Father and son translators return to Carlisle, Pa. from Afghanistan
By TRAVIS KELLAR | The Sentinel, Carlisle, Pa. | Published: December 31, 2012
CARLISLE, Pa. — More often than not, news of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan mentions the triumphs and struggles of U.S. armed forces. Baktash Ahadi, of Carlisle, gave a different insight.
He shared his experiences from his time as a translator for the U.S. military.
A 2005 graduate from Susquehanna University, he went to Mozambique to serve as a volunteer for the Peace Corps. He then went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore to pursue his graduate degree in global security. It was during that time when he put schooling on hold to serve as a translator in Afghanistan. He was hired by the Department of Defense, which then assigned him to the U.S. Special Forces, specifically the United States Marine Corps.
He initially only anticipated being gone for a year — one year, however, became three.
“Essentially, whatever the Special Forces teams needed, in terms of engaging with the local population and/or the insurgency whenever they came into our grips, so to speak, they pretty much used me as a tool to get what they wanted across,” Baktash Ahadi said. “Whether it was translation via handwritten translation, interrogation, working with village elders ... essentially, I was their diplomat. I was a diplomat pretty much working with Afghan forces, Afghan civilians and then the U.S. Special Forces.”
Baktash Ahadi said there was no typical day at the office for him. During night missions, he said his teams would fly to villages before anyone else knew. Their job would vary from assisting villages with things that they needed, such as schools, water wells and clinics. They would also search for insurgents and seek information from villages that they visited.
Psychological operations, according to Baktash Ahadi, were also an important part of his job. Working with the Afghan military, he said they would use radio stations “to promote their message and promote their legitimacy to the Afghan people, just so the insurgency knew that there was an Afghan face, an Afghan force once the U.S. forces left.”
Like son, like father
Baktash Ahadi was not alone during his entire time in Afghanistan. Along with the support of his Special Force teams, his father, Basear Ahadi, of Carlisle also came to work as a translator in the country. Originally a computer operator for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, Basear Ahadi waited six months to retire and quickly found a job as a translator.
During their time in Afghanistan, Baktash Ahadi said he and his father each were assigned to different parts of the country due to their strengths in different languages. Baktash Ahadi said he could speak Dari well, while his father could speak both Dari and Pashto. As a result, Baktash Ahadi was in the western part of the country, while Basear Ahadi was sent to Kandahar, where Pashto is primarily spoken.
This is not to say that they did not work together.
“There was one point where Dad and I were working together for about five months in the same room, working in the same office, working for the same team, so to speak,” Baktash Ahadi said. “After that, we split up, and I went to the West and he stayed in the South.”
It was Basear Ahadi’s first visit to Afghanistan in 25 years.
Baktash Ahadi explained that he, his father, mother and brother Elia Ahadi fled from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Pakistan in 1984, where they stayed for about a year and a half. They were eventually sponsored by a relief organization to come to Carlisle in 1986, where Baktash Ahadi’s other brother, Masheed Ahadi, was born. While Basear Ahadi’s trip back to Afghanistan enabled him to see family and support his son, he said the trip was dangerous.
“I would not go back,” Basear Ahadi said. “It’s scary.”
In that dangerous environment, Baktash Ahadi said his father helped to provide a “support system” for the two. When they were apart, they would keep in touch through phone calls and check up on each other if something happened in the areas where they were.
Serving all interests
The war in Afghanistan has claimed thousands of lives, and Baktash Ahadi said while some troops are to return home, the U.S. Special Forces are in Afghanistan for the immediate future. The reason for him, as well as his father, going to Afghanistan was to serve interests on both sides of the conflict.
“Although we’re very American, we’re still very Afghan,” Baktash Ahadi said. “We have a specific skill set. We speak languages that are very crucial to the war effort, and so we thought to ourselves ‘who better else to do this job than us?’ I personally felt it was a part of my obligation as a U.S. citizen and an Afghan to be a part of this effort.”
While serving as translators, both Baktash and Basear Ahadi said they also served as a sort of cultural advisor during their time in Afghanistan. Not only did they have to explain to American soldiers the Afghan culture and way of life, but they also had to explain American culture to people in Afghan villages.
“When people ask how Afghanistan is, and when Afghans ask how Americans are, in terms of culture, they are day and night,” Baktash Ahadi said.
One example he gave were tattoos and profane language. In American culture, tattoos are commonplace in society, and profanity is not the taboo that it once was. In Afghanistan, he said tattoos are considered “dirty” and profane language seen as a very negative thing. While language barriers obviously exist, Baktash Ahadi said most villagers could pick up on American profanity due to the length of time that U.S. armed forces have been in the country.
“Imagine having this U.S. soldier, who’s swearing left and right, saying the F-word and has all types of tattoos all over his body telling this person who is much older than he is what to do,” he said.
It is in those situations, he said, that knowledge of both cultures was important so that the village elders were not offended and would continue to work with him and his team. Basear agreed, and said he often advised military personnel what is accepted, what was looked down upon and what to consider when interacting with Afghans.
Baktash Ahadi also stressed the importance of translation that he said may not be quite as apparent to those unfamiliar with the profession. He said words, meanings and idioms do not translate well from English to Dari or Pashto, which was challenging during tense situations. Working with Afghan armed forces and U.S. armed forces, especially when lives were on the line, raised the stakes even higher.
“If these two entities don’t get along when we’re out on mission, they may attack each other,” Baktash Ahadi said. “Dad and I, a lot of times, we were grassroot diplomats between these two parties.”
Baktash said that, along with ensuring both groups got along, he and his father often translated during high-caliber situations, such as whether or not the Afghan army would attack the Pakistani army on the border. One wrong translation, he said, could have sparked conflict between the two nations.
Despite the high stress that came with the job, both Baktash and Basear Ahadi said the stress became normal after a while.
“I’ve seen people die in front of me, I’ve had bombs blown up in front of me, bullets have been shot at me, but you know ... when you’re out in the environment, the thing about the human psyche is that everything at one point becomes kind of normal,” Baktash Ahadi said.
For Basear Ahadi, the dangers of Afghanistan really struck him when he finally returned home to Carlisle. He said he now questions “how did I do that?” but while he was in Afghanistan, the dangers were commonplace.
“You don’t think that,” Basear Ahadi said. “You’re just not scared.”
While high-stress situations seem dangerous now as Baktash Ahadi’s stress levels are low, he said that in Afghanistan, those situations are almost sought after.
“It was hard for us being civilians, but at the end of the day, it become normal for us,” Baktash Ahadi said.
Basear Ahadi said he plans to relax during September and take care of some things around the house. Eventually, he said he plans to find a job in Washington, D.C., as a translator.
Baktash Ahadi said he has been home for three months. He spent a little time with friends in New York, and is now spending some much-needed time with his parents and his brothers. During his time in Afghanistan, his brothers Elia and Masheed were able to visit for brief periods.
Now that he is back home, Baktash Ahadi said he plans to return to Washington, D.C., where he will finish up his master’s degree in international relations. While he does not plan to return to Afghanistan, he said his trip there will have a lasting impact.
“It kind of brought me, and my interests and my career full circle,” Baktash Ahadi said.