Begin Anyway: Matt Zeller

Matt Zeller is the founder of ‘NO ONE LEFT BEHIND,’ a foundation that advocates for the well-being and the safe and secure placement in the U.S. of Afghan and Iraqi natives who have worked as translators with U.S. forces overseas. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Matt about the amazing work his organization does and how he was called to this mission.

Matt’s life was saved by his Afghan translator while he was serving in combat in rural Afghanistan. When he returned home his purpose became clear: to create a foundation that facilitates the “Special Immigrant Visa” (SIV) program which is controlled by the U.S. State Department. Frequently, the men and women who risk their lives to support Americans overseas are left behind and at-risk in their home countries. NO ONE LEFT BEHIND works to find those in need safe homes in the United States.

In only five years, Matt’s organization has helped over 5,000 translators and their families with their SIV’s. Once their Visas are secured, NO ONE LEFT BEHIND connects them with essential services – housing, food, transportation, cultural adaptation, and legal counsel.

Matt’s Begin Anyway journey is an incredibly inspiring story of what one person can build in the service of others.

What led to your decision to serve in the military? You obtained several advanced degrees – often with honors – prior to being deployed to Afghanistan in 2008. The need to serve others is clearly foundational to your work at No One Left Behind. Was it that same desire that led you away from the traditional education/career path and into a life of service?

It all began on September 11, 2001 – cliche, I know, but that is what I consider day one of my journey. I was a sophomore in college, was running late to class (so often in fact that my professor told me if I was late one more time she was going to start docking my grades). Because of this, I skipped my normal morning routine: get up, watch cable news, and get ready for the day. Nonetheless, I rolled in that day by the skin of my teeth.

Class ended at 10:15 in the morning. So I didn’t see any of the planes hitting buildings.

After class, I went to the mailroom and was hurrying around a sea of people just to get my mail. That’s when my eyes made contact with the TV screen. In a split second I noticed that one of the buildings in the New York skyline was missing.

I’m from New York. I’d looked at that skyline my entire life and just like that, it was different? It didn’t fit into my brain. I tapped this woman’s shoulder who was also staring at the TV and asked her, “where is the building?”

She was in a thousand-yard stare, and she said, “it’s not there anymore.”

The TV cut to Peter Jennings who then announced that the “other tower was coming down.” I knew instantly at that moment that we were under attack.

It was in this moment, I looked at the world in a whole new way.

I couldn’t justify what I’d considered to be a “privileged existence.” My thoughts kept coming back to all those who died in the World Trade Center. They had no way out of their fate. It made me look inward and to really think about the calculus of my own life. Who the hell cares what’s in my bank account? What have I done to serve others? How have I tried to further the greater good?

My family has a long history of serving this country. I still have my grandfather’s uniform from World War II, my great-grandfather’s uniform from World War I, and my great-great-great grandfather’s uniform from the Civil War which he wore in the Union Army in Gettysburg. If my Nana hadn’t given it away, I could have pulled out a uniform from one of my ancestors from the Revolutionary War.

A few weeks after the attacks, I spotted a gentlemen in uniform and I walked up to him and asked “where do I sign up?”

It was your experience in combat that ultimately led to the inspiration to found NO ONE LEFT BEHIND. Tell us about the most impactful moments of your military service and how you formed a lifelong connection with your Afghan translator, Janis.

By the summer of 2002, I was in basic training as an enlisted private in the infantry. A few years in, and with some schooling along the way, my military career began to take shape. I was awarded the “Foreign Fellowship” and was being recruited by the CIA. Life was good.

I came home one day to find a big manilla envelope in my apartment building with my name on it. In it, were my deployment orders: Afghanistan. This was my war. This is the war I signed up for. This was it.

By January of 2008 (and on my 26th birthday) I reported for active duty at Fort Riley Kansas to begin my pre-mobilization deployment training for Afghanistan. We spent the next four months going through a counterinsurgency program that was designed by U.S. Army Colonel John Nagl.

