Lost in Translation
AMMAN, Jordan—Cocky, cheerful Ali Adil thought he found his calling as an interpreter with the Third Marines, patrolling Iraq’s most dangerous ground. The pay was good and he loved bantering about women and rock ‘n’ roll with young Americans. By helping Marines root out insurgents, he believed he was building a peaceful and just Iraq.
But since July—when a suicide bomber drove an explosives-filled tanker into a building his unit was guarding—the 20-year-old Mr. Adil has faced a different future. After suffering severe burns, he has undergone nine skin grafts at a hospital in Amman and lives in a dormitory with a dozen other wounded Iraqi interpreters—”Terps” as the Americans call them.
Looking to avoid adding refugees, Jordan wants the Iraqis to leave the country when they are released from the hospital and no longer need postoperative treatment. The interpreters look at a return to Iraq as a death sentence. Their absence from home already may have endangered their families. “When someone is gone for a while, and nobody knows if he’s really dead, the militias start asking, ‘Is he with the Americans?’ ” says Mr. Adil, who says his family routinely receives death threats from Shiite militias in his old Basra neighborhood.
Since the start of the war, 257 Iraqi interpreters have been killed, says Titan Corp. of San Diego, which just completed a five-year, $4.6 billion Pentagon contract to provide linguists to U.S. forces. Most of those killed were assassinated while on home leave, the company says.
Hobbling on crutches or rolling through their days in wheelchairs, the Terps see themselves as combat veterans of America’s war, which should entitle them to medical care, pensions and safety. Most want to emigrate to the U.S.
After lobbying by the U.S. Marine Corps, Congress approved a special immigration program for translators in 2005. But just 50 slots a year were granted, which must be shared between Iraqi and Afghan applicants with at least a year’s service with U.S. combat troops. More than 5,000 locals have served in Iraq as interpreters. Some lawmakers and U.S. officials have argued that if the U.S. made it too easy for skilled Iraqis to leave, fewer would remain to help build Iraq. And if special benefits are carved out for interpreters, thousands more Iraqis who have worked with Americans— from drivers to nurses to soldiers—would also demand similar help.
This week, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, lawmakers from both parties said more should be done to help Iraqis, particularly those who have helped the U.S. war effort. Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey said only 466 Iraqis have been admitted to the U.S. as refugees since 2003, and because of increasing violence last year, more Iraqis are fleeing their homes than are returning to them.
In their dormitory here, interpreters display the kind of tolerance U.S. war planners hoped would take root in Iraq. Shiites, Sunnis, Christians and Kurds mingle, their combat experience outweighing religious and ethnic divisions. The Terps come from secular households and call each other by their combat nicknames, adding to their sense of solidarity and distance from Iraq’s murderous sectarianism.
Mr. Adil, a Shiite, is “Milan” because he liked to play as the AC Milan soccer team in PlayStation soccer games. Moghera al-Gaylany, a wealthy Sunni who learned English from a Welsh nanny, is “M2.” He suffered eye and arm injuries from shrapnel. Abdul al-Basit, a Kurd who was hit by sniper fire in his arms and abdomen, is “Alan.” Between therapy sessions, the interpreters swap stories and sometimes view video of the attacks that sent them to Amman. Such videos were usually taken by intelligence officers on the scene.
The wounded Terps sent here for treatment—about 100 last year—stay weeks or months. The hospital’s management asked that the facility’s name not be published for fear of attack. Amputees are the norm. Diyer Hassan arrived in November, still in a coma after leaving Iraq, where he had been on a predawn Baghdad patrol with the U.S. Army’s 26th Infantry. The 20-year-old awoke in a hospital room to discover his legs amputated just below the pelvis. He had been working to raise cash to finish at Baghdad University and earn an accounting degree.
In a nearby room is one of the oldest Terps, Rabeh Khafaji, a 52-year-old Shiite nicknamed “Marcos.” He was close to troops he patrolled with and says he “adopted” his 23-year-old platoon leader, Lt. Emily Perez. Told recently that she died in the same explosion that took both his lower legs, the former merchant seaman clutched Ms. Perez’s photo to his chest and sobbed, “My beautiful child.”
