For years, Johnny Walker interpreted for the U.S. Navy SEALs on missions all over his home country of Iraq. He served on over a thousand missions, and stood out as an invaluable part of nearly every team he worked with.
No, Johnny Walker isn't his real name. The SEALs gave him the nickname in honor of his love of Johnnie Walker Whisky — and to protect his identity, a necessary precaution even today.
"Bad guys, if they hear your real name, they can find you," he tells NPR's Arun Rath.
But before the war, the special ops missions and the American pseudonym, Walker was just a normal guy living in the city of Mosul in northern Iraq.
He was picking up part-time work as a truck driver when the U.S. Army came to his country. In the new occupying forces, Walker saw an opportunity for a job and a steady paycheck for his family.
"Everyone loved to work with Americans because it's good money," he says. "You would be so proud — 'Oh, guys, I work with Americans.' ... This is in the beginning, in 2003."
For weeks, Walker went from military base to military base, looking for a job. He finally got lucky and picked up work with the military police, quickly making a name for himself as a capable interpreter. It wasn't long before an elite unit of Navy SEALs hired him on.
"The best part of having Johnny along was knowing the people, knowing the culture," says Louis Lastra, one of the SEALs who went on missions with Walker.
"A lot of the interpreters were great when we were teaching the Iraqi troops, but when we actually would go outside the wire on operations, Johnny didn't have the fear factor some of the other ones had," Lastra says, "and we knew that even physically he could hang with us."
Missions with the Navy SEALs were demanding and dangerous, but the threat of violence didn't stop there. As the war dragged on, Iraqis working with Americans became targets.
One day, a letter showed up at Walker's house. Inside the envelope was a single bullet. He started carrying an AK-47 for protection.
Walker was driving alone one day when he noticed two men in a car following him. He tried to drive away, but they followed closely and opened fire, riddling his car with bullets. With no other options, Walker stopped the car and shot back with his AK-47, killing them both.
When a crowd gathered around the wreckage and people asked what had happened, Walker lied. He told them he killed the two men because they worked for Americans. "Allahu akbar," said a face in the crowd. God is great. Satisfied, the people dispersed.
"There's no rules," says Walker, remembering the day. "When somebody wants to kill you, there's no rules."
In 2006, the mounting danger became too much for Walker and his family. He applied for a U.S. visa under a special program for people who faced a clear threat in Iraq because of their affiliation with Americans.
Even though Walker's visa had the support of military leaders, he and his family weren't cleared to come to the U.S. until 2009.
Today, he lives in California and works as a cultural adviser for the SEALs. Thanks to support from his old comrades, Walker and his family are settling into their new home and are on track to become official U.S. citizens this July.
ARUN RATH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
Every war has its unsung heroes. With all the American lives lost in Iraq, we often overlook the contributions of ordinary Iraqis who helped the U.S. military, often at great personal risk. I sat down with one former Iraqi interpreter now living in the U.S. He actually accompanied Navy SEAL teams on raids to capture suspected insurgents. Because of that sensitive work, he identifies himself by his code name.
JOHNNY WALKER: My name is Johnny Walker, and I live in California. I work with SEALs now as a cultural advisor.
RATH: Even today, living in America, Johnny still goes by his code name. He needs to protect his extended family still living in Iraq from retribution. But all of that, the war, the fear and the American pseudonym, Johnny never could have imagined any of it growing up as a tall athletic kid in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.
WALKER: So my background, I played basketball and high jump and...
RATH: I should mention you're quite tall for people at home.
WALKER: Yeah. And, of course, you know, basketball, you have to love Harlem team. You love Harlem team, that's mean you have to listen to American country music. You have to watch American Hollywood movies.
RATH: American popular culture was cool when Johnny was growing up in Mosul. A lot of that good sentiment was there when U.S. forces arrived in 2003. Young Iraqis like Johnny flocked to work for them.
WALKER: I mean, everyone loved to work for the Americans because it's good money, this kind of, you will be so proud. Oh, guys, I work with Americans, you know? This is the beginning.
RATH: Johnny really wanted a job as an interpreter. He was newly married and starting a family. For weeks, he went from military base to military base asking for work. Finally, he got lucky.
WALKER: I still remember I met one of the guys, and I told him, do you think I have chance to work with you? And he says, indeed. And I couldn't figure out what indeed mean until, like, after a few days I asked one of the guys, and he says, this means sure.
RATH: Johnny was elated. He quickly distinguished himself as a reliable and fearless translator. Louis Lastra was one of the SEALs who went out on missions with Johnny.
LOUIS LASTRA: The best part about having Johnny along was knowing the people, knowing the culture. A lot of the interpreters were great when we were teaching the Iraqi troops. And when we actually would go outside the wire on operations, Johnny had a little bit - I guess he didn't have the fear factor quite some of the other ones had, and we knew that even physically, he could hang with us.
RATH: Wait a second, because that's worth repeating. Johnny could physically hang with the Navy SEALs, the most elite of Special Ops warriors. Missions could last for many hours and require quick precise movement. They faced ambushes and snipers, and they often operated under the cover of darkness. It was extremely dangerous. And as a civilian interpreter, Johnny was not allowed to carry a gun.
WALKER: I have my buddies. And SEALs, they have famous saying, no one left behind. And why do you need piece of metal to carry if you have all the teams covering your back, you know?
RATH: But the SEALs weren't with Johnny 24 hours a day. And as the war dragged on, Iraqis working with Americans became targets. Someone mailed Johnny's family a letter with a bullet in it. Johnny bought an AK-47 for protection. One day, he was driving alone when he noticed a car behind him.
WALKER: There's two guys. They start to follow me. And this look like they are not good guys, so I have to do something. So I took right, I push the gas hard, and they tried to pass me. I stopped suddenly, and I still remember the pistol 9 millimeter, and they shot and hit the middle of the car, you know? And I took my AK, and I shoot both of them, and I kill them.
RATH: Your AK-47 was with you.
WALKER: Yeah, with me. And this is legal. I mean, if it's not legal, it's my life too. I have to do it, you know?
RATH: But the danger was not over. A crowd gathered around the cars. People wanted to know what had happened. It was a tense situation. So Johnny lied. He said he had killed the men because they worked for the Americans. It worked. Satisfied with that answer, the crowd dispersed.
WALKER: There's no rules. When somebody wan to kill you, there's no rules.
RATH: Johnny did his best to protect his family. But by 2006, it became clear that staying in Iraq was not an option.
WALKER: My family traveling every day from place to place. And it's not about me. It's about my family and my kids. They should have, like, their life with a dream and a future, you know? So I decide to leave.
RATH: Johnny applied for a U.S. visa under a special program for people just like him and his family who faced a clear threat in Iraq because of their affiliation with Americans. But even though Johnny's visa application had the support of military leaders, it took years before he and his family were finally granted residency in the U.S.
WALKER: We land in Chicago, and I took my son. And I still remember, like, I turned around left and right if somebody's going to shot me or shot my son. And this looked like, Johnny, wake up. This is America. Done. No more nightmare, you know? It's a huge feeling.
RATH: Today, Johnny and his family live in California, and they're settling in nicely, thanks to a lot of support from his old SEAL friends. You can read more about his experience working with American SEAL teams in his new book "Code Name: Johnny Walker." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.