We left the United States the morning of April 11th, 2008, and were deployed in Afghanistan for the next nine months. Our jobs were to live under the Afghan Army and police in an area that felt like the middle of nowhere. The idea here was to guide and train the Afghan Army and police forces so they could replicate what we did and ultimately replace us.

It wasn’t long until we were in combat.

We went on a day-mission and were using 24-year-old maps of Afghanistan. You know what changes in 24 years? A lot. You know what also failed us? Our GPS trackers.

We were lost. Every time we tried to drive somewhere, we would run into a village that wasn’t supposed to be there on the map, or wasn’t on the GPS imagery. But guess what, it was there!

We were warned in advance that the Taliban in that area has a strong presence, sort of like a local gang. *Laughs* By the way, if you are ever in Afghanistan and see cherry red motorcycles, that’s the Taliban. Let’s just say we were seeing a lot of red motorcycles.

Bingo! We found a river. Logic tells us that the river will lead us somewhere, hopefully the road, and you know, let’s just hope we make it. So we’re driving down this “river” … which is a massive overstatement for what this was. It was an intermittent stream at best – what was normally a dirt path that had a flow of water.

Along the way, we asked for directions from a farmer who was working his field. He pointed us down the road toward a village and told us to just keep going straight to find the main road.

That m****r f****r pointed us right into a Taliban area.

Five minutes later the first vehicle in our convoy, which is a giant thing called an MRAP (a 32 ton vehicle) flew up in the air like a coke can. Thankfully, the vehicle was designed for this so we didn’t suffer any casualties.

An hour into our firefight the Taliban tried to overturn our position. There were 15 of us and about 50 of them. They initiated the assault on us by launching a grenade into my vehicle. Our response: Light them up with a rocket.

At one point, during the firefight, I got blown out, landed in a pit, and was in-and-out of consciousness. I looked down at my watch, it was 4:50 in the afternoon, 16:50 hours, April 28th 2008 and I just thought ‘oh shit, I’m going to die today.’ ‘I’m gonna die on Monday, April 28th, 2008, at the age of 26, never having been married or having had any children.’

We tried to radio in help and explain our positioning but we didn’t know where we were. The feedback that came in: “You are to remain in place until properly relieved.”

Meanwhile, the Taliban are shooting mortars at us and have us totally pinned down. At that point they’re just walking around us. The last one landed pretty close to me and my body went flying into this ditch. This was it. I was gonna die, there was nothing I could do about it.

I got really f*****g scared.

And then I just did the math. I had a couple of bullets in my M-4, And I had 44 bullets in my M9 sidearm, (plus a 45th for me because we all had a pact that none of us were gonna be taken alive.) I was gonna go out fighting. I was out of grenades, and it was a matter of time, I figured I’d take as many of them out with me as I could.

I just started shooting when somebody screamed, “Zeller, don’t shoot – friendly is to your rear!” I turn around and there were three Humvees driving like bats out of hell from the village. The lead vehicle pulled up right next to me and the driver’s side door flung open. It was a sergeant from South Carolina named Marc Robinson, and he said, “Howdy sir! I hear you’re in a pickle! I got a M14 grenade launcher, where do you want it?” He’d brought a machine gun that fires for days.

As I’m watching the assault on the ridgeline, I saw two enemy pop behind a building near me the begin running at me. At the same time, someone jumped out of one of our vehicles and ran at me. The next thing I remember, I was pushed into a shallow grave.

The wind got knocked out of me and as I was landing on the ground I heard the unminstatakble sound of an AK-47 going off next to my head. I thought, ‘well we don’t have AK-47s in our military, and I haven’t seen any Afghan’s on our side with us, I must have just gotten shot.’ And so I remember I hit the deck, rolled on my back, I got the wind back in me, and I saw this Afghan man standing over me with his hand extended. He had this ill-fitting body armor on that I later learned he had bought from a local shop. 

