"John" asked that his interpreter name be used for the interview instead of his real name. Originally from southern Afghanistan, he served as an interpreter for Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, an Army PsyOps unit and Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense. In his interview, he discusses what it was like translating in the field and in garrison as well as some of the cultural misconceptions that the Afghans and Americans had about one another.
Interview conducted over the phone on September 4, 2017
Present: Richard Hayden and John the Interpreter
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What was your interpreter name?
John: My interpreter name is John.
RH: Where are you from?
J: I am from the south part of the country in Afghanistan – the southern part.
RH: What branch of the military did you interpret for?
J: My first job was with the US Marines and then after that I was a translator for the US Army and then the US Air Force. I’ve also had the privilege to work for DoD civilians.
RH: What units did you interpret for?
J: The first unit that I was assigned to was Golf Company, 2/7, US Marines. That was the first unit that I worked with. And also, I actually did the whole deployment with them. I was transferred to Bagram Air Field and then I started working for a PsyOps team. And after that I was transferred to Kabul to work in an administrative level for the Ministry of Defense in Afghanistan, Kabul.
RH: Alright. Perfect. Where were you located when you worked for these units?
J: I was living on base with the US Marines. With the interpreter job, if you are assigned to the provinces that are very far from your home, usually they will provide you a space there. I was living on the base unlike when I was assigned to Kabul because I was closer to my family and I could go back to my home every day. It was just like an office job.
RH: Alright. What years did you interpret?
J: I have done it for six years. I started in 2008 all the way to 2014.
RH: Great. What languages do you speak?
J: I speak English, Farsi and Pashto.
RH: What was Afghanistan like when you were growing up?
J: Afghanistan has been a country that has decades of war – civil wars in the country. As I was growing up, the country was most of the time involved in those civil wars. The best time that I remember was when the US troops came to Afghanistan. That’s where all the changes started. That’s where people finally helped towards democracy, towards freedom, towards development in their country.
So after 2001 things changed. There was a big change to people’s economy – more jobs, more opportunity.
RH: Before the US invasion in 2001, what was the government like?
J: Before that it was the Taliban government. It was a very dark government. People didn’t like it. There was no freedom, no democracy, no freedom of speech. It was a very dark period in Afghanistan’s history. People didn’t like it at all.
RH: Where were you on September 11th?
J: I was in Kabul on September 11th with my family.
RH: What happened?
J: It was just shocking news. I remember my father used to listen to the radio all the time, especially the BBC. During that time, radio was a big thing. People didn’t have TV in their homes. The most accessible thing was radio and a lot of people would listen to the BBC or there was this other radio – radio Ashna or something. I believe it was broadcast by London. He was listening to that radio and he was like, “Holy shit. What happened?” Crazy shit happened, you know? That’s how I found out about it. It was very, very shocking news for our local people.
RH: I’m very interested in wat was happening in Afghanistan at the time. As it became clear that Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda were responsible, how did the people around you react to the news?
J: They were very disappointed at why Afghanistan would be such a country where all these bad people would be living here. Afghanistan had a very good culture. It was a great country during the king’s time and now there are all these bad guys here. If they wanted to do something bad, they should go and do it in their own country. Why are they hiding here and using excuses for their jihad? People didn’t want them in the country because open minded people knew these people are going to not only bring a bad name to our country but also put the country a hundred years behind other countries.
But at the same time, they were happy. They were like, “Now is the time that these bad people will be kicked out. Now is the time that the US is going to take military action and get rid of these bad guys.”
RH: OK. How did you become an interpreter?
J: I was in college – in university. I just graduated from the faculty. I studied biology. For some reason, me and my friends were very open minded. My father used to be an English teacher. I always liked English. I knew English before I got the university and always wanted to be an interpreter – not for money or not for anything else. That was something that would feed my soul and make me happy for a very long time. I knew that Americans were there to help the Afghan government and I wanted to be a part of it. That would be something that could make me happy for the long term because it’s hard to do that job.
RH: Did you have to go through any training?
J: No. I was this civilian kid who graduated from university. I went to Phoenix task force. You had to go there and pass the test. When I spoke to them they were like, “Oh. You speak good English. That’s a prerequisite.” I was like, “Thank you.” I kind of joked with them that I just learned it from watching movies. I didn’t have any teachers. They were like, “There’s no way that you learned it from movies.” [laughs] So that’s how I responded to them. They were like, “You’re cool. You passed.”
