When Muslims got blocked at American airports, U.S. veterans rushed to help

Jeffrey Buchalter was reflooring his foyer in Chesapeake Beach, Md., and listening to MSNBC over the weekend when he heard the news: An Iraqi who had worked with American forces as an interpreter had been stopped from entering the U.S. under a new executive order on immigration from President Trump.

The story stopped him cold. Buchalter, an Army veteran who works as a law-enforcement instructor at the Department of Homeland Security, had served multiple tours of duty as a military policeman in Iraq, service that cost him dearly.

He was decorated for injuries sustained from gunfire and improvised explosive devices. Exams revealed he’d suffered herniated discs, traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, and he spent 2 ½ years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center trying to get right.

But he was still alive, and now the married father of two children. And he believes that’s thanks in part to the work of Iraqi interpreters who acted as guides during his work in their country. So he told his younger daughter and son they were going to take a trip: a two-hour drive to Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C., where, for the first time in his life, Buchalter would join a protest.

“This is not what we fought for, having been in Iraq and working with these interpreters,” Buchalter said in a phone interview Sunday. When he saw an Iraqi family emerge from detention, he presented them with something he hoped would convey America’s goodwill — a Purple Heart.

“Knowing their culture and how they view America, for me, it was a way to send a message to them: What they believe America was, it is,” Buchalter said. “It's the greatest place in the world.”

Trump’s executive order Friday to block travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations triggered confusion, fear and anger around the nation as protesters and attorneys gathered at airports to try to force the release of at least dozens of travelers who had unexpectedly become detainees. Many of America’s veterans were among those frustrated by the order, inspired largely by the story of Iraqi interpreter Hameed Khalid Darweesh.

Darweesh, 53, was detained after arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, despite holding a special immigrant visa granted to American military translators following a decade of what one U.S. official had deemed “faithful and valuable service to the United States” in Iraq, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Darweesh had worked for the U.S. as an interpreter, engineer and contractor from 2003 to 2013, continuing even as Iraqi colleagues were assassinated for their work supporting the American invasion. Now he wanted to immigrate to the U.S. It had taken Darweesh two years of interviews and security screenings to obtain the visa, but, for the moment, all that appeared to be suddenly worthless.

Veterans were infuriated by his story. “The idea that we would be detaining Iraqi interpreters who put their lives on the line to help troops like myself in Iraq is disgraceful,” wrote veteran Jon Soltz, chairman of an Iraq veterans’ political action committee, VoteVets. The group launched a petition calling on Trump to rescind the visa restrictions and to provide aid for U.S. military interpreters.

Those frustrated by Darweesh’s treatment included one of his former American colleagues in the 101st Airborne division, Brandon Friedman, who had met Darweesh as an infantry lieutenant when the division swept into Baghdad to drive out the forces of Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein.

“He was anti-Saddam and wanted to help us,” said Friedman, who would go on to work in the Obama administration, recalling how Darweesh accompanied platoons on dangerous missions. “The guy was absolutely fearless. Guys in our company would go out in all the body armor and everything, and he would go out in khakis and a baseball cap, at least in the beginning.”

Not only was Darweesh’s work essential for soldiers to navigate Iraqi communities, but when a car bomb detonated near the unit’s base, “He was wounded himself, and he pulled wounded soldiers to safety,” Friedman said. And now veterans who knew Darweesh were upset.

“If you could see all the Facebook posts from guys in the unit this week, everybody loved him. He was just such an integral part of the unit,” Friedman said. Many veterans were “absolutely” opposed to Trump’s blanket exclusion of military interpreters, “because if you've been over there, you know their importance,” said Friedman. He called the ban “deplorable” and said it gives interpreters less incentive to help U.S. troops in the future.

As public scrutiny grew Saturday, protesters and immigration attorneys massed at airports around the nation, and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration on Darweesh’s behalf.

Darweesh was freed earlier in the day, and his ACLU lawsuit later led to a late-night ruling from a federal judge in New York, who temporarily barred American officials from deporting arriving travelers who otherwise had legal travel documents.

But the executive order still makes life uncertain for other Muslims abroad who had assisted the American military and whose hopes for entry to the U.S. have dimmed.

Chase Millsap, a former Marine infantry officer who served multiple tours in Iraq, has been trying to help a former Iraqi soldier he served with to gain asylum in the U.S.

The Iraqi man, whose name Millsap asked be withheld for his safety, fled with his family to southern Turkey in 2014, after Islamic State militants reached the outskirts of Baghdad and began hunting for the soldier’s Shiite family, Millsap said.

The soldier, whom Millsap nicknamed “the Captain,” applied for refugee status through U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services but has been waiting for a decision for nearly three years.

“This ban sets the clock back even further — at least 120 days, and after that who knows if they’re going to pick it back up,” said Millsap, now a writer and filmmaker in Los Angeles.

On Friday, after Trump signed the order, Millsap called his friend in Turkey and broke the news. The Iraqi man, who has a wife and two children, and also supports his sister and her three kids, had been taking English classes in anticipation of being allowed to immigrate to the U.S.

“For me, it was a punch to the gut,” Millsap said. “I had to tell him we’ve left him behind and we’re not going to step up and do the right thing, at least right now. “For him, it was really sad. I could tell the frustration in his voice.”

Millsap said he had been heartened by the ad hoc coalition of lawyers, human rights advocates and veterans from all branches of the military that was speaking up on behalf of Iraqis and others affected by Trump’s ban.

“This is very apolitical,” Millsap said. “These are people who served directly alongside of us. For us, it’s very simple to say we need to help them. A lot of these guys are directly under threat and going underground. Let’s make sure they have a path to safety.”

matt.pearce@latimes.com | @mattdpearce

sbengali@latimes.com | @sbengali

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