01/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Debt We Owe Iraqi Interpreters

New Haven, Conn. - The Iraqi pointed at me, pointed at his watch, and mimed an explosion. He'd been shouting frantically since he arrived at our small forward operating base minutes before, but like most American soldiers, I didn't speak Arabic. Had he come to warn us or to threaten us? Car bomb? Another mortar attack? When and where? Looking around desperately, I spotted a young woman in her early 20s bounding toward us. Wissam, one of our Iraqi interpreters, had arrived. After a brief conversation with the man, she turned back to me and said, "He says there is an IED [improvised explosive device] on the main road to Haswa. Good thing you have me around, I think."

For a platoon leader on the streets of Iraq, a trusted interpreter can be the difference between a successful patrol and a body bag. At great personal risk, interpreters bridge the language gap, guide soldiers and marines through unfamiliar streets, serve as cultural advisers, and make crucial introductions. American strategy in Iraq hinges on building positive relationships between US forces and Iraqi communities, a task that would be impossible without dependable interpreters.

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