Then I remember that day there were a like a hundred people and only twenty people passed the test. They told us, “You guys have to go to KAF,” – that’s Kandahar Air Field – “in two days.” So we passed the test on Monday and we had to be in KAF on Wednesday. There was no way to find an air flight in such a quick time. I’m with all these news guys and they were like, “What should we do?” Some guys were like, “Well, we should just take a bus. That’s the only way.” We were like, “Yeah.” That’s a good idea but also a very, very risky thing to do. When you’re going from Kabul to Kandahar in a bus, there’s a huge risk of taking your military badge with you because if the bad guys arrest you, then you’re done. You’re done with your life. But there was no other way around it.
So we decided to go on a bus but when the next day came, there was one other but he was the only other one who showed up. He is now somewhere in Pennsylvania. All these other guys didn’t show up. I was like, “Wow! This is going to be crazy.” So we’re sitting there just like the local people sitting in the bus with military badges and we went to KAF. When we went there, we called our manager and were like, “We’re here.” He was pretty cool guy. He came out in a pickup truck to pick us up. He was like, “You guys finally made it.” It was a very interesting day.
RH: When you say bad guys, you mean the Taliban, right?
J: The Taliban. Yes, definitely.
RH: You said you started in 2008. Did you immediately go to 2/7?
J: Yes. So when I arrived it was me, my friend and a few other people showed up from different companies. There was, I think ten or more than ten interpreters. I believe that three interpreters were assigned to one company. Then one interpreter to each platoon. They assigned people to different units.
I remember the first night we were sitting and – this to me was very shocking because I’ve never worked with Americans before, I always wanted to – seeing everything. It was such an amazing and different experience – all these new people, being in a military place. It was very interesting. We were sitting in a tent and we had to be escorted. It was an interesting night.
RH: What was your first impression of the Marines?
J: I was very impressed because they were very helpful, taking really good care of their interpreters. They were very respectful. It was something that we weren’t really expecting – very friendly, very nice, very supportive. Me and my friends, we were just telling each other stories like, “Wow. This is great. This is going to be a great trip.” It was a risky job but the environment was such a good environment that people enjoyed their job.
RH: Got it. Good to go. Let me ask you this, for somebody who is not in the military or has never been to Iraq or Afghanistan, what exactly does an interpreter do?
J: An interpreter is basically the eyes and ears of the military forces. Most of the time the US military is going on different missions with the Afghan military and if there are no interpreters, there’s no way of communicating. Communication is the most important thing between forces so interpreters have such an important job. The interpreter job is crucial. The enemy wants to target the interpreters before they target the soldiers because they know that the interpreters are the ones providing information to the US armed forces.
Information is not only coordination between the US military and Afghan military but also cultural information because a lot of smart interpreters would know if the situation is bad or if they feel uncomfortable somewhere. They will let their boss know, “This is what I feel. I feel kind of uncomfortable in this situation or something weird is going on in this area.” And then most of the time, when they would do an investigation and find something bad, we’d be on that area. So it’s not only translating word for word but, also, it’s providing cultural advice which makes the coordination better.
RH: To piggyback on that question a little bit, can you walk me through a day in the life of an interpreter with the Marines?
J: Normally we would wake up early in the morning. It depends on the mission, if we had a mission on that day or not. You would wake up really early – the same time the Marines would wake up – like four in the morning. Everybody would get ready, take a shower, eat breakfast and there would be a certain time that you would have to be gone by, maybe five o’clock. You had to wear the same uniform as a US Marine. You had to wear your body armor, your kevlar. Some interpreters had weapons. It depends on the mission that they were going to do. Some interpreters didn’t have it. They were being protected by their boss which was whoever they were working with.
Sometimes we would go on a mounted mission, sometimes we would go on a dismounted mission. Then you would coordinate with Afghan police. We’d go to a meeting with them and talk with the locals. Most of the time they would go on a project where they helped Afghan civilian people. They would do a food drop or something like that. On a holy day, they would get the people what they need. You would tell their problems to the Americans or you would translate between them. Sometimes because there were more missions, interpreters would go to two missions. They would go on an eight hour dismounted mission and they would come back and then go with another unit to another mission. They would come back late at night, eat something and then go to sleep.
RH: Got it. Let’s go ahead and let’s talk about working with 2/7 first. Do you have any specific stories about working with 2/7?
