The Ones We Left Behind

I initially drafted this for another Veteran blog as a joint venture that really never panned out; I think that site is now defunct, so I am reclaiming my post because it was a good one, and I’ve missed it.

We took them in, leery and a bit skeptical at first, but we soon let them into our most inner-circles. And before long, they were part of our team. We gave them desert uniforms. When every other soldier had received level IV SAPI plates for their body armor, we took any extra level III’s lying around and made sure they were protected, too. We paid them what we considered peanuts but in reality was a small fortune. We forced them to choose sides during a time when doing so could (and in some cases did) cost them or their family their lives. We became their brothers, their friends, and part of their extended families. Sometimes we lured them into the false sense of hope that we would take them home with us.

 
And when our tour was up – we left. We went home. We kissed our wives and kids. We did our best to go on about our ‘normal’ lives. And yet, they remained.
They were the linguists. More commonly, they were our interpreters: our ‘Terps. And for every squad, platoon, or company war-story out there is a corresponding story about a phenomenal ‘Terp. And often times, over the years when I returned from Iraq I would meet people who would be surprised that we employed Iraqi’s; they would wonder if we “felt safe with them terrorists working beside ya.” When I met these people, I kindly told them to fuck-off. They had no clue. This was not an ‘us versus them‘ war. I met some of the greatest folks I have known in Iraq: Iraqi citizens. They are people, just like you and me – we just had the good luck to have been born in the United States. They were born into an oppressive regime, navigated that life, and then managed to land themselves a job with U.S. and Coalition forces post-invasion.

 
A lot were opportunists. Some were visionaries. But they all wanted to do one thing – do their part to make Iraq better.

 
I spend a lot of time thinking about these guys. Some I still keep in touch with through Facebook. Others, I don’t even know if they are alive anymore. One more forgotten casualty in Iraq’s ever-growing debacle. So, as I believe that as long as there is breath in my lungs their stories will get told, least they be forgotten – I want to honor those that we left behind. Memorial Day is to honor our fallen. Veterans Day is for us. And I want to make today unofficially “Interpreter Day.”

Faris

Faris Saleh

 
This is Fairs. Faris was my first ‘Terp. We got him when we arrived in Tal’Afar; he had been working for 3rd Brigade, 2nd ID already so when we assumed the battle-space from them, we got their ‘Terps, too. Faris was 22, I think. He was a Yazidi from a small town just on the backside of Mount Sinjar. He was dedicated to the American forces, as a non-Muslim Arab, ethnic Kurd from that in-between zone in northern Iraq that could have been Iraq, or could have been Kurdistan. More simply, he was a Sinjari. To the Yazidi’s, the town of Sinjar meant something, and they defined themselves with it. In OIF III, all of our ‘Terps were from Sinjar. It said something about the character of the Yazidi people.
Faris had decent English, but needed help on some words and concepts (like a lot of interpreters). But he was a good kid. I say kid, hell he was only two or three years younger than me at the time. But, for as much as I was charged with the burden of leading a scout platoon, Faris was right there along side of me when I hit the ground on an objective; my dismount was my right-hand man on the ground, and Faris was my left.

 
Faris validated his mettle on 17 February, 2005; if it wasn’t enough that he had been with me through all of our engagements and battles, on that day Faris huddled in the belly of the Stryker amid the din of battle, holding a pressure bandage across the area where my gunner’s throat had just been, while my medic worked feverishly to get an IV started and get a breathing tube past the wound and into his lungs. They both worked hard, but there was no hope. My gunner bled out almost instantly. Faris only stopped applying pressure after we had arrived at the FOB Aid Station and handed off the litter to the medical staff there.

 
I kept in touch with Faris for a while via email. I last heard from him sometime in 2007 when I deployed to Baghdad for the Surge. Today, I have no idea where he is. ISIL / Daesh have done a lot of ‘cleansing’ in and around Sinjar. My only hopes are that Faris and his family managed to escape north to Kurdistan.

Thamer

Thamer al Faisal

 
Thamer was the cousin of one of our Troop’s ‘Terps, Hader. He lived in the border town of Rabiah. When we operated in Rabiah and on the Syrian border, Thamer was our trusted confidant. He was a local, so he brought an aura of legitimacy and street-cred to us. He had cronies whom he would send across the border into Syria to get us huge meals. By sending people into Syria, there was less likelihood that someone would mess with the food order – because what Americans are ordering take-out from Syria?!? Thamer had a gregarious laugh and a great sense of humor. He was a realist, and if you needed something he could procure it. I broke my wrist-watch once during combat – I loved that watch – and in Rabiah Thamer arranged for it to be sent to Baghdad and repaired. I gave him the watch and $10 USD; two weeks later when my platoon rotated back to the border town, Thamer had my watch; the broken glass was replaced and the movement fixed.

IMG_0351

Thamer and Fairs with a meal purchased for the platoon

 
Thamer did a lot of negotiating and coordinating for us when we were up on the border for extended periods. He helped us secure some furniture for our ramshackle building that we turned into a combat outpost. He also secured us Tuborg beer from Syria when we wanted to celebrate our last rotation to the Syrian border. The men really appreciated that. Indeed, Thamer was a solid dude whom I lost contact with after 2005. I still have a 500 dinar note with his name, phone number, and email address scribbled on it. It also said “don’t spend it!” I still have it Thamer – wherever you are.

