The utilization of indigenous interpreters is vital to the success of U.S. military missions overseas. While knowledge of the local language is a crucial communication skill, learning the customs and norms of a culture is a diplomatic tool that cannot be learned from any manual. This is where the value of the local interpreter, also known as a "terp," becomes paramount. However, the trust and bonds that are formed during a one-year deployment leave just one major question in the departing soldier's minds: what will happen to them?
Upon my arrival to Forward Operating Base Grizzly (also known as Camp Ashraf), Iraq, I learned that my first major duty was to be the non-commissioned officer in charge of the Ashraf Refugee Camp. I had a solid grasp of the Arabic language, but the people I was to care for spoke Farsi. To complicate matters to the point of a political quagmire, these people were defectors from the People's Mujahedin of Iran (PMOI) that fought for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980 to 1988. Some were former Iranian soldiers and special forces. Muslim females were also part of this group. The U.S. Army did not train me for anything on this level of sensitivity. The PMOI had formerly been listed as a terrorist organization but were now considered protected civilians under the Geneva Convention. I could not have navigated my duties and responsibilities without the help of my Farsi interpreter, Homie. Security reasons and the difficulty in pronouncing his Persian name prompted the medical team before us to give him that name.
It took our medical team a while to warm up to the Persian stranger who was always eager to help out. Not only did Homie serve as our terp, but he was also employed in a janitorial role for our Troop Medical Clinic (TMC). At first, anyone not wearing your flag on their sleeve was eyed with caution. After all, it was a foreign country and a combat zone. Nevertheless, Homie proved his worth and earned our trust. I believe the trust was mutual because Homie eventually opened up to us about his time in Iranian prisons being tortured and then joining the PMOI. In our chow hall, the third country nationals would sit in one particular area. This was a safety measure to give them less access to the weapons that we carried. Homie always had to have one of us escort him whenever he left the TMC. In the chow hall, the medics would sit with Homie in the "TCN only" area. Yes, we would receive stares from the coalition forces, and the other third country nationals, but we were not going to let a member of our team sit by himself. That is not what the Army teaches us. Homie would inform me when I should revise what I wanted him to translate because it may offend someone. He would also let me know if someone was being untruthful, or if someone was trying to deceive me. Otherwise, I would have never known and could have put myself or other soldiers in harm's way.
When Christmas time arrived, one of the medics had a great idea for Homie: include him in our Christmas celebration. He was always asking about our holidays and what we did in America. Now it was time to bring him into our world. We pooled our money and had a pair of Nike tennis shoes ordered for him. This was a rarity in our area of operations and would be something really special for this man who we valued not only as a terp, but now as part of our family. On Christmas Day, everything had a relaxed holiday status. I took a military vehicle over to the Ashraf Refugee Center and picked up Homie. He asked what was going on, and I just told him that his services were needed. He was welcomed into the TMC where we had snacks and music. We told him about Christmas in America and how we would exchange gifts with our family and friends. I brought out some boxes of goodies that were sent from various organizations in the United States. Then Homie was given his gift to open. When he saw those brand new shoes from America, tears trickled down his face. I cannot recall how many times he thanked us. Whether we are at home in the states, or on foreign soil, togetherness on Christmas has no fences. Even in a combat zone.
Fear and frustration were always on the minds of the refugees, and on Homie's. After being promised for many years relocation to a host country, hope turned into fear. "What will happen when the Americans leave? " They did not have to say the words; you could tell by the look on their faces. Interpreters took huge risks, not only for themselves, but for the safety of their families. Terrorists and extremists have no rules in warfare. Torture and senseless executions are used liberally against men, women and children. I worked with several Iraqi terps and would ask why they are working with us despite the possible consequences. Some said that they wanted something better for their country. Others wanted their children to have a stable area to raise their families. Others simply had nothing left except fear and loathing for the terrorists. They wanted to leave the country of their birth, where their bloodlines went back over a thousand years in Mesopotamia, and move to "the land of opportunity." For the terps who stuck it out with us, regardless of the possible penalties, they proved their courage to America and the citizens who live there.
We left FOB Grizzly the spring of 2008 without Homie. It was a tough good-bye for all of us. Homie had gone through this same process for the past four years. However, his sadness resonated through all of us.
Let me reflect upon what can happen to interpreters, and even people protected under UN mandates, when the U.S. military leaves foreign soils. According to Wikipedia, on Jan.1, 2009, the U.S. officially transferred control of Camp Ashraf to the Iraqi government. In late July 2009, Iraqi forces attempted to enter Camp Ashraf; 11 people were killed and about 400 wounded. Amnesty International revealed and condemned the violation of Ashraf residents' rights by the Iraqi government on July 28 and 29, 2009. On Dec.15, 2009, the Iraqi government sent a group of its security forces into the camp to attempt to relocate the residents to a former detention center in Negret al Salam, Iraq. On Jan. 7, 2011, Ashraf was attacked again by the Iraqi security forces and wounded 176 people; 93 were women and they were prevented from going to a nearby hospital. Many more attacks happened over the years, and on Sept. l , 2013, 52 civilian were killed at Camp Ashraf. Furthermore, as early as February 2015, there were no more PMOI at Camp Ashraf after the pro-Iranian Badr Organization claimed the city as its base.
While it is regrettable that many terps get left behind and it may take years to get their asylum status approved, this story is going to end on a positive note. I was informed in 2009, by a junior medic that I served with, that Homie had emailed her, and that he had been granted asylum to a safe country in Europe.