J: I do. Definitely. I remember the first day when I became an interpreter I was kind of nervous. I never did this job before. I was like, “How should I do this?” Military terminology is very important. They were using so many acronyms but no matter how much English you know, if you didn’t know those specific military acronyms, it would be hard for you to translate. So I was a little bit nervous.
I remember the first sentence that I translated. My Captain was a cool and awesome person – Captain Lomuscio. He was like, “John. Let’s go talk with the police chief about something.” It was a joint mission that all the convoys had to go on and all of a sudden, the Afghan police vehicle ran out of fuel. I had to translate for them. The Afghan police told me to ask the Marines if they had fuel for their vehicle. I translated something like, “These people need oil for their car.” My CO kind of looked at me like, what did you just say? [laughs] The way I said it didn’t make good sense. I didn’t know how to say it. I was just starting the job. It was the first sentence that I translated. But he was like, “Don’t worry about it. I got it but I know that you will get better. I know that you can do this.” He motivated me all the time and after five or six months, I was the one running all the team leader engagements and stuff. He was like, “Do you see? I told you that you were going to be fine.” That was my first experience with interpretation, the first thing that I translated.
RH: Nice. What are some other stories?
J: Normally we would go on the long convoys from one base to another base. One day I was assigned with 2/7 Golf Company and our convoy would go to different districts to provide logistic support. One day we were going from Gulistan district back to Delaram base. It was all off-road. It was only three hours away, maybe, but on the convoy it would take twelve or thirteen hours because the route was so dangerous. There were always the risk of IEDs.
Sometimes we would go in four vehicles which is crazy in a district which is surrounded by bad guys. The location was very risky with huge mountains, tough terrain, tough areas to drive. We were coming back and all of a sudden, it was my first time and the first vehicle that we had got blown up in a huge – I saw the turret kind of fly away, more than a hundred meters away. It was a good friend of mine in that first vehicle. I was like. “Holy shit.” Everybody had guns ready because normally in a situation like that, an ambush would happen.
So my Captain told me, “Hey! Get out of the car everybody! Get out of the vehicle. Since I was a civilian, I didn’t have a gun. I just took boxes of bullets. I was carrying ammo to the Marines. Everybody got in position. I was carrying ammo to the Marines and everybody got laid out. Luckily my friends in the first vehicle were fine – minor injuries. They were evacuated by helicopter but that was a rough day. We spent the entire day in the desert. Everybody was so tired and dehydrated. We were waiting for the QRF to come and take us out of there because we were only a few vehicles in such a dangerous place.
RH: When you were interpreting, were you speaking mostly with local Afghans or government officials?
J: I was doing both. Sometimes we would go talk with local people. If we were going to a district, if we were doing a mission in a district, I would go and talk with the leaders in the district. Also, some other times we would go and talk with the police chief. My boss would have a few things for the CO and we would go discuss that with him. After our meetings, we would normally have a lunch or a dinner with them sometimes and go back to our base.
RH: Nice. What are some of the concerns that the local Afghans had?
J: Most of their concerns were about construction. People would ask all the time about building the streets in their district. People would always have security issues or security concerns. Security was bad in their places and they needed the Afghan government’s attention and the US Marines’ support. Most of them were security and construction issues.
RH: Do you have any specific stories about any of the Afghans that you interpreted for with 2/7?
J: Do you mean Afghan local people or Afghan police?
RH: Afghan local people.
J: Afghan local people? Yes. When I was with 2/7, most of the local people were the elder people of the district. They call them malek or something like that in the village. It’s kind of funny. One day we were doing a mission and one guy came. He was an older guy in his fifties. He kind of looked at my boss and said, “This guy is a really, really smart person.” He told me to tell him that. When I translated that to my CO, he kind of had a smirk on his face. He was like, “What do you mean? What is this guy talking about?” [laughs] I was like, “I don’t know. This guy thinks you are a very smart person.” And then my CO laughed because he knew that there were bad guys in this area. [laughs] I translated that and he was like, “No, no. This guy is a very smart person.” So they would have interesting conversations.
Sometimes they would ask you about your age and your personal life because they were very interested and curious about where you’re from, how long you’ve been in the military. Stuff like that.
RH: Cool. What are some of the cultural differences between Afghans and Americans that the Marines found challenging?