When U.S. and British forces swept through Iraq in 2003, Mr. Adil was hopeful about the future. He says his father, an elderly Shiite shopkeeper, and his Christian mother did their best to steer their eight sons from trouble. When two were drafted during the Iran-Iraq war, the family bribed a base commander to assign them cooks’ jobs far from the front. When other Shiites rebelled against Saddam Hussein after the 1991 war, “we hid under our beds,” he says. The family longed for the dictator’s demise, and joined neighbors greeting the first troops entering Basra.
Fresh out of a two-year technical high school, the slim teenager was eager to test his rudimentary English, learned mostly from listening to an older brother’s Pink Floyd records and by surfing the Internet. He says he landed a job paying $200 a month as an interpreter for a company of the British army’s Royal Engineers.
Mr. Adil, the second-youngest child, suddenly became the family’s principal breadwinner. While one brother lined up work as a policeman, most of the others held day laborer jobs. One brother, Amjad Adil, now 29, drove his own cab until carjackers took it. He, too, then went to work for the British, and was quickly dubbed “Tommy Gun” for his admiration of automatic weapons.
Although the Adil brothers say their work was routine—translating for British officers meeting local dignitaries—insurgents slipped at least three threatening letters under the family’s front door warning them to quit. Letters tacked to nearby lampposts listed neighbors already killed for collaborating.
Worried about his safety, Ali left for Baghdad in January 2005 and found work with Titan, the main contractor supplying U.S. forces with interpreters. Titan paid him $1,050 a month—three times the salary of Iraqi police—which included a small bonus for working in the dangerous Sunni Triangle. (The few U.S. citizens who work as interpreters, and have high security clearances, make 10 times as much as bilingual Iraqis.)
In October, Amjad fled to Baghdad to work for Titan too, after he and another interpreter were fired on by four men in Basra. Amjad Adil escaped injury; his friend was shot in the face.
Tours With the Marines
The two brothers remember their tours with the Marines starting in late 2005 as the most gratifying part of the war. “Motivation! Mobilization!” Ali Adil shouted when asked what he loved about the Marines, nearly jumping from a chair as he assumed his battlefield stance.
In al Anbar province, he joined raids on suspected terrorists’ safe houses, often discovering weapons, cash and computer files whose data led Marines to other targets. Some of the finds were unsettling. The Marines couldn’t tell if U.S.-issued M-16s and body armor they found had been stripped from dead comrades or stolen by infiltrators working on U.S. bases.
Night raids were an adrenaline rush. After a fusilier launched a concussion grenade through an open window, Mr. Adil would dash into the building with other troops as an explosion shook the building and filled its entrance with blinding light. “It’s something you never forget, not for the rest of your life,” he says. Nothing terrified him as much as hearing a patrol leader bark the order, “Take cover, sniper!” and hitting the ground.
“He was the best interpreter we had,” says Sgt. Nate Royster, a squad leader with the Third Marines. The chatty Mr. Adil would strike up friendships with Iraqi families passing through Marine checkpoints and over time would persuade them to identify Iraqis who were shooting at the Marines or planting bombs. He was also great at picking out Iraqis who were lying, Sgt. Royster says.
Mr. Adil and his brother swapped emails regularly from bases three hours apart. After six months, they had a week off together at the main Marine base in Haditha, where they shopped and played videogames. “We would call home together, both of us talking to our mother and father,” Amjad Adil recalls. “It was like a family reunion.”
News from home often was grim. During some calls, the brothers could hear mortar rounds landing near the family’s home, which is close to a British base. Their parents provided updates on childhood friends who had been killed or seized. One neighbor family paid a large ransom when their son was kidnapped, but the young man never returned, the Adil parents said.
One day in July, Ali Adil walked downstairs from a Marine rooftop post near Haditha to join Iraqi troops making morning tea. At the same moment, a stolen tanker, filled with at least 400 pounds of explosives, rammed into the building. The driver and several Iraqi soldiers were killed. Mr. Adil, who suffered burns over one-third of his body, and three Marines with life-threatening wounds were evacuated to Baghdad.
