429: Will They Know Me Back Home?
Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Hello listeners. I'm Nancy Updike. If you heard last week's show you know I'm filling in for Ira Glass. He's out reporting a great story for you. He will be back next week. But while he's gone, I thought maybe we could have movie night.
Clearly this isn't a movie that was made in the recent past. But it was a blockbuster and an Oscar winner. It was huge. It's called, The Best Years of Our Lives, and it's a war movie, really a post-war movie. Three men are coming back from a war, World War II, to the same town they all lived in before the war. And the movie is about their hard transition back into civilian life. It's black and white, full of words like swell, but while I was watching it I kept thinking, "This could be about today."
In the beginning of the movie the three men are on a military plane on their way home. And as they get closer, instead of getting excited they get quiet and edgy. Fred, the young airman who's got some swagger asks the older guy, Al--
Remember what it felt like when you went overseas?
As well as I remember my own name.
I feel the same way now, only more so.
I know what you mean. Just nervous out of the service, I guess. The thing that scares me most is that everybody's going to try to rehabilitate me.
That's Al, the older one, worrying about people rehabilitating him. It's surprising when says it. He's the one who seems least visibly affected by the war, not a candidate for any kind of rehabilitation or even help. Al just seems like a gentle, somewhat stiff family man who's been married for 20 years and will be married for another 20 years.
But on the first night back it's obvious he's not OK. He's tense. He can barely sit still. He insists on taking his wife and daughter out on the town and proceeds to get more drunk than I've seen someone his age get in a movie in a long time. He sloshes around the dance floor with his wife, Milly, played by Myrna Loy. And at one point he starts into a little joke that his wife gamely plays along with.
You're a bewitching little creature. In a way you remind me of my wife.
But you never told me you're married.
Oh yeah. I've got a little woman, two kiddies, back there in the States.
But let's not think of them now.
Oh, you're so right. This night belongs only to us.
I found this one of the most poignant moments in the film, even with Al's drunkenness. These are two people trying to make light of something huge, the fear of being strangers after so long apart. Do you still know me? Am I still me? From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Today on the show, a question. Will they know me back home? Stay with us.
Act One: Act One
We're going to have just two stories on the show today. Both are about men and women living through war and trying to figure out how to live their lives outside of war. These are stories from the most recent, officially combat ended war the US has fought, the Iraq War. And a word about how we chose these stories. We've been reading about the wars-- Afghanistan, Iraq-- from the beginning, just like you probably have. And we've forgotten a lot of what we've read, like you probably have. These are stories we couldn't forget.
The first one is from a stupendously well-reported book by journalist David Finkel called The Good Soldiers. He followed one group of soldiers for 15 months, at war and at home. Lots of reporters have done something like this. But he observes and describes these soldiers' "corner of the war," as he puts it, with such precision and without comment. Reading it, you don't analyze the war, you don't ponder it. You feel it.
One chapter stood out, the one where the soldiers go home on leave for 18 days, and their wives and families talk about waiting for them. And with David's permission we're doing something unusual with this chapter to put it on the air. In the book, the individual voices of the soldiers and their wives come through so clearly you hear them in your head. We wanted to recreate that, so we worked with David to turn the chapter into a series of monologues, that each could be read by separate person, the same way you hear them in your head while you're reading. So these are actors reading, not the soldiers. But what they're reading is what the soldiers and their wives told David and what he saw.
Briefly, here's what the soldiers were living through before they went on leave. David embedded with an army battalion known as the 216, from Fort Riley, Kansas, during one of the most difficult periods of the Iraq War. The surge, when the US sent small groups of soldiers and Marines out from the big, well-protected bases they'd been living in into dangerous neighborhoods all over Baghdad, where they would live for weeks at a time. Before the surge worked, it was terrifying. Every day, sniper attacks and IEDs that got more sophisticated and more lethal over time. IEDs were on every road the 216 drove for a year. They were triggered by remote control-- in other words, people watching them. And there was no consistent pattern to where and when they exploded. It could, and did, happen any time.
The soldiers started going home on leave in the middle of that year, the fall of 2007. The average age in the unit was 19. Heads up, these are young soldiers on leave. There's some swearing. We beep it. There's also a description of going to a strip club. Here's the chapter.
The first thing I did was take $1,500 and take my two brothers to the mall. No. The first thing I did was take off my uniform in the airport parking lot, put on shorts and a T-shirt that my brothers had brought me, and then go to the mall.
For three hours we bought whatever we wanted, sale or no sale, as if money didn't matter. And what I bought was new pants, a new shirt, and new athletic shoes. All in white. Pure white because I wanted to feel clean.
