Retired Army Sgt. John McFarlane finally had the chance this week to welcome home one of his "soldiers," a translator named Omar who had served alongside him in 2006 with a military transition team in Iraq.
Though McFarlane reconnected with many of his military buddies in the past, this reunion felt particularly special. Last week Omar was an Iraqi refugee in Syria, and today he is safely in the United States on a special immigrant visa that allows him permanent residency.
"To me, Omar is family because he is one of my troops," said McFarlane, who is letting Omar stay in his Kentucky home. "I'm tickled to death."
McFarlane was not the only familiar face to greet Omar in the United States — ABC's Bob Woodruff, who first met Omar while embedded with McFarlane's unit in Iraq in January 2006, was also at the airport when Omar's flight from Jordan touched down Tuesday.
It was Omar who provided critical first aid to Woodruff when he was hit by an improvised explosive device. McFarlane, the first American soldier to reach the vehicle, says that if not for Omar's quick action that day, Woodruff likely would not have survived.
Last year, as Woodruff recovered from his injuries, McFarlane and the members of his team began to return home from their tours of deployment. Omar stayed in Iraq and continued to work with the military until his situation became too dangerous and he was forced to leave. He ended up in Syria where he lived as a refugee for months, dreaming of one day moving to the United States.
This week, his dream came true when he was granted a visa as part of the government's special immigration visa program for interpreters. "I am happy to be here. I am speechless," said Omar, on arriving in the United States for the first time.
The interpreter visa program was created by Congress as a way to help translators in both Iraq and Afghanistan whose lives are now in danger because of their work with the U.S. military. This year President Bush signed off on legislation allowing for up to 500 translators per year to be granted visas to the United States.
Though this news initially encouraged interpreters like Omar who needed to flee Iraq, the process was anything but easy. Omar's visa comes as the result of months of persistent efforts on the part of McFarlane and many others, including the Council on Foreign Relations, a Kentucky senator's office and ABC News, as well as the fact that, due to his relationship with Woodruff, he was often treated as a "high profile" case — a circumstance most interpreters do not have to their advantage.
For Omar, the process began in April when he e-mailed Peter Beinart, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Omar had run across Beinart's contact information on a Web site that included information about the interpreter visa program. Beinart passed the e-mail to his researcher Will Evans, who started to look into the program to see where to begin.
"It came out of the blue," said Evans. "It was an entirely random event."