In an effort to highlight contributions of Iraqis who have worked for the United States, the List Project is compiling both their stories and the stories of the American men and women who they served beside. It is our hope that these stories will serve as a testament to their courage and sacrifice, and demonstrate the fact that these Iraqis are more than just numbers or statistics. We also hope that they find their way to those in power who hold the fate of these Iraqis in their hands.
If you would like to tell us your story, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our first contribution comes from Peter Farley, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, who tells us the story of the bonds he forged with his interpreter Wisam and how he worked to bring him to the United States.
In the United States military, soldiers are trained from their first day of boot camp that no one is ever to be left behind. This is a foundational value of the military, one in which soldiers do not take lightly and instead take great pride in. Soldiers implement this military value in all actions that they carry out, which may include everything from exercises in training missions to the life-and-death situations of the actual combat zone.
I deployed in 2008-2009 to Baghdad, Iraq with soldiers of the 340th Military Police Company on a yearlong mission to train and supervise the Iraqi Police. Our company experienced success in assisting various Iraqi Police stations in becoming more self-sufficient. However, this did not come without cost. Over the course of the deployment, our company lost SPC Michael L. Gonzalez, who was killed in action. In addition, a handful of soldiers from various squads were wounded in different combat-related injuries.
Our squad was fortunate to be able to complete our deployment without a single casualty. However, I could not help but feel a sense of loss when we departed Iraq, leaving some of the most instrumental members of our squad behind in the war zone. It was difficult to accept the fact that these comrades were stranded in the war zone to eventually face the inevitable, real-life dangers associated with their service to Coalition Forces on their own.
These individuals were not soldiers. They were rather Iraqi civilians who risked their lives to work with the United States Army as interpreters. They sacrificed their personal safety on a daily basis to carry out our missions for the good of their homeland and ours as well. Our mission would have been impossible without them, as these individuals were the crucial link between our military personnel and the Iraqi Police with whom we worked.
Because the combat zone is a place like no other, it is common for individuals who experience deployments together to develop strong emotional bonds with one another. This type of bond is not limited to forming between soldiers. For instance, it is not uncommon for soldiers and their interpreters to become close to each other. My company is direct proof of this. By the end of our deployment, for example, many soldiers from my unit would claim their squad’s interpreters to be the “best in the company”, which indicates the types of relationships that were formed.
I am no doubt one of those biased soldiers who believe he worked with the best. The interpreters in my squad were outstanding. Their command of the English language and mastery of the art of interpreting helped us to communicate effectively with the Iraqi police and run successful missions in helping them take over and work as an independent security force for the Baghdad area. These individuals dedicated their lives to supporting coalition forces and were instrumental in assisting to establish a democratic and free society in Iraq.
There was one individual who particularly stood out to me among my squad’s interpreting team. He responded to the name, “Eddie”, a disguised alias given to him by our military for his own protection. I was immediately drawn to Eddie for the many qualities he showed in his work, but more importantly for who he was as a person. I immediately noticed how passionate this man was for standing up for what he believed was right and his qualities of patriotism, intelligence, sacrifice, and selfless service were extremely valuable assets to our squad. I was fortunate to often have Eddie assigned as a passenger in my team’s vehicle during missions, meaning my team members and I were usually responsible for his safety and spent countless hours in direct contact with him. Over the course of the deployment, our time together developed into a strong friendship, and before long, he was not just “Eddie” to me. Instead I was lucky enough to learn about undisguised Wisam, an individual who had become a very important part of my life.
I believe I learned many invaluable life lessons from Wisam, which helped me to develop into a more open-minded and better person. He risked his life on a daily basis, by working with us, for the good of his family and the good of his country. It is my belief that he helped keep my squad and I safe over there and as excited as I was to return stateside safely upon completion of a long deployment, my heart was broken to think that we were leaving Wisam and others in situations where the possibility of danger and death was imminent on a daily basis, even more so because of their work with the United States. It was difficult to say goodbye to Wisam, knowing that chances were that I would probably never see him again. We did promise each other that we would both do everything in our power to remain lifelong friends.
