Joey Coon, left, and his former translator, Bandar Hasan, stand beside the Tigris River in Iraq
FA ME/ SOURCE Associated Press
WASHINGTON — They became good buddies during the war, the young American soldier and his invaluable Iraqi translator, an easygoing guy who could spot dangers in the shadows and calm jittery nerves in the streets.
When it was time to go home, Joey Coon, then an Army National Guard sergeant, set up an e-mail account for his translator, Bandar Hasan. He gave his friend a quick lesson on how to use it so they could stay in touch.
Joey didn’t expect much. Bandar wasn’t familiar with computers. But he did call on occasion, and the two joked about him coming to America one day, an idea that seemed far-fetched.
That all changed one morning when Bandar called Joey, his voice tense, his message urgent. He was no longer a translator, he was on the run and in fear of his life.
“He was very scared and worried and thought he was in a lot of danger,” Joey says, recalling how this conversation differed from others. “It was less about two guys joking, ‘Hey buddy, won’t it be fun when you come to the U.S.,’ and more like ‘Joey I need to get the heck out of here!”‘
Joey knew Bandar had risked his life for him and other American soldiers.
Now he was determined to do all he could to save him.
Among the thousands of Iraqis who’ve worked with Americans during the war, probably no group has faced greater danger than translators. They’ve been denounced as spies, condemned as traitors. Some have been killed, others tortured or threatened.
Though a law passed in 2007 made it easier for translators to come to the United States, some Americans — many of them soldiers — have felt the need to do more. They’ve raised money, hired lawyers, even welcomed Iraqis as temporary housemates.
“Maybe it was survivor’s guilt,” says Jason Faler, an Oregon National Guard captain who started a foundation to aid Iraqi translators, after bringing three of his own to America. “I was worried that very dear friends of mine would not survive. They had sacrificed a great deal … and I wanted to give them some help.”
It was much the same story for Joey Coon, an unlikely candidate for the military. At age 18 he’d already flashed his libertarian streak, refusing to register with the Selective Service, writing the agency a letter detailing his distrust of government. If the cause was just, he declared, he’d be first in line.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, he found his cause. He joined the Oregon National Guard, expecting to be sent to Afghanistan.
Instead, he arrived in Iraq in January 2005 on the base in Balad, about 40 miles north of Baghdad. About halfway through his tour, he met Bandar Hasan.
Bandar had just finished high school, where he’d studied English. His widowed mother — his father died before Bandar was born — didn’t want him to be a translator. It was too dangerous.
“No, you’re my only child,” he says she told him. “I don’t want to lose you.”
Finally, she relented.
Like many other translators, Bandar concealed his identity: He wore sunglasses and a “gator neck,” a sweater-like mask that covered his face below his eyes. He chose a code name: Dash. He sometimes spoke with a Lebanese accent.
Bandar joined the Americans on patrols and raids, riding in their Humvees, eating meals with them. Slender with a trim mustache and ready smile, he liked to laugh, but knew when to be serious, too.
“He would lend a certain amount of calm to every situation to explain to us what’s going on and to keep the locals informed,” Joey recalls. “… He was someone that I trusted in a situation where you really need people you trust around you.”
But associating with Americans could be deadly — as they both knew.
In one horrible incident, a 15-year-old Iraqi boy whose farm was near the base befriended the soldiers. They occasionally gave his family food and he provided tidbits of information, such as what road to avoid.
That proved to be fatal. One day, Joey says, the bodies of the boy and his 10-year-old brother were dumped on the fence line of the base. Both had been beheaded.
Later on, when Bandar hooked up with the Guard, Joey discovered these two boys were relatives on his father’s side.
After Joey left, Bandar began working at the less dangerous base hospital. He apparently had a falling-out with another Iraqi — the details are not clear — and suddenly, he was without a job and without protection.
It was spring 2007 when he called Joey.
In turn, Joey contacted his father, Jim, a real estate agent in Bend, Oregon, who vividly remembers his son’s voice, thick with emotion, saying: “‘Dad, I’ve got to get him out of there.”‘
Jim Coon needed no convincing.
While his son was still in Iraq, the elder Coon organized a shoe drive with friends and family, collecting 2,000 pairs, along with clothes and toys. He shipped a giant package to Joey, who handed out the goods in Iraqi villages and schools.
But this was different — in many ways.
Unlike most other Iraqis who depend on resettlement agencies or relatives to make their way here, Bandar was counting on Joey and a special program that helps translators.
It wasn’t easy: Joey had to plow through documents, try to understand complicated immigration laws and acquire a general’s letter to snare a special immigrant visa for translators.
