Editor’s note: The following story is told from a Soldier’s first-person account. The Soldier’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of the Army.
With her hands in the air — not daring to let them fall — Zahraa ‘Katya’ Frelund slowly walked the longest half-mile of her life, barefoot and exhausted, toward the just-rising sun and the guard tower at Baghdad’s Victory Base Complex.
It was 2009, and Frelund, a 19-year-old runaway from her home in Babylon, Iraq, knew her life, her fate, rested in the hands of the American strangers on the other side of the heavily-guarded gate.
As a woman traveling alone, it was a miracle she’d even made it that far. She had no idea how much further she would go. “Where I come from in Iraq, there are literally two options for a woman who (leaves) home,” Frelund said. “Either I’m caught and killed as part of an honor killing, or the bad people — the terrorists, the militia — they’ll take me to a sex house.”
But during her second year of college at Babylon University, Frelund made the impossible decision anyway: she could not stay at home; she could not live this life. She had to get out.
“Life is really hard for women in the Middle East,” Frelund said. “My whole life I was beaten up for whatever reason — the smallest things. My brothers want water and (if) I don’t get it for them fast enough, and it’s not just one hand — they’d leave my whole body bruised.”
Her breaking point came during the second year of schooling, when her mother took her to the market to buy new clothes for school. Her mother wanted to buy her beige shoes; Frelund wanted black. The price of this disrespect — of disagreeing publicly with her mother — was a slap across the face, in public, in front of men.
“In that moment, I felt I amounted to nothing,” she said. “I felt like dirt. Worse than dirt, and that’s when I decided I was done. I’m done with this lifestyle; I’m better than that. Better than being beat up every day just for them to someday arrange a marriage for you. That’s literally your life as a woman; you have no say, no options — and I was done.”
Frelund’s only other option as she saw it, was to go work for the Americans. She would be an interpreter for the U.S. Army — and maybe she would find a way out.
And so, with money she’d taken from home, Frelund said she headed to the university’s bus depot and boarded the next bus for Baghdad. Traveling alone was risky, but she found a seat next to an older woman — one who could pass as perhaps her aunt or grandmother, and when the bus would stop at checkpoints, nobody questioned her.
Her arrival in Baghdad was the next hurdle. She had no man to accompany her, and curfew was drawing near. As Iraqi National Guard soldiers patrolled the streets, Frelund said she naively approached a soldier for help.
“I’m going to work for the Americans, and I have no place to stay,” she told him. “What can I do?”
When the soldier agreed to sneak her onto the roof of a house where he and several other soldiers were staying, Frelund saw it as a mercy; she did not know the offer was conditional.
Frelund removed her hijab and tucked herself in to sleep, exhausted from the heat and the dangers she had already overcome that day. After some time – it could have been minutes or hours, she said she was too exhausted to know — she felt herself being kicked awake. She heard men’s voices.
“Whore,” they called her in Arabic, grabbing her. “Take off your clothes.”
“I was 19,” Frelund recalled. “But when it came to matters of the body, of sex, I had the education of a 5-year-old. I didn’t know.”
In that moment, Frelund — still a Muslim at the time, but also a believer in Mary, Mother of Jesus — said she heard a voice tell her “‘Tell them yes, and look to your right.’ I knew in that moment that God was with me.”
So she agreed, telling her attackers if they let go of her, she would do whatever they wanted. And when she turned her head to the right, as the calm voice within her had instructed, miraculously, there were the stairs. She fled. As soon as they released their grip, she was down the stairs, out the door, over the fence and alone in the dark, empty street.
Frelund ran for her life.
“They were still chasing me, shooting after me; I’ve never run so fast in my life, and I just kept begging ‘please God help me.’”
Of course, she was a woman, alone and on the streets past curfew, in a strange, warring city. She didn’t stand a chance — until a car pulled up in front of her and yanked her inside.
“What are you doing out on the street? At this hour?! Are you crazy?” a man inside the car asked her.
