Life as a Terp

Afghanistan has morphed into a desolate desert landscape; barren, dry, and oppressively hot.  The blinding, scorching sun sits high upon its throne in the sky, casting short squat shadows, baking the earth, robbing the people of essential food.  Night comes like a welcomed guest, cooling the land, inviting people to venture outdoors and bask in evening’s gentle breezes.  Afghanistan strikes me as a country in precipitous balance, a nation that spends the majority of its days in torrid summer and frigid winter, kept alive only by a fleeting spring and frail fall.

7 JUN 2008: I joined Janis in the evening for our nightly cup of chai.  Over piping hot brew and delicious compressed milk Afghan candy, Janis shared his story.  Born a Pashtun, his family fled Afghanistan’s violence for Pakistan in the early 1990’s.  After the fall of the Taliban, they returned to help rebuild their cherished homeland.  Janis, armed with a high school degree and a working knowledge of English, spent many days searching for work, but found only odd jobs mostly involving manual labor.  Then the unthinkable happened. His sister, mother to six children, only twenty-three years old, fell ill with cancer.  Medicine is both scarce and expensive here in Afghanistan and can often drain a family of whatever little savings they possess.   Being the eldest son, with his father retired, Janis stepped dutifully into the role of sole breadwinner for both his and his sister’s family (he describes his sister’s husband as lazy and incapable of helping her financially).  Ignoring the dangers to himself and his family, Janis took a position as a U.S. Army Interpreter.  “I purposely asked for the toughest assignments, the most dangerous missions, because I knew this would bring in the most money, money I could use to buy my sister medicine and healthcare.”  Despite a valiant struggle, the cancer won, leaving Janis with six children and a lifetime’s worth of responsibility.

The threats to an interpreter in Afghanistan are ever present, lurking like evil shadows.  They are the worst armed (technically, they are forbidden from carrying weapons) and least protected (lacking body armor) participants in the war.  Should the Taliban capture them, they are guaranteed a slow, agonizing, brutal death.  Often, the Taliban targets their families (with beatings, robberies, displacement, or killings) as a means of forcing them to quit.  Janis recalled how the Taliban captured an interpreter last year on his way home to Kabul (each terp gets about a week’s worth of leave every month).  The Taliban castrated, beheaded, and disemboweled him, sending the pieces to his family and to his base’s fellow interpreters as an example of what happens to “collaborators.”  Janis said they had found him by riding the taxis and buses that offer transport between Kabul and the numerous bases and cities dotting Afghanistan.  I asked him if he had ever been almost caught.  “Yes! This past time when I was coming back to Ghazni, the Taliban were riding on the bus questioning everyone.  They asked me what I was doing going to Ghazni.  I told them I am a student here and that I was returning for school.  Had they caught me, they would have pulled me off the bus and cut my head off.”  I vowed from this point forward our terps would only go on leave if we could personally drive them to and from Kabul or fly them using the resupply flights that occur every few days.

8 JUN 2008: As I left for my evening’s workout, Captain Norris approached me with difficult news. Team Four was heading out to Waghez for a ten day mission.  Team Four wanted to bring Janis along instead of their terp, Maywan, whose combat readiness and loyalties they questioned.  Begrudgingly, I accepted; part of being a team player is sharing your best resources when needed.  What worried me was that Waghez is extremely dangerous.  Should anything happen to Janis, his family would likely fall apart; his income keeps them alive.  I asked Captain Norris when he wanted me to inform Janis.  “Wait until tomorrow morning.  We don’t want to tip Maywan off, just in case he is working with the Taliban.”

For the next hour I ran around the FOB collecting as much U.S. body armor as I could find to give to Janis; if I had to send him to battle, I was determined to send him as protected as possible.  Master Sergeant Paton gladly provided a spare vest which I rounded out with spare ammo pouches and my own personal ballistic sunglasses.  After presenting him with the items I cryptically urged him to make sure he called his wife that night.  “Why? Are we going to Waghez tomorrow?”  I had been hoping he wouldn’t ask.  I looked away and did my best not to make eye contact.   “No…not that I know of.”   He sighed in relief, “Good, this is good.  Waghez is…(shaking his head and staring off into space) very bad; many Taliban.  I hate them so much.”

As we shared our nightly cup of chai, I forced back tears and did my best to enjoy the evening and ignore the loud question blaring in my head: would this be the last time I’d ever get to have chai with my friend?

9 JUN 2008: I rose earlier than normal to intercept Janis on his way to breakfast.  Captain Norris had instructed me to break the news to Janis early enough in the morning so that he had time to pack.  0630.  My shoulders slouched, a lump in my throat, and a sleepless night behind me, I walked up to Janis and mustered a pathetic smile.  “Salam Alyekum my friend.” “Salam Alyekum,” he responded.  Might as well tell it to him straight, it’s the least I can do. “Janis, I have bad news.  You’re going to Waghez with Team Four.  They aren’t taking me.  They feel you’re better prepared than Maywan in case they get attacked.  They need someone they can trust to handle himself and fight the enemy.  I’m sorry I’m just telling you this now; I just found out.”

