It's A Matter Of Interpretation
June 12, 2009
"Good morning. How's the wife'"
It sounds like an innocent greeting used by most of us in everyday life. But as Sgt. Maj. J.B. Spisso quickly found out, not in Afghanistan.
"My interpreter changed the question to 'how's the family' so that I didn't offend the Afghan soldiers I was training," said Spisso. "Then he quietly let me know that asking about someone's wife in their society was considered rude."
That's just one example of how invaluable Ateek, an Afghan interpreter, proved to be as Spisso's assistant during a recent tour in Operation Enduring Freedom.
Through Ateek, Spisso also learned the proper procedure to contact tribal elders and allow contractors to build a well or a school in their domain.
"You have to do it correctly or they will burn it down because you are violating their customs and cultures," said Spisso.
From the moment they met, Spisso was impressed with the bilingual Afghan who appeared eager to be of service to his American counterpart and dedicated to his country's mission.
Assigned to the Training Assistance Group, previous training at Fort Bragg, N.C., prepared Spisso for teaching warfare tactics.
Experience from Operation Urgent Fury in Panama and Operation Uphold Democracy in Haiti was also invaluable for mentoring five Afghan National Army sergeants major who instructed the Afghan National Army in advanced combat training.
But Spisso quickly discovered that what he needed most to be successful as an instructor was knowledge about traditional Afghan beliefs and customs.
"The language training included the standard 'don't move or I'll kill you,' and issues like that," said Spisso. "What I needed was guidance for dealing with senior Afghan leaders, understanding their values and tribe's cultures. Having someone like Ateek to teach me the proper way to address his countrymen made all the difference."
Daily coaching of Spisso's Afghan counterparts began by 7:30 a.m. when the team departed for operations at the Kabul military leadership training center, an installation Spisso compared to Fort Benning but much smaller.
Always at his side was the ever faithful Ateek, patiently educating Spisso how to correctly give military orders and dispense social chitchat as well.
The two developed a mutual respect and a genuine friendship that led to expertly trained Afghan Soldiers.
"What I enjoyed most about them was their honesty," said Spisso. "They want to establish a foundation in their country. They want their children to go to school, they want to lead a good life. I feel my duties there were very useful."
Ateek's enthusiasm to bring two different cultures together to ensure his country's security inspired Spisso to make the same dedicated effort.
Once a week, Spisso made it a policy to join Ateek and other interpreters and Afghan Soldiers for lunch at what was called "Interpreter's Village."
Located next to Spisso's home base known as Camp Alamo, it was just a two-minute walk and it became a ritual Spisso enjoyed.
"It was important to demonstrate just how valuable he was to me and my operation," said Spisso. "Our team would treat interpreters to lunch several times a week and I thought having lunch with them would show them my appreciation in return."
Occasionally, the food which included rice, beans, goat meat, Afghani bread and fruit didn't always agree with Spisso.
But he found the kind of bonding and camaraderie that developed between him and his counterparts during that special Wednesday meal was more than worth it.
"It was just great conversation with them kidding around with each other and me," said Spisso. "One time, the movie 'Blackhawk Down' was playing on a small television in their language which is Dari.
They saw the Ranger scrolls on the Soldiers' uniforms in the film and then saw mine and starting pointing at me and saying 'Oh! Commando!' I came to love going over there and spending that time with them. It also helped us endure the long days of training and being away from family."
One Afghan tradition Spisso abandoned during the Wednesday lunch date was in insisting Ateek and the other Afghans use forks to eat with instead of their hands.
Knowing their goals were to enter the United States someday, Spisso believed it was important they eat with utensils just like Americans.
After seeing an Afghan woman walking in front of a herd of domestic animals searching for bombs on the roads, Spisso also stressed the differences in the treatment of women in the United States versus Afghanistan.
A great admirer of his mother, sisters, and wife who are highly educated, professional women, Spisso began encouraging them to make dinner for their wives once a week and help around the house.
"I explained how American males help in their households with laundry and children," said Spisso. "They couldn't really fathom that concept, but I see it happening in the future because they do watch American television and they're learning from that."
As time passed, Spisso gained more understanding of Ateek and why he had volunteered for military employment.
During the Russian occupation, they had moved to Pakistan where Ateek's father had the foresight to make sure his children went to school and learned English.
After returning home, his father was too old to work and as one of eight children, Ateek had to become the main supporter.
Speaking English had qualified him as an interpreter and after five years he would be eligible to enter the United States.
"All the interpreters are working towards that goal," said Spisso. "The chance to come over here and make a better life for themselves."
The job was not without risk, however. Serving the Americans meant Ateek's life was in jeopardy from the Taliban.
"I was always fearful someone might find out who this kid was," said Spisso. "So I made sure he had my Afghan cell phone number and told him to use it anytime he felt it necessary. We would have rescued him from any situation."
Spisso also found himself protecting Ateek on another occasion. While representing his unit at a senor level staff meeting, Ateek was dismissed by an Afghan Army official.
Spisso countermanded the order telling Ateek to stay. Using the argument that Ateek worked for the U.S. Army, Spisso stated he did not feel comfortable in a meeting with various nationalities and only one interpreter.
"That's the kind of trust I had in Ateek," said Spisso. "So I insisted he stay put. It's critical in this kind of situation that everyone understand exactly what is being said. Sure enough, Ateek let me know that this Afghan general's interpreter was leaving little things out."
The bond became so strong between the two men, Spisso even shared a deep secret with Ateek. Once a week, usually on Fridays when the Afghans were observing their holy day, Spisso would make what was known as a mail run to Camp Phoenix.
In addition to retrieving letters, the mission gave Spisso a chance to visit his wife, also a deployed Soldier.
Knowing her safety was already jeopardized as an American service member, Spisso felt keeping their marital status private was also crucial to her safety.
"We'd meet at the gun truck, share a cup of coffee, and visit for about 20 minutes," laughed Spisso. "And that's about all the personal time we had, but we understood this was a combat environment and both of us were focused on our missions."
As Spisso's assignment in Afghanistan was concluding, he searched for the perfect present to reward Ateek for his loyal and outstanding service.
Believing in Ateek's goal that he will someday come to America, Spisso decided a new suit would be perfect.
Knowing job interviews would be Ateek's priority, Spisso wanted him to look his best. Ateek's exhilaration at receiving the new clothes was an image Spisso says he will never forget.
"Ateek is a fine young man. He'll be a great American citizen and do fantastic things here," said Spisso. "I just sent him a box a few weeks ago with toothpaste, shampoo and coloring books for his brothers and sisters. Oh yeah, I also included kitchen utensils for his mother with the reminder he should cook for her one night."