Editor’s note: Lt.
Robert Thelen of Oconomowoc is serving a one-year tour of duty in
Afghanistan. On a monthly basis, he will update the Oconomowoc
community on his actions and the happenings in Afghanistan. You can
read his letters exclusively in the Oconomowoc Enterprise.
By 1st Lt. Robert Thelen III
Special to the Enterprise
The greatest distances between the United States and the Afghans are
in culture and language. Dari and Pastun are extremely complex
languages that are not widely studied outside of this region. Our
bridge over the canyon between our world and the Afghan army’s world
are our interpreters. My team has four “terps.” Each of them has
strengths and weaknesses, but all of them have a depth of courage
that is inspirational.
Hotak, Shafiq, Malik and Mohammad are my team’s ears and voice. They
take our words and turn them into action. I sat down with them and
asked them some personal questions regarding their profession, the
dangers they face and their hopes for their country and their
future. This is their story.
Enforcer and heart
>>view page of Thelen's
All of the
terps told a similar story about their safety. If the Taliban find
out what they do, they will die and their families will be at risk.
There was no hesitation; they would die, probably by beheading.
as they call them, believe the terps are infidels and spies. Because
of this, most of them must lie to their friends and family about
what they do. They cannot wear their uniform home, they have to hide
their ID card from their parents and friends, and they have to live
a double life to help my team accomplish our mission. When they go
home at night, they cannot talk about their day, their adventures or
their frustrations. Instead, they must deceive everyone to keep them
safe from the enemy.
Hotak is my
When we want to
get a point across, we use Hotak. He is a body building Afghan who
demands a presence. He speaks with authority, and he cuts to the
point. He benches more than 300 pounds and enjoys making a point
that he can lift more than most Afghans and Americans.
English in 2003, a year after the fall of the Taliban. English is
widely viewed as the international language, and Hotak saw the newly
founded English schools as a great opportunity to learn a language
that is spoken everywhere.
Hotak does not
beat around the bush; he speaks bluntly and from the heart.
When asked if
the U.S. liberation has helped Afghanistan, he said, “Schooling,
universities, education, roads, and construction are much better,
but security and justice were better under the Taliban.”
He sees his
country being torn apart by corruption and nepotism, things he hopes
the U.S. can help with. Hotak is trying to get a special visa to
come to America. He mentioned that his goal is to study, learn from
American universities, then return to Afghanistan to make it a
better place for him and his family.
my team’s heart.
He is kind,
gentle, and cares greatly for his country. Mohammad uses this
kindness to get to the heart of the matter, to understand what is
really going on. He lowers the Afghan soldiers defenses, but he
picks up on every subtlety of the conversation to add context to the
words. Mohammad, unlike the other terps that live with us at the
Forward Operating Base, goes home daily to his family in the nearby
village. Not even his parents, who live with him, know what he does
for a living, but he takes great pride in what he is doing.
drives his new motorcycle to the FOB every day under the guise of a
construction worker. If he advertised that he was helping the U.S.
in such a real way, he would likely be abducted on the way to work,
tortured and killed, but he soldiers on, day in and day out.
Politician and idealist
Shafiq is my
connections with just about every Afghan soldier we have ever talked
to and knows the background of just about everything that we could
ever deal with. When we need to discuss complicated issues, Shafiq
is the man for the job. He not only translates, but advocates. If an
argument has to be had, he will go beyond simple translation and
fight for a position.
learned how to speak English under the Taliban regime, in one of the
few schools that taught it because, like the others, he wanted to
know “the international language.” Like the rest of the terp team,
his perceptions of Americans before the U.S.-led liberation in 2001
was that Americans would destroy their religion, colonize their
country and be disrespectful to their culture. But, that perception
Shafiq now looks
at Americans as kind-hearted and very tolerant. His perception
changed so much so that his greatest goal is to go to America and
study law, so he can fight corruption and make his country a better
place for his people and his family.
Malik is the
youngest member of the team.
well-rounded and has a great understanding of American slang, which
is useful for conversations with ANA soldiers and officers alike.
Malik is the idealist of the team.
He loves his
people, his family and his country. He is optimistic about the
future, one free from corruption and nepotism, one free of foreign
influences like Pakistan and Iran, and one of a strong and free
Afghanistan. Although he is the youngest terp on the team, his
English is spot on, and he constantly wants to learn to speak
adviser team is nothing without our ears and voices. To advise, we
must communicate and understand, and this is what our terps provide.
There are many
names for these individuals: interpreter, translator, tajiman, terp,
but no matter the name, they are unsung heroes of the war in
Next month: the
international language of teamwork: Sports!