He passed through the dark and empty Iraqi desert knowing that he might never be able to return to his homeland. The soldier, known as Spec. Joseph in Iraq, asked that his full name not be used to protect his mother, father and brothers in Baghdad.
His tumultuous journey from Iraq to the United States and then back to Iraq traces the story of America’s long, difficult and largely unresolved involvement in the country. Before Joseph became a soldier in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, he spent six years working as an interpreter for the U.S. military during the bloodiest days of the Iraq war.
His close association with the Army put his life in danger and forced him to start over again in the United States in 2009. He returned to Iraq as an American soldier in early 2011 because he missed being part of the struggle for his country’s future.
Today Joseph views the conflict through both an American and Iraqi perspective that mixes pride in what has been accomplished with deep worry about the future. “As far as heavy combat, this war was over a long time ago for the U.S. Army,” said Joseph as he packed up his final belongings. “But the conflict is still happening for Iraqis and will continue for a very long time.”
Joseph’s parents know that he moved to the United States in May 2009, but he never told them that he joined the U.S. Army. They have no idea that he was recently in Iraq. “I lie to my family a lot,” Joseph said. “I have no choice. There are things that my family doesn’t need to know. If anything happened to them, I would never forgive myself.”
Except for a slight Iraqi accent, Joseph is almost indistinguishable from the other American soldiers. He has the same closely cropped hair, the same bulging biceps and the same youthful confidence.
On the morning of his last day in Iraq, he hauled his duffel bags out to the armored vehicle that would ferry him the final 200 or so miles out of Iraq.
Pfc. Matt Vargas, 22, of San Diego was singing “Leaving on a Jet Plane” as he stood at the vehicle’s back door.
“You ready to go home, Joseph?” he asked.
“Hell, yeah!” Joseph replied.
A few hours later, Joseph was exchanging text messages via cellphone with his older brother in Baghdad. Joseph asked how their mother was doing and mentioned that he had tried to call him a few days earlier but that his brother had not answered the phone. Joseph said that he missed everyone.
He gave no hint that he was in Iraq at Contingency Operating Base Adder, only a few hours’ drive south of Baghdad.
An intense curiosity
When Baghdad fell in April 2003, Joseph was a university student learning computer science. He was delighted that Saddam Hussein had been toppled. “I thought college would be so good and fun,” he said. “There were rumors that the Americans were going to turn Saddam’s palaces into universities.”
Joseph was intensely curious about the American soldiers who were patrolling his neighborhood in helmets and body armor. “The soldiers were like aliens,” he recalled. “There were all sorts of crazy stories about them, like they had a pill you could put into water and turn it instantly ice cold.”
His father taught English at a local high school, and Joseph was nearly fluent. He approached a group of American soldiers, thanked them for toppling Saddam Hussein and half-jokingly asked if they had found any of the dictator’s chemical weapons.
“Do you know anything about them?” a sergeant asked him.
“I would definitely tell you if I did,” Joseph replied.
The Americans were desperate for English speakers who could work as interpreters and were paying salaries much higher than anyone else was offering in Iraq. Joseph signed on to work for a battalion in Baghdad. One of the Americans on the base noticed his skinny frame and wryly nicknamed him Ronnie after the famous American bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman. It became Joseph’s first nom de guerre.
With the money he made working for the Americans, he bought a computer, new clothes and a $2,400 Korean car. Joseph admired the hard work, openness and honesty of the American sergeants and officers.
The Americans, meanwhile, valued his skills as an interpreter and a savvy observer of Iraqi culture. As the insurgency in Iraq gained strength, several of his fellow interpreters were killed, Joseph said. He grew his hair long and began wearing a full beard and sunglasses so that he would be harder to recognize.
By 2007, he decided that it was too dangerous for him to return home, and he moved permanently to an American military base in Baghdad. “Once you start working for the U.S. Army in Iraq, you are finished,” he said. “You have a stamp on your forehead for life. . . . I really believed I was a dead man.”
To the U.S. and back
Joseph moved to the United States in May 2009, after an Army colonel with whom he had worked during two combat tours helped him get a green card.
