FORT LEE, Va. – News of Afghans fleeing their country for the sanctuary of the United States and elsewhere brought back vivid memories for Army 1st Lt. Mazin Mozan, who is reminded of the difficult choices he confronted as an Iraqi national who did the same in 2004.
Mozan was a Baghdad University graduate and part of a family that espoused community service when he joined the ranks of the hundreds of interpreters and others supporting coalition efforts during Operation Iraqi Freedom that had started a year earlier. It was a noble decision fraught with danger.
“Translators or any group of people who were or are still involved with helping coalition forces overseas are some of the most courageous individuals in the world,” Mozan acknowledged. “The amount of risk, stress, public shaming and constant accusation from others who oppose what you do as a translator makes it a very lonely and dark path.”
The lieutenant was featured in a 2010 story printed in the now defunct Fort Lee Traveller newspaper. He was a student of the Automated Logistical Specialist Course assigned to Alpha Company, 244th Quartermaster Battalion. Subsequently, he was commissioned into the Medical Service Corps, and he now serves with the Army Reserve’s 628th Forward Resuscitative Surgical Team, based in Alabama. He was contacted by phone for this story.
The 39-year-old didn’t mince his words. Translators, he stated, accept the looming prospect of death – not just in the conduct of their duties, but in every aspect of their lives.
“Taking on the job meant risking your existence in your hometown or country along with your family and friends,” said the husband and father of two. “You risk being blamed for the rest of your life for losing a loved one … and you risk your own life being on the road daily, involved in firefights against a ruthless, bloodthirsty enemy while wearing minimal protective gear and no weapon to protect yourself in most cases.”
The associated perils became reality in 2005. Mozan and his family had become enemy targets like so many others in the same situation. Terrorists launched a grenade attack on their home, and shortly after, killed a young family member.
“That’s what they wanted; to show us we should not oppose them,” he said in the Traveller article. “I was not going to do what they wanted.”
Instead, the violence had only stiffened his resolve. He now had “skin in the game” as a victim of an egregious act of terrorism. He said quitting was an option, but it would not erase his support for the Americans in the eyes of the enemy or the need for change in his country.
“I found no satisfaction in a ‘safe’ way out compared to having the pride and honor of contributing a small amount to protecting innocent lives, even if it meant losing loved ones,” he said. “My life isn’t more valuable than the Soldiers and civilians who died in the mix of this.”
Mozan continued his work, standing ground in the face of overwhelming terror and violence. More than 1,000 translators were eventually killed by enemy forces in Iraq, according to online information provided by the List Project to Resetttle Iraqi Refugees.
Army Capt. Sean L. McEwen of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) attested to Mozan’s sacrifices in the Traveller article. Now a lieutenant colonel, McEwen met Mozan roughly 18 years ago in Baqubah, Iraq, while they served at a forward operating base there.
“Many have placed their own lives in the line of fire; but few have endured the risk and family loss that Spc. Mozan has,” the senior officer stated in the story.
U.S. Army Soldiers in the unit Mozan supported helped him submit a special visa application under a pilot program in 2007. He was one of the first 50 Iraqi linguists to be accepted for resettlement. A couple of years later, he enlisted in the Army, giving up a potential six-figure, DOD contract interpreter salary to join the ranks. As he explained it, donning the uniform provided relief from the stares and inquiries of Soldiers, who – seeing him dressed in similar gear – would consistently ask, “Are you a Soldier?”
“I hated saying ‘no,’ because I had done almost everything Soldiers did but could not be called (one),” he said in 2010. “I wanted that honor and pride because I think I earned it before I became a Soldier.”
Mozan went on to spend four years on active duty before transitioning to the Army Reserve and earning his commission in 2019.
Reflecting on his arrival to this country in 2007, Mozan said he was only provided with a visa but no guidance, special privileges, or resettlement assistance. The latter came from “Soldiers that I worked with in combat and their families,” he said.
“They treated me like their own son and still do,” he continued. “The way they continue to treat me and my family is what makes it all worth it. It assures me that what I did was honorable, and I would do it all over again any day if I had to.”
A sense of emptiness seem to tinge the enthusiastic statement, though. Something was amiss, and Mozan went on to provide clarification.
“It’s a bitter feeling and will always be,” he began. “There is no happiness about enjoying my new safe, prosperous life in the United States while loved ones and friends are left behind to face those who would do anything to harm them.
“It makes me feel like I am letting them down, and I have no way to explain it to them or look them in the eyes,” he continued. “The fear they faced and the harm they suffered can never be repaired, and I will always be in debt to them.”
The traumas he associates with war – death and violence, forced migration and family separation – played out again in Afghanistan as U.S. troops were withdrawn after nearly 20 years of trying to provide stability. Thousands of Afghans who supported allied interests have arrived at Fort Lee and other installations for immigrant processing.
Recalling his own journey to America, Mozan reflected on the “overwhelming feelings of uncertainty” likely being felt by the new arrivals as they ponder their new lives and the futures of those they left behind. He expressed hope that support agencies and the members of communities in which they are resettled will recognize their plight and provide the needed assistance to make them part of the American fabric as soon as possible.
“If they want to know what helped me, it was reaching out to the American Soldiers I knew and asking them for advice,” reflected Mozan. “I made an effort to become part of the American society. I wasn’t intimidated to step out of the small immigrant community where I was initially resettled. I wish them similar success. They so richly deserve the opportunities they will be afforded in the country they supported during this long war.”