J: I think the most challenging thing was interaction with women. Marines are very well trained this well before they are deployed. They get this training about Afghan culture. They know not to touch women’s hands, not to talk to them and all that stuff. They have a good awareness of that. But sometimes it’s required when you’re going on some missions that you have to go to people’s house where there’s bad guys. Normally in that house, sometimes there will be females, too. When they go there, people are like, “You went to this house. What if there were females?” Bla, bla, bla. There is no other way to do that because that’s a requirement of the mission and they have to go there.
But most of the time, I would say ninety-five percent of the time, we didn’t have any charges like that. If there was something with the females, we would tell the Afghan police and they would handle that.
RH: Got it. I want to ask that same question but in reverse. What are some of the cultural differences between Afghans and Americans that the Afghans found challenging?
J: The most challenging part was that sometimes people or a local would say, when you’re going on a mission or getting close to somebody’s house, they’d be like, “Our females are in the back yard. They’re doing something in the back yard. You guys shouldn’t be coming this close.” It was mostly about females. That was their biggest concern. That was the biggest one.
RH: Got it. We talked about Afghan civilians but how about the Afghan police? What were some of the challenges working with the Afghan police and the Marines?
J: The challenges were – most of the challenges that the police had were lack of training. Also the police were not very well-educated and the Marines were trying their best to educate them with the military skills. But there were some that would try to do their own thing. Sometimes the local people would complain about the police. Some police were taking money from people on the highways and Marines were really trying hard to stop that because they knew that would give a bad name to the Afghan government. That was the biggest challenge.
RH: When you were with 2/7, were there any Afghans that were hard to work with? This could be Afghan civilians, Afghan police or Afghan government.
J: Most people that were hard to work with were the mullahs in the mosque or some of the religious people. They would completely refuse to give an interview. Or they would say, “I’m not available. I don’t want to do this.” This was not just with the Marines but also with a different unit that I was working with. The mullahs, they would completely refuse to talk. They were not interested at all. They were the hardest to talk to.
But other people – civilians, police or some leaders – they were easy to talk to. They would, most of the time, provide their concerns to the forces.
RH: While you were with the Marines did you ever encounter any Taliban and did you have to translate between the Marines and the Taliban at all?
J: Yes. There was one time – most of the time I was staying in Bala Baluk and most of the time attacks would happen at nighttime. I remember one time we were just chilling and having a good time and all of a sudden an attack happened. Rockets were coming from everywhere. It was pretty bad. Everybody went down. We would wear our body armor and find a safe spot. After that you would be ready to go on a mission.
Some of the interpreters, we went on a mission and they arrested a lot of bad guys – local people. There were suspected local people, I would say. There were more than eighty of them. By the morning, all of them were there and I had to go with an intel guy and he was getting all the information for these people. That was a very uncomfortable situation for me. [laughs] Oh man! You don’t know how risky that is. All these people have a really bad look already in their eyes. I’ve been in situations like that.
One other time there was this other guy that claimed to be an Afghan police. This guy had a lot of power and there were other people that worked for him. When he would talk – do you know how people sometimes stare at you in a weird way? Some people don’t have good social skills or have high eye contact. This guy had this weird staring thing. I was kind of thinking about him, like this guy looks a little bit weird.
Over a week we were translating documents. They were bringing huge documents to us – books, magazines, IDs. All kinds of stuff. My Sergeant told me, “If you find something suspicious, just let me know.” I was the one who found an ID that was a Taliban ID of this police person. He was the Taliban. He had a long beard, his name was the same. We were shocked. We were like, “Holy shit!” I told them that I got this bad information about this guy. This is his ID. My Sergeant was like, “Are you sure?” I was like, “Yeah. It’s the same guy.” He was like, “I trust you.”
Eventually he was like, “Let’s go to the police station.” We went there and he was already pissed off. He was like, “Where is that guy?” Then they’re like, “He just went downtown. He’s eating dinner.” We were like, “Can you guys please give him a call? I’d like to meet here.” They give him a call like, “Hey. There’s something going on. You need to come back.” He came and when he looked at me and all these Americans, he kind of understood that he was in trouble. He was nervous, shaking and all that. They arrested him right on the spot. They arrested him and I don’t know where they did take him. That was one of the things.
RH: Crazy. Do you have any more stories about translating between the Taliban and the Marines?
J: There are so many but these were the most interesting and the most memorable ones.
