BREMEN, Germany — The two men risked their lives together nearly a decade ago trying to eliminate the Taliban, dodging bullets and forever bonding in a way that can only be forged in war.
Now the American soldier and his Afghan translator were together again in Germany shopping for a suit. Abdulhaq Sodais's future hinges on an asylum hearing in a German court after he was denied a U.S. visa, and U.S. Army Veteran Spencer Sullivan was there to help him prepare.
Together, they watched videos from Sodais' hometown: The crackle of gunfire, dead bodies being carted off as black smoke billowed. Once U.S. troops withdrew, the fragile government built over years by people like Sodais and Sullivan collapsed in just days.
“I couldn’t stop crying,” Sodais said. “My father said the Taliban were knocking on every single door in Herat looking for guys who worked for the coalition forces.”
Sullivan already lost another translator, Sayed Masoud, who was killed by the Taliban while waiting for a U.S. visa. It's a scar Sullivan carries deeply, the realization that the U.S. government is capable of the one thing he never believed: betrayal.
Sullivan was determined not to let Sodais, who used smugglers to get to Europe, suffer the same fate.
So he flew from Virginia to Germany to help Sodais pick out something to wear for his Sept. 6 asylum hearing.
In a world of hurt and uncertainty, buying a suit was the one thing Sullivan could control. It offered a small hope of making a difference.
A professional appearance just might convince a judge to help keep Sodais safe and uphold the sacred vow that America was unable to keep.
“I made a promise to him just as America made a promise to him to protect him and save his life,” Sullivan said. “I mean how can you turn your back on that promise? I don’t think the answer is more complicated than that. I think it’s actually very simple.”
Sullivan is among scores of U.S. combat veterans working on their own to rescue the Afghans who served alongside them.
Their efforts started long before this month’s chaotic rush to evacuate Afghans after the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdraw from America’s forever war.
Thousands of Afghans who aided US troops have spent years stuck in a backlogged and beleaguered U.S. Special Immigrant Visa program, while frantic messages of the Taliban hunting them down have been pinging the phones of the American soldiers they helped on the battlefield.
The program was meant to award Afghans for their support by giving them and their families a pathway to the United States. But it has fallen far short, with Congress failing to approve enough visas each year, while the former Trump administration added new security requirements and bureaucratic hurdles that turned the average wait time from a few months into nearly three years.
Others have been denied over what immigration attorneys say were minor or unjust discrepancies in their performance records. Many now fear that the time they were marked as late to work, unfairly or accidentally even, may cost them their escape, and possibly their life.
Sodais and Masoud stood out among the dozen interpreters who worked with the platoon Sullivan led in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013.
Both interpreters went with his platoon on dozens of missions into villages controlled by the Taliban, taking on fire while unarmed.
In 2013, Masoud applied for a special immigrant visa after receiving death threats for his work. His application included a letter of recommendation from Sullivan who described him as “punctual and professional, an exemplary linguist and trustworthy friend.”
“Granting him a special immigration visa is the least that can be done in order to express America’s gratitude for his services,” Sullivan wrote.
Two years later, Masoud’s application was denied. The U.S. embassy said he had not worked for the U.S. government or its military. In fact, Masoud was hired by a U.S. firm that had a contract with the Department of Defense to provide linguistic services to troops in Afghanistan.
Masoud appealed and Sullivan wrote another letter to the Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, Kabul, providing more details of his work, but he got no response.
Sullivan reached out to other veterans to see what he could do. He learned he could pay $20,000 to get Masoud smuggled out, but he didn’t want to support a criminal network. Instead, he hoped the U.S. government would come through on its end.
Meanwhile, Masoud’s texts to Sullivan became more sporadic as the threats escalated, forcing him to move from house to house.
“He was becoming increasingly frantic and afraid," Sullivan said.
Sullivan got the last one in the summer of 2017.
“Hello sir. I am so sorry to reply you late. I got a problem,” Masoud wrote, apologizing for not keeping in better touch with his friend.
“Hey Sayed it’s OK!” Sullivan texted back. “Are you safe?”
Sullivan never got a reply.
Weeks later, Masoud’s brother answered an email Sullivan sent to Masoud’s account: Masoud had been shot by the Taliban after returning home for a relative’s funeral and was dead.
Sullivan was consumed by sadness and guilt. He felt partly responsible since he had posted Facebook pictures of them and wondered if he had put his friend at risk. He wondered, too, if he could have done more to protect him.
“I felt helpless,” he said. “I didn’t know what else I could have done. Maybe I should have spent the $20,000 to pay seedy smugglers.”
A year and 1/2 after his death, Sullivan got an email from the U.S. embassy in Kabul informing him that the Afghanistan Special Immigrant Visa Unit had received his recommendation letter for Masoud.
The official wanted to know if the letter was legitimate and if Sullivan would still recommend the applicant so they could begin the process. It included a photo of Masoud with his thick red hair and thin moustache.