Another Army officer arranged for Joseph to move in with his mother in Tucson. He spent his first three months in the country watching television, eating junk food and sleeping. His long stints living with American soldiers in Iraq had made the adjustment relatively easy. “I didn’t have any culture shock at all,” he said.
He took a job playing an Iraqi civilian in U.S. military training exercises. Six months later, he decided to enlist in the Army and become a military translator. He joined for practical reasons: It would speed his application for U.S. citizenship and give him money for college. He also missed the rush of combat and the feeling that he was doing something to help Iraq.
“The war and working for the Army was my life,” he said. “Pretty much, your job is your life, and that was my first job.”
In February he volunteered to deploy to the Adder base in southern Iraq, where he was the interpreter for the commander of a 600-soldier artillery battalion. One of his main jobs was to speak daily with tribal leaders who were being paid by the U.S. military to keep trash off the main stretch of highway from Baghdad to Kuwait. In reality, the sheiks were also being paid to keep the area clear of roadside bombs.
On his last morning in Iraq, Joseph fielded questions from several of the sheiks who had heard the news reports of the Americans’ departure from Iraq. Some of the tribal leaders worried that they would lose influence in their area without the U.S. military’s backing. Others were concerned that the payments that they were receiving would stop.
Joseph did his best to mislead them about the timing of the Americans’ last convoy out of Iraq, telling the sheiks that his battalion commander was in Kuwait but would be back to meet with them Dec. 20. After years of living a double life, he had become adept at misdirection.
An uncertain future
A little after 1:30 a.m. Sunday, Joseph’s convoy rolled south out of his base. The road to Kuwait was dark and, with the exception of the long string of U.S. Army vehicles, deserted. As the convoy drew closer to the border, Joseph nervously jiggled his legs. The three other soldiers in the truck with him began to buzz with anticipation.
In the passenger seat of the armored truck, Sgt. 1st Class Rodolfo Ruiz talked about how much he was looking forward to calling his wife and two sons from Kuwait. “I can’t wait to let them know that I am safe,” he said. “I am feeling it now.”
Joseph talked about his plans to buy a $32,000 Dodge Challenger muscle car with his deployment savings. “It will be black or metallic orange,” he said. “It will be my first car in the States.”
“Maybe it will help you get a girl,” joked Spec. Tyler Meier, 20, of Ottumwa, Iowa.
About 5:30 a.m., the floodlights on the border about three miles away were visible across the flat desert floor. Joseph’s truck crossed into Kuwait just as the sun was cresting the horizon. His first call was to his American surrogate mother in Tucson.
“Hey, Madonna, how are you doing? This is Ronnie,” he said, using the fake name from his early days as an Iraqi interpreter. “I wanted to let you know that we made it to Kuwait.”
“I just knew it would be you,” she replied.
Joseph was due to fly to the United States in a few more days, and he assured her that he soon would stay with her for a week in Arizona. “I lost a lot of weight over here,” he joked. “So I need to visit you and gain it back.”
After he hung up the phone, his thoughts drifted to Iraq. Joseph believed that the American invasion was worth the steep price paid by the U.S. military and the Iraqi people. “This Iraq, right now, is better than Saddam’s Iraq,” he said. “Now Iraq has a chance. It maybe can have a future.”
It is a future that might not include Joseph. If the United States reaches an agreement with the Iraqi government to send American military trainers to the country, Joseph said he plans to volunteer to go back. But right now, that seems unlikely.
His contract with the Army continues through 2013. After that, Joseph hopes to return to college, maybe studying political science or international relations so he could someday join the State Department and return to Baghdad in yet another capacity.
“I miss the Iraq of my childhood,” he said. “I miss my family and my best friends.”
The strain of lying to his parents about his whereabouts over the past 11 months has forced Joseph to keep his conversations with them very short. Once he is back in the United States, he hopes he will not have to deceive them as much. Maybe he will be able to talk with them longer.
“I have been telling my parents that I have been very busy at work,” he said. “But I promised them that I will have more time for them in the new year.”