As U.S. troops leave Iraq, an officer honors the memory of a young interpreter

A teenage Iraqi interpreter, code name "Roy," served with a reconnaisance platoon in Iraq in 2007.
A teenage Iraqi interpreter, code name "Roy," served with a reconnaisance platoon in Iraq in 2007. (Blake Hall)
By Blake Hall
Sunday, August 29, 2010

I met Roy in early 2007. I was the leader of a reconnaissance platoon of scouts and snipers in Iraq and was just back from a two-week leave in the United States. Roy was our new interpreter.

That night, my platoon was sent out on a raid. Our target was an al-Qaeda suicide-attack coordinator. Scanning the intelligence report, I learned that previous attempts to capture him had ended with his bodyguards detonating suicide vests and killing 16 Iraqi police officers. An image of my lead scout team entering a house in southern Baghdad and vanishing in a ball of fire flashed through my mind.

I gave my platoon a 30-second rundown of the situation and the mission, and we scattered to our vehicles. As I pulled on my night-vision goggles and the pitch blackness turned a glowing green, it hit me that less than 24 hours before, I was eating lunch at a Panera in Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport. Life is full of surprises.

But that night, at least, the surprises went our way. We raided the target's home without incident, capturing him while he slept in his bed. Later, as I watched two of my snipers lead the shuffling insurgent toward a U.S. prison in Baghdad, I saw what looked like a little kid in camouflage get out of the armored vehicle two down from mine.

I glanced at one of my scout team leaders. "Who let the 12-year-old out with us?"

"That's Roy, the new terp, sir."

"Does his mom know it's past his bedtime?"

Roy was lighting a cigarette when I walked up to him. As soon as he realized that I was the platoon leader, he threw the cigarette on the ground and stomped it out with his tan combat boots. With that gesture, he showed me that he had discipline and cared about making a good impression. We'll keep him, I thought.

Roy's head came up to my chest, and baby fat rounded out his face. He had cheeks so smooth that I could tell he had never shaved. I thought about asking him his age, but I didn't want to offend him during our first meeting. So I asked him why he had become an interpreter. I'll never forget his answer.

"One day the Qaeda came to my school. They say, 'You are not students anymore! Put away your books! Now we show you the path of jihad!' My two best friends say to them, 'We are students trying to learn. We don't want to do the jihad.' "

"And then?"

Roy gave me a wan smile. "Then, they gather the school in one place, they kneel them down, and they cut their heads with the knife."

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