Letters from Afghanistan 




Past Letters

Airman to provide inside look at Afghanistan
Airman makes his way to base in Afghanistan
Seven tips on living and working in Afghanistan
The finer points of goat herding: An update from a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan
Soldier’s base comes under attack in suicide mission







The terps: Unsung heroes
Interpreters risk their lives to help U.S. soldiers

November 10, 2010

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.

>>view page of Thelen's latest pictures
from Afghanistan

Enforcer and heart

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.

The extremists, 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 team’s enforcer.

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.

Hotak learned 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.

Mohammad is 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.

Mohammad 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 team’s politician.

He has 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.

Shafiq 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 changed greatly.

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.

He is 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 better.

My combat 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 Afghanistan.

Next month: the international language of teamwork: Sports!