I was born in the former Soviet Union in the early 80s. When I was 16, my family immigrated to Israel. A year or so later, my mother won a Green-card. We moved to San Francisco in June of 2001, 2 months before 9/11. Six months after 9/11, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps, leaving for boot camp shortly after. I did two tours of duty in Iraq, most notably participating in the Second Battle of Fallujah.
Most of my time in Fallujah was spent with a small group of Marines (10 men squad; normally 12, but we were short on people), one Navy Corpsman attached to our squad, and an Iraqi interpreter – Sammy. Sammy was actually attached to our platoon (3 squads total) and he was floating between squads on as needed basis.
Sammy, of course, wasn’t his real name. All of the interpreters picked an American name to make it easier for us to interact with them and most importantly, to help them preserve their anonymity.
I believe Sammy took only one vacation for about a week during the whole 7 months that I’ve spent in Iraq. Taking vacation for an interpreter working with the US Military was a very risky undertaking. They went through a great effort to make sure they had a good cover story (similar to undercover agents) on why they were gone for so long. It was very common for interpreters or members of their family to get killed in retaliation for working with Americans.
One time I’ve asked Sammy how much he was making and he said about $500 per month. While this might have been a respectable amount of money in Iraq in 2004, I didn’t think it was worth risking his life or the lives of his loved ones. I asked him why he would take such a risk, and his response was, “I want to do what is best for my country.” He honestly believed that Americans could bring real change to Iraq and wanted to do his part, even given the risks involved.
We’ve spent so much time with Sammy that it was hard to distinguish him from one of us. He wore the same uniform. We lived, slept, ate, joked, and fought together. I think the only thing that gave him away was his facial hair and the fact that he did not carry a weapon.
Sammy was working with Americans for about a year before I got to Iraq. After our 7 month were up, he stayed behind to serve with our replacements.
I have been thinking a lot about Sammy since. I did two tours in Iraq, after which I got to return to my adopted home. I got to go to college using my GI Bill money. I was able to build a great life for myself. I served in Iraq for a total of one year and one month. I was just a green card holder at the time of my deployments and had only lived in the United States for less than 3 years.
Sammy was very similar to me. The two biggest differences between us were that he spent more time working for the US Government in Iraq and that I was lucky enough to have my mother win the right piece of paper. Other than that, our service to the United States was very comparable. Yet I got to come back to the United State and Sammy stayed in Iraq.
I don’t know what happened to Sammy. My hope is that he was able to find his way into the United States after our forces pulled out of Iraq. I have heard of numerous Iraqi interpreters who were able to get refugee status and I sincerely hope that he was one of them.
For me, Sammy will always continue to be a shining example that there are great people and true heroes everywhere. I just need to keep my eyes and my heart open to see them.