By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Killeen Daily Herald
In 2003, an Iraqi boy named Salih Faisal Jasim approached a U.S. Army Civil Military Operations Center and asked for work.
A lot of people in his village were getting jobs at the center because there wasn't much else available. The boy needed money, too. His father, a former Iraqi soldier, had health issues and someone needed to take care of his mother and five younger siblings.
The family was real poor, the boy, who is now 20, said.
"No support. No support but me," he added.
"So I took charge of the family."
The boy told an Army major about his family's situation and the officer hired him to help unload deliveries of school supplies that would later be handed out to local schoolchildren.
The boy wouldn't get to use those supplies, though. He already stopped attending school so he could make money to support his family. The U.S. Army paid the boy $20 a week.
This wasn't the boy's first job. He started working at a local concrete business at 11 years old. He took whatever he made back to his mud home for his family.
That first job with the Army led to more. He met a sergeant major who took a liking to him and got him a job on the nearby base. He hauled water. He took out trash. He got hired by the base's department of public works. The boy spent most of his time with Americans and he learned English.
Then came the job that would change his life. The U.S. Army hired the boy as an interpreter, or 'terp, as the soldiers call them. He was asked whether he wanted to work on the forward operating base or go out on missions with soldiers.
"And I told them, 'No, I want to go outside the FOB to help the people,'" he said.
The boy then spent all his time with the same people he was scared of when he was a child. He used to run away from the soldiers' big Humvees.
It was soldiers who in 2007 gave the boy his new name. Life as an Iraqi interpreter was dangerous, and the boy's real name couldn't be used, off the base, "outside the wire."
A captain told the boy he looked like a Chavo. He's been Chavo ever since.
• • •
Danger was part of Chavo's life every day for years. He went along on dangerous missions outside the wire and got hit by roadside bombs several times. He lost close friends. He saw them die.
Chavo also became a target. It became known he was an interpreter for the Americans and he received threats. Often.
Terrorists detonated homemade bombs next to his family's home.
He was told that if he didn't quit, he'd be killed. He started living on the FOB to keep his family safe. Despite the threats, Chavo didn't stop. He couldn't.
"And I was like, if I'm gonna get killed, I'm gonna get killed," Chavo said. "If I'm gonna survive, I'm gonna survive. I choose it."
He told his mother, "If I die, I die for the family. I didn't do nothing wrong. I didn't kill nobody. I didn't steal anything from nobody, I work for my money. And I'm proud of it."
Interpreting for soldiers was the hardest job he ever had, but Chavo grew to love it. He loved helping people.
Working as an interpreter for units like the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and 1st Cavalry Division carries a lot of responsibility. Nothing can be missed, Chavo said. They have to make people understand. There's a lot riding on an interpreter.
Many Iraqis in the smaller villages didn't know a lot about the coalition forces, Chavo said. They thought the troops were going to take things from the country or hurt the people.
"I told them, 'No, it's not like that,'" Chavo said. "They come over here to help you."
Chavo got good at his job. He learned how to get information from his people. It was all about being respectful and making them feel safe, he said.
He recalled working for a 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment captain, a "good commander, really smart," Chavo said. The captain set up a tip hot line and Iraqis could call it and set up safe times to meet and pass along information about insurgent activity in the area.
"I try (to) do my best for the future," Chavo said of his country.
Chavo observed and learned. A lot. He said the way to build a good future for the people of Iraq to help the poor people - the people in little villages like his.
"You gotta look out for the people, how they're living," he said. "A lot of people, they stay in mud houses, no power, no schools, no education, nothing."
Chavo is critical of corrupt Iraqi government officials, saying some care more about money than the people.
That leads to violence because terrorists will give an unemployed person $100 to make a bomb.
"The people in the little villages don't have no help, so the terrorists pay them money, and so he's gonna work with the terrorists because he has no education and no money," Chavo said.
• • •
Chavo was an interpreter for the 21st Theater Sustainment Command's 16th Sustainment Brigade when he got word a new unit was coming to FOB Q-West.
That new unit was the 13th Sustainment Command's 15th Sustainment Brigade, which departed Fort Hood in September 2009. The brigade is led by Col. Larry Phelps and Command Sgt. Maj. Nathaniel Bartee.
Phelps' and Bartee's soldiers took over the sustainment mission Oct. 5 for an area that spanned from Basra to the Turkish border, according to information from the brigade.
Chavo knew he'd be working for a new commander and went to meet him.
"I walked to the building and saw a big, tall man," he said.
Chavo was a welcome change from the big, tall man's interpreter during his last deployment to Iraq. Chavo was young. He was 19, about to turn 20 at the time. The last interpreter was a lot older.
"My interpreter couldn't keep up with me very well last rotation," Phelps said. "So I was very happy to see a very young, energetic interpreter."
Chavo worked at a much higher level than most 20-year-olds, Phelps said. Interpreters' jobs are difficult because they sometimes have to deliver news that may be bad or contentious. The brigade's mission was to not only lead the sustainment mission in its area of operations, but prepare to close Q-West and hand it over to the government of Iraq. That meant a loss of jobs. That kind of news puts interpreters in difficult positions, Phelps said.
