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

By Blake Hall
Sunday, August 29, 2010; B01

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."

"They beheaded your two best friends, Roy?"

"Yes, sir. I walk to the base the next day and give them my name to work for you. I hate the Qaeda."

I believed him. His eyes had the look of a man who has seen death and experienced traumatic loss. My country had been attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, and I knew I had to fight back when I saw my countrymen leaping from skyscrapers. Our hatred for al-Qaeda united Roy and me.

In the months that followed, Roy translated Baghdad for me. He made meaning of the Arabic calligraphy. He told me when graffiti indicated a hostile neighborhood. He let me know when the mosque wasn't broadcasting prayers but rather a call to attack the infidels. When he stood next to the scouts I led, he looked like a waterboy for a varsity sports team, but without him, my platoon was culturally blind and deaf.

We called him Roy because if an insurgent heard his real name, then he and his family could be in danger. The contracting company that hired interpreters had assigned him that alias, yet it seemed to fit him. The name made me think of young boys pretending to be cowboys, and Roy looked like he was 15 at most. He always swore to me that he was 19, but I trusted Roy's word on all subjects except his age. You had to be 18 to work for the Americans, and Roy, more than most, desperately wanted to work for us.

* * *

Roy and I were lying still on a rooftop observation post with one of my scout teams in Dora, a neighborhood in central Baghdad. The night was quiet but for the intermittent crackle of gunfire, and the lack of electricity meant there was no artificial light to dim the white stars. After two weeks in Dora, my battalion had more wounded men than we'd had in more than a year of combat. Now, perched on top of a 10-story building that had rows of windows but no glass, my scouts and I waited in silence for our enemy to show himself.

The stillness was shattered by the wail of a muezzin from the minaret of the mosque down the street. Startled, I nearly jumped up. But the luminescent digits on my watch read 0310, and I relaxed -- the muezzin was right on time for the first of the five prayer calls that Muslims heed at nearly the same times every day.

"Allahu akbar," the muezzin cried out.

"God is great," I whispered.

"Ash-had an la Allah illa Allah."

"There is no God but God."

"Ash-hadu anna Muhammadan rasulullah."

"Muhammad is the prophet of God."

Roy shifted beside me. "How do you know that, sir?"

"It's my job to know what the mosques say," I replied, nudging him with my shoulder. "Not bad for a Christian, huh?"

"No, not bad, sir."

* * *

Several days later, Roy proved that he was still the expert when it came to translating Arabic. I was on a roof bordered by a short stone wall with another of my scout teams. We were watching Dora's main artery, a wide dirt road interrupted by a giant crater filled with sewage water. The giant crater once held a giant bomb. I watched the hole and thought about what it would be like to be driving along, talking and laughing and then BOOM. Bright white light.

One floor below the roof, Roy and half the platoon slept while another scout team guarded the entrance to the house. My platoon was patrolling Dora 12 hours a day, taking turns with another, and we were always tired. I had lost 20 pounds in two months because I usually chose sleeping over eating when we returned to the base. On the roof, the scouts and I were looking at one another with half-closed, bloodshot eyes when the muezzin in the mosque began chanting in Arabic. His voice streamed from the speakers strapped to the top of the minaret and reverberated off the concrete buildings.

Unlike the call to prayer, there was no "Allahu akbar," no pause after each recital, just a stream of words that sounded angry but were otherwise unintelligible to me. I checked my watch. It was too early for the second prayer of the day.

Sgt. Lesner, a scout who carried a grenade launcher beneath his carbine, asked, "What's up with the guy in the mosque freestyling, sir?"

"I don't know." I clicked my radio and asked the team downstairs to send Roy to a window so he could hear.

His voice crackled over my handset: "This is not good, sir. The imam is telling the neighborhood to rise up against the Americans. He is calling the men to jihad."

I ordered the platoon to full security, sent scouts running to grab rockets and extra ammunition from the trucks, and told the scout team leader to get two marksmen ready to fire on the mosque's speakers. I then radioed headquarters and requested permission to fire. But shooting at a mosque, even one inciting the neighborhood to attack us, would be a public relations nightmare for the Army. Permission was denied, so my men and I sat and listened to the enemy organize an attack.

The chants from the mosque were soon joined by the stutter of automatic weapons. Soft ppfffzzz ppfffzzz sounds filled the air like buzzing bees; those were the bullets that passed well over us. Sharper cracks -- the sound bullets make when they pass close to your head -- rent the air too, but less often because the insurgents were lousy marksmen. When we began returning fire, the noise of our own weapons left a deep ringing in my ears.

Roy and the rest of the platoon came to the roof. Roy wasn't allowed to carry a gun, but he ran up anyway, sliding down beside me as red tracers flashed overhead.

Orange muzzle flashes winked from the top of a warehouse 200 meters away, revealing the enemy's position. I slapped Lesner on the back plate of his body armor and shouted above the noise, "Drop a 40 mike mike on that roof!"

Lesner pulled out a pellet-shaped 40-millimeter grenade and dropped it down the tube of his grenade launcher. He flicked off a metal safety and braced the launcher against his body. He took a moment to gauge the trajectory of the shot, then fired. Seconds later, a bright flash burst in the center of the orange flashes. A boom like a peal of thunder pierced the air. The incoming fire stopped, and the neighborhood was silent once again.

"I'll be damned if that wasn't a perfect shot, Lesner," I said.

We snapped fresh magazines into our rifles and scanned the road for several minutes, until, one by one, the men began to drop down and sit with their backs against the wall, adrenaline giving way to exhaustion.

Roy faced in toward the men. He lit a cigarette, inhaled and loosed a long stream of smoke. "Wehl alraght," he said in a deadpan Kentucky accent, imitating my driver.

We stared at him for a moment, then convulsed with laughter.

* * *

Mike was an older Iraqi interpreter who had lived in Texas for a few years, so his English was excellent. He took Roy under his wing, and the two roomed together in a small trailer on the base.

I passed Mike on my way to the base cafeteria and asked about Roy.

"Well, sir, he is young." Mike lifted both of his hands, palms up. "Sometimes he is crying at night."

"He cries?"

"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.

Roy shrugged.

"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."

"Wehl alraght."

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@troopswap.com

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.

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