- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at email@example.com.
By Aaron Ferencik
Co-holder of Marine chair, Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted
I left Afghanistan with the memory of three of my Marines knocked out by a single explosion. In a waste-filled ditch they lay, wounded, clothing perforated by shrapnel, skin sand-blasted off. I left with the casualty evacuation report memorized. I left Garmsir District, Helmand Province, with the memory of an Afghan soldier shot through the groin, running across a muddy poppy field, arms flailing, collapsing at the gate of my patrol base. I carried home a single dogtag with an indentation where it had been struck by a ball bearing from an IED. I left with Rite in the Rain notebooks filled with patrol intentions. A couple of Velcro patches. A full set of Afghan Army camouflage uniforms. Souvenir scarves bought in corrugated-door bazaars. I left with somebody else’s blood on my flak jacket.
I left Afghanistan, but my faithful Afghan interpreter did not.
He was born in Khost province, but lives in Kabul now. Not by choice, but to stay close to the U.S. embassy. We called him “Jack.” I will not give his real name due to the danger he faces after years of working with Americans.
Jack served the United States of America more than most of its citizens ever have — or ever will.
When I worked with him, Jack had already interpreted for the Marines for several months, and with the Army before that. He was dark-skinned, hollow-cheeked, and raven-haired. He wore an older-model tan flak jacket with a single radio pouch and two tourniquets attached. He covered his head with a red-and-white bandana, the way some of the Marines did.
He smiled often, and interpreted faithfully. Sometimes, when an old, wily Pashtun man tried to hide something in conversation, Jack would tell me, simply: “He is lying.” Jack was usually right.
We walked everywhere. We lacked the luxury of usable roads, so we patrolled on foot, exposed. Jack walked with us. Everywhere we stepped, the enemy tried to kill us with improvised explosive devices. Radio-controlled, pressure plate, victim-activated, pressure release, kite-string, command wire. They were simple, deadly things, filled with ammonium nitrate aluminum and ball bearings and duct taped shut. Sometimes, the Taliban dipped glass shards in feces and used them as shrapnel. The idea was to cause a serious infection after wounding one of us.
Jack walked with us in sunshine and moonlight. He never asked for special treatment. He walked single file, right behind me, fifth or sixth in a line of eight. He carried his weight. He carried more than his weight.
He and I held shura meetings with village elders about the latest IED to be found outside of their compounds. We ate rice and naan together. Jack helped me placate angry, underfed, and unsupported Afghan soldiers when they didn’t want to patrol.
On one stormy afternoon, my metal-detector-carrying pointman stepped on a pressure plate. Two carbon rods connected, creating an electrical current that ran from the plate to a battery pack to a buried yellow jug, which exploded, injuring three Marines. Gusting winds and incessant dust storms prevented medical evacuation helicopters from reaching us, so we carried the unconscious pointman while two other casualties walked with us. The grueling hike to the extraction area pushed the squad’s physical and mental endurance to beyond the breaking point.
That day, Jack carried two sets of bloody body armor and a weapon. Even though he didn’t have to. Even though he wasn’t a Marine. Even though it exhausted him. He performed as if saving this Marine’s life mattered as much to him as it did to us. And it did.
Five years later this interpreter sits in Kabul, jobless, and contemplates the long journey from Afghanistan to Europe. Can he go overland to Turkey? Or maybe to Africa, and then from Africa to a rickety boat in the Mediterranean, hoping to be picked up by the Italian Navy. Or maybe make it to Greece. Or maybe he’ll drown. Be Killed. Get robbed on the journey, forced to turn back.
The United States government abandoned him. I am trying to bring him here, but years after his initial application he remains in bureaucratic purgatory. Why is this? Why do Afghan interpreters need an American to constantly advocate for them? Why should I need to call my Representative or my Senator for help? How many more letters of recommendation does Jack need? How much more time spent waiting?
How many more documentaries must be filmed? How many more articles written? Should interpreters simply abandon hope?
I served my country and then left Afghanistan. Jack served my country and did not.
Aaron Ferencik served four years in the Marine Corps infantry and as part of that outfit, vacationed in Afghanistan twice. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado, co-host of The Burn Pit podcast, and a freelance writer. He recently became a member of Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted.
Photo credit: FP Slideshow