News: Iraqi translator marks 10th anniversary of war as US soldier
Story by Capt. Kyle Key
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. - Growing up in the west region of Al Anbar province, young Jacob dreamed of becoming an Iraqi soldier and providing a good example while protecting his family and fellow Iraqis.
After Operation Desert Storm began in 1991, Jacob started to realize the corruption that mired his homeland from the dictator who led with an iron fist. When he was old enough, Jacob’s father sat him down and explained the truth about Saddam Hussein’s regime. When the U.S. invasion began March 19, 2003, Jacob dropped out of high school in Ghazalya and joined his father in serving as a translator with the U.S. Marines, hoping to help pave the way for a free Iraq.
“The U.S. took away Saddam’s regime, and they liberated us, gave us freedom and democracy,” said Jacob. “The U.S. came to help so I thought it would be beneficial for me to help them help my people.”
After he was cleared for duty, Jacob assumed his new name and identity to protect his family. He and his father lived secret lives, rarely leaving the al-munṭaqah al-ḫaḍrā or green zone in Baghdad, for fear that their family would be marked for death and killed as traitors.
In seven years of service to the U.S., Jacob endured fierce combat, bombarding by insurgents, improvised explosive devices, and was taken hostage twice by local militias. The first kidnapping occurred in 2006 when he served with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. Eight gunmen with the Jahu Adi Militia forced Jacob into the back of his car and drove to their headquarters. For two hours, they made phone calls, taunted and threatened to torture and kill him. He was released without incident, but he wouldn’t be so lucky next time.
In August 2009, Jacob was serving as a translator with the Baghdad Media Engagement Team, Multi-National Division Baghdad, placing his life on the line alongside U.S. service members during missions in the area. After a challenging week, Jacob took a well-deserved day of leave to enjoy visiting his family.
“So I thought I’ll just go home for tonight,” he said. “I have my car with me so I’m just going from the green zone to my house.”
Just as he drove into Ghazalya, Jacob was pulled over by local militia driving police cars and wearing unauthorized uniforms. They searched his car and ripped through seats and door panels. After the gunmen threatened to rape his mother and sisters, Jacob pushed back and was severely beaten for two hours, dragged through the street and then stuffed in the trunk of his car.
Jacob was bleeding and suffered severe bruising all over his body. As he lay in the trunk, barely able to see except for light leaking from the rear brakes, his life flashed before his eyes. The car stopped and he was taken into an abandoned house where he suffered more humility and beatings. A large man entered the room and pummeled Jacob.
“I fell down on the ground. Two people picked me up. He gave them an order to blindfold me, to tie my hands together. I didn’t know what to expect but they started to beat me again. The blindfold fell after I was hit in the face and I saw a line of 15, 16 to 20 people … they were just in line, waiting to beat me up.”
Jacob was still conscious but went physically and mentally numb.
“At that moment, I just wanted to die. That’s all I wanted. I wasn’t thinking of anything else. That’s it, that’s the end.”
He woke up on a dirt floor to the chatter of the gunmen making plans to take him to Iraqi Army Intelligence. Jacob was scheduled to report that morning back at Forward Operating Base Prosperity in the green zone. After he failed to return from leave, his commander, Army Capt. Christina Douglas and her team began to worry.
“When Jacob didn't show up for work, we were extremely concerned about his safety,” said Douglas. “We didn't know he was kidnapped at first, but were obviously very alarmed when we found out. My initial thoughts were that we needed to get him back - immediately - no matter what it would take, but the reality was that we needed to wait it out.”
Time was running out for Jacob. At the BMET in Baghdad, it was an all too familiar story for Jacob who translated media releases and coordinated with the Arab/Pan Arab media. According to a 2009 Brookings Institution report, during the time he served as a translator, 168 media workers, interpreters and journalists were killed in similar circumstances and almost two-thirds of those were murdered. Of the 1,487 contractors killed during the Iraq War, 938 were Iraqi private contractors like Jacob.
Jacob suffered more than a week of death threats, continuous beatings, torture and humiliation. He was locked in a dark cell with a dirt floor, surrounded by garbage and human waste in the stifling heat. All the while, he strived to hold on to hope that he would make it out alive even though the beatings increased in severity. His captor took his belt off and lashed Jacob.
“I just dropped on the floor again and he started to whip me while I was down,” recalled Jacob quivering. “I thought, 'please God just let him kill me because I can’t take it anymore.'”
The following day, his captors told him to call his father to arrange a ransom for his freedom. Jacob’s father immediately called the BMET and informed Douglas. She was elated to hear that Jacob was alive but there was little they could do.
She and her team decided that intervening would only confirm Jacob’s involvement with U.S. forces and would mean certain death. Three days later, Jacob was pulled out of his cell and was asked if he was working with the Americans.
“‘So who do you work for?’ he asked me. ‘Are you going to tell me?’ I don’t work for anybody. Because once I tell them that I work for the U.S., I’m losing my head. Seriously, they would cut my head off.”
