As the only English-speaking busboy at a Mesa-area restaurant, a teenage Sterling Jensen never imagined his love for language would help him perform the duties of an Arabic interpreter in the Iraq war.
Jensen, 30, said his interest to learn other languages was sparked in his first Spanish class at Kino Junior High in Mesa. It's been an abiding interest ever since.
In a telephone interview from his base in Ramadi, Iraq, Jensen said his passion for learning languages and the cultures they belong to developed after his family moved to Mexico for a year, where his parents taught English to agricultural students in Oaxaca as adjunct professors from Brigham Young University.
"I got the international bug," he said.
After his family returned to Arizona, Jensen worked at Matta's Mexican Food west of Main Street and Stapley Drive for two years during high school.
Jensen's parents, Dean and Jean Jensen, said he felt almost at home in the restaurant and returning to Mesa was a culture shock all its own for their son.
"He found out what real friends were," Jean Jensen said. "He wanted to be around people that he knew."
Discussions with his co-workers convinced Jensen that he wanted to help others to understand their cultural struggle and set his sights on a position in the State Department, where he later received two fellowships.
After studying Spanish and Italian at Mesa Community College, Jensen, the fifth of seven siblings, studied Arabic at Brigham Young for two years preceding the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Jensen, a civilian, was placed in an Iraq "hot spot" in Ramadi in 2006 to translate for American soldiers and has been helping the military understand the Arabic language and culture ever since.
As a foreign area officer, it is Jensen's job to make contact with foreign government officials and inform the U.S. government of their ideas and concerns.
After his first deployment from March 2006 to June 2007, he wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled, "Lessons from an Anbar Sheik." The article discusses the intricacies of interpreting between the U.S. government and a Sunni shiek, who later died in a car bombing.
Being placed in a military operation as a civilian was a definite change for Jensen. His parents had mixed emotions about his deployment.
"They were a little nervous, but they were encouraging," Jensen said.
His father, Dean, knew it was coming because the State Department gave Jensen a grant to delve deeper into the Arabic language.
While in Iraq, he said he experienced the harsh realities of war: Jensen participated in convoys and raids where soldiers died and even had to assist some wounded soldiers.
After his first deployment, Jensen was sent on a second mission to Ramadi, where he currently resides.
"I thought 'Oh no, not again Sterling,'" mother Jean Jensen said. "But this time around, it's been easier for me."
Upon returning from Iraq, Jensen will resume his college education at Johns Hopkins University working toward his master's degree in advanced international studies.
Jensen's older brother, Steve, said his younger brother left a mark during his daughter's fourth birthday party. He sat down all the children and taught them how to write their names in Arabic. Three years later, Steve said his daughter still remembers her uncle teaching her a different language and making it fun.
Jensen's mother said the family had to learn to trust his judgement, despite the close calls in the once-violent Ramadi area."He's doing his part," she said. "He needs our support more than anything."