During one of his 2012 missions in Afghanistan, in an area used by enemy fighters to stage attacks, Andrew Darlington and his Marines encountered a man with a disfigured face and a glass eye. He also was missing several fingers.
The man blamed his injuries on a pressure cooker.
Darlington, a native New Orleanian on the first of two combat tours, turned to his interpreter, Said Hussaini.
“I said, ‘What do you think?’ ” Darlington recalled. “He says, ‘This guy is a bomb maker.’ Because of my lack of experience, I wouldn’t have guessed he was a bomb maker.”
Far more than just an interpreter, Hussaini often advised the Marines on cultural nuances, Darlington said. That was among the reasons Darlington wanted to help Hussaini reach his goal of immigrating to the United States.
“It was a dream to come to America,” Hussaini said.
After almost three years of trying, Hussaini, 25, a former Afghan National Army sergeant, has made it, thanks in part to Darlington, 29, a 2005 Isidore Newman School graduate who is now attending Tulane Law School.
Hussaini arrived in the United States in August after getting a special immigrant visa. He settled in Texas, where he works 12-hour days and hopes to become an electrical engineer — and a U.S. citizen.
Last week, Hussaini visited New Orleans for the first time to thank members of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8973 at Lyons and Annunciation streets. The group’s members are helping to cover his initial living expenses.
“I am so happy that way before I came to America, I have done something for this nation,” Hussaini told the veterans Thursday, recounting how proud he was to have worked with U.S. Marines. He thanked the veterans for their assistance and for serving their country.
“Said and translators like him served alongside us and took the same risks that we did,” said Marshall Hevron, a former Marine who served in Iraq and is now a New Orleans lawyer. “Because of his service to the U.S., he is under constant threat in his own country. When Andrew approached the VFW and asked us to help Said get settled, we did everything we could to help out.”
Darlington, who was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines in California after his 2010 graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy, worked as an adviser to Afghan National Army troops during his two combat tours. He was awarded a Purple Heart for combat injuries, and he leaned heavily on interpreters such as Hussaini, he said.
But Hussaini stood out. For instance, in 2012, tension was high between the Marines and the Afghan soldiers they worked beside, Darlington said. That year, U.S. Army soldier Robert Bales snuck away from his post and massacred 16 Afghan civilians, including children. Months later, an Afghan policeman opened fire inside a military base, killing three Marines.
“That whole time period, I’m telling you, was incredibly tense to be an adviser,” Darlington said. “In the American military, word spreads like wildfire. In the Afghan military, word spreads like wildfire. You’ve got both military hearing these stories, and both are being told, ‘Hey, calm down.’ We’re both talking about each other.”
While with Marines and Afghan soldiers one day, Hussaini heard a rap song playing on a leatherneck’s cellphone. The Koran was mentioned, and Hussaini knew the Afghan soldiers would be offended if they heard it. He insisted the Marine turn off the music, which didn’t go over too well, he said.
But Hussaini’s initiative averted a conflict, and Darlington knew it was the right call. “I was just impressed with his maturity and the way he handled it,” Darlington said.
Hussaini was no stranger to battle. He enlisted in the Afghan National Army in 2009. “I thought it was going to be good,” he said. His mother disagreed. Too many soldiers were poorly educated and smoked hashish, she told him. Hussaini spoke English, and he could do better, she told him.
He left the army after a year. “That was not my goal,” he said. He had long aspired to come to the United States.
“This was one of the reasons I became an interpreter,” he said. “I wanted to come to America.”
He told Darlington of his plan in 2012. They kept in touch through email and Facebook after Darlington returned stateside in October 2012. Hussaini applied for a U.S. visa.
Darlington said he worried about his friend’s safety as U.S. troops began withdrawing and conditions in Afghanistan worsened. Hussaini’s brother, a policeman, was killed. His family was threatened. “I was getting more and more concerned,” Darlington said.
Darlington returned for a second tour last year. He worked with Hussaini again and asked about his attempts at getting the visa.
“Everybody, everybody was making promises,” Hussaini said of his interactions with Americans. Darlington “was the only one I got a positive response from,” he said.
Darlington wrote a letter of recommendation as part of Hussaini’s application for a special immigration visa available to Afghans and Iraqis who worked for the U.S. One requirement is for the applicant to have experienced “an ongoing serious threat as a consequence of such employment,” according to the State Department.
Between 2007 and this year, 1,417 Afghan and Iraqi translators immigrated to the United States, bringing with them 1,709 relatives, according to State Department figures. Some 13,000 applications by former interpreters are still pending, according to news reports.
Hussaini’s application was approved on Sept. 11, 2014, two months before Darlington left the Marine Corps. After an interview process, he was cleared to enter the U.S. in December.
“The process, it’s boring,” said Hussaini, who wants his parents and siblings to join him here. “But it’s worth it. It changes your life.”
“It’s a sigh of relief,” Darlington said. “He’s safe.”
Darlington started a crowdfunding effort at gofundme.com in July and raised $3,785 for Hussaini’s initial living expenses. He put Hussaini in touch with a retired professor who is supervising his effort to attend a community college next year.
“He played such a crucial role,” Darlington said. “He was one of my Marines. I looked at him like I looked at the rest of my Marines. I would do anything for him.”