Gen Ali

Me, my hippie-hair, and General Ali

 

Baghdad: The Surge.
Tasked with rebuilding central Baghdad after the clearing operations that tore it up, the U.S. Army partnered with the State Department and USAID. But, we lacked the quantity of Civil Affairs personnel to really have the impact we were looking for, so guys like me got cross-trained on ‘hearts and minds.’ And handed cash – gobs and gobs of cash. And I am a dummy, so when they told me that I would be making sure roads got paved and schools got built, I told them that I needed specialized help. That help came in the form of General Ali.

 
General Ali was a retired Iraqi Air Force General (which probably meant in reality, he was a major or colonel, because post-invasion everyone magically had a promotion or two when it came time to be hired by the Americans). He had to be somewhat legit though, as he owned a house in the Green Zone that had been deeded to him by the Saddam regime in his retirement for his faithful career. He was an engineer, and he was really the one who made sure that when we farmed out contracts to pave roads and build schools, the scope of work was written appropriately. And he was the one who did quality control to make sure the work was done right, and within the scope we had set forth.

 
General Ali was kind. He noticed that I worked a lot, and did not have much time to eat. Every day when he arrived to my building, where I had set him up with a desk to do all of is work, he would bring me food that his wife had prepared that morning for me. For the six moths that I had General Ali working for me I was never one to want for breakfast or lunch. He was a gentle creature, sympathetic to the American forces, but also loyal to his fellow Iraqi’s. It was this loyalty that always saw him steer clear of the local politics, yet focus on our work in a way that put the people of Iraq first. And this was evident in the projects that he helped us undertake and oversee.

 
I have dined at his house in the Green Zone with him and his wife numerous times. As far as I know, he still is alive and lives there. He and I had a special bond, and he was almost grandfatherly, in a way. I hope time and life has treated him well.

Jason

“Jason”

 
Jason. My brother. My ‘Terp. And the one guy that I know is still alive and well. He still lives in Iraq, and due to the nature of his situation – the enemies that he made, and the real threats that still exists there from ISIL / Daesh – I will keep identifying information about him redacted. Jason was smart, very street-wise, had a wicked sense of humor and a heart of gold.

 
Jason was the ‘Terp that we actually gave an AK-47 to, because on the ground Jason wasn’t just another ‘Terp – he was one more rifleman. This guy was hands-down one of the best interpreters and people that I ever had the pleasure to meet in Iraq. Jason was there with me on the ground all over central Baghdad; he was also the only person who stood by my side on January 2nd, 2008 during an ambush in Yarmouk, when an Iraqi Army soldier was shot in the head. We had been in narrow parts of Baghdad that day and we took our HMMWV’s instead of Strykers. Unable to fit the litter with this Iraqi soldier inside of the HMMWV, we secured a nearby Iraqi Police pick-up truck.

 
We loaded the litter into the bed of the truck. I was unwilling to leave the patient in there alone, as I was the one who had applied the pressure bandages and started the IV. Refusing to leave me, Jason climbed into the open bed of that pick-up truck. My hands were busy squeezing IV bags into the young Jundi, and holding pressure on his head wound; my M4 was dangling to my side attached to my body armor, and my pistol in its holster. Jason was there, his AK at the ready as we drove back through Khark, Baghdad. We were completely exposed to the world, with no armor, no counter-IED systems – nothing. We were one juicy and ripe target. He literally had my back.
Thankfully, we got to the Combat Surgical Hospital without incident. Jason had my back every single day, and I always felt like I had his. When we left Baghdad, I did my best to keep in touch with him. I was a sponsoring official on his application for a special dispensation visa. The State Department denied his application since he had been jailed during the Saddam regime as a political dissident. “Moral Turpitude.” Man, did the system really screw up there. He would make a great neighbor and an incredible U.S. citizen.

 
There were a lot of other ‘Terps, too. Some made it to the U.S. as immigrants with special visas. I am sure they live full and productive lives here now as permanent residents, at least I hope they have (and I hope they aren’t rooted out by the current administration or immigration reform).

 
I feel guilty to this day that Jason is still there, and I am here. Knowing he is alive and well brings me joy, but not as much joy as if he were stateside, sharing a beer with me. But, alas. On behalf of America, I am sorry. So until that day, I raise a frosty cold one to him – and to all of the ‘Terps that we hired, afforded protection to, and then ultimately abandoned: You have not been forgotten! Until we are reunited once more… We Thank You!

About anotherwarriorpoet

Mathew Bocian served as a Captain in the United States Army with the Stryker Brigade and was deployed to Mosul and Tal'Afar in 2004 - 2005, and to Baghdad for The Surge in 2007 - 2008. He left the Army in 2012 and now uses his poetry as a way to heal from the traumas of war, while attempting to express to readers the realities of war. He is the recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart, and holds a master's from the Graduate School for Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.
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2 Responses to The Ones We Left Behind

  1. GP Cox says:

    It shows what character you have to make a day of honor for those who helped you come home safe. Those that now do work probably comparable to the ‘undergrounds’ of other past wars. Maybe ‘Jason’ will one day be able to locate the others for you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Capt. Bocian, it’s good to see a fresh post from you. I’ve learned a lot about what goes on from someone who is willing to tell us the street-level truth. I am so in agreement with you that many of these dear people are war-torn victims. Human beings who were born into a living nightmare. My heart goes out to them all. Especially the children. I cannot imagine what it’s like living with the constant threat they’re under. Literally from all sides. In the same manner, I cannot begin to understand the fear of living in Europe as a Jew during WW II. I am trying to come to grips with the “Just War Theory.” I find turf and ethnicity and natural resources to be strange reasons to engage in mortal combat. Al Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban, Idi Amin, Hitler, Napoleon, all cite very dubious reasons for war. Thank God for the likes of you, and for the Terps and the many nationals that participate in the war on terror.

    Liked by 1 person

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