CAMP BAHARIA, Iraq -- United States service members in Iraq risk their lives daily as they fight in the war on terrorism.
Men like Mario Franco, however, sacrifice not only their own safety as they serve alongside their fellow American-born Marines, but that of their wives, mothers, brothers and children.
Franco, a 32-year-old Baghdad native, serves with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment under an Italian pseudonym, a label he chose to protect his and his family’s identities. Insurgents here target these interpreters, or ‘terps,’ often times as much as they do Coalition and Iraqi forces.
Disregarding these dangers, Franco travels daily with Battalion Commander Lt. Col. William Jurney’s personal security detail as they ride about Northern Fallujah and the nearby rural community of Saqlawiyah.
“Everywhere we go, we try to make friends with the people,” said Franco, who translates for Jurney during his interactions with the local community and Iraqi military leaders.
It was a long and rocky road to attain his current position though. As an outspoken youth who verbally lashed out against Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime, Franco said his family asked him to leave their Baghdad home at age 20 for fear of government reprisal.
He eventually made his way to North America, where he became a Canadian citizen in 1997.
Nevertheless, Franco said he never forgot his roots, and would come back to Iraq to visit frequently. Sometimes these visits would last for months at a time.
“I didn’t live (in Iraq) anymore, and I was a citizen of a different country, but I could still see what the people were going through,” he stated. “People in many areas lived in fear of Saddam’s forces, because you never knew when they would come knocking at your door to demand (protection) money, or even your wife.”
The opportunity to rectify these wrongs came knocking in 2003, when the U.S. declared war on Iraq.
Although Franco was college educated in civil and computer engineering and worked as a manager for a Wal-Mart at that time, he gladly embarked on an arduous process to give up his life in Canada to support the war back in his birth nation.
“I started looking on the Internet and calling every agency, like the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), the U.S. State Department, and the Department of Defense, to see if they would let me work for them, even if it was for free,” Franco said.
The Titan Corporation hired him in 2004 as an interpreter after conducting lengthy background checks. Franco worked with American Special Forces and counterintelligence units during the most violent times in Fallujah, including the push through the city in late 2004 with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment.
“When we were doing the push, we would search hundreds of houses and find tremendous weapons caches, sometimes up to ten tons of weapons every three houses,” Franco explained.
During these missions, Franco operated alongside his Marines 24 hours a day, overcoming the same exhaustion and challenges they did. He was even injured by shrapnel from a grenade blast while helping evacuate a wounded service member. Many Marines often dub their ‘terps’ honorary Marines for sharing in these hardships with such dedication.
Nowadays, Franco still enjoys a high-speed operational tempo with 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, though the city is mostly peaceful. Ironically, he said he sees this peacekeeping mission as more challenging than conducting major combat operations.
“One-Six has the tremendous responsibility of telling the good guys apart from the bad. You can’t trust anyone out there, but at the same time, you have to treat everyone firmly and fairly,” Franco continued. “So far, we’ve done a very good job of keeping the bad guys on the run.”
Franco added that he sees the community embracing the newfound freedoms the Marines and Iraqi Security Forces here work to secure. However, a long road toward complete democracy and safety lies ahead for his community.
“I see the people here have freedom of speech now. Even if what they’re saying is against the U.S., it’s a great thing that they can express themselves. There are still lots of disputes and conflict in Iraq, but that is normal. Every nation has to go through rough times until they understand what the true meaning of living in a free civilization is.”
For his part, Franco continues translating for his Marines as they continue working with the locals and their security forces.
He has forsaken his old home, personal safety, public association with loved ones and even his Canadian girlfriend of more than two years to serve a cause he deeply believes in. Nonetheless, he found a surrogate family in 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment’s PSD platoon and the units he served with prior.
“I thank all of the PSD for being my true brothers, for making me part of the 1/6 family and treating me like a Marine,” Franco stated. “I thank the USMC (United States Marine Corps) from the bottom of my heart to allow me to experience the unique brotherhood of the Marines, which is like no other I have ever experienced.”
So strong is the love for his Marine brothers that Franco said he has chosen to take no vacation time during his time as an interpreter, nor does he intend to in the future. Like many of his fellow interpreters, Franco will continue tirelessly serving his beloved Iraq alongside the numerous Marine and Army units that come and go.
“I get exhausted doing this job, but I don’t think I’ll ever leave here. The only thing that will stop me from doing my duty is getting fired or getting killed.”