From there I went home to see the rest of my family. And that's where the questions began. "What do you do," they asked. "Well, we go out," I said. I wasn't sure how to describe it, so I showed them pictures instead. That's Harrelson's Humvee on fire. That's Craig's Humvee right after he died. Those are some kids in Kamalaya.
My grandma started crying. She knew about the deaths. But this was seeing how people lived, the [BLEEP] trenches and stuff. I showed her a picture of a Humvee stuck in a [BLEEP] trench and she asked if that was mud, and I tried to explain it was [BLEEP] and that those lakes on the side were [BLEEP] [BLEEP] and she didn't want to see any more. She got up and went in the other room, and she got busy ordering me my favorite dinner, which is chicken parmesan.
My first day went from there. I ate some marvelous chicken parmesan, bought my first legal six-pack of beer. Then I went with my brothers and some friends to the Yankee Bar and Grill for the Friday night wet T-shirt contest. I drank beer. I drank tequila. I drank Crown Royal. I drank another beer. I drank a flaming Dr Pepper. I drank something else. I don't even know what the [BLEEP] it was, but they put something on fire and dropped it in a beer.
I danced with a girl, told her I was home from Iraq. Danced with another girl, told her I was home from Iraq. I was wearing my new white shirt and white pants and white shoes, and I was feeling pretty good about things. And, yes, I was drunk. Totally drunk. But not so drunk I didn't hear people calling out my name and telling me to get on stage.
So my brother and I went up there and I sat in one chair and my brother sat in another chair, back to back. And there was a stripper pole in between us. And six girls in T-shirts came on stage and started dancing around us in a circle. And I yell over to my brother, "Dude, there's no [BLEEP] way."
And then there's water hoses, and the girls are soaked from head to toe and dancing through puddles, and taking off their T-shirts. And then one of the girls is stepping onto my new white shoes and leaning toward me and pushing her chest toward my face. And then she's climbing onto my lap and standing on my thighs with her wet dirty feet to get onto the strippers' pole, And she's trying to step onto my shoulders. And me, all I can think about was my new white shoes, my new white pants, my new white shirt.
But then I remembered it didn't really matter. I had more money. I could buy more clothes tomorrow. So I started laughing and cheering, and then someone yelled in the microphone, "Welcome back from Iraq!" And then a woman was saying, "I'll give you a ride home tonight." And then we were parked in front of my house, kissing. And then I passed out on her chest, drunk. Done. She woke me up, "Maybe we should do this another night?" "Yeah." I went inside, passed out again, and dreamed of an explosion.
"Dude, what's wrong?" my brother said as he sat up, wide-eyed. I passed out again and then the phone began ringing. "They're trying to call me. They're trying to call me," I began screaming. I had a cigarette and passed out again. Then it was morning and my grandmother was the one leaning towards me saying, "Here's some orange juice." 17 days to go.
Nine months along. Where's home now? Is it back there where my wife Stephanie recorded this video of my three kids on my birthday? Or is it here, where I watch it?
[CHILDREN SINGING "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU"]
Is home the place where the kids grow so steadily that it's invisible? Or here, where I notice it in increments, like a distant relative?
Dear son, the weather this weekend has been glorious. The leaves are all turning color, no wind, the temperature's in the upper 60s, low 70s. Are there any other signs of fall in Iraq except the more reasonable temperatures? Your loving mom and dad.
Dear mom and dad, it's still 100 degrees here. The leaves are not turning color. Love, Ralph.
Hi, love, I love you. Well, today I've spent in vacation research craziness. I found flights to Florida and hotel and resort packages for January. Would you rather a hotel or a condo? Meals included, or not? Disney or Universal? Thoughts?
Stephanie Corey, As long as I get to spend all the time with you and the kids we can do it in a bungalow upside-down for all I care. Do need a heated pool. Your choice on all. Hugs, Ralph Wester.
OK. I stayed up two extra hours to get all the details straight for you so you could be part of making a decision on our trip. I know you're making lots of decisions over there and I shouldn't bother you with this. It's just, I've been making all the decisions here for 10 months by myself.
When I called home the last time, Laura told me she'd just come back from taking our two daughters to the sports bar we would go to every Friday afternoon when I was there. It was a tradition of ours. And it moved me that she'd done this. But then Laura was saying that our four-year-old daughter, who has Down's Syndrome, began vomiting all over herself at the table. And our eight-year-old daughter kept saying, "Gross, gross, gross." And the waitress was horrified. And she couldn't find enough napkins. People all over the restaurant were looking away and covering their mouths.
