BALAD, Iraq -- As an Iraqi girl and her mother carefully stepped out of a mine resistant ambush protected vehicle, they turned to find nearly an entire village anxious and waiting for their return from a two-month long journey.

As the young Iraqi girl climbed out, she found herself smothered with kisses and hugs from the villagers as children threw candy like rice at a wedding. Bursting with new found energy, the girl ran to greet her friends while her mother cried tears of joy.

The villagers, along with the mayor of Balad and other local leaders, recently welcomed 6-year-old Tiba and her mother, Sareeya, home in Balad, Iraq.

Operation Good Heart, a coalition effort to save Tiba's life through a necessary heart surgery, had officially come to an end.

To save Tiba, Good Heart enlisted the assistance of U.S. Army Special Forces, a dedicated team of medical professionals from Maine Medical Center, volunteers from the local Ronald McDonald House, and donations from Gryphon airlines and the Sons of Sam Horn.

Tiba and Sareeya's journey began in the summer of 2008 when a team of Soldiers from 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) began working to locate medical specialists available to perform the surgery.

"It really started with a relationship we had with a friend of Tiba's family," said a 5th SFG(A) warrant officer who preferred to be called 'Chief Dave' due to operational security concerns.

"The previous [unit] started the process of getting her to the States and [we picked up where they left off]."

With passports and other paperwork in order, accommodations and travel plans were finalized.

After seven months of planning and coordination, Tiba and her mother left Balad with Soldiers from the 5th SFG(A) to receive the surgery in Portland, Maine, where a team from Maine Medical Center volunteered their services to perform the operation and provide follow-on care during her recovery.

"This is one of the more complex repairs that we do," said Dr. Reed Quinn, a pediatric surgeon responsible for Tiba's surgery and recovery, in an interview with Kim Block of WGME 13 News.

"As for children that we have brought, this will rate as probably one of two or three of the most complex children that we've done from abroad."

Following successful surgery, Tiba and Sareeya spent close to six weeks under the supervision of Dr. Quinn's team to ensure Tiba was progressing and getter stronger.

During that time, local volunteers provided sight-seeing opportunities and excursions to entertain Tiba. The Sons of Sam Horn, a non-profit charity organization, donated gift cards, clothes and other items for Tiba and Sareeya.

Once back at home, Tiba shared only a few details about her experiences in the U.S.

"We went everywhere," she said. "I like bowling the most."

Once the medical team declared Tiba well enough for travel, they returned to Iraq and were reunited with their family and friends.

The mayor joined in the homecoming to personally welcome Tiba and Sareeya back home.

"In the name of the God most merciful, everybody is happy today," said Amer Abdul Hadi Mirhoon, Mayor of Balad. "I want to say that I appreciate the Americans for helping this little girl."

Tiba's father, Shehab, also noticed a change in Tiba's health as he watched her run across their yard and play with her friends.

"I see her now, and she's different," he said. "Exactly today, 60 days. Two months I had to carry the pain of her being gone, but I took it because I knew she was going to come back well."

"This is really indicative of our mission here in Iraq," said Chief Dave. "It's more than just security, it's a coalition of people and we're working side-by-side with the people."

During the celebration, Mirhoon personally thanked the coalition.

"I ask God for a successful mission here for the American forces," he said. "They've really supported us and we appreciate everything."

Page last updated Wed June 10th, 2009 at 06:42