Soldiers' Stories Statement
Former Linguist Zuhair "Zack" Tharis, U.S. Contractor for U.S. Department of Defense in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, with wife, Laura, children, Mohammed, Nathan and Baneen, and brother Haider;
Lincoln, NE,
October 2012
48”x 48” Chromogenic Color Print

My family escaped from Iraq to Saudi Arabia in 1991 after the first Gulf War. In 1995, the United Nations helped us come to Lincoln, Nebraska and I've been living here all these years. I became a translator and interpreter to help both countries—to serve the country that took me in and gave me citizenship. I wanted to help in Iraq because I had heard that a lot of translators from other countries misunderstand, mistranslate and they get a lot of people in trouble. Many other countries speak Arabic but different dialects. Iraqis can understand other dialects but people from other countries don’t understand our dialect. So a lot of mistakes happen because of mistranslation.

I was very important to the unit. If there were no translators in that unit, the mission failed. But if they had a good translator, they completed a lot of missions. At the same time, we were targeted by Al Qaeda or the terrorists because they called us traitors. If I was walking with ten American soldiers, and there was a sniper out there, I would be the first one to get killed. I wore the same uniform as the soldiers I was deployed with so that the enemy wouldn’t recognize me. Sometimes I even carried a weapon. You used a nickname so they wouldn’t know your real name.

I was called a traitor so many times. They said, “You're an Iraqi, why are you helping another country to take over? You should come to your country and help here.” They thought what they were doing was right but we thought what they were doing was wrong.

The first day scared me very bad. I was in a convoy on the way to my assignment in Basra, to Camp Bucca, when we received a call saying that the Iraqi patrol was going to pass us. There was something happening ahead of us. So they passed us and when we got there, there was a big semi truck rolled over on the road. We stopped and after awhile the Lt. Colonel called me to come help. He gave me a piece of paper and asked me to translate it. That piece of paper was folded and a bullet had gone through it. The driver of the truck had a piece of paper in his front pocket and he got shot through it. I opened it and it was all bloody. But I could see what was written on it. I think his wife was a tailor—she sewed clothes for people. She had written a list of things she needed like blue thread, buttons and needles. He was a truck driver so he had written down the loads that he was transporting. One of those loads was from somewhere in Iraq to the Bagdad airport, an American military base. One of the people on the highway told me that this guy had been threatened by the terrorists and told not to use his truck to load to the airport for the Americans. He didn't stop working for them so they shot and killed him while he was driving.

On the first day, when you saw this, you got very scared. Who killed him, he knew him very well. They knew who he was working for, where he was from. Imagine if they caught me, they would cut me into pieces. It makes me feel very sad because he was an innocent guy with a family to support and just needed a job. That time, in Iraq, there weren't any jobs.

I'm not going to deny that I made good money. Because of that job, I could put a down payment on this house. We used to live in an apartment and whenever the kids were playing, the lady downstairs would kickthe ceiling. Now it's their house. Nobody will bother us or call the police if the kids are jumping up and down.

At the time of the photograph, Zuhair Tharis owned and drove trucks for his family business in Lincoln, NE.

This text was transcribed and edited from interviews conducted by Jennifer Karady in July and October 2010.

© Jennifer Karady 2019, all rights reserved.