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.
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"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.
About halfway through his tour, Joey met Bandar Hasan.
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.
After Joey left, Bandar began working at the less-dangerous base hospital. Then 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, Ore., who vividly remembers his son's voice, thick with emotion, saying: "'Dad, I've got to get him out of there.' "
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
Bandar would eventually like to go to college and maybe, one day, bring his mother here.
"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."