He wore the face of the condemned. Silence.  Disbelief.  “What?  No, no, this is not right.  I am your terp.  I work with you, not Team Four.  Maywan is their terp.  They should take him.  He’s capable.  Sure, I am fighter.  I am more experienced.  But how do they expect him to get better if they don’t bring him?  Too often in the past this happened.  A dangerous mission would come and people would say ‘Take Janis…he’s a fighter…he’s the best.’  I’m tired.  I’ve done this for too long.  The last unit realized this, that’s why they moved me up to the staff.”

What could I do?  It wasn’t my call.  “Janis…I don’t know what to say other than, I’m sorry.  I wish I could change this, but I can’t.  I can tell you that this is a onetime thing and after this mission you’ll only work with me, but I can’t change the present situation.”

“But I am your terp.”

At that point Captain Ricker walked up.  For a fleeting moment I foolishly hoped he’d say the perfect thing and alleviate all of Janis’ concerns.  A man of few words and little emotion, Captain Ricker said “I need someone I can rely on, someone with more experience.”  Janis argued,  “But don’t you see, Maywan has experience and will only get what you require if you take him.  He’ll never get experience if you just use me.”

CPT Ricker didn’t have an answer.  The truth of the matter was he didn’t fully trust Maywan and didn’t want to risk anything on his first mission back into the badlands.  Putting his hand on Janis’ shoulder, he squeezed, let go, and walked away.  Janis turned to me and continued to plead his case.  “Janis, at this point, only CPT Norris can change this. I’ll take you to him so you can explain things.”

“Ok good. Let’s go.”

Janis and I entered the TOC to find Captain Norris seated at the main table, coffee in hand, about to dive in to a pile of paperwork.  “Sir, Janis wants to talk to you about Waghez.”
“Sure that’s fine, have a seat.”  Janis began, “Sir, as you know I am going to Waghez today, but I want to ask you to take Maywan instead.  I am not afraid.  I have killed Taliban before.  I am not afraid to die.  I know I am more experienced, but he will only get better if he is used.”

Captain Norris patiently sat and listened to Janis plead his case, though I doubt his opinion wavered one bit.  To him, this was Janis’ time to vent, to have his opinion heard.  I suspect Janis knew as much, but continued on in the vain hope that he might sway Captain Norris.

“Janis, I get what you’re saying, and I get this is a tough mission, and I’m sorry I’m asking you to go at the last moment.  But the fact of the matter is, you are the best we have, Maywan is not ready for something like this, and I’m not sending out a weak terp with this team. It’s too risky. I’m asking you to go as a favor to me and to the team.”

Like the man he is, Janis nodded his head, bottled his disappointment, stood up, shook Captain Norris’s hand and turned to leave.  “Sir, we can be sure that this is the only time we’ll ask Janis to do this, right?”  CPT Norris shot me a devilish smile, realizing I had put him on the spot to reassure Janis.  “Roger, this is a onetime deal; after this, he’s back to working only with the staff,” Captain Norris coolly said.

Janis mustered a small smile and walked out of the TOC.  I followed close behind. Selfishly, I worried he knew I had lied to him the night before and that he’d never forgive me for it; that my deceit would forever taint our bond.

I hugged him, held him tight, shook his hand, and asked him to make sure he didn’t leave without saying goodbye.  Hours later, the trucks packed, the crews mounted, Janis and Team Four departed for Waghez.  Captain Norris went over to the 101st FOB to monitor their movement, leaving me behind to run our FOB’s operations.  He has long thought of me as young, energetic, intelligent, with room to grow and mature.  Today I proved my competence and leadership.

Everything that could possibly go wrong, except for an attack, did.  The crane that was supposed to go with Team Four broke down outside our gate.  One of the two Afghan cargo trucks we hired broke down on the dirt road that leads to the Waghez District Center, leaving our team stranded for hours while they waited for mechanics to arrive.  Calmly, fully in charge, I mounted what Captain Morriarty later referred to as “Zeller’s Opus”; my “rescue plan” for our crew headed to Waghez.  Enlisting a very ashamed and hurt Maywan, I contracted to get a local mechanic to fix the crane, ordered the Afghan National Civil Order Police to escort a new cargo truck out to Team Four, and staged our internal quick reaction force just outside Waghez district (a precaution to insure that if they were needed, they’re response time would be at a minimum).  In the end, the mechanic fixed the crane and Team Four found its own fix for the cargo truck and made their way to the Waghez district center without incident.

Upon returning to the FOB later that evening, Captain Norris complemented me on a great job; the first such acknowledgment I’ve had since joining the provincial team.

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