 along with six American soldiers from the platoon that replaced mine in Iraq. I cry every time I write that sentence, just like I cried the first time I spoke with his mom.

It wasn't easy to find her. After I first wrote about Roy in August 2010, I contacted several general officers, commanding officers from the unit that replaced us, the State Department, even an Army public affairs official in Baghdad, giving them Roy's name and the date of his death in the hope that someone might find a record with the family's contact information. It was all to no avail. I felt responsible to tell his mother how important Roy was to us; I wanted to tell her I was sorry.

After three months and no leads, I began to lose hope. But then a retired colonel, who contacted me after my essay "Remembering Roy" ran, was able to connect the dots. He knew a retired three-star general who had led the contracting firm that employed Roy as an interpreter while he served with my unit. On an early January morning nearly three years to the day since Roy was killed, I received an email containing the telephone number of Roy's mother.

I didn't even know if the number would work. The contracting company had made it clear that the phone number was the only information it would release to me, so I had only one chance left.

I hesitated before calling. Would Roy's mom hate me? I could understand why she might, but I knew it would hurt me if she said it. I took a shower to gather my thoughts, but when I finished I still didn't know what I would say. I just dialed the number.

An Arabic song played for several seconds on the line, then static, and then through a slightly garbled connection, I could make out a woman's voice greeting me in Arabic.

"My name is Blake Hall," I said in English. "I was a soldier once, and I served with your son Mohammed."

There was a pause, and when she responded I could hear the stress in her voice. "Mohammed. My son Mohammed? You know Mohammed?"

She asked why I had called her. I told her that I was Naqib (Captain) Hall and that I had worked with her son and had gotten to know and love him. I thanked her for allowing me the privilege of getting to know such a wonderful young man.

She started to cry. She said, "He was a good boy."

"The best," I replied, and I began to cry with her. Then I told her, "I'd like to bring you and your family to America."

I felt compelled to try to obtain asylum for Roy's family; I knew they were in danger. The unusual circumstances of Roy's death and his previous prolonged absences while serving with us had brought attention to the family, both from Sunni militias and the Shiite-dominated government security forces. When I told Roy's mother that my country owed her family a chance for a better life, she called me "her angel." She said she knew the transition would be difficult for her and her husband, but they wanted Roy's siblings to have a chance at a better future in the United States.

I've talked with her many times since that day on the phone and through instant message. She told me Roy loved me, and that calmed my fear that she would hate me.

I contacted Morrison Foerster, a San Francisco Bay Area law firm recommended to me by the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project, and it agreed to take on the case pro bono. Two third-year law students from the University of California at Berkeley volunteered to prepare the family's visa packet. I obtained letters of recommendation from senior officers, including my old battalion commander, now a brigade commander in Afghanistan, and the company commander for the unit that replaced mine.

Over the next few months, I learned about the injustices the family had endured after Roy's death. They told me that American forces initially refused to allow them onto the base to claim Roy's remains. They couldn't wash his body and bury him according to the customs of their religion.

Roy's body was eventually restored to his family, but the injustices kept mounting. Iraqi security forces at first refused to issue a death certificate — a prerequisite to bury someone in Iraq — because Roy had been killed by a bomb under unclear circumstances. In the eyes of the Iraqi authorities, particularly the Shiite security forces, the manner of his death made it likely that he was a terrorist or a collaborator with the Americans. Thanks to the influence of a U.S. military unit, Roy's family finally obtained the proper documents.

Congress created a "special immigrant visa" program as part of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2008, aimed to relocate tens of thousands of Iraqis — including former interpreters and embassy workers and their families — who helped us during the war. Though a few thousand visas had been issued as of early last year, the process has been painstakingly slow for many, in part because of security concerns in the United States. Now, 10 years after the conflict in Iraq began and more than a year after our last troops departed the country, it's inexcusable that any of those who risked so much are still waiting.

It has been almost two years since we filed a visa to bring Roy's family to the United States. I've called the FBI; I've called the State Department; I've called the embassy in Baghdad; I've called members of Congress, who have contacted the FBI on our behalf; and Morrison-Foerster and the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project have made multiple inquiries — yet nothing has happened.

I worry about what might befall Roy's family. I worry, too, that they will lose hope and feel increasing bitterness toward the nation that asked them for the life of their son, yet gave them nothing in return.

So I am left with my monthly visits to Western Union — enabled by the wonderful generosity of strangers — where I wire money to a family who has given this country its most precious gift.

It's not enough.

Hall, an Army Ranger, led a reconnaissance platoon in Iraq for fifteen months from 2006 to 2007. He is the founder and chief executive of Troop ID, an online service to verify military affiliation.