American interpreter takes a stand in Afghanistan
By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 28, 2011
MARJAH, Afghanistan — Maybe the last person you’d expect to see arguing with an Afghan soldier in a goat-filled bazaar is the former manager of a Los Angeles-area Victoria’s Secret.
But there was Heela Nasseri, in full battle rattle and mad as hell.
“I’m not going on this [expletive] mission if that [expletive] guy goes,” she told the Marines she was accompanying as their translator.
Female Engagement Team leader Cpl. Kimberly Martin and Sgt. Ryan Kirkham, the squad leader providing security, asked Nasseri what was wrong. Only seconds before, she had been laughing and talking, in Pashto and Dari, with clearly delighted Afghan children, asking them their ABCs and giving them candies — just as she had on many other missions.
The soldier had told her to stop talking to the children and ordered them to get away, she said. When she told him it wasn’t his concern, that he wasn’t in charge of her, he ignored her and continued to roughly move the children away.
The Afghan soldier, a rangy man in his 20s wearing a bandana on his head, stood glowering a few feet away.
The Marines hadn’t wanted the Afghan soldiers along on the mission to bring the FET to meet with some local woman in their compound, after a quick trip to the bazaar to buy them bread and fruit.
“They never do anything anyway,” one Marine complained. But their inclusion had been a last-minute order.
They had no choice. They had to continue the mission, Martin and Kirkham told Nasseri, despite the soldier’s presence.
Just then, the soldier walked over to some small children and smacked them, fast and hard, in the head.
“He’s what’s [expletive] wrong with this [expletive] country,” Nasseri said.
Nasseri, 29, is one of about 10 female translators with 17 FETs throughout Helmand province, according to Marine officials. Such women, all from the U.S. — able to speak Pashto and Dari, willing to deal with the dangers and rigor of patrols and Spartan combat outposts — are hard to get and hard to keep.
“Most quit after three months,” Nasseri said.
She’s done six months, with scores of patrols and meetings, and jumped hundreds of wadis — irrigation canals and ditches. “I’ve been shot at; it’s happened four times. I just jump into a wadi,” she said. “It’s normal now.”
The female translators are increasingly prized by the FETs as the only way to communicate with Afghan women, who are forbidden to even look at unrelated men. “Charades and our little bit of Pashto only get you so far,” said Sgt. Brandy Perez, team leader of another Helmand FET.
Which is why one FET team leader, who declined to be identified, went so far as to dress a male Afghan translator in women’s clothes and a head scarf.
Nasseri took the job after breaking up with a long-term fiance, deciding she was done with retail and realizing that a security clearance would be an excellent thing.
“And then, the money,” she said. Nasseri’s yearlong contract pays her six figures, she said.
She left Afghanistan with her family at age 4, spent years in India then settled as a teenager in California. She said she views the Afghans through American eyes.
All the FET women have seen things in their work in Afghanistan that few Americans have ever seen, much of it troubling or tragic.
“The injuries from IEDs, the illnesses, kids with growths on their bodies that are so big,” said Martin.
“I’ve taken away heroin and had little kids follow me and say, ‘That’s mine,’ ” said Sgt. Casey Littesy, another FET team leader.
“I had an Afghan man try to give me his wife as a servant,” Perez said.
The patriarchal culture, in which women are chattel, can be very hard to swallow for the American women, though they do their best.
“I have been very disgusted,” Martin said. “I met a 35-year-old man with an 11-year-old wife.
“You want to do so much, but you can’t,” she said. “You can’t even talk to certain women because their men won’t allow it.”
Most Afghan men don’t bother her, Nasseri said, although she’s not a fan of the Afghan soldiers, one of whom bought her a headscarf that she refuses to wear.
“They stare a lot,” she said.
Far worse, she said, are the lack of hot showers when it’s cold and patrolling in summer, when temperatures reach 120 degrees and higher.
“You pretty much hate your life then,” she said. But when it’s cool, “I actually like patrolling. It’s a workout for me.”
It’s a big change from when she started.
“The first helo ride ever, the first time I heard shots — everything was scary to me. What really helped was I felt so bad for the Marines. I told myself if they can do it, I can do it.”
Nasseri calmed down after her run-in with the Afghan soldier. He was sent to the front of the squad. He was replaced by an Afghan soldier with a more low-key approach, and a flashier manner — he wore bullets wrapped across his chest like a Mexican bandit, held his rifle upside down and would later fall, spashing, into a wadi.
Heela Nasseri, an interpreter with a Marine FET in Marjah, explains to the Marines that a surly Afghan soldier along for the mission had been interfering with her engagement with children in the bazaar, and that she refused to continue the mission if the soldier, wearing the head scarf, stayed on.
NANCY MONTGOMERY/STARS AND STRIPES