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As U.S. troops leave Iraq, an officer honors the memory of a young interpreter
"Well, sir, he is young." Mike lifted both of his hands, palms up. "Sometimes he is crying at night."
"He misses his family, his mother."
We all knew that interpreters worked for Americans at great personal risk. Beyond sharing the dangers of our combat patrols, they were vulnerable when they returned to their homes in Baghdad to visit their families. Insurgents would often track an Iraqi who left a U.S. base alone. Recently, an interpreter had been killed when insurgents stopped him at a fake checkpoint and found pictures of American soldiers on his cellphone. They shot him in the head.
Roy was allowed to go home to see his family once every six weeks, but we couldn't exactly drop him off at his house -- that would be like dropping him off at his funeral. The solution we improvised was hardly foolproof. We would drop off Roy at the main gate to the airport, where he would blend into the crowd of Iraqis waiting to pick up relatives, hop into a cab and be gone. I talked to Roy before he left for home for the first time.
"Roy, how do you know that the cab you get into is not al-Qaeda?"
"I don't know, sir."
"And if it is?"
"If the cab is terror, then they will cut my head."
I asked him if he really needed to go home. "Of course, sir," Roy answered. "My mom will kill me if I don't go see her." Roy learned to speak English from watching television, and sometimes he sounded so American that I forgot he was Iraqi.
After we dropped him off and drove away, I talked with my scout team over the intercom, worried and babbling that I wouldn't know Roy's fate until he returned in a week -- or didn't. "You know what Roy told me? He gets in the wrong taxi and he's done. They'll take him somewhere, and then we'll see him on the Internet."
The scout team leader who rode in my truck eyed me sidelong. "We took care of him, sir."
"What do you mean?"
"You remember that nine we kept under the seat?"
"The handgun from that old Iraqi general's house?"
"Yeah, we showed Roy how to use it at the range last week, and we gave it to him for the ride home."
Bad idea. Arming an interpreter with a contraband weapon violates at least two general orders -- and one is enough to get you relieved. But before I opened my mouth, I pictured Roy's muddy brown eyes and curly hair. I imagined him getting into that cab all by himself. I realized that now he had a fighting chance.
"Good," I said. The intercom was quiet. "Thank you for taking care of him."
* * *
One day I decided that Roy needed a break from our grueling patrol schedule, so I asked the platoon sergeant to find another interpreter to temporarily take his place.
But that evening, when I peeled back a fold of the tent where my platoon bunked down for the night and looked for Roy, I found his cot empty. His clothes were gone, too.
"Where is Roy?" I asked a young scout.
"The platoon sergeant told Roy that he was fired or something. He was real upset. It looked like he was about to cry."
"He fired Roy?" I clenched my fists.
The platoon sergeant was incredibly hard on the interpreters and the soldiers, often for no reason. He would be removed for insubordination in a month after challenging a direct order, but for now, I had to deal with the situation.
A sergeant on duty at the company command post told me that Roy had gone to dinner with the other interpreters. I stalked to the base cafeteria and walked up and down the aisles until I found Roy sitting next to Mike. Roy's head was drooped over his tray, and his eyes were red. I stepped behind him and put my hands on his shoulders.
"Roy, I don't know what [the sergeant] told you. But I am the platoon leader, not him, and you are my interpreter. As long as you are willing, you will always have a place in Lightning Platoon. . . . You are the best interpreter I've had. The guys love you.
"Do you want to stay in the platoon?" I asked cautiously.
Roy nodded quickly but didn't turn to face me. I smiled. Until that moment, I hadn't realized how much he meant to me. The thought of losing him and having him replaced was unacceptable. He was one of us. And I felt responsible for his safety.
I stood up and started to turn away when Mike grabbed my arm. Smiling, he put his right hand over his heart, an Iraqi gesture of friendship and respect. "Thank you, sir," he said. In unison, all the other interpreters placed their right hands over their hearts.
I returned the gesture and walked out before my eyes got red like Roy's.
* * *
Roy and I were sitting on a smooth concrete floor with our backs against a concrete wall. We were with one of my sniper teams in an apartment overlooking a four-way intersection. I was thinking about the course of the war, from the early days of the invasion in 2003, when the Iraqis seemed overjoyed and the giant statue of Saddam Hussein toppled, to the most violent days of the insurgency. I wasn't sure what to make of the shift.
"Roy, did most of the Iraqis always hate us?" I asked.
"No, sir. When the Americans first came, everyone was very happy."
"And now?" I asked.
"How do we fix Iraq, Roy?"
"Nuke it, sir."
The snipers and I laughed.
"But Roy, your mom and your family is in Baghdad. You can't seriously think nuking Iraq is the answer."
"Sir, the only way to fix Iraq is to nuke it."
"You've been hanging out with the guys too long, Roy."
The snipers collapsed into fits of laughter.
* * *
The platoon leader who replaced me in September 2007 asked me how I kept all of my men alive after 15 months of combat. I told him to pray a lot, think like the enemy and never, ever send your men into an abandoned house, because it might be rigged to blow.
Roy had been my interpreter for nine months, but he needed to work a full year before he qualified for a visa to come to the United States, so we had to leave him behind when our rotation in Iraq ended. I was filling out the visa paperwork for him in a friend's apartment in Chicago when I got the news. The e-mail from a lieutenant in Baghdad ended with "I'm so sorry."
I hope it was quick. I hope that the 55-gallon drums filled with explosives that surrounded the abandoned house in Diyala province made the end a bright white light and then peace. I hope he didn't have time to be scared.
The New York Times reported on the January 2008 explosion: "The courtyard was a scene of devastation, strewn with medieval mud brick and modern cinder block, shattered alike by the explosion that killed six American soldiers and their Iraqi interpreter."
The story listed the soldiers' names. But not Roy's. Now, as my country's combat troops leave Iraq, I would like Roy to be honored along with the American heroes who have fallen in that war. The first step is to tell his story and to give at least his true first name. I can say it now because he is in a place where no more harm can come to him.
His name was Mohammed.
Blake Hall, a retired Army captain, led a reconnaissance platoon in Iraq from July 2006 to September 2007. He is the co-founder of TroopSwap.com, a marketplace for the military community.