“It was an awesome adventure. It was an honor to work with the U.S. Marines and (see) what they do day-in and day-out,” A.J. Iftikhar said. “I wanted to do this for a year, help out the country and come back to my kids. I didn’t know I could make a career out of it.”
NAPLES — He found the cross tucked into the sand one day before the accident.
It was the second day in a row that a glint in the sand caught his eye. The first time, his commanding officer scolded him for picking it up. You never know what it could be, he was told.
But this time, A.J. Iftikhar picked up the smooth silver cross and discreetly attached it to his dog tags. Twenty-four hours later, the vehicle he was riding in hit an improvised explosive device. Iftikhar left the scene of the accident with just a broken leg.
Iftikhar, an East Naples-based civilian working with the U.S. Marines as a translator in Afghanistan, hasn’t taken the cross off since.
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This wasn’t how Iftikhar, 45, imagined his life unfolding.
Iftikhar was deployed with the U.S. Marines as a civilian linguist in January 2009. His time in Afghanistan had been trying, but he had stayed safe until that November day when his military vehicle veered four inches off the track in front of it, hit the improvised explosive device (IED) and exploded.
Iftikhar broke his tibia in four places. He spent six months in Naples recovering.
“It was an awesome adventure. It was an honor to work with the U.S. Marines and (see) what they do day-in and day-out,” he said. “I wanted to do this for a year, help out the country and come back to my kids. I didn’t know I could make a career out of it.”
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Iftikhar put on real shoes for the first time since the accident in April, a minor victory for a man who had spent the past few months either on crutches or in a removable walking cast.
He didn’t just pick up any shoes. The minute he could lace them up, Iftikhar reached for the military-issued combat boots, the same ones he wore on the day of the explosion.
Still dusty from 10 months in Afghanistan, Iftikhar said he fought with military personnel to stop them from cutting the boots off him right after the explosion. It wasn’t just sentimentality that made him pick those boots back up: He had just broken the boots in and didn’t want to go through the process again.
But putting on the boots couldn’t help but take him back to the moments before the explosion. He was traveling down a road he and the Marines had traveled down dozens of times before. It was a road where just a few weeks earlier an IED exploded and killed two of the Marines in his unit.
His unit had spent the day before in a village handing out hand-crank radios to villagers. They left that evening when it began to get dark, then hit the road around 6:30 a.m. the next day to head back to the village to start work again.
They weren’t on the road long before it happened. The rule when driving in Afghanistan is to follow the tracks in front of you because you know it’s a safe pathway, but for some reason that morning the vehicle went off the track.
The next thing he heard was the driver screaming, and he saw a swirl of sand and dust.
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Iftikhar, a Pakistani immigrant, didn’t set out looking for an adventure. A sense of duty drove him to help his adopted country in a time when he felt his language skills would be most needed.
That’s the case for most contractual linguists, said Sean Rushton, director of communications at Mission Essential Personnel, which provides translators, interpreters and cultural advisers to the United States government in 13 countries.
The firm employees 6,000 linguists a year, including _ Iftikhar said _ him.
Rushton said there are about 3,500 American residents who can speak a language native to the region “at a fluent level and are able to get security clearances.” It’s a small group, and a large number of those available native speakers enter the world of military translators at some point or another.
For Iftikhar, that point came shortly after the Sept. 11 terror attack. He was a UPS driver at the time, making good money and working 9-to-5. But after the attack there was something lingering inside him that urged him to step up to the plate.
He posted his resume _ it touts the fact he can speak six languages unique to the region, including Urdu _ online and waited.
He got his first shot in 2005: A military contractor hired Iftikhar to go to military bases to teach them a few words and the region’s customs.
After his first successful class, the calls kept coming and Iftikhar said that at least once a year for the past few years he would pack his bags and head across the country to work with Marines as they prepared to go to Afghanistan.
Then, in late 2008, he got a call from the same company asking if he’d be willing to take off a year from work to go to Afghanistan with the Marines. Iftikhar jumped at the chance, and said he wanted to go to make sure Afghani residents knew the Marines were there to help.
“I knew that if I could save one person’s life, I had accomplished my goal,” Iftikhar said.
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Iftikhar thought he had made it through the November 2009 explosion without incident. He even told people he was OK when they shouted through the noise to check on him. But his leg had jammed into the heavy metal floor on impact and when he tried to get out of the vehicle he couldn’t.
The men in his unit pulled him out as trained dogs sniffed the area, looking for more explosives. They laid him on another vehicle; all the while Iftikhar listened to scanners and translated what noise he heard in his head.
“I was so worried,” Iftikhar said. “I didn’t want to go (away).”
He didn’t want to leave because the minute he was away from his unit, they would be left without a translator.
Day and night, Iftikhar sat with earbuds in his ears listening to, and translating, Afghani radio transmissions being broadcast. He learned the tricks, the code words and learned to pick through the constant stream of noise to find crucial information.