Sullivan wrote back to the embassy to inform them that Masoud had been killed while waiting more than four years for his application to be processed.
After Masoud’s death, Sullivan texted Sodais to tell him what had happened to his fellow translator. But he got no reply.
Like Masoud, Sodais also had applied for a special immigrant visa in 2013 and was denied. He applied again in 2015 and 2016. Sullivan sent the U.S. embassy in Kabul letters to support his case.
His last rejection came in 2017. After Sodais’ uncle was beheaded, and his neighbor, who worked as a fuel truck driver for coalition forces, was gunned down by the Taliban while standing in his front doorway, Sodais, who taught himself English using library books because he admired America and believed in its mission, decided he had to find another way out.
His plan would be to go to Europe by land. His brother, who knew someone in a travel agency, helped him get a tourist visa to Iran, and his family knew an Afghan man living there who would end up connecting Sodais to the first of a long line of smugglers.
Sodais left with a backpack full of clothes, and $100 worth of Iranian rials.
Along the way, he met other Afghans who worked for coalition forces also now turning to smugglers to find safe refuge.
Sodais was crammed into cars with refugees stacked on top of each on the floors. They hiked through the mountains in a snowstorm at night and dodged gunfire from Turkish border guards. He was beaten and abandoned by smugglers and jailed and beaten by police.
Meanwhile, his family back in Afghanistan was forced to move because of the Taliban’s growing presence in the area, and urged him to get to safety. He decided to head to Germany since Turkey and Greece were deporting Afghans at the time. His family sold their small general store in Afghanistan to fund his journey.
In the end, it took him seven months and would cost his family $15,000 to get to Germany. Once there, he applied for asylum but was lacking sufficient photos or documentation to support his claims and was immediately denied.
He called Sullivan, who he had not spoken to in more than a year.
“I was like ‘oh my God, he’s alive!’” Sullivan recounted, feeling overjoyed.
Four months later, Sullivan went to see him in Germany and offered to help his case.
Sullivan wrote a transcript for the German court. He sent him photos of his time with his platoon and wrote to the U.S. government to get his record, which showed his contract was terminated in 2013 due to “job abandonment.”
Sodais says he overextended his 30-day leave after going home to deal with a back injury from the blast of an improvised explosive device during a mission.
He was rehired in 2014 by the U.S. military but his contract was administered by a civilian contractor who terminated it in 2016 due to poor job performance.
Sullivan contacted the civilian defense contractor who fired Sodais in 2016 to ask what happened since he had found his work exemplary, but she refused to help him or provide an explanation. The paperwork she signed stated only that he was being released due to “incompatible skill set with the unit’s mission.”
She also would not answer questions about whether she remembered Sodais or had a security concern when contacted by The Associated Press.
Sodais said she falsely accused him of checking his personal Facebook page on the job.
Sodais fell into a deep depression after two years of waiting for a decision by the German courts. The fear of being deported was overwhelming, and he suffered headaches, back aches and other ailments from injuries from the IED blast.
In March of 2020, he tried to end his life, overdosing on pain medication. He spent nearly two months in a psychiatric ward after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
When he got out, he messaged Sullivan.
“I’m alive right now because of Spencer, because of him,” Sodais said later.
Sullivan said he’s just keeping the promise he made on the battlefield. He is helping Sodais write a book to shed light on the experience of Afghan refugees.
For now, Sodais is safe. On Aug. 11, Germany temporarily halted the deportation of all Afghans due to the upheaval but did not specify how long the order would last.
“Germany is filling our moral void," Sullivan said of the U.S. government's failure to help.
But Sodais worries his luck will run out once deportations resume.
“Really sometimes, it’s really hard for me to fight against this life,” he said on a Zoom call with Sullivan as he rattled off his fears over what’s happening in Afghanistan, his guilt over not being able to save his family there, and his anxiety over whether he will ever have a future.
And how will he ever get to the United States, where he wants to live? he asks.
Sullivan interrupts, stopping his downward spiral, and reminds him to stay focused on the Sept. 6 asylum hearing.
“Step one is we keep you alive,” he said. “We get you asylum in Germany and everything else will follow.”
Sullivan had to stay focused, too. Sodais was the one U.S. ally he felt he could possibly save. Days later, he would get an email from Masoud's brother, who worked for a U.S. military base, pleading for help. He included photos of his mother and uncle who were recently killed.
Sullivan knew there was little he could do since they had never worked together.
At the suit store in Bremen, on Sullivan's second visit, Sodais exited the dressing room in a black suit.
“Nice! Do a spin,” Sullivan joked, twirling his finger and patting his friend on back as they look in mirror. “You’re looking sharp.”
It is a moment of lightness after talking about what they’ve been through and what’s to come.
Before Sullivan leaves, Sodais breaks down, and Sullivan embraces him as he sobs.
“It’s OK,” Sullivan says. “You’re going to make it.”
Watson reported from San Diego.