When I got home, I ended up in Las Vegas at the Sweethearts' Wedding Chapel with my girlfriend of two years, getting married as her mother listened in on a cell phone. I spent like $5,000, ring not included, much of it at the Bellagio. The penthouse suite. It's like $500 or something dollars a night. We stayed for two. And then it was time to go. It was worse than leaving the first time.
I went home, and as glad as I was to be there, my heart sank when I saw my 17-year-old son, Joey, was driving around in a truck that had 160,000 miles on it. It was leaking oil and transmission fluid, had a plastic bag taped over a broken-out window. So we go looking for a truck. And golly, these cars are so expensive. The one we liked the most was at a Toyota place. It was a used grey Dodge, 25,000 miles on it. But the price was $17,000. Only $17,000, the salesman, a little ball of energy, had said. But there's no "only" about it.
One night I was sitting out on the porch by myself and thinking about it. And I was thinking, "You know, Randy, if you don't make it back for whatever reason, if you don't come back, what will Joey have to drive if you don't get him something before you leave?" I was alone on the porch, and I went back and forth on it. Fix the old truck, that I could afford. Or I could buy him something and be done with it. And at least when I go back to Iraq, I'll have a clear conscience that I did the right thing when I was home. So I bought him a $17,000 truck.
And let me tell you how I did this. This is great. This is how I surprised him. We find this truck and drive it and go away for a couple of days. I do all the paperwork while he's at school. Because I did it over the phone. I said, "Joey, let's drive back up to the Toyota place and see if that truck's still there." He said, "There ain't no need in going up there, Dad. We can't afford it. We already talked about it. It costs too much. I said, "Well, let's go talk to him and let's go see if we can get him down to $15,000 instead of $17,000." So we pull up there and the truck's moved because they're getting it ready for me to pick it up. And we walk up to one of salesman. And that guy didn't know me, and I asked him about the truck. And he said, "Oh somebody came by this morning and bought it."
Aw, you should have Joey's face. "I told you dad. I told you somebody bought it." And I said, "Well let's go inside and see." So we go inside and the little guy comes running up to me. He says, "Mr. Wadell, how you doing? Blah blah blah." And I said, "So I hear you sold that truck today." And he said, "Yeah. We sold it to you." Joey looked at me and I said, "Oh yeah. You own that truck outside." It turned out well.
In the first hours of my leave, I walked through the Atlanta airport and couldn't look anyone in the eye. The businessmen on cell phones, the families on vacation, all of it was too strange. "The normal abnormal," Major Cummings called Iraq. But this was exactly the opposite. The abnormal normal. I kept my eyes down. I made my way to a connecting flight home and the girlfriend that I wasn't sure I knew how to talk to anymore.
I'm going home too. But unlike the others, I'm not coming back. Five months after carrying Sergeant Emory down the stairs in Kamalaya, I couldn't do it anymore. This is my third deployment to Iraq. I've been here 34 months by my own count, just over 1,000 days. It doesn't matter to me anymore that I was one of 216's best soldiers. I need to go home. That's what combat stress said after I finally gave in and admitted that my thoughts had turned suicidal.
So I'm finished. Down to my final hours. Packed, weaponless, under escort. Waiting for the helicopter that'll take me away to a wife who just told me on the phone, "I'm scared of what you might do." "You know I'd never hurt you," I said. Hung up and wandered around the base. Got a hair cut, came back to my room where I'm thinking, "But what if she's right? What if I snap someday?" It's a thought that makes me feel sick.
You spend 1,000 days, it gets to the point where it's Groundhog Day. Every day is over and over. The heat, the smell, the language. And I remember when it wasn't that way. I remember the initial invasion when it wasn't that way. I was in the front seat of the greatest movie I'd ever seen in my life. I remember the firefights in my second deployment. I loved it. Any time I got shot at in a firefight, it's the sexiest feeling there is.
But this deployment I began to feel bad early on. I'd get in the Humvee and be driving down the road and I'd feel my heart pulsing up in my throat. And that was the start of it. And then Emory happened. Then Crow. And then I was in a succession of explosions. Then a bullet skimmed across my thighs. Then Doster happened. And then I was waking up thinking, "Holy [BLEEP] I'm still here and it's misery." It's hell. I didn't give a [BLEEP]. I wanted it over as soon as possible, whether they did it or I did it.
The amazing thing is that no one knew. There was all this stuff going on, pounding heart, panicked breathing, sweating palms, electric eyes. And no one regarded me as anything other than the soldier I'd always been. The one who never complained. Who hoisted bleeding soldiers onto my back. Who'd suddenly begun insisting on being in the right front seat of the lead Humvee on every mission. Not because I wanted to be dead, but because that's what selfless leaders would do. And I was the great Sergeant Schumann, who one day walked into the aid station, went through the door marked Combat Stress, and asked for help from James Tczap. And then I was on my way home.