After waking from a two-week coma, Mr. Adil was transferred to Amman for long-term care. For two months, nurses tried to make him comfortable before skin-graft treatment began. His jaw was wired shut to let several small fractures heal. Most days he simply lay in bed, sucking soup from a straw when he felt hungry enough to eat.
Now he’s able to walk on his own and passes time either in Internet cafes or telephoning his brother. Despite the trauma, Mr. Adil retains his good cheer. “How’s it going on, dude?” he greets another Terp.
Titan, a subsidiary of L3 Communications Holdings Inc., says it will pay Mr. Adil’s medical bills and two-thirds of his salary until he is officially discharged from treatment, which he expects to occur later this month. The principal insurer for U.S. contractors, American International Group Inc.’s AIG WorldSource division, won’t specify how much treating interpreters cost last year, except to say that it runs into “millions” of dollars. One interpreter, Victor Yousif, has medical bills of more than $1 million alone, hospital administrators say.
Mr. Adil’s remaining benefit is an injury-compensation package. Such packages can range from $20,000 to $200,000. The money is intended to cover potential income interpreters can expect to lose as a result of their injuries.
Many interpreters say the awards don’t come close to covering their needs, especially those who support extended families trying to flee Iraq. For the most part, though, interpreters accept what’s offered because they need the money immediately.
“They gave me $88,500 for this,” says one middle-aged former professor, who worked as an interpreter for a U.S. Army unit, as he lifts an empty pant leg and then shows a right hand shorn of all but the middle finger.
Families of translators killed on the job receive a death benefit. Spouses receive 50% of the interpreter’s weekly salary until they remarry or die. If there is no spouse, the benefit goes to a parent. Because of Iraq’s chaotic situation, it’s often difficult to obtain reports and witness statements necessary to prove a claim. It can take several months to a year to settle a claim.
During his three years working for the U.S. military, one Iraqi translator received numerous threats. On Sept. 15, 2006, he was killed in a drive-by shooting as he drove home after a day of working with the Army Reserve’s 412th Civil Affairs Battalion. Capt. Brian Freeman says he relied on the interpreter as his “eyes and ears” and also for political connections. For the man’s nine-member family, the loss took away not only a loved one, but the main provider. They relied on his $900-a-month salary. His pregnant wife and other family members are waiting to receive the death benefit.
Chris Winans, vice president of media relations at AIG, says the company doesn’t discuss individual claims. But he says that when claims can’t be settled quickly, it’s usually related to problems of documentation or locating next of kin. “Our top priority is promptly settling compensable claims for injured defense-contract workers, and that’s the way it works in much more than 90% of claims,” he says.
During many U.S. wars, evacuating local allies wasn’t a big issue. The vast majority of local allies stayed put after conflicts ended, eager to rebuild their countries.
Hundreds of thousands of former South Vietnamese soldiers and other American allies were left behind when U.S. forces withdrew in 1975—many spending much of the next decade scrambling for ways to get to America. About 120,000 Vietnamese collaborators and their dependents managed to get to the U.S. by 1976, although many more languished for years in refugee camps in Thailand, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
After the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. admitted around 15,000 Iraqi Shiite refugees, who escaped a crackdown by Saddam Hussein. In Iraq today, the U.S. military discourages fraternizing with local hires. Even so, Terps and military personnel often forge close ties.
Sharon Smith, a major in the U.S. Army reserves, married her Iraqi interpreter in 2005, after she hired a judge and had him transported to the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad to perform the ceremony. After a bureaucratic tussle over visas that lasted a year, the interpreter, who had been wounded in action, was able join his wife in Richmond, Va., just before Thanksgiving.
Other wounded interpreters, who lack such ties to Americans, worry they will soon be stateless— pressured to leave Jordan, unable to return to Iraq, where they fear their names already are on a hit list, but barred from the U.S.
“If I tell [doctors in Iraq] how I am wounded, I am killed in one day,” said a 27-year-old translator from Karbala, who requested that only his first name, Haider, appear in print. “The militias rule the hospitals in Iraq,” he added, as fellow exiles in the Amman dormitory nodded in agreement.