He was concerned that if he was transported he would miss a crucial tidbit of information that could keep his friends out of harm’s way.
But he was injured, and, after a couple of shots of medication to dull the pain, Iftikhar was transported by helicopter to the nearest base for medical attention before being sent to Germany for treatment.
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While military personnel injured in Afghanistan were taken to a military hospital in Germany, Iftikhar was taken to a civilian one hours away from the German base he was taken to after the accident for treatment.
That treatment included two months in the hospital and several surgeries, one of which placed metal screws in his legs. Those screws, doctors told him, could be removed after a year if they started to bother him.
That removal procedure happened earlier this summer after Iftikhar complained of pain to his Fort Myers physician. The screws were removed during a routine surgery to clean up scar tissue.
“I just want to be normal again,” Iftikhar said he told his doctor. “It was hurting so bad.”
The surgery may reduce his pain in the long run, but the immediate effect was a crushing setback for someone who just recently had been able to walk again with ease.
“It hurt more than the original surgery,” he said.
It also knocked him out of commission for several weeks, and in early July he was just starting to walk again.
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Broken tibias aren’t an uncommon injury, Dr. Michael Havig said.
Havig, a Naples orthopedic surgeon who specializes in care of fractures, said it’s common to break the tibia – the largest bone in the leg often referred to as the shin bone – when a traumatic accident occurs.
Havig wasn’t familiar with the specifics of Iftikhar’s injury, but said the care and recovery for similar tibia injuries would include surgically inserting a steel rod in the leg to act “like an internal brace (that) holds the bone together as it heals.”
It takes a minimum of 12 weeks to 16 weeks for a bone to heal, depending on the injury, and several physical therapy sessions before a person can be back to normal.
But even then, Havig said, normalcy isn’t guaranteed
“It may never be the same. They may still have aches and pains,” he said. “The people with severe fractures that are slow to heal, those people are probably going to have” a slower time recovering.
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Iftikhar is quick to say his leg was one of the most important tools for the job as a delivery driver for UPS. Dozens of times each day, Iftikhar was jumping in and out of his truck, something he knew he wouldn’t be able to do after the accident.
He was on leave from his job with the delivery company, and Iftikhar said his job was being held for him for when he was feeling better. But his doctors told him that it was unlikely he’d be able to return to work, and with his worker’s compensation from the injury set to expire Iftikhar started hitting the pavement looking for a new job.
The idea of working as a linguist professionally was relatively new to him, but with one tour of duty under his belt, he thought this could be something he could capitalize on.
He sent applications to companies with outposts in Miami and Tampa, but the thought of leaving the country again never crossed his mind. Especially because that would mean once again leaving his two children stateside because of a custody agreement with his ex-wife.
But after months with no bites on his resume – he even applied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which has an office in Naples – Iftikhar got a call in July asking if he’d like to take a job as a linguist for the Navy in Italy.
He had just a few weeks to decide, and Iftikhar said he once again began weighing the pros and cons of leaving his family to help his country.
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“For six months I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do much of anything and I’m still not 100 percent,” A.J. Iftikhar said. “But I’m not the kind of guy that sits at home. I’d rather be working, and its not like Afghanistan here in Italy. I’ll be working in the office and traveling a lot.”
It was mid-July, two days before Iftikhar left for Italy, and he was still up in the air about whether he was doing the right thing.
It’s been a rough year for his family, and with his oldest son entering his senior year, Iftikhar knew he was going to miss milestones that any parent would be devastated to miss. But he also knew he has to support his family, and this was the best option available.
That’s what he had to tell himself at least. While he was preparing for another year’s stint with the military he had no idea what his job would actually entail. He doesn’t speak Italian, but the contract firm that hired him told him he was needed for the language he does speak.
“I had to take the job. My workman’s comp is going to stop soon and I have to work,” he said at the time. “I had no choice ...”
Leaving his children and his life in Florida, where he’s lived since 1991, was going to be tough, but Iftikhar said he was looking forward to the challenge.
“For six months I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t do much of anything and I’m still not 100 percent,” he said. “But I’m not the kind of guy that sits at home. I’d rather be working, and its not like Afghanistan here in Italy. I’ll be working in the office and traveling a lot.”
Ask Iftikhar whether he’d go back to Afghanistan and his response is immediately: yes.
“I would love to go back. I fear for those guys,” he said. “It was an awesome opportunity for me, and if I could save one soldier’s life then I would have achieved my goals.”
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A few weeks before he left for Italy, Iftikhar attended Friday prayer at the Islamic Center of Naples. He was raised Muslim, and it was the first time he had been to the Islamic Center “after a long time.”
The decision to attend the Friday prayer did mean one thing though: Iftikhar felt compelled to take off the silver cross he found in Afghanistan that day. The imam, Iftikhar joked, would have yelled had he noticed it.
It was one of the few times he had taken off the cross since the accident.