CAMP NOVO SELO, Kosovo - After picking up bread for her mother, a thirteen-year-old Iraqi girl was approached by three bearded men as she rode her bicycle home. The men told the girl that she belonged at home with her mother and that she would bring shame to her Family.
From that moment on the girl was not allowed to ride her bicycle or play outside ... that young girl was U.S. Army Cpl. Hala Kadhem.
"The bicycle for me was a representation of my freedom," said Kadhem. "From that day on I would either stay in my room or help my mom in the kitchen. I was 13 years old, but I was no longer a little girl."
As the years passed by, Kadhem said, she found herself disconnecting from her peers.
"In high school the girls would all talk about finding a husband and dreaming about becoming wives and mothers," she said. "I was stuck on the stories my parents would tell me of back in the day when women had more freedom to follow their dreams. I wanted to be a college professor."
Those dreams were put on hold in 2003, according to Kadhem.
"I was 16 when the invasion happened, school was put on hold and we weren't able to finish our finals," she said. "There was a phase of calm when the invasion of Iraq initially happened but shortly after that bombings and attacks began to start, it was scary."
Although confused and scared, Kadhem said her and her Family, especially with her father being an Iraqi military officer, were happy to see a potential change.
"My Family was pro war because we were against and wanted out of the old regime," said Kadhem. "We weren't allowed to have satellite or cell phones, we felt disconnected with what was going on in the world, and travel was impossible especially for a Family with a military member. We wanted change."
With the first stages of the Iraq War surrounding her, Kadhem said she continued to focus on her studies, finished high school, and graduated from college with a Masters in Physical Science.
"After getting my masters I worked for the U.S Army at the department of state. I worked with an amazing diverse crowd from the United Nations," said Kadhem. "Joining the Army always interested me. I wanted to serve the United States and wanted to belong to an organization that would make a difference, and for me that was the U.S. Army."
While working at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, Kadhem received her visa and moved to Washington, D.C.
In April of 2015, with the support of her Family and her father's encouragement to join the Army, Kadhem enlisted in the U.S. Army as a unit supply specialist.
"My whole life I have never felt equal to men and in the Army I was able to liberate my body and mind by the equality they demonstrated," she said. "I was 28 when I went through basic and advanced training. It was very physically challenging for me but I wanted it, so I pushed myself and it has changed my life in so many great ways."
After completing her initial entry training, Kadhem was assigned to the 3rd Squadron, 61st Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado.
"I feel lucky to have been stationed at Fort Carson, it's a beautiful area and the installation is great," she said. "Being in a cavalry unit is such an amazing and unique experience, the unit pride and history is truly one of a kind."
Upon her arrival to the unit, her senior leadership quickly noticed her drive and motivation.
"Cpl. Kadhem's life story is inspirational for others," said Command Sgt. Maj. Jasan Weaver, senior enlisted leader for 3rd Sqdn., 61st Cav. Reg. "She is a resilient individual who takes actions against those who need assistance to have a life of freedom and the ability to choose on how one will live."
Weaver, who was a staff sergeant and conducted counterinsurgency operations in Baghdad during the surge in Iraq, said having Kadhem within the formation gives him and other Soldiers who were involved during the surge a sense of pride that their efforts and work in Iraq made a difference.
"To have a citizen of Iraq or Afghanistan, move to the United States, and join the United States Army reinforces our purpose of relieving oppressed citizens in the world [to] have an opportunity of a better life," he said. "There is honor and pride in (the 3rd Sqdn., 61st Cav. Reg.) to have a Soldier, like Cpl. Kadhem, who stands up for what she believes in, to ensure she pays it forward for Soldiers that previously assisted her in gaining a better life."
Since February, Kadhem has gained her own experience in assisting citizens of another country.
She deployed with her unit to become part of the Multi-National Battle Group-East in Kosovo who work alongside NATO forces to conduct security operations and engage with local populace in the country.
"My main job in this deployment is to ensure my unit has everything supply-wise that they need but I have had the opportunity to go out with the (liaison monitoring teams) and get exposed to the engagements they have with the local people," said Kadhem.
Kadhem's personal experience made her a perfect candidate and asset for the deployment according to Weaver.
"Cpl. Kadhem provides a perspective of the local populace, which Soldiers sometimes take for granted growing up in the United States," he said. "Her viewpoint allows the Soldiers who have not deployed before have a clear understanding of the higher purpose of why the NATO Forces ensure peace between two major ethnic groups within Kosovo."
According to Kadhem, the deployment has been a unique and eye opening experience.
"The citizens here have problems with unemployment and travel restrictions which I can relate to from when I was growing up in Iraq," she said. "To hear a school principle or a 15-year-old girl talk about how much they love to see U.S. Soldiers help and how grateful they are to have us here is rewarding and reminds me exactly why I wanted to join."
With a few years left in her contract, Kadhem said she does not know what her next step will be but she is grateful for such an amazing experience thus far.
"I went from a place where women are second class citizens to a place where male leaders see me as a dynamic individual and hold me to a high position regardless of my gender," said Kadhem. "I have been lucky to have amazing men and women through my journey and they have become my role models for the rest of my life."