Bandar’s anxiety, meanwhile, was palpable in his e-mails.
“you are may only hope in may life pleas dont forget me …,” he wrote in July 2007.
“Don’t worry, I would never forget you,” Joey replied adding that he was talking with a friend about how to get him a visa. “Stay strong and be very safe.”
Joey sent Bandar some money so he could temporarily move to Kurdistan. But Bandar didn’t have a job there, so after a short time, he headed to Baghdad, where he hid out.
His frustration and isolation filled a February 2008 e-mail.
“Joey … i Dont have place in my country. and i cant continuous like this,” he wrote. “… i am with out freedom now i cannot move …. hope you can doing something … Dont forget me i am your brother.”
Rescuing Bandar became a team project.
Teresa Statler, a Portland immigration lawyer who already had helped two Iraqi translators come to America, set out to do the same for Bandar. But reaching him wasn’t always easy; he was reluctant to open American documents in the Internet cafe in Baghdad where he read his e-mail.
Jason Faler, the Oregon Guard captain who established The Checkpoint One Foundation to help Iraqi translators, contacted a general who’d served in Afghanistan to get a recommendation letter required for the visa.
In the spring of 2008, Faler, in Washington on business, met Joey, who had moved to the nation’s capital to become director of student programs at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.
He offered Joey some parting advice.
“I said ‘Joey, the job does not end when your interpreter gets to the U.S.,”‘ Faler recalls. “In fact, it has only just begun.”
That summer, back in Bend, Joey and his family held a fundraiser barbecue, Joey introduced a video featuring Bandar working, smiling — and pleading for help.
When the video ended, Joey says, “there wasn’t a dry eye on the house — including mine.”
The word that Bandar had been issued a visa came in a March e-mail.
“‘Bandar, my brother!!!!” Joey wrote, announcing the news. “… I’m so happy for you.”
“I really Cry when I see the e.mail,” Bandar replied, thanking him and reminding him: “You Still my Big Brother.” Bandar is now 24, Joey 28.
A few days later, Bandar, and his mother shared a tearful goodbye. “This is my future, this is my life,” he says he told her. “I want to be safe.”
Taking his first ever plane ride, Bandar watched, without regret, as the Baghdad skyline disappeared beneath him. “It’s not very good memories I have of Iraq,” he says, “Always scared. Always bad situations.”
About a dozen of Joey’s friends, including his girlfriend, Brooke Oberwetter, greeted Bandar at the airport in Washington.
The next day, they played Frisbee on the Washington Mall and did some sightseeing as Bandar took photos.
“One day,” he says, “I’m going to show them to my children.”
As predicted, the hard part wasn’t over.
It took three months for Bandar to find work he now holds two part-time positions busing dishes, but worries about supporting himself.
“He’s a very proud guy,” Joey says. “He doesn’t want to feel like he’s a burden.”
Bandar also hasn’t escaped the horrors of war. Early on, he learned an Iraqi friend, a contractor he’d entrusted to watch over his mother had been killed. Then an Iraqi child who reminded Bandar of himself as a boy was killed, too.
There were days, Joey says, when he’d see Bandar staring off in space, tears streaming down his face.
But those moments have not dampened Bandar’s joy.
“I am the king of my life now,” he says. “I can walk anywhere. I can come back at 3:30 in the morning. I feel like I’m free. This is very important to me.”
Actually, Joey, says he has told Bandar that while Washington is safer than Iraq, he needs to be careful.
Bandar is quickly adapting. He has his own Facebook page and ATM card.
He shares a house with Joey, his girlfriend, Brooke and another roommate. Brooke says she had no reservations having Bandar join them when Joey moved in this spring.
“I love Joey very much,” she says. “I knew he wanted Bandar to be here. I knew he was part of the deal.”
Bandar plans to take English classes, would eventually like to go to college and maybe, one day, bring his mother here.
For now, he’s basking in his new ‘family’ that includes Jim Coon. The two talk and exchange text messages regularly. “He calls me dad, I call him my No. 2 son,” the elder Coon says.
Bandar is giddy just thinking about it.
“I’ve got a brother,” he declares. “I’ve got a family, people who take care of me. It’s amazing.”
He stops for a moment as if to absorb it all.
“Joey,” he confides, “he’s not doing a small thing for me. I will never forget this all my life.”
As for Joey, he’s thrilled, too.
“Whatever problems we might face, whether it’s money, jobs, whatever, we’ve sort of got the basic issues out of the way — life and death,” he says. “There have been difficult times but it’s always been worth it … We’re a team. We’re in this together.”
Read Full Post »