American Soldier, Iraqi Interpreter: From Strangers To 'Brothers'

Oct 18, 2014
Originally published on October 18, 2014 3:46 pm

StoryCorps' Military Voices Initiative records stories from members of the U.S. military who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Paul Braun is a sergeant with the 34th Military Police Company in the Minnesota Army National Guard. In 2009, when he was serving near Basra, his company was assigned an Iraqi interpreter they called Philip.

Philip came to the U.S. in late 2013, with Sergeant Braun's help, and now they live together in Minnesota. But Philip's wife and children are still in Iraq. Earlier this week, he returned home, hoping to reach his family and bring them back to the U.S.

Shortly before leaving, Philip sat down with Sgt. Braun for a StoryCorps interview in Blaine, Minn. He recalled the first day they met.

"You scared me, dude," Philip says. "Your attitude in the beginning and with your Mohawk — "

"I scared everybody with that Mohawk," Braun says.

"You told me, 'If you try to mess with my soldiers, I will shoot you,' " Philip remembers.

"You smiled at me and said, 'Someday, we will be able to laugh about this conversation while we're drinking tea,' " Braun replies. "And that's when I knew, 'I think this guy will be OK.' We started to trust you, and since you fought with us and you bled with us and you lived with us, you became us. And my Iraqi interpreter became my American brother."

"And my American soldier became my Iraqi brother," Philip says. "I used to hate Americans. You are our enemy, and that's it. And you're the only one who changed my mind. With you, I was talking about the similarity between us as people. It's just about being human there or here."

"I remember sitting down one day thinking, I didn't want to leave you alone," Braun says. "I knew how dangerous it was for you because we saw all those people that were murdered for being interpreters, and I was so afraid that that was going to happen to you. And it took years to get the proper documents to get you over here."

Braun became Philip's sponsor, filing an application with the State Department for a translator's visa. Philip came to America, but left three daughters, a son and a wife back in Iraq.

He says he's scared about going back to his home country to get them, because the so-called Islamic State controls the roads. It will be a dangerous trip.

"I hate to ask you," Braun says: "What do you think your odds of being able to make it back alive are?"

"Let's make it 50-50, man," Philip says. "Like, really, 50-50."

"It's frustrating hearing you talk about the dangers that you're going to go through over there and not being able to go with you to help you," Braun says. "As you helped me, I wanted to be able to help you back."

"I appreciate you saying that, but really, you can't," Philip says. "Just pray for me, that's it."

Philip left for Iraq on Wednesday. If all goes well, he and his family will return to the U.S. in February 2015, and move in with Sgt. Braun.

Audio produced for Weekend Edition by Andres Caballero.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Let's check in now with StoryCorps and their Military Voices Initiative. Each Saturday between now and Veterans Day, we'll hear a new story from the men and women who've served in the post-9/11 conflicts. Today, a conversation between a soldier and his Iraqi interpreter. Paul Braun is a sergeant with the 34th military police company in the Minnesota Army National Guard. In 2009, he was serving near Bosra in Iraq when his company was assigned an interpreter. The American soldiers nicknamed him Philip. That's what we'll call him here. Philip came to the U.S. in late 2013 with Sergeant Braun's help. Now they live together in Minnesota, but Philip's wife and children are still in Iraq. And earlier this week, he returned to his home there hoping to reach his family and bring them back to the United States. Shortly before leaving, Philip sat down with Sergeant Braun and had this conversation for StoryCorp.

SERGEANT PAUL BRAUN: Do you remember the first day that we met?

PHILIP: Oh, you scared me, dude. Your attitude in the beginning and with your Mohawk...

BRAUN: I scared everybody with that Mohawk.

PHILIP: You told me, if you try to mess with my soldiers, I will shoot you.

BRAUN: And what did you do?

PHILIP: I was smiling at you.

BRAUN: You smiled at me and said someday, we'll be able to laugh about this conversation while we're drinking tea. And that's when I knew I think this guy will be OK. We started to trust you. And since you fought with us and you bled with us and you lived with us, you became us. And my Iraqi interpreter became my American brother.

PHILIP: And my American soldier became my Iraqi brother. I used to hate Americans. You are our enemy, and that's it. And you're the only one who changed my mind. With you, I was talking about the similarity between us as people. It's just about being human - there or here.

BRAUN: I remember sitting down one day thinking I didn't want to leave you alone. I knew how dangerous it was for you because we saw all those people that were murdered for being interpreters. And I was so afraid that that was going to happen to you. And it took years to get the proper documents to get you over here.

PHILIP: And I am lucky to make it here.

BRAUN: You have three daughters and a son and a wife.

PHILIP: Yep.

BRAUN: I'm waiting for that day that you are able to bring them over here. How do you feel about having to go back to get your family?

PHILIP: I'm scared, actually because of ISIS. They control the roads and it's dangerous.

BRAUN: I hate to ask you, what do you think your odds of being able to make it back alive are?

PHILIP: Let's make it 50-50, man. Like, really, 50-50.

BRAUN: It's frustrating hearing you talk about the dangers that you're going to go through over there and not being able to go with you to help you. As you helped me, I wanted to be able to help you back.

PHILIP: I appreciate you saying that, but really, you can't. Just pray for me, that's it. I love you brother.

BRAUN: I love you too, brother. (Foreign language spoken).

PHILIP: (Foreign language spoken).

SIMON: That's Paul Braun, a sergeant in the Minnesota Army National Guard and Philip, a former Iraqi interpreter, at StoryCorps in Blaine, Minnesota. Philip hopes to return to the U.S. with his family in February 2015. This interview will be archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. You can hear more from the Military Voices Initiative on the StoryCorps podcast. That's available on iTunes and at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.