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COLUMN ONE

Afghan interpreter pays a personal price

He started working for the U.S. after the invasion in 2001. He joined the Army, became a U.S. citizen and is building a life here. But he yearns to return to his family, which he hasn't seen in years.

January 20, 2010|By Mark Magnier

Around the same time, on a hearts-and-minds mission in Paktia province, he noticed that the strong downdraft from the helicopter had damaged crops, threatening to undermine any goodwill. He convinced the commander to pay the compensation the villagers demanded. After the troops built wells and a school, the villagers softened and even offered to return the money -- no small gesture in this impoverished country. The soldiers declined, insisting that it be used for schoolbooks. Before team members left, villagers cooked them a mutton feast.

In August 2005, his life took another turn when several of the guardsmen -- with the help of military logistics, a Rotary Club charity program, Ronald McDonald House and a volunteering heart surgeon -- organized heart surgery in the United States for an Afghan girl born with a congenital defect. He accompanied the girl and her father as their interpreter, explaining American ways to Afghans.

"He had to show them how to shop for clothes, use a Western toilet and toilet paper, basic stuff," said Fippen, who hosted the girl for several weeks. "She used to stand on the sink and on the toilet. In the village, they almost never take a bath."

By the time the girl and her father returned to Kabul in January 2006 -- she's now healthy and living in Jalalabad -- he hatched a crazy dream for himself: The high school graduate would try to attend college in the United States.

There were several roadblocks, among them the tuition. He'd arrived with $50, thinking it would be enough.

"I didn't know that $50 was nothing in America," he said. "You buy a cake at Wal-Mart, and it's gone."

But several of the Americans he'd worked with in Afghanistan, appreciative of his years of help, encouraged him to take the entrance exams, get into a university in Indiana, get a student visa and line up scholarships, chipping in their own money as needed.

"I'll appreciate them forever," he said.

He missed his family, culture and Afghan food, an isolation compounded by not having a car. But his former buddies drove him to the mosque when he felt blue, where he met Afghans and other Muslims. "In America, you need a car for everything," he said. "They really tried to keep me from being lonely. I honestly believe Americans are good people."

In 2006, while he was studying political science and international relations at a university in Indiana, the Defense Department amended its "09 Lima" program, making it easier for those who'd worked overseas as interpreters to serve as soldiers and become U.S. citizens. The military's demand for terps had grown, from a single contract for 30 interpreters in 1999 to thousands today. The "09L" program was recognition that it's easier to teach a linguist to fight than the other way around.

He signed up, became a U.S. soldier and citizen and was deployed to Camp Phoenix where, for two years, he served as an interpreter and mentored Afghan army recruits. Being one of the terps made him a target of the Taliban, who view them as traitors and a linchpin in improved relations between foreign troops and the Afghan people, the sergeant said, something the militants don't want.

Two good friends were hunted down by Taliban fighters, who often behead and cut up interpreters' bodies. "They're sending a message," he said. "Under Islam, you don't kill people, but animals you kill with a knife. They do this to scare us."

But he's not intimidated, he said, adding that U.S. success is the best hope for Afghanistan against neighboring countries intent on keeping his homeland weak. "My friends lost their lives for a great cause," he said. "It makes me try even harder."

The sergeant recently returned to Indiana, rented an apartment and plans to finish his last two years of college. But he admits to a few transition problems. Troops in Afghanistan tend to barrel down the middle of roads at high speed to avoid roadside bombs. "Here, you can't drive like you're in a combat zone," he said.

"He's gotten two tickets already," said Christopher Lee, an attorney based in Evanston, a mentor and former commanding officer.

Lee said the sergeant is talkative and sociable, which has served him well in life, but that cracking the books isn't always second nature.

"On occasion, I've had to threaten him with bodily harm," Lee said, joking. "There are advantages to being his former commanding officer."

The sergeant said the next bridge he wants to build involves taking his American college degree back to Afghanistan and helping his country.

"I'd like to be president or a minister and help make it a place that can stand on its own feet," he said. "I hope someday I can help give Afghanistan a good name."

mark.magnier@latimes.com.

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