Under the 2005 special immigration program for translators, about 200 visas have been approved so far. Of the more than 5,000 locals who have served in Iraq as interpreters, many are desperate to leave. Few qualify because they need a letter of recommendation from a military “flag” officer, either a four-star general or a Navy admiral.
“The highest rank we meet are lieutenants, maybe a captain,” says Abdul al-Basit, the Kurdish translator who has been trying to emigrate since being wounded by a sniper last year in al Hawijah. “How are we going to meet a general?”
Two married Iraqi interpreters—who asked to be identified by their Terp nicknames “Mike” and “Joy”—won translator visas in 2006. The couple—who won’t use their real names for fear of identifying family members still in Iraq—served together in western Iraq, with Mike accompanying a Marine combat unit, and Joy assigned to help nurses at a mobile surgical unit. Early in the war, insurgents seized the bus she was taking to a U.S. base and held her for awhile.
It wasn’t just their war records, but their lobbying skills that helped them win visas. After three years of service, they befriended influential U.S. officers, including Capt. Joseph Grimm, a Marine attorney, who helped them with the paperwork and lobbied the Pentagon brass and lawmakers on their behalf.
Last month, Mike and Joy visited their wounded counterparts in Amman. “You were in al Anbar, dude? That’s awesome,” said a young Terp who calls himself “Opie,” reaching up to slap Mike’s hand with the stub of his own. A few Terps asked them for ideas on how to get to the U.S.
But other interpreters found the visit dispiriting. Noticing the couple’s sleek clothing, their digital camera and, most of all, their incredible good fortune, only deepened their sense of isolation. By the end of the evening, Mike was bummed out too, as he realized few of the Terps had a chance of winning a visa. “I have citations, like a hundred of them,” he said, sounding more defensive than proud. “Some of these guys have, like, two.”
One of the Terps at the dormitory, Mr. al-Gaylany, who was wounded by a roadside bomb last summer, has made some bureaucratic headway. He spends his days tapping out emails in search of soldiers from the military police unit he served with to ask for their help. Staff Sgt. Jason Rogers has already written to his senator.
‘He’s Stuck There’
“We rotate in and rotate out, but he’s stuck there,” says Sgt. Rogers, now stationed with a National Guard unit in Bay City, Mich. “I’d like to see him become a U.S. citizen. It would be a great way to show appreciation for what he’s done.”
Joanna Gonzalez, spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, says, “If any Iraqi translator, or any Iraqi for that matter, outside Iraq fears persecution if he or she returns to Iraq, then they can apply for refugee settlement in the U.S.” She says that this year up to 5,500 refugees will be allowed into the U.S. from the Near East and South Asia—a region that includes Iraq as well as Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan and other countries. There are also 20,000 refugee slots for 2007 that aren’t tied to a specific area and will be allocated based on need.
Terps are especially vulnerable, says Enrique Kelly, casualty manager for U.S. defense contractor Titan. “The interpreters are on no one’s side,” the retired U.S. soldier says. “The Shi’a hate them, the Sunnis hate them. The Americans don’t trust them because they could be infiltrators. As soon as they lose our protection they’ll be hunted down.”
Mr. Adil and his brother figure they’ll never qualify for visas. Neither knows any senior military officials, and Amjad doesn’t plan to stay in Iraq long enough to apply. He wants to move to Syria where several Terps already have found haven. “I told my mother this was the end for me,” he said as he prepared to return to his Marine base after a vacation in December. “She cried. She doesn’t want any of us to do this anymore.”
For his part, Ali expects to leave Amman by the end of this month. Rather than return to a translator job in Iraq, he plans to wait for his settlement, which he figures will be about $20,000. He thinks that ought to be enough to hire a smuggler who will lead him to a path other Iraqis have followed to Tijuana, Mexico, then on to San Diego.
There he’s confident he’ll be allowed to petition U.S. authorities for asylum, or at least find someone in Southern California’s growing Iraqi community to put up bond if he’s jailed. He’s also counting on help from former Marine mates, many of whom live in San Diego County.
“I risked my life with the Marines,” he says. “How can they refuse me?”
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