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Heroes 2010

‘I owe him a lot. I owe him my life'

Staff Sgt. Robert Clay | Diyala Province, Iraq | February 17, 2009

By KEVIN DOUGHERTY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 14, 2010

SCHWEINFURT, Germany — The soldiers could hear the desperate screams of their Iraqi translator trapped inside the burning vehicle.

In the hull, the man they call “David” was gasping for air. It hurt to breathe and the smoke had grown so thick he couldn’t see. He collapsed on the hard, hot floor, fading in and out of consciousness. All around him ammunition was popping off.

“I was terrified,” Mohammed Huessin Khwakarm said of the Feb. 17, 2009, incident. “I thought, ‘This is the end of my life.’ ”

Khwakarm then heard Staff Sgt. Robert Clay encouraging him to get up, and soon the soldier was at his side, pulling him forward. They went through smoke and fire and out the front passenger door. The next thing Khwakarm remembers is getting treated for his injuries outside of the Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicle.

For his heroics, Clay was awarded the Army Commendation Medal with valor. Two other soldiers with the 9th Engineer Battalion, Spcs. Fernando Salazar and Dustin Eberly, were similarly honored for their actions that day.

But Clay’s deed was extraordinary because while Salazar and Eberly were in the vehicle that hit the roadside bomb, Clay was not. He was riding in the Buffalo vehicle directly in front of them. Khwakarm was also the last person rescued from the smoking carcass.

To Clay, Khwakarm was a member of the team, and a valuable one at that.

“David was trustworthy,” Clay said. “I probably would have given him a gun if I could.”

Since the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, hundreds of interpreters have been killed or injured in the line of duty. The exact numbers are unknown since the military says it does not keep track of that information.

Though some interpreters have gone rogue, most have remained loyal.

“A good interpreter is like a good soldier to me,” said Maj. Phillip Philbrick, who, as a member of the 10th Mountain Division, worked with Khwakarm in 2008. “They are invaluable.”

Interpreters in war zones not only serve as a conduit for two people speaking a different language, but they provide context, and that can make all the difference in a tight situation.

Clay, 29, set out from Forward Operating Base Hammer that morning on a route-clearing operation near South Balad Ruz in Diyala province. Six vehicles were driving through a lightly populated area of dilapidated mud-brick buildings and water canals when Salazar’s MRAP, the fifth in line, rolled over two anti-tank mines buried in the road.

The explosion tore into the front of the vehicle and the growing inferno spread from front to back. Worse yet, the back hatch was inoperable. Inside the vehicle were Salazar, Eberly, Khwakarm and three other soldiers. All but Khwakarm managed to escape, either through the front passenger door or the gun turret.

Clay organized his men, led efforts to extinguish the fire, rescued Khwakarm, established a landing zone and helped carry the wounded to waiting helicopters.

First Sgt. William O’Brien, the convoy commander, estimates Khwakarm spent five minutes in the burning vehicle. The 30-year-old translator suffered severe smoke inhalation and numerous burns. He was flown to Jordan for emergency care.

“We were told there was no way he was going to survive,” O’Brien said.

It would be several weeks before they heard that Khwakarm had pulled through and was slowly recovering. Khwakarm no longer works for the military, but is trying to immigrate to the United States.

“Khwakarm was a really good interpreter,” Philbrick said. “He just wanted to do his part. It was about helping out his community.”

O’Brien credits Clay with saving Khwakarm’s life and stabilizing a precarious situation. Months later it was learned that Clay had a cracked vertebrate. It’s not known if the injury occurred that day or in one of the other mine strikes he survived.

Clay and Khwakarm have remained in contact.

The sergeant is back in Schweinfurt; Khwakarm is home in Iraq, waiting for the International Organization for Migration to rule on his application.

“I owe him a lot,” Khwakarm said. “I owe him my life. I like him more than a brother. He’s like an angel to me.”

doughertyk@estripes.osd.mil

Army Staff Sgt. Robert Clay was awarded an Army Commendation Medal with valor for rescuing an Iraqi interpreter from a burning vehicle.
COURTESY OF ROBERT CLAY

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