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Meet the men who help US and NATO troops communicate their aims in Afghanistan — and in doing so risk their lives.
“If I do this job more than two years I can apply for entry to the United States, that’s why I want to do it,” said “Tom,” a 22-year-old interpreter for the 1-12’s Headquarters Company. “My own destination is the United States to get higher education.”
“I don’t want to do this forever,” he continued. “If we are going to support the Americans, the Americans should support us too.”
The U.S. government does support a special visa program for 5,000 military interpreters from either Afghanistan or Iraq to immigrate to the U.S. every year. Interpreters can apply after a year of work, but most interpreters with the 1-12 don’t seem to understand the procedure.
They seem especially confused about how long they need to work with U.S. forces. The U.S. law states interpreters only have to work for a year with the U.S. military, and need a recommendation from an American general or diplomat.
Canada has a similar program for Afghan interpreters who work with Canadian government and military in Afghanistan.
Some interpreters experience cultural insensitivity on the U.S. bases, mainly from young GI’s who haven’t had contact with other cultures or religions before. Although the Afghan translators ride on the same patrols, eat the same food and live on the same bases as their American units, they are banned from using most of the American soldiers' portable toilets, and have separate showers.
“NO TERPS,” short for “interpreter,” is crudely scrawled on the front of many toilets and some showers at FOB Wilson, in a style more reminiscent of the Jim Crow South than an American military base that serves an operation called Enduring Freedom in the interpreter’s country. The signs only apply to "local nationals," not to the U.S. citizen, Afghan-American interpreters, who have security clearances and are paid high salaries to work in a country they left long ago.
Nor do the Afghan-American interpreters have to settle for being called "Terp" by some U.S. troops, a term sometimes used derogatorily, or lazily, in place of the local national Afghan interpreter's given or adopted name.
“I especially don’t like to be called 'Terp,'" said James. “I like them to call me 'Interpreter.' It’s a little more polite. And my name, because we have a name patch here on our uniforms.”
James says that when soldiers do call him a “Terp,” he doesn’t raise any objections. He pauses. “I don’t want to cause any problems,” he said.
The second-class treatment appears to have led to violence on at least one occasion. On Jan. 29, an Afghan interpreter on a U.S. base in Wardak Province shot and killed two American soldiers. NATO and Afghan officials said the interpreter wasn’t an insurgent, rather he was angry about his pay and treatment at the facility, according to Reuters news agency.
Despite the insensitivities, most interpreters say they enjoy working with the Americans. They love the camaraderie, share a hate for the Taliban and optimistically look forward to traveling to the U.S.
“The Americans are doing good,” said Hamayon. “They treat us like members of their family.”
Hamayon hopes to soon make himself a more permanent member of the American family. He’s well on his way to becoming one of the 5,000 interpreters selected for immigration every year. An American general has written a recommendation, and he already spent time studying at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., on a scholarship last year.
If he gets the visa, Hamayon would receive a small stipend every month, and could bring his wife and daughter to the U.S. and continue his professional education. He graduated from his Kabul university at the top of his class for pharmacy studies. But he can’t seem to stay away from his newfound profession.
“I’m either going to join the army or go work as an interpreter in the U.S.,” he said.
Interpreters with the highest level security clearances can make six-figure salaries.