RH: Got it. Earlier in the conversation you were telling me that you were also a cultural interpreter and you’re not just translating words. When you’re working with Afghans, you were able to see some of the things that the Marines weren’t able to. What are some of the things that the Marines and, actually, all American service members that you worked with, often missed when working with Afghans?
J: It’s the cultural differences. Most of the time people would explain something and they would mean something else. The main thing was cultural or also people’s body language – the way they talk, the way they explain things, the words they would select. For an American it was very hard for them to figure out what is going on here. But as a person, it’s your country and you know the culture. You have a very good understanding of the culture and also what different things mean. Their looks, mostly body language – reading people and their body language. That was the biggest one.
RH: Got it. I’ve never been to Afghanistan. Are Afghans very expressive with their bodies? Do they use a lot of body language and how are they different than Americans when communicating?
J: It is definitely different. I feel like there are eleven or twelve most honest signals in your body. People can fake everything. People can fake their cars. Somebody can go ahead and rent a Ferrari and say, “That’s my car.” People can fake watches, people can fake anything but they’re not able to fake these honest body signals which are like personality, eye status, eye contact, the way they walk, the way they talk – all these different things. I’m very interested in the psychological thing and I kind of know what every signal means so I was able to really spot it. All people dress the same. All people are hanging out in different parts of the cities, for example. The Americans wouldn’t know. If I saw somebody walking a little bit weird or a little bit suspicious, I would kind of know. Like, this guy looked different or he’s a little bit weird or he’s acting a little bit weird. But Americans wouldn’t. Everyone dressed the same – they had a long beard or no beard – and it’s hard for them to distinguish like that.
RH: OK. Before we move on to working with the Army PsyOps unit, is there anything that I left out with the Marines and their deployment that you’d like to address?
J: No. As a final, I would say that it was a great experience. It was definitely hard for me, especially after finishing my deployment and coming back home. I had this leave for twenty days or a month before I was assigned to another team. It was very shocking because I was doing all these interesting and exciting things every day with all these friends of mine. Coming back to your family is always a huge pleasure. You see your friends, you see your family, you’re in a peaceful environment. But still, I would miss those things. I would miss those things real quick. After a week I was like, “Man, that was a great experience in my life.”
RH: Excellent. So you had a couple of weeks off and then you started working with the PsyOps unit, correct?
J: Yes. I was assigned to Bagram. My family was very happy for me. They were like, “Now you will be able to go back to your home,” and all that. It was a little bit safer compared to the south part of the country because I was assigned in Kapisa. That’s like the eastern part of Afghanistan, I believe. It’s like an hour away from Bagram. I was happy there but when I was assigned to that team, we would go stay on Kapisa for one month or two months and then I would go see my family. Every month we would go there, stay for three or four weeks, then we would have a few days off. I was doing that job for a year.
That was a good job too. My boss is living in Austin right now. When I got to the US, I had the pleasure of seeing him. We went to a dinner, talked about all of those crazy times that we had together.
RH: What unit was it exactly that you were translating for?
J: It was, I believe, 385th Psychological Team – PsyOps team. Their main headquarters was on Bagram. Their units were on different other bases helping a French SIMIC team and also helping Afghan police and Afghan National Army about public affairs, designing posters and stuff for local people to increase their awareness, talking with local people and their governor and listening to the issues that they had and helping train Afghan military.
RH: What are some of the memorable stories about working with the PsyOps team?
J: Sometimes we would travel to far districts. Some districts we would go, these were really beautiful places. There was water – they were so green. There was this one place near our base where you would sit by a rock and you could see the beautiful view of all the valley. I was thinking to myself, “If this place would be safe and no bad guys, how awesome would that be?” People would go there and enjoy their lives, enjoy their time. That would be so cool. But we would go to all these foreign places doing missions, eating with the local people or with the police. It was kind of funny. I had established a good relationship with the Afghan National Army. That way, when their dinner or lunchtime would come, we would go and take plate or get a lot of rice and bring it back to all of the guys in PsyOps and we would all eat together. They were like, “You might be a good interpreter,” [laughs] “bringing all this food and stuff.”
RH: Were there any memorable interactions with Afghans while you were working with the PsyOps unit?
J: Yes. Sometimes we would go talk with different people and sometimes people would have crazy questions. They were curious. We had this governor one time – I don’t know, he was a governor or something. He was very interested in elections and American culture and would ask questions like, “Do you have a girlfriend? How are the girls in America?” Different questions like that. Then we would explain that to them.
