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.

Tom A. Peter
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.

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.

"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.

"At that time I was kind of broke. I didn't have a job," says Brad. "So the money that he paid me was good for me, even though it was $80."

It took about a year for Brad to become an official interpreter and today he estimates that his salary is equivalent to a colonel in the Iraqi Army.

In the first months after the US invasion, Brad saw becoming an interpreter as the best way to help his country.

"When the Americans came here, they didn't know anything about this country, the culture, the streets, and how to deal with Iraqis, so I believed we should stand and help them, and I did," he says.

Approaching his fifth year as a translator, Brad has worked with at least 10 different units and he says he's seen a number of the soldiers he worked with in the past come back for a second tour.

"I think some of the impressions the Americans had when they first came have been changed," he says. "This is why some of the mistakes that happened in the past are now getting fixed, because they know more about the Iraqis … and they can handle the situation better than when they first came here."

Brad imagined working for several years, saving up some money, retiring from the translating business, and buying a house in Iraq. But the 2005 elections brought a stark realization. His unit was assigned to provide security for voters in his hometown.

Initially, he saw it as an opportunity to improve his country by enabling a democratic election and helping enfranchise his hometown. But Brad's neighbors had a different interpretation. Following the election, a local mosque posted Brad's full name and began calling for his execution.

"When you get away from the dreams and the ambitions, I believe I lost my life. I lost my life as an Iraqi citizen," he says. "I can't walk in the streets and the markets and be normal just like anyone."

Brad hasn't visited his family home for a year and a half.

Now he hopes to that he and his girlfriend, an interpreter who works on a different base, can obtain a visa for the US or somewhere in Europe. Though Brad has heard about changes in the visa policy for interpreters, he hasn't heard exactly what they are. He remains guardedly optimistic.

Last month, the US Embassy in Baghdad said it was expanding an immigration program to provide 5,000 visas every year for the next five years to Iraqis who have worked for the US government.

Whatever happens, Brad says, he'll keep his nickname, eventually making it his legal name. Though he's created at least four other identities to protect himself, ultimately he says that he's come to know himself as Brad. Even his mother calls him by the American name.

"I got shot twice with this name," he says. "I feel like I'm more this guy than the other one."

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