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An Iraqi interpreter as chronicler of the war

As US soldiers come and go, Iraqi interpreters not only help them overcome language barriers but also serve as unofficial historians, pointing out the changes over five years of war.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 13, 2008

The crucial link: Every American military unit that goes on patrol throughout Iraq uses an interpreter and some outfits have as many as 55. Last week in Baghdad, a masked interpreter (l.) walked the street with the US Army.

Tom A. Peter



On a recent patrol through this city's Adhamiya district, once a bastion of support for the Sunni insurgency, American soldiers walked out in the open down busy thoroughfares.

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"We never had people walking in the streets a year ago," says Lt. Col. Dan Barnett.

But Colonel Barnett took over this section of the city a little over a month ago. He didn't command Adhamiya when gun battles and car bombings were more commonplace here.

His Iraqi interpreter, however, has witnessed the transformation and pointed out the buildings where insurgents once fired rocket-propelled grenades from the rooftops.

"It was like a battlefield," says Brad, who has worked for the US military since 2004. Like most other interpreters, he uses a nickname for security reasons.

While many US soldiers have served multiple tours in Iraq, a core group of Iraqi interpreters have worked with the US for almost the entire war. But unlike the soldiers that they work for, they don't leave. Rooted in the conflict, they've become the unofficial chroniclers of the war, watching its ups and downs, and passing along to military newcomers the story of the battle for Iraq.

"As an interpreter my job is talking to and interpreting what the Iraqi people are saying, feeling, and believing about the country, the coalition forces, and the Iraqi Army," says Brad. "I've talked to like a million Iraqis and a million American soldiers. I mean who did that? I don't think anyone has done that before."

When Ssg. Matthew Meyer's battalion arrived in Iraq during the initial invasion in 2003, his unit had three interpreters. Today, it has nearly 55. Translators are no longer reserved for high-ranking commanders. Now every unit that goes on patrol has at least one interpreter.

"It's a hard job," says Staff Sergeant Meyer, a Washington native who manages the interpreters for the 1-68 Combined Arms Battalion. "There's a bigger price on their heads than there is on ours."

In 2004, an American patrol stopped near Brad's house when an old woman flagged them down to report a theft. The unit didn't have an interpreter and Brad was eager to practice his English, which he'd only studied in school. He impressed the American commander, and, perhaps more importantly, the commander was desperate for a translator so he invited Brad to accompany his unit for the rest of the patrol. Soon, the American officer was taking him out on every patrol and paying Brad $80 a month.