“Sorry if it sounds like I am yelling when I talk,” Hewad said when we met up recently on a rainy Connecticut afternoon. “My friends have told me I have been talking louder recently. It’s my hearing. I think it’s from the explosion during that attack on FOB Salerno.”
I immediately knew what he was talking about. I, like almost every service member who served in Afghanistan in 2012, had heard about the explosion at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province, and had seen the security footage. The power and magnitude of the explosion were unforgettable.
The Taliban packed a large jingle truck full of nearly 2,000 pounds of explosives and – in a suicide attack- drove it into the perimeter of the FOB. The blast’s mushroom cloud quickly rose and darkened the midday sky and its shockwave shook every building on the sprawling base. Two American soldiers and five Afghan allies were killed in the blast and the dining facility was destroyed. After the blast, about a dozen suicide attackers stumbled out of a van that followed behind the truck. The blast’s shockwave had noticeably affected the attackers and they looked drunk as they staggered towards the smoking hole in the base’s perimeter. They were quickly engaged and shot by U.S. forces, except for the last attacker, who found a corner in the remaining perimeter of Hesco barriers, crouched down, and detonated his suicide vest.
“Were you there too?” Hewad asked.
“No, I was in a different province. I got there a few weeks after, but everyone was still talking about it,” I said. I was an Army Civil Affairs Officer leading a team in Afghanistan when I first met Hewad.
“I was lucky that day, I was working in my b-hut and was late going to lunch. I was about to walk out the door with three other linguists when the explosion went off,” he said.
Since returning from Afghanistan, I worry about my hearing too. And, like Hewad, when I hear the now familiar ringing, I speculate about what specific day permanent damage was caused. I can go to the VA and get my ears checked, but I felt a deep sympathy for my friend when I realized Hewad cannot get help at the VA, despite being in the same conflict and bearing many of the same risks.
Hewad worked for the U.S. from 2006 to 2013. He started as a linguist and was promoted to an operations manager for a popular U.S. funded radio broadcast program that delivered radio programming to most of Eastern Afghanistan. His program mostly aired music. “But “we sometimes aired education programs aimed at influencing the youth by teaching that violence is not goodness,” Hewad said. “I was proud of that because I believe in order to preach goodness you have to be good, and not violent. That’s also why I think I was targeted,” Hewad explained.
A few months after surviving the attack on FOB Salerno, extremists texted Hewad on his personal cell phone. The text said “We know you, we know your father. Pay us 150,000 Afghani (approximately $2,000) or we will kill you and your family.”
Hewad walked into his U.S. counterpart’s office and showed them the text. Within thirty minutes they had verified the threat, told him he was in real danger and advised him to move himself and his family to Kabul immediately.
It was in Kabul Hewad learned about the Special Immigrant Visas (SIV) for Afghans who were employed by the U.S. Government; an effort to protect America’s Afghan allies who are living in danger as a result of their employment by giving them expedited Visas. It took two years for his application to get approved and Hewad moved to the U.S. in 2014.
Hewad is one of nearly 20,000 Afghans that have benefitted from the SIV program and have escaped threats to their families by moving to the United States. An estimated 18,864 Afghans, however, are still waiting for approval in a process that has significantly slowed in the past few years. “The [SIV] process is very, very slow….You could literally land a rover on Mars within seven months,” Retired General David Petraus recently said. “But this takes something like three and a half years – and that’s when it’s working.” Under the former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the process was not working at all. It took a legal win in a lawsuit filed against Pompeo by the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), on behalf of Iraqi and Afghan SIV applicants, to get the approval process moving again.
With violence against civilians and targeted killings increasing in Afghanistan, and with an eventual U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan looming in the near future, many SIV applicants worry that their visas will come too late, if at all.
Now in the U.S., Hewad still actively advocates for former U.S. employees living in constant danger in Afghanistan while waiting for SIV approval. He has met with numerous lawmakers at town halls and conferences to remind them of the plight of SIV applicants. As Senator Richard Blumenthal’s guest at a conference in 2017, Hewad met many of the nation’s most influential politicians.
“One of my favorites was Senator John McCain,” Hewad told me. “We were shaking hands and when he found out I was a refugee because of my work with the U.S. military, he told me that a hand shake wasn’t good enough, and he gave me a big hug.”
Hewad says many SIV applicants doubt the SIV process. “I tell them that there are many good Americans fighting for us, and not to lose hope,” he said.
“Senator Blumenthal has also become a good friend. He came to my naturalization ceremony to support me,” Hewad said.
One organization that Hewad recognizes as making a large impact is No One Left Behind, an all-volunteer non-profit charity that works with the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. government to advocate for Iraqi and Afghan allies.
“You can protest and hold a sign on the street, but because America is a country of laws, the most important thing to do is to work with the proper branches of government to get the laws changed,” Hewad said. And this is where No One Left Behind has been the most impactful. As the only organization dedicated to ensuring America keeps its promise to Iraqi and Afghan allies that served side by side with U.S. military and government personnel, they have been leading the fight in advocating for those left behind by the stagnant SIV program. They have worked with almost every major media outlet in the U.S. to keep the message alive, and continue to be the most reliable source of SIV news and information for both Afghanistan and Iraq military veterans and SIV applicants.
“It is hard to look through all of the government documents and know what is happening. No One Left Behind is doing a good job of giving regular updates and for many, they are the only thing that is giving us all hope that the SIV program will work again,” Hewad said.
No One Left Behind’s efforts seems to be paying off. On February 4, the Biden Administration issued Executive Order 14013, which called for a review of the Iraqi and Afghan SIV programs and a report to the president within 180 days with recommendations to address any concerns identified.
After the executive order was signed, and with the support of former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and No One Left Behind advisory board member, Retired General David Petraeus, No One Left Behind submitted a 22 page report to the Office of the Inspector General that outlined recommendations to streamline the SIV process. Many of these recommendations were instrumental in improving the process going forward.
“You’re right, you do yell when you talk sometimes,” I say to Hewad when we are discussing the latest updates on the No One Left Behind Facebook page. I want to laugh but I remember all he has been through; surviving bombs, suddenly packing up his home and moving his family to Kabul, waiting two years for his SIV to process, slowly losing his hearing and building a life in a new country.
It makes me think about the nearly 19,000 SIV applicants waiting for their chance to escape danger and start a new life in safety. Most of them probably have stories similar to Hewad’s; have survived moments of real danger, have fled from extremists and have risked their own family’s safety to support their American allies. My friend’s hearing loss makes me wonder how many of the waiting SIV applicants bear physical scars of their service to America. I wonder if any of them still have hope that they won’t be left behind when America’s memory of its involvement in Afghanistan fades.