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Matt Zeller

The American Soldier Who Wouldn’t Leave His Translator Behind

U.S. Army Captain Matt Zeller says he wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Janis Shinwari, an Afghan Translator who saved his life during an ambush. Years later, Zeller had the chance to return the favor to Janis — and many others. Thousands more still need help.

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U.S. Army Captain Matt Zeller says he wouldn't be here today if it weren't for Janis Shinwari, an Afghan Translator who saved his life during an ambush. Years later, Zeller had the chance to return the favor to Janis — and many others. Thousands more still need help.

About The American Soldier Who Wouldn't Leave His Translator Behind

U.S. Army Captain Matt Zeller calls it his "alive day."

On April 28, 2008, while on patrol in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan, Zeller and his unit were ambushed. The men were surrounded by a Taliban force that outnumbered them 3-to-1.

"I just decided at that point I was gonna go out fighting," Zeller said.

But Zeller survived the fight — thanks to an Afghan translator named Janis Shinwari.

"I'm 1 of 5 Americans who can point to him and say: That's my guardian angel. Because on five separate occasions, Janis killed the enemy to keep one of us alive," Zeller said.

Zeller says that translators like Shinwari are far more like U.S. soldiers than many realize. The men and women they serve with entrust translators with their lives. The translators often carry guns. And their service can come at a grave personal cost.

The Taliban deliberately targets translators — and their family members. So many have been killed that Congress passed legislation to provide special visas to those who've assisted U.S. forces. But the program is slow moving, riddled with red tape, and far behind in its efforts.

Today Zeller and Shinwari are working to change that through their group No One Left Behind. The organization formed shortly after Shinwari arrived in the U.S. — which was no small feat in itself. In this episode, you'll hear about the risks he faced in his nine years of service to the U.S., including his escape from the Taliban's "kill list."

You'll learn how the American people ultimately came to Shinwari's rescue, and find out how Shinwari passed on that act of generosity to help hundreds of other translators at risk. And you'll see how No One Left Behind — and the American public — are making sure that these translators not only survive, but thrive in their new country.

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