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During a 9th Engineer Support Battalion project near Fallujah in December, "Sam" was the unit's translator at the worksite. Lt. Col. Mark Menotti, commanding officer of the 9th ESB, said Sam is "insightful on the job site" and "mitigates problems with the locals."
During a 9th Engineer Support Battalion project near Fallujah in December, "Sam" was the unit's translator at the worksite. Lt. Col. Mark Menotti, commanding officer of the 9th ESB, said Sam is "insightful on the job site" and "mitigates problems with the locals." (Megan McCloskey / S&S)

CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq — He’s got the strut, the confident Devil Dog swagger.

He peppers his speech with “awesome” (and more than occasionally drops the F-bomb). He’s definitely gung-ho.

After three years of working with the U.S.-led coalition, “Sam,” an Iraqi translator for the 9th Engineer Support Battalion, has adopted the mannerisms of a typical young Marine.

Now, he wants to be one.

The 25-year-old is hoping to immigrate to the United States, enlist in the Marine Corps, become an American citizen, and then join the officer ranks.

“I love to be a military guy,” he said.

A recent policy that affords a small number of Iraqi and Afghan translators special resident status might just give him the chance.

The dream, Sam said, took hold when he was a child.

He said he became fascinated with the U.S. military when it trained the Jordanian army in the 1980s. He searched out newspapers from Jordan and Saudi Arabia to read about American servicemembers, and he fantasized about being one of them.

“But it was just a dream. I never thought it would happen one day,” Sam said. “Under Saddam, just thinking about that could get you killed.”

Despite being drawn to military life, Sam didn’t want to join Saddam’s army. But the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq presented a different opportunity.

“I started thinking my dream is getting closer,” Sam said.

With a civil engineering degree, he began working as a translator for the U.S. military.

For safety reasons, Sam’s real name isn’t used by the unit, and his photo was not taken for this article.

A unit he worked with previously called him “Al Pacino,” but when he got with the 9th ESB, he chose “Sam.”

“Like Uncle Sam,” he said, grinning.

He hit up the 9th ESB’s commander to get the immigration paperwork started for him as soon as the unit came to Camp Taqaddum in August.

“I told him ‘I’ve got to get to know you first,’” Lt. Col. Mark Menotti said, laughing.

Sam seems in awe of the U.S. military, the Marines especially.

“I love them. How they’re brave to do whatever the mission is, to always keep fighting,” he said. “I’ve seen many Marines get killed and injured for people that are not his people. Guys 18, 19 years old. They protect me.”

In turn, Sam is their cheerleader with the local community.

“Some people have the wrong idea about Marines,” he said. “I tell them, ‘The engineers are here to help you.’ Some Iraqis don’t understand that right now, but I guarantee they’ll understand some day.”

Menotti, who calls Sam trustworthy and insightful, recommended him for the special immigration status. The package was approved by Menotti’s boss and now rests with a general.

“Sam is a bright guy with an even temperament, someone who mitigates problems with the locals,” Menotti said.

Cpl. Angel Figueroa, 9th ESB’s linguist manager, describes Sam as “more Americanized than the other translators.”

“He uses the F-word excessively,” Figueroa jokes. “I was like, ‘You’ve definitely been with the military too long.’”

Sam insists that before hanging around the military he rarely cursed, a new habit that gets him chided by a fellow translator.

He laughs at how, when he started, he thought he had a good grasp on English, but was constantly saying “What?” to the military slang.

“They can’t just call a room a ‘room,’” he says. “It’s a ‘hooch.’”

“I want to be an American citizen, be a Marine, have an American wife,” he said with his trademark enthusiasm. “Even my car will be American.”

Asked how he pictures the United States, Sam responded without hesitation.

“Almost heaven,” he said. “My loyalty to America [doesn’t start] when I get the Marine job. I have it already.”

Policy offers space for up to 50 translators

A little-known immigration policy enacted last year gives Iraqi and Afghan translators working for the U.S. military an opportunity to live in America. But the number afforded the chance is small — no more than 50 each year.

The new immigration category, created by the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2006, “allows translators and their families to gain admission to the United States, apply for permanent residency and eventually acquire U.S. citizenship,” according to the Department of Homeland Security Web site.

They need to have worked for the U.S. military for at least a year and have a recommendation from a general or flag officer.

“Henry,” a former human- rights activist who is now a translator with the 9th Engineer Support Battalion, is hoping to be one of those select few. He’s desperate to get his wife and three daughters out of Iraq.

Henry, whose real name can’t be used, is like many people who want to immigrate to the States — he wants a better life for his family.

But he, like the other translators, stands out in the vast pool of potential immigrants. Henry has spent the last year of his life helping Americans in the Iraqi war effort.

“If you ask me how many times I face death I couldn’t count,” Henry said. “The nasty militias, they threaten us but we keep working.”

Translators leave family behind to live with military units. Henry didn’t bring any photos of his wife or daughters, to prevent insurgents from finding them should he be captured.

“You make more money but increase risk,” said “Sam,” another translator with 9th ESB. “You sacrifice a lot. You’ll not live a normal life.”

The translators get one week of vacation for every three months of work.

“I keep moving from city to city to keep myself safe,” Sam said of his leave time. “I split my time among siblings and parents.”

“I had a girlfriend. I had friends,” Sam said of his old life. “It’s difficult now to trust.”

Both say they’re proud of their work with the U.S. military and consider the 9th ESB family.

An unassuming, gracious man who is quick to offer tea, Henry was shy about asking the 9th ESB’s commander for help with an immigration package. It took him a couple of months, even with Lt. Col. Mark Menotti’s encouragement.

The 36-year-old is a little weary of the process to gain admission to the United States.

“What do they think after three years?” Henry asks about the U.S. government’s view of the translators. “They still don’t trust us?”

“We consider ourselves a part of them,” he said. “We can’t imagine our life in Iraq when they leave us. I want to see [my girls] out of this country.”

— Megan McCloskey

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