I remember what Tczap had told me. "With your stature, maybe you've opened the door for a lot of guys to come in." It made me feel really good. But I still felt awful yesterday when I told one of my team leaders to round up everyone in my squad. "What did we do now?" he asked. "You didn't do anything. Just get them together." They came into my room and I shut the door and told them I was leaving the following day. I said, "I don't even know what I'm going through. I just know that I don't feel right." That's what I told them. "That's why I'm leaving." "How long?" one of them asked. I told them I didn't know. "I might not be coming back." And they rallied around me then. Shook my hand, grabbed me by the arm, patted me on the back, saying whatever 19 and 20-year-olds could think of to say. "Take care of yourself," "Drink a beer for me." I never felt so guilt-ridden in my life.
Early this morning the rest of the squad drove off on a mission, leaving me behind. After they disappeared I didn't know what to do with myself. I went to my room, turned up the air conditioner full blast. Started watching Apocolypse Now on my computer. I packed my meds. I left some beef jerky and smoked oysters, packages of mac and cheese for the guys. Finally it was time to go to the helicopter. My stomach hurt as I made my way across the base. I felt myself becoming nauseated.
At the landing area, other soldiers from other battalions were lined up. And when the helicopter landed, everyone was allowed to board, except me. I didn't understand. "Next one's yours," I was told. When it came a few minutes later I realized why I'd had to wait. It had a big red cross on the side. It was the helicopter for the injured and the dead. And that was me. I was injured. I was dead. I was done.
I was home now, too. Sitting on my front porch since waking up in the dark to the sound of explosions. Just thunder, I realized. So I went outside to see my first rainstorm in months. My wife said, "We're going to have to get the umbrellas out for the girls." And I wondered whether the umbrellas were still in the same place as when I left. At Rudina's, the coffee shop where I like to go, one of the regulars clapped me on the back and motioned to a friend, "Come on over me and meet Brent Cummings," he said. "He's just back from Iraq. He's a hero."
I'd sit on the porch and listen to the automatic lawn sprinklers that Laura had mentioned in an email that she was having installed. I'd sit in the living room and listen to my daughters play the piano that Laura had mentioned she was thinking of buying. One day I said to Laura, "How much do you want to know?"
He hung up his uniform, and I was just sitting on the bed watching him. And suddenly he started to cry. "It's so stupid, Laura. It's so stupid." That's all he kept saying over and over.
I felt better after that.
It wasn't the 18 days that Ralph would be here but the 400 days that he would not. It's boxes of Christmas decorations that I'd hauled down from the attic and needed to put up. It's thickening ice on the sidewalk and steps, and where in the world was the big bag of ice melter we bought last year? It's the lights flickering in the storm, and where were the AA batteries for the flashlight in case the electricity went out? Here were the C batteries, here were the AAAs, but where were the AAs?
The framed photograph of Ralph on top of the refrigerator also needed batteries to power the motion sensor that triggered the memory chip on which he'd recorded a message so the kids wouldn't forget his voice.
Hey! What are you doing over there? I see you! I see you!
He'd recorded it, trying to be funny, after I said that his original message about how much he missed them might be too sad. And it worked. He got on a plane to go to Iraq, and the kids came home and walked into the kitchen and heard him saying, "I see you." They went out and came back in. "I see you." They woke up the next morning and came into the kitchen for breakfast. "I see you."
Every morning there he was. Even before I had coffee. "I see you." I began ducking when I came into the kitchen. What could I do, though? I couldn't turn the photo upside-down. I couldn't take the batteries out or cover the sensor or do anything that would seem disrespectful of the circumstances that had led to the buying of the frame and the recording of the message. "I see you. I see you. I see you. I see you."
And then one day the batteries ran out. And I meant to replace them, but now it's months later and anyway they were probably AAs. And if I could find any AAs I'd better put them in the flashlight because the storm is getting worse.
In April, when Ralph wrote to tell me that Jake Hadgemat died, he didn't go into detail about how. And when I wrote back, I didn't go into detail about painting Easter eggs with the kids. In July, when the 216 was being attacked several times a day, I didn't dwell on my own drama, that the kids and I were driving home from out of state and the car died. And in September, I didn't tell him much about the Colonel's wife who'd approached me and asked. "How are you doing?" "I'm doing OK." "Are you sure?" "Yes." "Are you sure?" "Yes. I'm doing OK." "No you're not. You're not doing OK."
It would have been an uncomfortable conversation any time. But making it worse was the setting, the memorial service for the three soldiers. And what am I supposed to say? I'm sick of being a single parent? I'm sick of not having sex? Is that when I say? That life sucks? Instead, I keep anything like that to myself. I wasn't going to tell a colonel's wife that. And I'm not going to tell Ralph, who I'm sure needs me to be nothing other than upbeat. Just like there's no way I'm going to tell him how much work these videos are.