But it was mostly going on missions, talking with local people, doing some media jobs with the French SIMIC. Most of the missions were tough. Most of the missions were dismounted missions.
I remember one time there was this interpreter. He was from the US in his mid-forties. We went on this mission that started at like six AM. It was a very long mission. It was a sunny day and we had to walk on all these crazy hills up and down. We walked like, I don’t know, four or five miles. After four or five miles he was not able to walk because he was not used to this. So the whole mission had to stop and I think he was evacuated. I don’t remember how they took him from there but he was very dehydrated. We were doing that every day and it became an everyday thing. Kapisa is very mountainous and we would go on missions like that all the time.
RH: Alright. Before we move on to the Ministry of Defense, are there any other stories or anything that we left out about the PsyOps unit that you would like to address?
J: No. That was pretty much it. I would just go to work for a month or something, go see my family and then come back to Bagram. Sometimes we had to go by our own in a car or whatever to see our family and then come back. After that I was assigned to Kabul.
RH: Very cool. Let’s go ahead and let’s move onto working with the Ministry of Defense. What was your job while you were there?
J: When I was transferred to Camp Eggers, I was assigned to a full bird Colonel. Such a great guy. He was an Air Force Colonel. He was the senior advisor to the Ministry of Defense, GSG7 and GSG5. So I started working in that Ministry and it was a totally different experience. You had to be more professionally dressed, go to all these key leader engagements with one star and two star generals that discuss very important military topics and issues. I had the privilege to start working with them.
RH: What are some of the memorable stories about working with the Colonel and in the Ministry of Defense?
J: Most of our things that we were doing were sustaining key leader engagements. I had to do different things because at first I was assigned to GSG7, GSG5. There were a lot of acronyms in the Ministry of Defense. One time there was an Air Force person – he was also an advisor. He was teaching at the Air Force Academy here in the US. He was telling all the students that we had this acronym that he was using in the Afghan Ministry that was the longest acronym ever. It was something like AMODALTPPO. What it stands for is Assistant Ministry of Defense Acquisition Logistic Technology Plan Policy and Operations. So they would say this in the meeting and we had to translate the whole sentence. [RH laughs] It came out APLPPO and then it would take two minutes for the interpreter to translate the whole thing. [laughs]
RH: That’s crazy. Were there any specific officials on the Afghan side that were particularly memorable when you were translating for the Ministry of Defense?
J: Yes. I’ve worked with Public Affairs offices with General Waziri and General Azimi. Good guys. Most of the time we would go to this place called GMOC. It’s Government and Media Operating Center or something like that. Basically in this place they would have these big conferences with all these TVs and the press would come. He would have a live conference for the media – the general, he would go on. I would go translate at one of those big conferences. They were doing that. But great guys. I have a lot of great memories from them – very respectful, very professional in their job. I had a few trips with them to different units. Sometimes I would go to different provinces. He would go and visit all his soldiers in the combat zone. We would travel with him and back.
RH: Obviously when you’re working in the Ministry of Defense, it’s very different than working with the Marines in the sense that you’re in the Ministry versus with the Marines you’re out in the field. But do you have to take any special considerations into account when translating for the Ministry of Defense vs. the Marines?
J: Do you mean, what were the differences? Or what differences I felt?
RH: Yes. Aside from the obvious ones of being out in the field versus being in the Ministry, what were the differences?
J: Some of the differences were in the Ministry, we had to translate in a very professional way. Not only did you have to know all the military acronyms, you have to have a good knowledge of the military system. Every department in the Ministry that you work with requires a good understanding of that system. First, let’s say if you’re working in logistics, you have to know logistics. How does this work in logistics? If you’re working in tashkil, that’s what they say, it means all the people are assigned to different companies and battalions. All the time they increase and decrease the people so you have to know the paperwork process and how does this process work. If you’re working with the Public Affairs office, you have to know a little bit about media and conferences and so forth. There is different terminology that they use in media so you have to know that.
Versus in the provinces, it was different. In the provinces we would use all kinds of words. You can translate any way you want to most of the time. It was different. It doesn’t require a lot of terminology and all that stuff.
RH: Before I move on, is there anything that I left out about working with the Ministry of Defense that you would like to address?
J: No. That was pretty much it – working with different departments and stuff, different people.
RH: So you’re in the US now. When did you come to the US?
J: I came to the US in 2013.
