FORT BLISS, Texas -- How far would you go to reunite with a symbol you love?
For one Iraqi man, it took 13 years, 7,474 miles, help from a family member, a trip to an isolated field and a rusty can to reclaim a treasured part of his life - an American flag.
Staff Sgt. Ahmed* shared how reuniting with the America flag changed the course of his life as he spoke to the Iron Soldiers of 1st Battalion "Bandits," 37th Armored Regiment, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division Sept. 11, on East Fort Bliss.
More than 200 Soldiers listened intently as Ahmed gave tribute to the Bandits he served and fought with during the early days of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
REMEMBERING THE BANDIT LEGACY
In 2003, Ahmed was serving as the official military translator for the Iron Soldiers of the 1-37 AR, 2nd ABCT. His assignment was to translate for the unit's command team during meetings with local dignitaries and special missions. After a few months, however, the Iraqi native began to work heavily with infantry troops and accompanied them on raids, night missions and surveillances through downtown Baghdad.
The now 37-year-old vividly described the core of his job as working with U.S. Soldiers, becoming part of their team and sharing in their comradery.
"I wanted to help these U.S. Soldiers," he said. "I wanted to be a part of rebuilding the Iraqi police and the Iraqi Army. When I got the chance to become a linguist for the Bandits, I witnessed, learned and experienced many things."
Ahmed recounted images filled with watching local streets in Iraq swarmed with Bradley Fighting Vehicles, tanks, convoys and barbed-wire fences. He said that even at a young age, he had a drive to bring change into his country. He added that although his own family was proud, and they respected his decision to help U.S. troops, he had to remain cautious, as the war-torn county remained in turmoil.
Ahmed continued his work with the American Soldiers, who believed in him enough to invite him into their inner circle of trust during his time with the 1-37 AR, 2nd ABCT. They continued working together on missions and conducting local surveillances. During this time, he began to appreciate the strength and core values of the U.S. Army and its Soldiers.
"I began to see the Army as a melting pot," he said. "There was so much diversity and different nationalities, and yet they fought together, they served together and they mourned together. Although I was from a different culture, they trained me and respected my background and ethnicity. As my role as their translator increased, so did our brotherhood."
Ahmed said the Bandits' last ambush toward Fallujah was a memory that will always stay with him. It was an intense mission and not every Soldier survived.
"You are never prepared to lose a comrade," he said. "On that mission, I lost my best friend, Sgt. Scott Larson. It was hard to believe. These Soldiers were the same age as me and we all bonded; we formed a team."
When the Bandits' deployment was extended and assigned to a different area of operation, the Soldiers presented Ahmed with an American flag. Each of the Soldiers signed the flag to solidify their loyalty and friendship. He recalled how proud and honored he felt to receive it.
"It meant so much to me to become a part of the team with these great Soldiers," he said. "I saw their discipline and integrity every day, and I was honored that they gave this U.S. flag to me."
Ahmed continued his work with the American Soldiers. In 2005, two years after his time with the Bandits, he decided to take the flag to his home in Baghdad; he wanted to hang it in his room. He protected the flag with two heavy-duty plastic bags and then hid it inside a gym bag. But, while traveling home, his bus driver received a call that there was an anti-American checkpoint ahead.
Ahmed knew he could lose his life if he was caught with an American flag. In a panic, he decided to descend the bus and walk off the freeway. He continued walking until he got to a residential neighborhood. He then quickly buried the bag using and old-rusty tin can as a shovel.
WHY I SERVE
Ahmed moved to the United States in 2008. Inspired by his time with the Bandits and seeing their dedication for upholding the Army values, he took the oath of enlistment to support and defend the Constitution of the United States and become a U.S. Soldier. He now lives in California and serves as a staff sergeant in the Active Guard Reserve.
In 2016 Ahmed's parents made a special trip from Iraq to visit him and celebrate his accomplishments. But before his parents departed the country, Ahmed called his father with one special request - locate the buried flag and bring it with him to the United States.
"Even though more than a decade had passed since I buried the flag in Iraq, I knew exactly where it was buried, and I instructed my father to please bring it to the U.S.," said Ahmed. "When my father told me he had located the flag, a part of me was alive again."
The proud father and husband said his dream came true when he arrived at Fort Bliss Sept. 11 carrying the framed flag and sharing its legacy with a new era of Bandits.
"The flag finally made it home," said Ahmed. "I think of these Soldiers every day when I put on my Army uniform and display the flag on my shoulder. Today, I did not see faces and ranks, but as I looked around, I saw the Old Ironsides patch and friendships that will last a lifetime. Larson did not live to see his flag again, but these Soldiers did."
For Cpl. James Klingel, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1-37 AR, 2nd ABCT, seeing and hearing Ahmed was inspirational.
"I was shocked that the flag was buried for so long, had traveled so far, and still looks amazing," he said. "It showed us that it doesn't matter how much time passes by. We still have the same Army traditions and the same Army values that should always be upheld, and deeply respected."
*Editor's note: Name has been changed to protect identity.