"And so you have to be much more mature than your years to do a good job on that," he said.
Chavo was familiar with challenges, though. He was used to being out front. He had to be the first one out of the vehicle during a mission. If there was a bomb attack or an incident, he had to be the first one there.
Chavo also was familiar with transitioning to new units. He learned how to adapt to new commanders.
"You need to know how to act with people," Chavo said with a sly grin. "Especially in the morning time."
"Col. Phelps, he wasn't a morning man."
The two shared similar ideas on how to make change, too. Chavo was a "wealth of institutional knowledge," Phelps said. He would point out places where the soldiers could do the most good and they would act.
Most of the time it wasn't big stuff, Phelps said. It was the small things - handing out soccer balls and school supplies. A photo taken during that time shows smiling children gathered around Phelps, who looked like Santa Claus holding a red bag of soccer balls. Another shows Chavo, dressed in an Army Combat Uniform, talking to children who were grasping jump ropes and other toys.
Chavo grew to respect Phelps.
"He's a good guy," he said. "He did a lot of things. … Lot of people respect him. He's a great man."
• • •
Chavo quickly became a member of the 15th Sustainment family.
Phelps, Chavo and the personal security detachment went on almost 170 missions together, the colonel said. They traveled 26,000 miles on the roads between the Turkish border and Baghdad.
They went "everywhere you could possibly go and Chavo was a member of that family," Phelps said.
Phelps knew that when the brigade left Q-West, Chavo would be in a dangerous predicament once again.
"So it was just important not to leave Chavo in a position where he was probably not going to … it's hard on interpreters when the forces leave," Phelps said. "And we just decided he would come home with the family."
Chavo heard it before. People promised to help him get to America when they departed and gave him their e-mail addresses. He'd send messages, but no replies would ever come.
Not Larry Phelps.
The two began the long, complicated process of working with embassies, paperwork, background checks and sponsorships. Phelps was going to help, he said, but he expected Chavo to do all the work.
A week before Phelps and the brigade returned to Fort Hood, Chavo was cleared to come to the United States on a special refugee visa. He arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City days before the soldiers touched down at Fort Hood.
Phelps' wife, Lisa, and their sons greeted Chavo at the airport in Dallas. Hans, the youngest of three boys, held up a red, white and blue sign that read, "Welcome to Texas, Chavo."
"That's for me," Chavo said, remembering the moment.
He saw "Ms. Lisa." She was a nice lady, he said.
"I was happy."
Phelps, Bartee and the first group of soldiers arrived home May 30.
• • •
Phelps and Chavo formulated a plan in Iraq for Chavo's life after he arrived in the United States - a key part of the process, Phelps said. Chavo wasn't going to get cut loose once he arrived from Iraq. He'd stay close to the brigade and Phelps until he was able to completely support himself.
"He's my Iraqi exchange student and that's how we've run the relationship," Phelps said.
Unlike some in the past, Phelps came through. There's not many people who would do that, Chavo said. Promises that didn't come through are just a memory.
"So, Col. Phelps, he got his word right," Chavo said. "He helped me."
Chavo has a Social Security number and a permanent resident card.
"It feels good, you know," he said last week while holding his card. "I'm legal here, you know?"
Chavo has a job, too, pushing carts at the Copperas Cove Walmart.
"You gotta start off on something. You can't just go all the way to the …," he said, holding his hand in the air.
Learning to drive on American roads is an ongoing process. Iraqi roads don't have lines, Chavo said, and there aren't as many rules.
"It's, like, complicated how you do it," he said of American driving.
Phelps takes Chavo to practice at the same place he taught his sons. Everyone in Texas drives and they have cell phones, Phelps told Chavo. He already has a cell phone.
The colonel and Lisa drive Chavo to and from work. It's hard for them because they're busy, Chavo said, but they never leave him hanging.
The Phelpses are nice people, he said.
"They treat me like a son. One of themselves. And I will never forget that - what they did for me," Chavo said.
Chavo has accomplished a big goal, but he isn't done. There is more to come.
"I gotta start off my life. Find me a place to stay. I can't be staying here forever," he said of his room in the Phelps' home.
It's a good start, though, he said. A lot of interpreters who come to the United States still don't have a job after a year, he said. They don't look. They aren't focused.
"If you're not gonna focus, you're gonna lose everything," Chavo said.
Phelps keeps him out of trouble, he added. During a recent shift at Walmart, Chavo said the colonel was looking after him.
"He don't want me to lose," he said.
Chavo doesn't plan on returning to Iraq to live.
"No, I'm staying here," he said quietly.
Chavo wants to live life like "normal people," he said.
"Get a job and get set up. Maybe I can get me a home here. Get me a wife and kid. Just enjoy. Enjoy the rest of the life."
Amanda Kim Stairrett, the Herald's military editor; Catrina Rawson, staff photographer; and Corey Johnson, staff videographer, have documented parts of Chavo's life with the Phelps family for a month. Continue reading the Herald and visiting www.kdhnews.com for more on Chavo's story.
Contact Stairrett at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7547, Rawson at email@example.com or (254) 501-7460 and Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7460. Follow Stairrett on Twitter at KDHmilitary.