[CHILDREN SINGING "HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU"]
That the boys prefer to be watching TV or playing with friends. That no one would say anything and I had to prompt them with whispered commands. I won't tell him about the branch that just missed the car, or the way I attack the ice on the sidewalk with a hammer and a knife because I couldn't find the melter. I won't tell him that before I could find a moment to write him, the night had been a parade of footsteps and flushing toilets and coughs. And me, trying to soothe our little anxious boys by saying, "Good night my handsome men."
I hate this war and what it has done to my life. I won't tell him that either. Instead, at 12:44 AM, exhausted, I write, "Hi love. Well guess who loves you? Me and A, J, and G. I hope you enjoyed the pictures I sent earlier. Quite a remarkable storm." He'll be home in January. He's due to leave Baghdad in 16 days. I'm worried about January. Who will he be?
"I'm proud of you," I write him. Your wife, Stephanie.
Excerpts from David Finkel's great non-fiction book about the Iraq War, The Good Soldiers. The excerpts were read by actors Michael Chernus, Fran Tarr, Patch Dara, Danny Barbone, John Ellison Conley, Eric Menel, Alec Beard, Wendy Door and Connie Britain.
[MUSIC - "BABY, WON'T YOU PLEASE COME HOME?" BY PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND AND AMY LEVERE]
Coming up, when the question in the war becomes, "What would Carol Brady do?" That's one short minute away, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Two: Act Two
Welcome back. I'm Nancy Updike sitting in for Ira Glass. He's out reporting a story, a great story. He'll be back next week. It's This American Life. And we have a theme this week, like we do every week. Today's is, "Will They Know Me Back Home?" Two stories about war and after war.
This second story has stuck in my head for six months. Last summer I was in Iraq with another reporter, Larry Kaplow, and our interpreter was a woman named Sarah. Usually the interpreter in a radio story is just a voice when they're on the air, not a full-fledged person. But after the Iraq show we put together aired, we got more mail about Sarah than about almost anyone else in the show, even though her own personal story was on the air for less than a minute.
Sarah makes an impression. And it's partly because who she was before the war still comes through. This warm, chatty housewife raising her two boys, getting up every morning and putting on clothes that will be familiar to anyone who's ever spent the whole day at home.
Track suit. And pajamas. And then a uniform.
The uniform was an American military uniform. And Sarah's laughing because she can still barely believe the arc of her life over the last seven years. She was part of the same grueling period of the war that the soldiers in David Finkel's book faced. In fact, her story overlaps with their time in Iraq almost exactly. But unlike them, she not only wasn't a soldier, she'd never worked outside her home in her life. And she went from that into the middle of one of the most violent stretches of the war.
So Sarah's story, the story you're about to hear, is about an ordinary woman with no heroic ambitions who took on a role for which she was the unlikeliest of candidates and thrived in it.
Before the war, Sarah's marriage was unhappy. She's blunt about it. And the war made it worse. By the end of 2006, Sarah and her family had been bombed out of their house-- they were Sunnis driven out by Shiite militias-- and militia members had taken over her husband's car repair business. The family had to rebuild from nothing. They were broke and sometimes hungry, including the kids, Mustafa, 16 years old, and Becker, who just turned 10. The streets were dangerous, but someone needed to get a job. And Sarah and her husband were arguing all the time.
Sometimes I was really, you know, try to clear his scary vision. He was so scared from the-- I don't blame him. It was a hard time for everyone. But many of the fathers go every morning outside, and they work and they come back to their houses safe. So I was talking with him like, "Hey, I am here to support you. You have to work. You have to go bring money or food for your boys. We are all in very hard time. Not only us, all Iraq. So you have to go outside." He said, "You want them to kill me?"
Really I had many arguments with my husband. I really-- when I get upset I raise my voice. And he was raising his voice more than I raise my voice.
Sarah had gotten married at 19. And like I said, she'd never worked outside the home, at her husband's insistence. For her, this was part of the bitterness at the core of their marriage. He'd pressured her to drop out of college with only one year to go after promising before they'd married that he would let her finish. Work was always out of the question. Until now.
A new opportunity suddenly came up. American soldiers happened to hear Sarah's younger son, Becker, speaking English, and they asked where he'd learned it, which was from his mother. Sarah has an ear for languages. She studied German in college. But she'd learned some English in school, too. And she built it up watching movies, listening to American music.
