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Army veteran tells story about saving his two Afghan interpreters in ‘Interpreters Wanted’

"Your deployment is over, but my deployment will never end."
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Rob Ham and the two Afghan interpreter brothers, Saifullah and Ismail Haqmal.
Robert Ham worked closely with Saifullah and Ismail Haqmal, two Afghan interpreters that helped him and many other Americans during their deployments in Afghanistan. Photos courtesy of Robert Ham.

The fall of Afghanistan back into Taliban control in 2021 left veterans feeling betrayed and helpless as their Afghan allies were hunted down. U.S. Army veteran Robert Ham was one of them. Fortunately, he was able to get the interpreters he worked with on his deployment out of Afghanistan — but not without heartache.

“There’s a lot of people that are fucked up. There are veterans that are fucked up from these wars, and there’s all these interpreters that we left behind that deserve to be here,” Ham said. Ham, plying his trade as a filmmaker, wrote and produced a feature-length documentary that breaks down his mission to save two Afghan interpreters that he worked side by side with during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2009.

“Interpreters Wanted” tells the story of brothers Saifullah and Ismail Haqmal, from the Afghan-Russian war in their youth to helping the U.S. military during the war on terror, and Ismail’s final daring mission to escape Afghanistan as the Taliban took hold.

Ham hopes his film will help create more awareness and motivate people in the right places to expedite the extraction of America’s Afghan allies still in danger. But it wasn’t just about assisting others in their escape. Ham wanted to show everything the two brothers had been through and why they deserved a life in America. 

“The resiliency of Saifullah and Ismail, I mean, what they’ve been through,” Ham said. “I really wanted to go back in time and show what they’ve been through, how hard it was during the Russian era and the Taliban era, and then, of course, getting your hopes up that things will change over 20 years only to fall apart.” 

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The Haqmal brothers served alongside Ham during his 2009 deployment to Afghanistan but had been helping Americans for years. When Ham’s deployment ended, and he was saying goodbye to his Afghan friends, Ismail said something he’d never forget. 

“Saifullah said to me, ‘Your deployment is over, but my deployment will never end.’ That’s a brutal thing to think about because I had a hell of a deployment. I only did one,” Ham said. “When I heard about Ismail being stuck in Afghanistan during the withdrawal, it was like the nightmare reopened because I love these guys. I mean, they’re such close friends.”

When President Biden announced American forces were coming home, the two brothers contacted Ham for help. Though Saifullah had been granted SIV status and arrived in the U.S. in 2016, Ismail was scrambling to get out of Afghanistan before the Taliban could find him or their family. 

Ham and Saifullah immediately went to work helping Ismail get out of Afghanistan. Being a filmmaker, Ham urged Ismail to record as much as they could so he could tell their story, hoping it would help evacuate more allies. 

But it wasn’t an easy path for Ham or the two brothers. Tragically, Ham’s wife was afflicted with a rare form of aggressive cancer while he was working on Interpreters Wanted. He had to take work that would pay the bills, and finishing his film was delayed. But, even after the loss of his wife, Ham pushed forward with finishing his film but he felt it lacked the proper ending.

When Ismail arrived safely in America, Ham was relieved. He had survived the mad dash to Kabul, the crowds at Abbey Gate, and all the Taliban-controlled checkpoints along the way. But Ham was excited for another reason as well. Ismail had a lot of footage that showed his journey out of Afghanistan and Ham knew it was the missing piece for his film.    

“Hot damn, we got a fucking movie. Finally, it’s time to finish this damn thing,” Ham recalled. “Then, it was a matter of getting enough money to do it.” 

VET Tv loved the Interpreters Wanted, and though it was outside of their brand’s typical content, they provided the financing to complete it. Donny O’Malley is the founder and CEO of VET Tv, along with the non-profit Irreverent Warriors. O’Malley personally connected with the film, so the decision to support the film was an easy one. 

“What Rob did to bring his terps home made me feel better about this whole terrible situation, and his film documented those actions” O’Malley said. “It was something I felt we had to get behind. I mean, he literally got his guys out. That’s one of the sickest things you could do. And it’s incredibly hard.”

So far, “Interpreters Wanted” has been shown at the Heartland Film Festival and Gig Harbor Film Festival. He also showed the film to the University of Southern California ROTC class. Ham hopes to get the movie in front of as many people as possible because there are still many Afghan allies in danger. 

“I hope this film gets more of the people who believed in us and the mission of the United States. I hope it gets more of them over here to allow them the opportunity to live the American dream,” O’Malley said. “That’s what I hope it does. I hope more of them who sacrificed for us and believed in us, can come live this dream.”

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