RH: Did you come as a student or did you move permanently?
J: No. Interpreters are allowed to apply for a program. It’s called special immigrant visa. Priority is given to interpreters who have spent time in the combat zone. You’re applying for the visa program and then after a few months when they’re doing the background checks and stuff, you’re putting your life at risk, you know? Like I said, in all my stories, the bad guys know who you are. They’ve seen your face all the time on the missions and stuff so it’s a huge risk for yourself and your family. That’s why they have this program which is a really awesome program that provides a special immigrant visa for the interpreters. I really hope that the program should be continued for all the other interpreters that are still back there. I can really feel how much their life is at risk. I really want to emphasize, I’m very hopeful that the program should be continued. The US military should support their Afghan interpreters that are back there in the country.
RH: Are you working in the US or going to school?
J: I’m working here and also planning to go to school.
RH: Got it. Very cool. I have some big picture questions for you. Has the war affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
J: Do you mean the war in our country before being an interpreter or being an interpreter?
RH: I’d say while being an interpreter. While being an interpreter, has the war affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
J: No. It didn’t affect me very much because I have grown up in that country. I’ve seen things like that my entire life. This sounds crazy but it’s a very different experience for Americans because they have never seen something like that in their lives before. When they see something like that, their interpretation of the situation is very different than the person that’s in the country because growing up, you see problems like that all the time and you have this understanding that sometimes things happen that are outside your circle of control.
RH: With that being said, what is the difference with the way Afghans deal with the war and Americans?
J: Most of the Afghan people, like the Afghan soldiers, they’re also religious type people. When they pray that gives them a positive way of thinking. They ask God, “You should help me out with this.” Whatever happens is based on the satisfaction of God and praying gives them a positive way of thinking. That’s how they think about it, as far as I think.
For Americans, I don’t know. But I can definitely feel that it might be way harder because they’ve never seen something like that before in their life and when they see something like that it’s very shocking.
RH: Interesting. Has interpreting for the military and the war since 2001, has that changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
J: How would you describe that?
RH: Actually, it’s interesting. When I ask most veterans this question it’s kind of like you say. They haven’t really been exposed to death and war before joining the military. So the question for them, they usually see that and go through a change. Did you go through something similar?
J: Do you mean PTSD or emotional pain or something like that?
RH: It could be that or a lot of guys, after they go over and they see some people get killed, it changes their perspective whether they come back with PTSD or not. Did you notice that you underwent any changes like that?
J: No, I haven’t. No. Definitely not. No.
RH: Interesting. I want to go ahead and switch it up a little bit. Do you have any funny stories about your time as an interpreter?
J: Funny stories? Let me think. Yes. One time I remember we were in Kapisa and there was some governor and he had this really weird question for my boss. He was like, “When you guys are making love with women, what do you guys do? I want to get some knowledge on that.” [RH laughs] And then my boss, he had a little smirk on his face. He was like, “Well, we do this,” and he went on and on with some crazy some stuff. The governor was like, “Wow. Maybe I should give that a shot. I should give that a try. We’ll see how it is.” [laughs] He was curious about that and it was really funny.
Also, I have one other time. I was in the Ministry of Defense and there was one general. I won’t say his name. He was a three or four star general and he was saying a story. Do you know when sometimes someone’s saying a story that you feel like it’s not very true or it’s a little bit of an exaggeration? I was not even able to translate that. There was luckily another interpreter and I looked at him and he immediately took it over before I started to laugh so hard and they kicked me out of that meeting. He saved my life.
The general was saying something – it was about this politician guy. The way he was talking, it was very influential. He had good conversations. So my boss would say, “He was very good on that, too.” He was like, “When I do my conversations, I don’t write or anything or look at the paper. I just go with my gut. Whatever I feel, I would just say that.” And then he said, “I was intelligent my entire life. When I was seven years old, I remember in school I was so little I would have this speech for the entire school for the students and teachers every morning. Because I was a very small kid, they weren’t able to see me. The students weren’t able to see me so the principal of this school would put me on his shoulder and then I would keep talking and keep motivating all these other students.” As soon as he said the principal would put me on his shoulder, [both laugh] I couldn’t take it. I remember I bit my tongue, looked at the TV and the other guy immediately took it over. I acted like I was short of breath because it’s tough in meetings like that where everybody’s so serious and then all of a sudden there’s this funny story. It was rough. [both laugh]
RH: Alright. I’ve got a question and this is for your entire time interpreting. When you were interpreting, did you ever not translate something correctly on purpose because it would have been too damaging?