I said, “who the f*** are you?” And he looked down on me and he said, “I’m Janis, I’m one of your translators, you’re not safe!” Then he pulled me out of the grave, and as I look past him I saw the bodies of the two guys who he’d just shot and killed – saving my life.

Janis and I became inseparable from that moment on.

So you return home from Afghanistan – receiving the Purple Heart and Army Commendation Medal – and you resume a career as a CIA analyst. Then, in 2010 you ran unsuccessfully for the US Congress. I would assume that you found yourself with a wealth of knowledge and experience but lacking a direction for your career.

What ultimately inspired you to create the NO ONE LEFT BEHIND foundation? Did you stay in touch with Janis?

After I got back from the war, I spoke to Janis regularly. A few months after returning, I received a particular Facebook message from him that was different. I remember where I was sitting when he told me that the Taliban was hunting him. That, if he didn’t leave Afghanistan soon, he was a dead man.

I knew he was working with our State Department to obtain his visa. There is a special program called “Special Immigrant Visa” where people like Janis, who serve our country as translators, receive citizenship if their lives are in danger.

The State Department wasn’t following through on this promise.

I realized in that moment that the only way I would get him his visa was if we fought with the U.S. Government to bully them into doing the right thing. And it would require a pretty massive social media, traditional media, and probably a congressional advocacy campaign to do so.

I just started using my experience from my time as a candidate for the U.S. Congress (another story for another day) to put together a media campaign around this mission. I’d been comfortable with press, I had a lot of contacts. I had also personally befriended a couple of members of Congress.

That’s really the key moment, right – combining your military knowledge, your experience in Afghanistan, your intellectual foundation, your network – taking all the pieces of your journey to that point and channeling those experiences into action.

Yeah. And quite frankly, I also know how to run an insurgency having been in the CIA. I realized that we could disrupt the narrative, we just had to be focused and to be aggressive- and it worked! The only thing that I didn’t expect was Janis’ impact!

You can go online and you can pull the CBS link and you can see our reunion at the airport but what they didn’t film at the time is what happened after they turned off the camera and that’s the most important part of the story: I turned to him and I said, “Alright brother, I don’t know where the hell it is you’re gonna live but tonight you can stay with me and my family, let’s get the rest of your luggage and we’ll get you home.”

He turned and pointed to four small rolling suitcases. You know the size of a carry on bags, the ones everyone brings on the airplanes because no one wants to check their luggage anymore? And he says, “Hey brother, this is all we were allowed to bring.”

They were allowed to bring one bag per person, and it has to be under 50 pounds, and it dawns on me, he doesn’t even have winter clothing. They didn’t pack perishable items or large sums of cash, they packed their family heirlooms. Everything they have was right in front of us.

I was furious that this was a policy. I can fly with two bags for free from the United States, why can’t this man from Afghanistan fly with at least two bags as well?

I wanted to turn and yell at somebody. This is when I assumed that there was some broad, huge, U.S. government refugee or settlement program, there would be somebody there, but there wasn’t. There was a Department of State that I could really unload on, but there was no one else.

So I grabbed Jan Crawford, the CBS News reporter who had shot this Janis reunion, and I said, “Can you let the American people know that I’m starting a GoFundMe page? I’m going to try to raise him some money,” and she said sure!

Three days later, I handed Janis a check for $35,000 and told him that it was a gift from the American people in gratitude for your nine years of front-line combat service and protection of our nation. It was the first time in his life that Janis was truly safe.

Janis looked me right in the eye and said, “What about the others?”

No One Left Behind is in its 5th year of advocacy. They have helped over 5,000 translators and their families find residency, work, and lives, here in the United States. They have been featured on The Ellen Show, VICE News, CNN among many others.

In December of 2017, the FY18 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which included 3,500 additional SIV’s became law.

To learn more about how you can help No One Left Behind, please visit

A huge thank you to Matt Zeller for sharing his incredible story. Here’s to helping many more brave supporters of our military abroad!

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