The Americans asked Sarah's husband to send her in. They needed interpreters. This was 2007, four years into the war, and interpreters were targets for Al Qaeda and other Sunni militants and for Shiite militias. Sarah was terrified. But the family needed money. So she took the test and was offered a contract. Starting salary: $1,150 a month. Enough for the family to live on and build up savings again. That was the good part of the contract.
The contract said 27 days in the camp and then four days vacation. So it's a very long time for me to leave my kids alone in the house.
So you would be living on the base with the Americans for 27 days, and then get 4 days at home? You couldn't commute back and forth and see them at night, even?
No, no, no. I really worried about this item in the contract.
But I start work with them and I found myself in a room smaller than this one, alone and I spend only one night and then I want to quit the next morning. I wanted to take my bag and run away to my house. Because each time I hear the American soldiers in the bath laughing and talking, I said, "What am I doing here? This is not my place. My place with my boys in the house. How can I just bear 27 days without seeing my kids?"
And then one of the Iraqi interpreters, he saw me so confused. And I told them this is the first day for me. I want to quit. I want to leave. So he says, this is normal thing. We all felt the same way you feel now. So just relax and give yourself time.
Picture a woman in her late 30s with a wide face. Five foot three, but solid, not fragile. Huge smile. Now wearing fatigues, bulletproof vest, medic bag, wrap-around shrapnel-resistant glasses and a helmet, 40 pounds of gear. Sarah is her nickname. All Iraqi interpreters pick nicknames. The fewer people who know their real names, the better. She picked Sarah. It's easy to pronounce in English and in Arabic.
Sarah was an interpreter for Alpha Company 177, but she did more than just interpret. She gathered key information that became intel for the unit. Remember, this was the surge. Baghdad was on the edge of all-out civil war, and the surge plan was to send US military outfits, like Alpha Company, out into the middle of dangerous areas with constant IED and sniper attacks to try and stabilize them.
Alpha Company landed in southwest Rashid. At the time it was a confusing churn of different militias, including the powerful Mahdi Army, the Jaish al-Mahdi, who were trying to control the area. Kidnapping and killing were common. And the only way for the Americans to fight was to get tips from informants, ordinary local people who were frightened all the time. Of the militias, of the Americans.
Sarah's job was to try to convince these frightened people to talk. Her new boss, Captain Bill Higgins-- he's actually now a major-- gave her an assignment. Call up this guy. He doesn't want to talk, but just try.
Try to talk with him. Try to ask him about the neighborhood. And I called him and I talked with him. "I'm Sarah. I'm working with the Americans. You know, these things. And I ask him about the neighborhood, his neighborhood. And he starts to give me his real name, his job, all the information about the bad guys in his neighborhood. So when I told the captain after I finished my call, he was really surprised. He said, "Sarah, we tried with him since six months. Tried to get even his name. And he refused to give it to us. This is something unbelievable."
It was the first time for me to recognize and realize that there is other things I can do in addition to be a housewife, a good housewife. I start to feel all this energy inside me, all these good things inside me. So yes, there is something else. I can do it. And within the right way.
Major Higgins told me it really was unbelievable how good Sarah was at getting people to open up to her. They trusted her. They liked talking to her. Major Higgins felt that way. Sarah was approachable, sympathetic, funny, and unexpected. Like running into your favorite sister or aunt in a war zone. Even though she was dressed in fatigues, as soon as she started talking, it was clear to people that she knew their world and she knew them. She used to be them.
Let's see, I spent 17 years in the kitchen, making food for the family and guests all the time. So this is, you know, a big step for me, to get out from all these things to a new world.
It was really a hard seven months in my life, and the most wonderful seven months in my life. Sometimes we cannot sleep for days, working all the day and night. Talking with the sources, get information, make plans, raid houses.
Sarah's world flipped. Everything that had seemed overwhelming in the beginning became normal. Militias, informants, raids, IEDs, gunfire, dead bodies, and working around the clock. 27 days in a row of this. And then four days off. And not even fully off. She gave trusted informants or sources her personal cell phone number. She found herself struggling to get back into the quiet rhythm that used to be her whole life. Making meals, cleaning the house, being a wife, a sister, a mom.
Many times-- believe me, and I'm really sorry to say that, I don't want to hurt anyone-- many of the times, they're talking and my mind thinking of this source. I have to call him and talk with him. Try to take more information. I forgot to ask this informer about this thing. And I have to ask him.
So you were thinking about work while your relatives are talking about their lives and--
Yes. Yes. Many times I miss what they talking about. The problem for me was even when I was in my vacation, people keep calling me. And this is-- it didn't let me switch off all the these things and be a mom instead of being interpreter. One of the times when I was in a vacation, Becker asked me to do his favorite food-- chicken in the oven, with rice, of course-- and at the same time I got a call from a source. She starts to tell me something so important about weapon caches in the area. And I'm just holding the phone in one hand, and I try to put the tray in the oven.
