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An Indispensible Ally

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In June 2010, still trying to get used to Kandahar's heat and the dust, our unit met Aminullah. He was 19 years old and looked it. He was an Afghan, and had been translating for four years. The word on our outpost, Camp Nathan Smith, a small combat outpost in downtown Kandahar city, was that Aminullah was the best translator around. He spoke English with a good, vaguely American accent, strong vocabulary, and decent command of slang. He had learned from watching American movies.

Summer in Afghanistan isn't like anything in the States. It's 120 degrees in the shade, with a wind that shoves dust down your throat on patrol. It never rains, which, if you're from the Northeast, like most of our unit, is the most disconcerting thing of all. Summer 2010 was the "surge" -- an American push into Kandahar to flush out the Taliban and take the strategic edge in the war -- and for our unit, the 411th Civil Affairs Battalion, that meant patrols to meet the locals, assess needs, and build what we could. Sixty pounds of body armor and ammo, and off we went, walking for miles to have tea in the midday sun with local leaders.

And with us on every patrol, there was Aminullah, walking in the open with the Americans.

"Aminullah, man, take a day off, we got this," I'd tell him. About a dozen Afghan translators worked for us and our partner units. Aminullah didn't have to come on every patrol, but more often than not, he'd volunteer, especially for our long trips into the field.

"It's OK, we understand each other, LT," he'd reply. Aminullah mentioned once that we were easier to understand than other Americans -- like most Northerners, we must have sounded like the actors in the movies from which he learned English -- but it was more than that. A good translator understands what you want, what your mission is, and you have to completely trust your translator. On those long hops to the field, staying in tiny combat outposts, eating local food and sleeping in the dirt, we got to know and trust Aminullah, and he got to understand our mission.

Once, I asked him why a sharp kid like him wasn't in school. Aminullah answered that his father was a colonel in the Afghan Army, killed by the Taliban. Same for his older brother. So, it was up to Aminullah to provide for his mother and sisters in Kabul. He had a quiet courage about it, as though that was the most natural thing in the world for a 19-year-old to do.

Behind most everything we did in Kandahar, Aminullah was right there, helping us communicate with local leaders. We built roads, schools, clinics, government offices. We brought tribal leaders and government officials together. We dug wells and bought engineering textbooks for the university. We helped train nurses and rebuilt areas destroyed by the Taliban in the fighting. And the whole year, Aminullah was right beside us, patrol after patrol.

Life is hard in Afghanistan; that's just the way it is. After we left country, we stayed in touch with Aminullah, writing emails every now and then to see how his family was, how things were going. Not long ago, without a hint of complaint, Aminullah noted that he had been in a terrible car accident while visiting his mother. His arm was horribly broken, and he couldn't work anymore, with a steel rod stabilizing the bone, his only hope for a future is surgery. Such was the way of life, he explained.

There are no state medical programs in Afghanistan, not of the sort that could help Aminullah. There are no benefits for these translators that risk their lives for us, even as their contributions indisputably advanced the American mission and, in doing so, saved the lives of American soldiers. There is nothing to help Aminullah in Afghanistan, so we, the officers and soldiers of the 411th Civil Affairs Battalion, have taken up a collection to send Aminullah to India to get him proper medical care, and set him up for success as best we can.

We encourage you to join us too. Translators like Aminullah are indispensable parts of the mission for our men and women overseas. But whereas our brave men and women come home to their families and a generous public in America, our translators stay behind, fighting the war, year in and year out.

To support Aminullah's recovery, visit the project page at RocketHub.