Upon my return home in May of 2009, Wisam and I stayed in touch with one another about once or twice a week through phone calls and e-mails. It was always an amazing feeling to connect with him and hear his voice as this confirmed to me that he was still alive and safe. However, I recall one October morning when I was getting ready for work and the news flashed across the television in my living room to report a double suicide truck bombing that tore through one of Iraq’s main government buildings resulting in at least 160 deaths and wounding over 500 people. The attack on Baghdad’s Ministry of Justice building was Iraq’s deadliest attack in more than two years. This particularly hit home for me, because we drove by this building almost every day on our missions to and from the Iraqi Police (IP) station where we worked. I viewed the television in horror, but my heart sank especially when I recalled a conversation I had with Eddie just a few weeks earlier. The highlight of the conversation was the excitement in his voice when he informed me that he had quit his job interpreting because he landed a new job working for the Ministry of Justice. He loved his work as an interpreter, but felt as though he needed to leave the job for his own safety. His cooperation with coalition forces as an interpreter made him the perfect target of various terrorist organizations.
I immediately ran to my computer in an attempt to call Wisam’s cell phone, just as I had a week earlier using Skype, a software application program that allows users to make voice calls over the Internet. I must have attempted to call Wisam over a dozen times by the day’s end without success. I began thinking about the time he had come back to work with us after he had a few days off from base. He was all excited because he had a gift for me: a traditional Iraqi dress for my wife. I thought about the month he had to leave us, for he had to bring his ill mother to India because she was unable to receive the medical attention that she needed in her own country, just another example of life in Iraq. I thought about the despise Eddie had in his eyes for those corrupting the peace of his nation when he worked with us to interrogate and question detainees. I also thought about the times he broke down in tears when he spoke of the woman he was to marry, who was killed by a suicide bomber in 2003. It was this tragedy that motivated him to join coalition forces to begin with. If I did not hear back from my friend, I could only assume he was a victim of the same type of violence himself.
Two days later, I woke up to find that my cell phone had a voicemail. What an amazing feeling it was to hear a recording from Wisam on the other end, just “checking in” to see how I was doing. “Farley, I hope you are well along with your wife and family,” he said in the message. There was no mention of the explosion. Here was a man who practically lived a horror movie just a couple days before asking how I was doing. This just goes to show what kind of person Wisam is. With far less anxiety than before, I tried calling him again via my computer, this time reaching his voicemail. At least this time in my mind, my phone call to Wisam was not a matter of his life and death.
I was finally able to reach Wisam the next day. It was an unbelievable feeling to hear his voice. I will never forget hearing his recollection of the bombing. I cannot do his story any justice. He did tell me that the incident occurred during rush hour, and thankfully, he was stuck in traffic. He explained to me that he still did not know exactly who was alive from his workplace and who was not. His place of work had disappeared into rubble, so he did not even know his job even still existed. However, this was obviously the least of his worries.
When Wisam described the scene, I could not help but think of September 11th, an event that inspired to me to join the military which ironically led me to him. His story was similar to that of a World Trade Center employee who had missed the attack because of being late to work. We talked for awhile and I tried to make Eddie promise me that he would stay safe. He replied with the common Arabic phrase, “Insha’Allah,” which means “If God wills it.”
This is the first part of a series of Wisam’s Story. Check back on Monday for the next installment
Peter Farley is currently a graduate student at Smith College, pursuing his Master of Social Work degree. He previously worked for six years as an elementary school teacher in Brockton, MA. He holds a Master of Education degree from Bridgewater State College and a B.A. in education from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Peter lives in Taunton, Massachusetts with his modern family consisting of his wife, Kim, two pugs named Jasmine and Layla, and his Iraqi interpreter, Wisam.