Honoring these selfless patriots were the President and First Lady who gave a holiday address specifically for the troops in harm's way; so too did Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. And throughout the month of December, countless musicians, comedians, and cheerleaders filled the stages of forward operating bases across Iraq to entertain the men and women in uniform. I am a platoon leader in Baghdad and speak for my men when I say thank you to those in America who made efforts to keep us from feeling alone.
However, there is a group of men who are of inestimable importance to the US-led struggle in Iraq. But, this group is rarely, if ever, honored by America's citizens. The courageous members of this group also need to be gone for weeks and months at a time, with limited access to their families. I am referring to the thousands of Iraqi interpreters supporting America's fight for democracy and peace in Iraq.
As a platoon leader in Baghdad, I realize just how vital my interpreter is.
I understand that the debate about the Iraq war is one of the hottest in America today, particularly as the presidential election now envelops the country. Americans see the death toll among US Forces rise; they observe the toll among Iraqi civilians grow at an even more astounding rate. This is what the conventional media underlines. But what the media fails to convey to the public is what really happens between the American soldier and the Iraqi citizen. For every American or Iraqi life lost or injured in Iraq, thousands of hands are shaken, thousands of smiles are exchanged, and thousands of cups of chai are shared as the soldier and citizen focus on the way forward for Iraq. That way forward is impossible without an active discourse between local village leaders and the platoon leaders operating in a particular area. That discourse is impossible without a proficient interpreter who can facilitate the exchange between the idealistic US soldier and the Iraqis eager to better their lives and communities.
I cannot speak for all interpreters in Iraq. However, by introducing you to my interpreter, 'Joe,' I hope to convince Americans that these brave men are equally deserving of a care package and a prayer for their service to the cause in Iraq every holiday season-and on every other day of the year.
Since October, I have been fortunate enough to call Joe a member of my Stryker platoon. From day one, he has shown up for each mission eager to assist me and eager to help the platoon succeed. Older than most in his job, the 60-year-old has a wealth of knowledge and experience behind him. Allow me to introduce you a bit to Joe. His story reflects that of many other citizens of Iraq. It is the story that I feel Americans also need to know.
Joe has witnessed an Iraq before Saddam Hussein, an Iraq during the brutal regime, and now a post-Saddam Iraq. Educated in Baghdad and Bombay, India, Joe holds a degree in electrical engineering. During the Iran-Iraq War, Joe worked at Iraq's Naval Academy in Basra training naval engineers. Because he is a Shia, the Baathist regime eventually pushed him out of the navy in 1988; he emerged again in 2003 to assist his country's Ministry of Defense as it cooperated with US military leaders to rebuild the Iraqi Army. Now, with a son attending a technical university in Baghdad, Joe saw no better way to support his family and his country's future than to serve as an interpreter for the American forces. It took Joe three months until he told his wife and children what he actually does when he leaves for weeks at a time. He did not want to alarm them since we operate in a particularly volatile neighborhood in southern Baghdad, only about five kilometers from where Joe and his family reside. Joe understands the risks involved in what he does every day; he simply covers his face, and maintains faith in the twenty soldiers to his left and right whom he knows will fight to protect him as they would any other member of the platoon.
When asked why he decided to join the Americans as an interpreter, he humbly responds, "Sir, I just want to improve my English." We both know that his motives are much deeper and much nobler than language development. After all, the fate of his country depends on the success of the coalition forces.
Sometimes when Joe and I spend time together on missions, or while sharing a meal afterwards, I tell him bits and pieces of my own story. I explain how my West Point instructors instilled in me valuable lessons in leadership, military tactics, and diplomacy. But what my extensive training in the military did not emphasize enough was just how critical, how vital, the brave interpreter is to mission success in the reconstruction effort in Iraq today.
What I have come to understand since patrolling the streets of Baghdad day after day is that Joe is one of our most valuable assets for bringing peace to Iraq. He understands the mindset of citizens with which we interact on a daily basis. He lends his support well beyond that of just translation by providing recommendations on projects that are sustainable based on the framework of local government and the precarious rule of law in the city. Joe acknowledges that the Americans were necessary to dismantle and drive the al Qaeda fighters from the neighborhood just a walk away from where his family sleeps. Even after only my first few few days of working in the neighborhoods with Joe, it became crystal-clear to me that he and others like him are absolutely necessary to the establishment of a functioning political and economic system in Iraq that supports lasting peace.
I can only hope that in twenty years it is Joe's son's turn to visit me in some American city-I will gladly show him my neighborhood as a sign of goodwill for the dignified work his father did to better Iraq. I fear, though, that at that time America's sons and daughters might still be in Baghdad fighting what will then seem an endless fight for an unachievable democracy. But whatever course the future takes in America and in Iraq and wherever we are decades from now, I want to highlight to the American people at this time that Joe and people like him in Iraq should not go unrecognized.
I understand that you probably did not think about the sacrifices that he and his family made this holiday season as you said your prayers of thanks. However, I hope you will think of him next year because I guarantee that Joe, and thousands like him, will be standing alongside a US soldier then, as he is today, in the name of peace, understanding, and freedom in the world.
First Lieutenant Brandon Bodor