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  • If I were to mark what is perhaps one of the more poignant reflections on not judging a book by its cover, I can think of a story. It involves a man whom I first met in passing -- a handsome, cocky, son of a bitch of a soccer player (with mad skills in dealing poker, on the side) -- and whom I later learned is a hell of a lot more than just that.

    It started simply enough. I'm a photographer. I knew his cousin, went to visit, watch a soccer game -- met him in passing. Facebook connects everyone, and one offhanded comment on a photo got me a paid trip back for a photo gig. (I ended up mostly hanging out; the only photos I really took of him were during a friendly soccer match with his cousin.) Ended up sitting up late with the guys after a poker game, and for some reason or another, he got to talking. Everyone else had left, and his friend was half-asleep on the poker table...and I found myself enraptured with a story that I can't help but wonder, how many times has this happened already?

    He speaks Arabic and Kurdish fluently, and sought asylum from Iraq in the late '90s. In doing so, he also volunteered to translate for U.S. forces in Iraq - but wanted to be able to defend himself. In order to do so, that requires basic training -- so he did it, and was sent to Baghdad. Conversationally, he explained that as a translator, you're attached to a group -- but whoever is in that group comes and goes pretty regularly -- due to being killed in action, that is. Whether you're 18, 28, or older, you realize that war is not like the movies -- fear takes over to an extent, sooner or later.

    But those stories...they still stay with you, regardless of how many people come and go.

    Like the young gun who thought he was a hot shot -- joined the squad, eager to see action. One day on patrol, a truck approaches their vehicle to pass. Protocol demands that you take shelter behind your tank, so everyone does so. As the vehicle passes, the kid jumps out in the road to yell at it, shoot at it, something stupid like that. Of course, it's never so simple...a second truck passes almost out of nowhere, and shoots the young soldier before anyone can defend. Reactions, however, are often much quicker -- return fire, shoot up the truck as it skids off the road...but the damage is done. Young hot shot is dead a few days later.

    And the war goes on. A second young gun arrives, and is warned not to follow in his predecessor's footsteps. This time, they're in a city, walking down a street in patrol formation. All of a sudden -- sniper fire out of nowhere. Everyone hits the ground -- except the young soldier hits the ground in a different way. Took a bullet to the neck. Perhaps luckily, unlike the previous young hot shot, his death is instantaneous. The group responds quickly, finding the stairwell from where the sniper fire came...and it's a teenager with an AK-47.

    "War fucking sucks, man."

    And as if these kinds of stories weren't bad enough, then there are others.

    Like when a pregnant woman with a child was running towards them and shouting. His sergeant tells The Translator to tell her to stop -- he did so, but she kept running. He kept yelling at her to stop running, to stop approaching them, to wait. The sergeant yells at his soldiers to be ready. She crosses the invisible line -- the red zone -- and they are 'left with no choice' but to fire. She dies, as does the child in her hands. No bomb, no threat...just fear. And perhaps that hope that these men in uniform might be able to help.

    Then there's the time when one of his fellow soldiers on patrol kicks a dead body on the side of the road. Anger. Frustration. And yet the reasoning behind his actions is lost in translation. "Why'd you do that, man?"

    And then there's the story saved for last...why he's no longer in the military. Why he's stuck in a legal limbo - asylum granted, but sans citizenship. Neither here nor there...perhaps in more ways than one.

    War is hell. Tensions run high. Soldiers can snap.

    A pregnant woman is walking by. Eyes likely downcast - or perhaps shifting towards them warily. It's a war zone, and not everyone is so comfortable around guns and men with guns. She walks by, and perhaps it was simply the last straw. Someone snaps, and calls out to her. He breaks rank and pushes her against the wall, punching her in the stomach.

    It was The Translator's last straw.

    Still with the sense of mind to put his weapon aside first -- protocol is protocol, after all; any altercation with another soldier should be done sans weapons -- and he fights back.

    It's not just about a screwed up situation in one's birth country.
    It's not just about a man with military training attacking an innocent person -- a pregnant woman, no less.
    It's about everything. All of it.
    It's about doing what's right, even if you get treated as though you did something wrong.

    And so the stories end that night. He grabs another beer, takes another drag on the blunt, and makes some smart-ass callous remark that stirs his friend from his half-asleep stupor, and the early morning drags on. My trip ends, and I go home.

    But his stories stay with me, even if there's something that's still lost in translation.
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