Jacob learned that a high ranking Iraqi general had called the headquarters asking if he was being detained and ordered them to release him immediately since he was friendly to the Iraqi forces. He was escorted out of the house and placed in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser with two gunmen. They called his father and made an exchange of an equivalent of $2,000 in Iraqi Dinars to release Jacob.
“‘Is that your dad’s car?’ they asked me. I replied, yeah, that’s him.”
Jacob peered through the window and watched as they instructed his dad to come forward with the money. Jacob’s father hesitated for a moment.
"‘Oh, so your dad doesn’t want to give us some money,’ they said. 'We think we’re going to kill you now. Maybe your dad can pick up your body and go.'"
Jacob felt the muzzle of an AK-47 press against his back as he was pushed forward to exchange the money from his father to the gunmen. After the swap, Jacob jumped in his dad’s car and they sped off driving randomly around Baghdad just in case they were being followed before going home.
With blood stains, cuts, black and blue skin and clothes ripped to shreds, Jacob entered his family home and was embraced by his mother.
“My mom was crying, my sisters and the rest of the neighbors,” Jacob said. “I took a long, long shower and slept for two days. I just slept. I was knocked out.”
Undeterred by his second horrendous ordeal, Jacob returned to the green zone and reported back for service to the U.S. Army.
“He was clearly shaken by what had happened,” said Douglas. “But it didn't hinder his resolve and dedication to serving with the U.S.”
“They were so happy to see me alive again,” said Jacob. “Lt. Douglas was crying and I was just happy that I’m alive and I’m good!”
Douglas asked him what she could do to help. “Get me the hell out of here,” he said.
“Once Jacob made the decision that he wanted to pursue going to the U.S., I assisted him in researching the requirements, completing the paperwork, coordinating the interviews, etc.,” Douglas said.
After five months of waiting in the green zone, Jacob received his Special Immigrant Visa from the U.S. Department of State. Jacob quickly made arrangements to leave the country, but not before risking his life again to say goodbye to his family. A week later, March 2, 2010, Jacob left for the Baghdad Airport for the United States. When his plane touched down in Chicago, Jacob gave his family a call.
“Hey, I’m safe! I’m in the U.S.,” Jacob said. “I’m happy, it’s a lot cooler here, it’s all green, there’s no dirt and no National Police.”
Jacob was distressed to leave his family in the danger zone of Iraq, especially with an impending pullout of allied forces. So he helped his father apply for Special Immigrant Visas for his entire family. By December 2011, Jacob was reunited with his family in the United States.
“Finally, no more headache for me,” said Jacob. “I don’t have to think about what’s going to happen to them. The whole family is here.”
Jacob’s dream of becoming a soldier still reverberated in the back of his mind. But this time he dreamed of being an American soldier, even though he admits the U.S. had the best of intents but produced bad consequences for the Iraqi people. In 2012, Jacob enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard. His recruiter, Staff Sgt. James H. Rodriguez, knew Jacob was a little different than most recruits he encountered.
“He was my first applicant who had ever brought in all of his required documents on the first visit,” said Rodriguez. “Jacob has a sense of focus, and direction as to what he is trying to accomplish. I am extremely happy that I had to opportunity to help him achieve his lifelong dream of serving in the U.S. military.”
Rodriguez scheduled Jacob to begin his journey in the U.S. military at the National Guard Professional Education Center in North Little Rock, Ark. where he earned his GED diploma at the National Guard GED Plus Program. After graduation, Jacob completed Basic Combat Training and graduated from his Advanced Individual Training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., as a motor transport operator (88M), March 15.
Jacob’s success and transformation to a soldier in the U.S. Army was no surprise to his team and former commander at the BMET.
“It was apparent he loved serving with the U.S. military,” Douglas said. “He even told me from the very beginning that he wanted to join. I'm incredibly proud of Jacob for completing his high school education and becoming a soldier. It's just another example of how with effort, time and patience our dreams and goals are possible.”
“This feeling as a soldier … I’m not able to describe it,” said Jacob. It’s probably the best feeling ever. I’ve had the same uniform on me before but now it feels different because now I’m not just a translator. I’m a soldier.”
“I'm in awe of Jacob's determination,” Douglas said. “He didn't give up on his dreams no matter how difficult the obstacles were; he stuck with his goals and made them a reality.”
Despite whatever he endured, Douglas added that his motivation and positive attitude were contagious.
“The way I am, I’m always smiling,” Jacob said. “I can say you’ll rarely see me like in a bad mood or grouchy. I’m always happy and try to have people around me have a beautiful smile on their face either with a joke or something I do.”
Even as he reflected on the future of Iraq, Jacob’s optimism shined through.
“I don’t ask for much for my country,” said Jacob. “I want the security to be better and people to be able to go downtown to the market areas without being worried about getting blown up, kidnapped or be shot at. I want people to be happy with paved roads, cleaner parks, and greener areas. It’s going to take time but I’m hoping the best for Iraq.”