Iraqi, Afghan find home in U.S. Army
April 24, 2009
<i>Editor's note: Soldiers with a 09L MOS are often placed in dangerous situations during deployments because of their Army affiliation. Because of the obvious danger, Soldiers with that MOS cannot have their photos published.</i>
Earlier this month, when Balsam, an Army private, graduated from Basic Combat Training with his fellow Soldiers of Fort Jackson's 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment, it was the third time he had completed military training.
But what set this training apart from his other training is that the Iraq native can now call himself a U.S. Soldier. His BCT experience was nothing like what he experienced as a soldier in the Iraqi Army under former-dictator Saddam Hussein, Balsam said.
"Iraqi basic training is like 'how to be a slave,'" he said.
In addition to learning how to use various weapons, he was taught other skills, like how to bribe officers, he said. But today, the Soldier, who is now attending Advanced Individual Training here, is eager to continue his new career in the U.S. Army.
Balsam, and many others like him, is part of the Army's 09L interpreters and translators military occupational specialty. The MOS recruits native speakers of highly sought after languages, such as Arabic, Dari, Pashtu, Farsi or Kurdish, and has been in existence since 2003.
Balsam's journey to the U.S. started with his work as an interpreter with Army forces in Iraq. Chris, an Army major who asked that his last name be omitted, was part of a military transition team that worked closely with Balsam, who was working at that time as a medic with the New Iraq Army.
"By luck, he was assigned to my team when I got to Baghdad," Chris said. "I was just real fortunate that he got assigned to my team."
He calls the placement fortunate, because the team quickly learned that Balsam was not just a capable translator, but a trusted colleague. The two soon became friends.
"Balsam was close with all the guys," Chris said. "Initially it was his competence we were all impressed with."
But later, it was his commitment to the mission that bonded the group. "He saved a bunch of (our) lives a bunch of times," Chris said. "It got to the point where I trusted him so much that I would ... use him as a gauge to determine people's sincerity," he said. "We respected him a lot as an interpreter and a fellow Soldier. He was one of the greatest guys on my team." Balsam was similarly impressed with Chris. "He's really loyal to his country," he said. "I respect him."
Chris acted as sort of a mentor for the 33-year-old and he and the rest of the team worked to get Balsam to the U.S.
"It was really hard getting the visa," Chris said. "The whole team sent letters asking for assistance for him to get a special visa."
Soon, one team member heard from his congresswoman, who helped push the paperwork through.
Balsam is grateful for their hard work. "They gave me another chance for a new life," he said. "They are more than family."
<b>From civilian to Soldier</b>
Spc. Abdul has a quiet demeanor. Just days from graduating BCT, he looks like a shining example of a Soldier. But things did not come easily for the 24-year-old Afghanistan native.
"This is a really big change. I have never been in such a challenge in all my life," he said. "I didn't expect this. When I came here I was lost."
During his first weeks with the 1st Battalion, 34th Infantry Regiment, Abdul could not figure out why drill sergeants were yelling at him. Eventually, he pulled one to the side to find out what was going on.
"I was taking this personally at the beginning," he said. The drill sergeant explained that BCT was all about teaching new Soldiers' discipline, and Abdul soon caught on. "I'm not the same guy as I was before," he said. "I learned discipline here. I feel a little bit stronger than I was before."
The life of a Soldier is new to Abdul. But his experience with Soldiers in 2006, when he was working as an interpreter with various U.S. forces, is what started his journey to joining the Army. That is when he met now-retired Lt. Cmdr. John Felkner - the man he calls his big brother.
"I worked closely with the interpreter pool," Felkner recalls. "I and my shop, we were out dealing with the local government every day."
Halfway through his tour, Abdul became his team's main linguist. "He was a good interpreter and adviser," Felkner said.
Before his tour ended, Abdul asked Felkner for his help in coming to the U.S. He had heard about a new law that gave local national interpreters preferential immigration status, and wanted to take advantage of it.
Felker said he approached Abdul's request like he would for any of the other guys he worked with. When Congress increased the amount of interpreters it would accept from 50 to 500, Abdul was among that number. He received his visa in 2007 and arrived in the U.S. in January 2008. Felkner said he had put out some feelers to find Abdul a job, and the day his plane landed, one of his sources came through.
"I had intended to take him around (Washington) D.C., but I wound up taking him to a job interview," he said.
Abdul landed that job, but he was soon looking for something more than life in an office.
"I had always told him, for a fella in his position ... that the Army's going to want his skills," Felkner said. "I think he was just looking for a little more excitement in his life."
A year after arriving to the U.S., Abdul has now found that excitement as a new Soldier. "I will do whatever I'm told to do, and I will support the mission," he said. "I like what I'm doing, but it's not easy."
Even so, he often thinks of the family he left behind in Afghanistan.
"It's going to be a lot different," he said. "My friends, if they saw me, I will be considered a traitor. If I go (back home), it may be dangerous. I'm not concerned about my safety because I know I'm protected. (But) my biggest worry is about my family."
Even as a civilian translator back in Afghanistan, Abdul walked a fine line.
"When I was out, I would hide my U.S. ID," he said. "When I was a civilian, some people didn't like what I was doing."
<b>Two Soldiers: What lies ahead</b>
Both Balsam and Abdul look forward to returning to their respective homelands as U.S. Soldiers.
"I'm the only Soldier who came from the mission to basic training," Balsam said, referring to his former BCT colleagues. "Usually you go from training to the war. I like my job as a translator (but) I think the biggest difference is going to be the uniform."
Balsam's mentor, Chris, speaks with obvious pride about his former colleague.
"He's going to be a great American outside of being a Soldier," he said. "Undoubtedly, he's going to excel as an interpreter because he already has. The only difference now is he gets a set of dog tags and he can finally be rewarded for his actions.
"Whoever gets him is going to be lucky (because) their job is going to be a lot easier," Chris added.
Abdul is also eager to begin his new career.
"I'm a little bit excited for when I go to my new duty station," he said.
When he deploys, he said, it will feel like he is going home.
Felkner, who traveled from Oklahoma to see his friend graduate last month, thinks the Army is a good fit for Abdul.
"Now that he's finished boot and is going to learn his skills set, I think he will do well," Felkner said, referring to Abdul's next stint in AIT. "I think after a month or so in the field, units are going to be fighting over him. I think he has a bright future."
He added, "If it were a different circumstance, I would be working for him."