The Last Journey

September 6, 2010  COP Turbett

Tajiman (Interpreters)


Every now and then, I have to write something that I know will usually end up getting me into hot water. But sometimes, I just don’t care.  Today is one of those times.  I will be careful, but I will say my piece of mind. 


Today was the second day of school.  It was even more full of children than yesterday.  Three tents now were full and it won’t be long perhaps before more tents are utilized.  It is too bad that the project to construct a new school is not progressing rapidly.  Is a matter of fact, it is going rather slowly.  From what I have gathered, a sum of about $200,000 has been allotted and paid out to build a school.  I do not see the school ever being completed.  The way things go around here is we seem to pass out money like it is bubble gum in hopes of somehow buying off the population.  I’m no rocket scientist but from what I know during my brief life experiences is I do not think trying to buy hearts and minds really is ever successful.  I know this much, the $200,000 spent on the school is never going to produce anything near what it should.  There is no reason this type of mess up cannot be rectified before we continue to bankrupt ourselves in hopes of winning the hearts of minds of the people here in drug infested Helmund province. 


I am not the only one who sees this or verbalizes this.  Is a matter of fact it pretty much is the topic of conversation around here among everyone that I speak with.  How so much money is just thrown at projects that do not necessarily really ever get finished is a real sore spot for me.  These are the kind of things that I am not sure can ever be explained.  What I do know however is people fish and teaching them to fish are two different kettles of fish. 

During today’s school session, there were some sustained gunfire off to the east for a while.  There was a time that those of us with the school children were wondering if the enemy was in fact going to make a move on the school or just keep harassing in order to prove a point about being upset with the school being opened in the first place.  Many here believe that it is only a matter of time before something is done on a larger scale by the enemy to put a damper on things about the school being opened.  In the mean time, increased patrols are being conducted around the area close to the school and I have noticed increased air traffic above seemingly to keep an eye on things from above.  I do not know how long operating in a defensive type of position will remain effective, relatively speaking.  But for now, should the enemy try something brazen, he will be met with severe force, if he can be located.


During time with the children today, I noticed a new face among the Marines being brought to the school yard.  It is a civilian interpreter from the US, working for a company called, MEP, who actually was born in Afghanistan approximately 30 some years ago.  It is a female.  Her name is Heela. Today was actually her first day on the job.  Prior to coming here she told me she was a retail store manager for Victoria’s Secret, a clothing store that sells women’s stuff.  Everyone pretty much knows what it is, so I will not go into it.  This girl, who left Afghanistan when she was very, very young, spent a long time in India and then as a teenager ended up in the US, is now here working as an interpreter specifically to engage the female local population along with the two FET Marines here already.  This job that she has pays around $200,000 dollars a year which is about $17,000 a month or somewhere in the vicinity of over $500 a day.  That is quite a bit of money.  Compare that to the typical LCpl here on the front lines who makes about no more than $75 a day, while deployed and one can see what goes on in another’s mind.  The same interpreter who works for the same company and does exactly the same thing as the female does, but is a local national meaning does not have US citizenship, earns about $25 a day and takes quite a bit more risk, at least as far as I have seen. So, the point here is that there is a huge discrepancy between wages for Marines, wages for local national terps and wages for US terps.  My question has always been how much the company that hires these terps gets paid per person, whether that person is US or local national.  That is always the hard part to find out but somewhere, somebody knows that answer.  Those kind of answers usually come out years later in some Senate investigation.  Not my problem at the moment.


But, what I did notice about this female interpreter on her first day on the job was that she is not so fluent in Pashtu which happens to be the main language here in these parts among the local population.  How she got sent to here is beyond my understanding.  I will say this however, she is youngish, she is attractive and there is a New York times reporter showing up on the scene in the extreme near future to do a story on the female engagement teams mingling with the local population.  From what I have seen, there is not so much “mingling” with the female population as of yet.  Yes, it is in the early stages, however, my suspicions are that most of it is a dog and pony show and my suspicions are not mine alone.  Many here will tell you the same thing. This is the part of war fighting that always gives me a sour taste in my mouth.  Such is life.


Later this day, in the afternoon, I went on a patrol with the PMT guys again which was designed to more or less give the new female terp a taste of what is going on in her new neighborhood.  That means we would walk around the market area for a short while with her being accompanied by the two female Marine FET team members along with some other members of the PMT squad providing security.  Walking through the bazaar area is generally considered a safe thing to do.  On this day however, as we were walking towards the west end of the bazaar, we all heard gunshots coming from the west area and we took cover in the canals and behind some adobe walls.  I pushed forward to where Cpl Dillon was and decided to stick with him from now on when things go down.  I’ve decided that Cpl Dillon is more or less a magnet for bullets lately and in my mind I have given him a new name, that being, “Magnet”.  The Afghan Police were pretty much handling the situation and if it got closer, the Marines would take over the engagement.  As this was going down the new terp was also behind a wall sitting down taking out her pocket camera and snapping photos as well.  I had been told earlier not to take any photos of her doing her job by one of the female Marines which I found to be a little absurd.  Everyone in this camp has a camera on them and many have already taken her picture.  As she was snapping photos from her sitting down position, she was asked to do some translating to the Afghan cops.  She did not respond.  Then again, she was asked.  Again she kept taking photos and observing the situation.  Finally it dawned on her that she was not a tourist and actually needed to do her job at the moment, that being translating some information to the Afghan cops from the Marines.  Needless to say I took note of all this and it just kind of put more fuel on the fire of the sour taste I have about contractors in general working in war zones.  


This female terp is not a bad person and I have nothing against her personally, however, it is really a symptom of the whole situation about how contracting works in general here in the war zones.  There are things that always need to be repaired or tweaked.  I feel for sure, the handling of interpreters, especially the female ones is for sure one of those areas that needs tweaking.  Again, what am I to do…I’m just an historian.  Such is life, again.


The mission to the bazaar was directed to continue and we proceeded as ordered.  We wound around the back side of the bazaar and all was just fine.  The shooting to the west subsided and no one was really too concerned.  We came back into the COP and that was pretty much the end of the day.  What I had seen this day here in Helmund province weighed heavily on the thinking side of my brain.  These are the reasons I generally try not to think about such things because it always causes a rise in my blood pressure and sometimes makes me lose focus of what I am doing here.  However, it is also a component of what I see here in this place and it is quite similar to what I saw in Iraq with a bit of variation to it.  I see the need for reaching out to the female population here in Afghanistan.  I’ve always thought it was job for the state department.  Why it is being tasked to the Marines for the moment is probably because no one else wants to do it yet.  But I do not know where the funding for this operation actually comes from.  That would be interesting to follow.  Following the money always leads to some interesting developments. 


I ate dinner with the guys in the CMOC this night and then I bedded down early.  I was tired and I knew I had an early patrol the next morning.  I got a good night’s sleep this night, but I woke up the next morning still thinking about contractors and money and being told not to take a photograph and a few other things.  It’s never a dull moment but it is frustrating at times. 


This was the end of September 6, 2010 at COP Turbett in Afghanistan. 



Jim Spiri