J: Let me think. No. Most of the time we would translate as accurately if possible. But sometimes if the guy would go on and on and on and had a really long story, then I would just pick up the main ideas and translate it. That would make me very tired. But, no. Most of the time we would try our best to translate as accurately as possible.
But sometimes when people were talking, this one thing that some advisors – not all of them – some advisors would want you to translate two people who are talking. Or sometimes they would say something and they would jump from one subject to another subject. You can’t translate like that because it wouldn’t make any sense. But sometimes the advisor would expect you to. “Oh, what did he say?” But you can’t translate that because that was just like a normal conversation where people were jumping from one subject to another subject. But some other advisor would understand that. They would just say something like it was a conversation or it was personal and they would get that. Some advisors wouldn’t understand that.
RH: Let me ask you this. Were you ever speaking with an Afghan person and they were just saying something that didn’t make any sense at all and you had to translate that?
J: Yes. That happened so many times. I remember one time we were with the general. This general was known for being a very talkative person in the Ministry of Defense. He was a very nice guy but he would jump so much. I remember he was telling this story – I couldn’t translate it – for an hour almost. Everyone was waiting for the punchline and were so excited but the punchline never came up. [both laugh] It was like I ran a fucking marathon. After this much, there’s no punch line? Really? [both laugh] So everybody had this look and when we got out of that meeting we were all laughing like, “One hour story with no punchline?”
RH: Alright. Good to go. So I have my last couple of questions. What are some of the common misconceptions that the average American might have about Afghanistan and what the people of Afghanistan has gone through?
J: All the news they see in mainstream media – whatever news they see in the mainstream media – they are likely to believe in that. They are like, “Afghan people are like this,” when they are judging the whole thing. Some of them. And I don’t blame them because they’ve never been to the country. Afghan people are very hospitable people. All of the Marines that have been through, they understand that. They get that. People that have been there, they understand that. They know that there are some bad people but they also know that there are so many good people. So many people are very hospitable. They would make these dinner and lunches and want to chat and have good conversations with Americans and buy them gifts when they were coming back home. And doing all kinds of stuff which is part of the Afghan tradition. So, yeah. That’s that biggest difference.
RH: Cool. If you could communicate something to US policymakers as they think about their next steps in Afghanistan, what would it be?
J: I believe you have already made a huge sacrifice in Afghanistan. You’ve deployed so many soldiers to make a difference in the country. They should continue to support the Afghan government. They should continue to support the Afghan allies because I don’t want those accomplishments to be wasted because they were gained by a lot of hardship. A lot of soldiers did a lot of great things to make that difference. So I really hope that all those accomplishments should be supported. All open-minded Afghan people realize how important that is for their country.
RH: If you could communicate something to Afghans going forward, what would it be?
J: It would definitely be good, positive changes in their leadership – professional people. There shouldn’t be people appointed into key positions based on their relationship with other Afghan government leaders. I know that a lot of people that they have are generals and they have all these key positions in the government. It’s either based on their relation with other higher up people in the country or they know somebody in different parties and that’s how they bring those people. So hopefully there should be people being appointed based on their professionalism, based on how capable at the job they are. Also, they should really deal with bribery and all that because there’s been an incident like that where people have taken money. They should come up with a very strict policy against bribery.
RH: OK. Do you see a way forward for peace in Afghanistan?
J: I definitely do. I am very hopeful. If the US forces continue to support the country, continue to help the country and also if the people themselves should take some action and get rid of the bad people and the leadership and become more professional day by day, I think the improvement will come.
RH: Good to go. Before I ask my last question, is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
J: No. I think it’s pretty much ended. It was a pleasure to be able to share my story. I have great friends all over the US. I’ve worked with the Marines, with US Army, with the Air Force, with DoD. I stay in touch with most of the people. Seeing them is a great honor after such a long time. So, yeah. It’s been a privilege.
RH: Right on. So here’s my last question. What specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your time as an interpreter in Afghanistan?
J: When I was going with all these missions without refusing them, it wasn’t something I should say, “Oh, I’m not going.” Every day when I would wake up, I was waking up excited. I would wake up so energized because I know good things can happen no matter what. Those feelings kept pushing me every day and it was great.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Anything else?
J: No. That was pretty much it.