You can see where this ends. She burns herself. She's still got the scar. But listen to her voice. She's thrilled. She wasn't just good at her job. She loved her job. On that phone call, the information she got while getting burned was so important she left her vacation early.
It was really a big day for us. We captured about 18 leaders in the same night.
Sarah became indispensable. Out of the four or five interpreters the unit worked with regularly, she was the top. She was the one that Major Higgins and his operations officer wanted at their meetings with local sheikhs and other leaders. They sought her opinion as well as her interpreting skills. And her work with informants was crucial. Major Higgins says he's certain some of the people who called, especially women, would never have talked to a male interpreter. Sarah's letters of praise from American military officers are effusive and consistent. They wrote, "Her work has directly led to identifying many criminal actors and capturing them. We've learned that Sarah is feared by local criminals. Sarah unhesitatingly faced the same dangers as our soldiers. She's earned the trust and confidence of everyone in the unit."
The letters also talk about how hard Sarah worked. Major Higgins sometimes let her kids come to the compound and stay with her for a few days when the long separations got too difficult. Her husband came a couple of times, too. Sarah later overheard him talking to the kids about it.
He said, "I really shocked when I saw your mother do all this work all the time, day and night. So God help her and protect her."
The word empowerment has a quaintness about it now in the US, as though it's forever rendered in a '70s-era font. But there's no other word for what happened to Sarah. She became empowered. She used to be embarrassed to talk to strangers. Now she could talk to anyone. And when she did, everyone listened. Her world had become huge. For Sarah, it was a change that would come at a staggering personal cost. And she saw others pay a price for their courage, also.
Sarah called up a woman in the area one day at the captain's request.
He said, "Sarah, this woman really has good information about a very bad area in the sector. We need her." I told her, "I'm a mom too, and I have two boys. And I accept to do this work, and it was very dangerous, because someone needs to be serious with this area, with this country. It has to be me or you or anyone to bring the secure and the safe to the area."
The woman agreed to talk, in spite of being frightened. She lived in a neighborhood where militia members often hid. From the back of her house she could see what was happening on the main street, people planting IEDs to catch US military vehicles. And from the front, she could see who and what was coming into the area. She was a great source, calling Sarah at home to tell her about weapons and militias. They became friends. And she told Sarah that the militias had a nickname for Sarah. The Lion.
One day the woman's husband called Sarah and said, "They came and took her. Militia leaders took her."
I know the militias. They are savage and they torture everyone. They don't care about a woman or a kid or anything. And I feel guilt. I thought, maybe I am the reason for what she will suffer from. I just wanted to take her back to her kids. And so I was like a crazy. Talking, crying, and talking with the captain, begging him to find any way to go and try to find her. I called one of the double agent, who work with the American and work with me.
Someone in the Jaish al-Mahdi who was working with you, working with the Americans?
Yes. And I begged him, "Just tell me where they will take her. Tell me about the places where you keep the kidnapped people." So we're moving from house to house, and all the houses were empty. We spend maybe 2 days searching for her. And then her husband called me and said, "Hey Sarah, they called us and they said, we killed her." Really it was-- every time I remembered her I really say, she was the Lion, not me. I wasn't the Lion. She was the Lion. Yeah.
In the beginning of 2008, after Major Higgins and his group had rotated out and a new group had come in, Sarah's husband joined the Sons of Iraq. These were groups of Iraqis the Americans paid to fight alongside them, especially against Al Qaeda, in areas all over Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. The Sons of Iraq also manned checkpoints. Sarah worried about the kids with both parents gone a lot, and at dangerous jobs. But her husband said he would only work part of the day. And he'd be back in the house during after school hours. After he finished training, he worked for less than a month.
He was driving his car in one of the streets where they put their checkpoints, and two cars drive beside his car, with three men inside it, and they start to shoot on him and kill him in his car.
I was shocked, really. I start to cry. My boys jumped in my mind, and I called Mustafa immediately and I asked him about Becker, and he told me he is in the house with me. And I said, "Don't go anywhere, because I will come to you." And I was crying and he was confused and asked me, "What's going on, mom? Tell me what's going on."
Many Sons of Iraq fighters were being killed at the time. But Sarah was horrified to learn from one of her informants that her husband was killed at least in part because of her work. The informant told her he saw militia members the day her husband died.
He saw them celebrate after his killing and distribute candies and laughing call each other and congratulate each other, "Hey we killed Sarah's husband."
