Underdogs of war

Marketplace Staff Jun 6, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Kimberly Dozier’s coming back to the US tomorrow. The CBS correspondent was injured in a roadside bomb attack in Iraq last week. She’s been in a US military hospital in Germany. Two members of Dozier’s crew and an American soldier died. As did an Iraqi interpreter. About 5,000 Iraqis fill that vital role for the US military. Ben Gilbert went to western Iraq and talked to some of them about their jobs. One note: For their safety, we’ve changed the interpreters’ names.

[SOUND: Dog barking in distance, sound of footsteps.]

BEN GILBERT: It’s late at night and two US troops and 20 of the Iraqi soldiers they train are on a mission in farmland near the violent city of Ramadi. Twenty-five-year-old Iraqi interpreter Scott carries an AK-47 and dresses in American military fatigues, although he’s a Shiite Muslim from Baghdad.

SCOTT: Sometimes I see the innocent. They didn’t have anything. Maybe just a . . .

He starts to tell me what it’s like to work in this dangerous Sunni area when . . . [SOUND: Gunshot.]

. . . An Iraqi soldier accidentally shoots at one of his own friends about 50 feet away. The bullet narrowly misses. The American trainers are furious, and Scott switches from Arabic to English and back, communicating between the Americans, the Iraqi soldiers, and Iraqi civilians. In this war, Iraqi interpreters serve as the bridge between the American military and other Iraqis. It’s a demanding and sometimes deadly role, but Scott is willing to take the risk.

SCOTT: Because I need money. I’m a young man. I’m 25 years. So, I need the money to start my life.

Scott has only worked with the US military for a few weeks. Some translators have worked with the Americans in Ramadi for years, like Dennis.

DENNIS: I just want to show this kinda like shrapnel I got here. I still work. I’m still a survivor.

Dennis just got out of the hospital two weeks ago. He was injured in what the military calls an IED, or roadside bomb attack, on US troops. It was the 21st such bomb to hit a vehicle he was traveling in. Dennis makes about $1,000 per month. The average Iraqi government employee makes around $400. But the good pay comes at a price, and most Iraqi interpreters now live full-time on American bases. It’s like an exile in their own country, because interpreters are held in contempt by many of their fellow Iraqis.

DENNIS: People point to us and say “You are a traitor, or spies.” The guys, they can’t even look at us, kind of ashamed of us, because we are working with Americans. So, we cannot change this picture any more. They still looking to us like, “Traitor, you should be killed.”

Another interpreter, named Ronny, says insurgents killed five of his colleagues from this base alone as they traveled back to Baghdad. Documents filed by L3 Communications / Titan Corporation, the main US contractor providing interpreters to the US military, show that 181 employees have been killed in Iraq, and 439 injured, since 2003. These interpreters do get treated at US military hospitals. But that doesn’t solve all their problems.

RONNY: If these soldiers . . . if he gets hurt by IED, they’re going to send him to home. And the government should pay him. They get insurance, they take care about him, alright? For us, no, they can’t send us to home. I mean, as you like, you have a choice: If you want to stay in home, and then get targeted by insurgents, you die, I mean, you’re gone.

All of these interpreters dream of going to the United States. Ronny applied for a visa, but the paperwork never went through. His biggest fear is that the US will pull out. That would leave him and his fellow interpreters to fend for themselves in a country where they’d quickly become easy targets.

INTERPRETER: I wish to die here, man, with the Americans. It’s more better than me to die back in my home.

In Baghdad, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketplace

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.