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Marine 1st Sgt. Horst Jejjoni speaks with a local Iraqi villager near Al Fahr, Iraq. Jejjoni, an Arabic speaker, used his language skills to ease the fears of Iraqis and Marines alike during the campaign in Iraq.

Marine 1st Sgt. Horst Jejjoni speaks with a local Iraqi villager near Al Fahr, Iraq. Jejjoni, an Arabic speaker, used his language skills to ease the fears of Iraqis and Marines alike during the campaign in Iraq. (Mark Oliva / S&S)

BAGHDAD, Iraq — First Sgt. Horst Jejjoni was a secret weapon for one Marine company as it moved across Iraq and into Baghdad.

Jejjoni speaks Arabic — in the local dialect of Iraqis.

He used that skill to ease fears among village elders when Company G, 2nd Battalion, 23rd Marines rolled through southern Iraq. In turn, they helped the Marines locate members of Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party.

“Growing up, we always spoke Arabic in the house,” Jejjoni said. “But this is the first opportunity I’ve had to use the language other than talking with my family.”

Jejjoni’s parents are native Iraqis — Chaldeans to be exact. Chaldeans are a group of Christians dating back to New Testament times, and Jejjoni’s parents were from a small village north of Baghdad and later moved to the capital city.

Jejjoni was born in the former West Germany before immigrating to Brooklyn, N.Y., at age 4. As with many immigrant families, traditions and languages stuck, and Jejjoni grew up learning German, English and Arabic.

Jejjoni’s knowledge of the Arabic language, especially the complex Iraqi dialect, was known to only a few of the senior Marines in his unit. But word got out soon after he arrived in the Middle East with nearly 200 other Marines in Company G.

“I started teaching the Marines basic phrases when we first got to Camp Commando,” he said. “That was when the Marines really knew I spoke Arabic.”

But any shock his fellow Marines felt was nothing compared to that among the Iraqis. Village elders, enemy prisoners and even Iraqi freedom fighters advising the Marines flocked to speak with him. Many were slack-jawed to see a Marine, in flak jacket and helmet and carrying a rifle, speaking to them in their native tongue.

“It’s utter shock to them,” Jejjoni said. “At first, many of them are confused. One Iraqi told me he thought all Marines had pale, white skin and blue eyes. It confuses them when I explain my Middle East background.”

But Jejjoni uses that brief moment of shock to explain America and dispel myths. He tells them America is a land where many religions co-exist, where cultures intermingle and even Middle Easterners have a fair shot at the American dream.

“The first thing most of these people tell me is how much they hate the Hussein regime,” Jejjoni said. “They tell me how badly they’ve been treated.”

That happened while the company was holding a road intersection outside of Al Fahr, in southern Iraq. Three village elders, all cousins, trekked out to the Marine encampment after hearing there was a man who spoke Arabic.

The eldest was a man in his mid-70s, skin leathered by the harsh desert sun. His oldest son was in his mid-50s, the youngest just 25 days old. Five of his sons were rounded up a few years ago by Baath Party officials and executed, just to instill fear in the local village.

The ground, now cracked and dry, was once lush farmland, growing wheat and rice. But Saddam cut off the irrigation five years ago, just to suppress the southern Iraqis.

Other villagers voluntarily gave information that led to the arrest of Baath Party officials. Company G raided a Baath headquarters in Al Fahr, finding only weapons and documents in the building. But local villagers pointed to the home of the leading party official.

“I didn’t think it would be that easy to get information from them,” Jejjoni said. “They tell me, though, that having us here makes them more confident.”

That scene was repeated across Iraq, as locals pulled Jejjoni from one weapons cache to another, offering food and tea, and relishing the chance to speak with an American.

The experience did not just comfort the Iraqis. It also set the Marines at ease about the enemy they were facing and the people they were liberating.

“My Marines showed up like any other Marines,” Jejjoni said. “They treated any Iraqi as hostile, but being able to translate for them made them more relaxed.

“The Marines ended up really getting into the culture, trading things for the worry beads the Iraqis carry and even the headdresses.”

Cpl. Venancio Duenas echoed the sentiment. When he heard the Iraqis shouting and sounding heated, he was worried they viewed him as an invader. Jejjoni explained that Iraqis are passionate when they speak, and what sounds like heated words are expressions of exuberance.

“I thought they were cursing at us at first,” Duenas said. “I thought everybody was going to hate us, but I saw people who were actually relieved to see us. They wanted us to come and help out.”

“It helped all of us gain a little confidence knowing what the people were saying,” said Cpl. Van Bayless.

“Instead of a sense of confusion, we knew exactly what they were saying. We were relieved they weren’t hostile to us. The first sergeant was probably the most effective tool we had in the toolbox.”

Being able to speak the language also gave Jejjoni a better insight into his parents’ homeland. He said his family is completely Americanized, but he could recognize traits of his father in many of the local men.

“The thing I like about this culture is, there’s a definite sense of seniority,” he said.

“The elder is the boss. He can be 70, but his 50-year-old son still doesn’t do anything without his blessing. That’s how it was for me growing up.

“I also like how close the families are. Everyone lives at home until they are married, unlike us in America where, when you’re 18, you’re out of the house.”

Jejjoni also gained a knowledge of the terrible conditions for Iraqis under Saddam’s rule. Clean drinking water is nonexistent. Raw sewage ran in most of the village streets.

Elders told him they wanted a medical clinic and maybe a school. They wanted the Americans to give them electricity and running water.

“Their hopes are that they don’t have to live in fear of the military commandeering their homes or executing their families,” Jejjoni said. “They’re selfless. They don’t want things for themselves. They want improvements to help their entire communities.”

Jejjoni said he has no ties to Iraq or the Muslim culture, other than speaking the same language. But he has thought about trying to find the village where his parents were born and speaking with fellow Chaldeans. But mostly, he is happy to use his language skills to create understanding between the cultures.

“They’re very curious about Americans,” Jejjoni said of the Iraqis. “They become like lifelong friends. They know only what they’ve been told, so when we give them a little medical attention or some fuel to run a water pump, they are very gracious.

“I never knew how valuable a second language could be. It’s even more special when it’s a language like Arabic that few people outside the region know. It’s nice to help the Iraqis, but our job here is to get rid of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The rest is like a nice little bonus for my soul.”

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