Sarah started trying to get herself and her sons out if Iraq, to emigrate to the US. With the help of Major Higgins and others from his unit, as well as people from the new group, she applied for a special visa using those recommendation letters I quoted earlier.
But in the fall of 2008, as she was waiting to do her first interview to get the visa, something totally unexpected happened. In the afternoon of what seemed to be a normal work day, Sarah was taken to what she thought would be a routine screening. It happened every six months or so on the job, when she had to renew her security badge. But this time the questions, by an American interrogator, went on for hours and hours. Finally she was taken into custody and driven to a section of the Baghdad Airport she'd never been to before.
They took me to the airport and then I found myself in a jail. I really tried to explain what's going on. No one answer me.
She was in an American jail and she had no idea why. It was several days before she could even let her kids know where she was.
They allowed us to just two minutes to tell our families where we are. So I called my Mustafa and I talked with him. And then I talked with my older sister. And I couldn't tell her that I'm in jail, really. I felt so shamed and I didn't know what to say. Even if I told her, I'm in a jail, I'm sure she will ask me, why you are in jail? I don't know what to say or answer.
So I told them, hey there is some information about me and they keep me here in the airport just to check this information, if it's true or not, and then they will release me.
The Americans she'd been working with for the last year were preparing to rotate out of Iraq. She didn't hear from them.
Day by day I realized that I'm alone and I need to defend myself, by myself.
Over weeks of questioning, Sarah figured out what was happening. She'd been accused by an anonymous Iraqi source of betraying the Americans she was working with. Taking money from militias, deliberately misinterpreting so militia members would be released, and sneaking militia members into the Sons of Iraq to spy on the Americans. By the time she got a chance to defend herself in front of a judge, she had been in prison for two months. The judge threw out the case for insufficient evidence. But it took another month for the paperwork to go through. And incredibly, in that month, her situation got worse. She was transferred from the American jail into Iraqi custody.
And really it was a terrible experience for me there in the Iraqi jail. I don't want to remember anything. That jail makes my hair grey, really.
Those three months undid her. Not only the jails. Sarah had been keeping all her savings in a bag in her room at the camp where she'd worked with the Americans. Banks hadn't felt safe. Iraq was still unstable. And she hadn't wanted to leave it at her house. When her son Mustafa went to pick up her things from the camp while Sarah was sitting in jail, the money was gone.
I said, "No way. There was all my saving money in the bag." He says, "No mom. The bag was empty."
About $20,000 disappeared, she says. The family had lived frugally the entire time Sarah was working so she could save most of her paycheck. It was money she'd planned to use for them to emigrate, if necessary. Now they didn't even have it to live on.
There was a final blow. Even though the case against her has been dismissed, and Sarah had an exemplary work record, she's been blacklisted. The anonymous accusations are now a seemingly permanent part of her US Defense Department file. She can't work for the US anymore, and her visa to America has been denied.
Sarah has never seen the file that keeps her from working for the US government and emigrating. The American lawyers working on her case have never seen it. I talked to one high-ranking US officer, who never worked with Sarah, but has detailed knowledge of her case. He said that in his view, the fact that she's been blacklisted is, quote, "A shameful situation and a gross miscarriage of justice." He believes the case against her was badly misinformed.
Sarah is still in touch with some of the American soldiers she worked with in the beginning. And she thinks about them a lot, how they're doing, how their families are doing.
Because they are like, the persons who removed the dust from my real-- what you call it-- personality.
For the year and a half Sarah was working with the Americans, she felt recognized for who she really was for the first time in her adult life. It's a powerful feeling to be known like that and a terrible thing to lose.
The moment in our last Iraq show that made everyone remember Sarah happened when she was interpreting for us during an interview with a former Sons of Iraq fighter. He pulled a tissue from a box next to him to make a point.
I'm sorry. He says the American forces use us like a tissue. I feel the same thing.
I wish I could tell you this story ends well. It doesn't. Sarah is stranded. She can't go back to being a housewife. She's got her kids to support. But jobs are scarce for a single woman whose employment experience is mostly a job she can't even talk about with a lot of Iraqis without putting her life at risk. She wants to be recognized. She just doesn't know when she's going to get the chance.
[MUSIC - "I WANNA BE FREE" BY EVELYN HARLENE AND CASEY CLARK'S BAND]
This week's program was produced by Robyn Semian with Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Jane Feltes, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, and Alissa Shipp. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon is our office manager. Production help from Eric Mennel.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our show by our boss, Torey Malatia, and editorial oversight by our other boss, Ira Glass. He told me this week that the secret to his casual, natural delivery on the radio? Comfy clothes.
Track suit. And pajamas.
More stories from This American Life next week, with Ira J. Glass.
PRI. Public Radio International.