“Here’s where I think it’s a miracle,” Frelund said. “I was still so naive, and I told them ‘I came here to work for the Americans,’ and they’re trying to calm me down, they’re trying to tell me I’m in luck, and they pulled out their IDs. They were contractors, interpreters,” she said. “I’m barefoot, I’m sobbing and I’m looking at their IDs. They’re telling me they can’t take me directly onto the base, but they can let me sleep and drop me off outside the gate in the morning.”
Frelund said knowing what she knows now, she realized how bold it all was.
“I don’t know why, but I had faith that I would make it. But when I look back, wow, what were the odds?” she recalled.
At sunrise the following morning, Frelund made the half-mile walk, her hands above her head, that would change her life.
Her Fate in Their Hands
She arrived at the gate ready to explain everything — she had come hoping to work — and she would be killed if she was turned away. Frelund said when she arrived at the tower, she thought she spoke English, “that’s what I wanted to do was to be an interpreter,” she said, but they couldn’t understand her.
“A captain came in; he was from the 1st Cavalry Division,” Frelund remembered. “He had an interpreter with him, and they asked me all kinds of crazy questions — but I get it; I could have been anyone.”
When Frelund awoke the second day, having passed out on the couch, the captain told her they would make a deal; if she would spend some time on base working for the unit as an interpreter, helping gather information, she could stay until they could get her to America.
“And that’s why I love the U.S. Army so much,” Frelund said, choking up at the memory. “If the captain had said ‘I’m sorry, I feel for you, I know you came this far, but I can’t help you; you have to go back,’ I would be dead or in a sex house.”
The decision to let her stay and work saved her life, but more than just that, Frelund gained a new purpose for her life during her time on Camp Liberty. When a new friend invited Frelund to come to an on-post church service with her, Frelund scoffed.
“I was Muslim at the time; I didn’t even want to go,” she said. “But my friend teased me – she knew I liked blue eyes, and she said many of the men at church have blue eyes; maybe I’ll find a husband.”
Immediately, it became clear to her it was about much more than that.
“When we got there, I felt so calm, so peaceful and when the chaplain started talking, he talked about the shepherd,” Frelund said, struggling to hold back tears. “The shepherd had 100 sheep, but when he lost the one, he left the 99 to go find it.”
The chaplain had been referencing a parable Jesus told in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.
“And I was just like, ‘he’s talking about me! I’m the one! I’m the lost sheep! And he’s come to find me!’” she said.
Frelund said when she returned to her room, Jesus appeared to her, hand outstretched — and that’s when she knew.Her conversion from Islam to Christianity has shaped her life since, she said, and continues to shape it and provide direction now.
Eventually, Frelund was able to make it to the U.S., flying from Baghdad to Germany and from Germany to Fort Lewis, Washington, where she received status as a refugee.
Making it in America
“They set me up with everything – identification, a green card, an apartment and $30,000 to live … and I lived on that for about two years,” she said.
Frelund spent 10 years in the U.S. building a life for herself; she went to school for material design and engineering in Salt Lake City, Utah, and began work as a project manager. She married and had two children: Michael, who is now 11 years old, and Amira, who’s 7 — and she got a divorce from the children’s father. But all during that time, the U.S. Army — her literal saving grace — remained on her heart.
“The Army has always been on my heart,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to join to pay it back, because if it wasn’t for the Army, I wouldn’t be here today.
“So for all of the leaders who put in the effort to bring me here, who helped get me here safely, I’m always striving to make them proud,” Frelund said. “I don’t want them to feel like they brought a burden or a person who would be a bad example. I want to be a role model.”
After beginning the recruitment process in 2016, Frelund was finally able to join the Army in 2019, enlisting as a cavalry scout, 19D, and headed to One Station Unit Training (OSUT) at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“That’s what’s amazing about all this,” she said. “Back in 2009, this job wasn’t even open to women. I was saved by a scout, and now I am a scout.”
Frelund said she was eager to join as a 19D in honor of the unit that took her in, but also, because she wanted to prove women have options; they’re capable and can be part of it, too.
While Frelund’s Family remained in Utah, she was headed to OSUT. Like any new recruit in basic training, Frelund said she was humbled by the experience.
The Strength to Carry On
However, it was after receiving a Red Cross message at the end of “white phase” that really motivated her to finish the training.
“They called me in and told me that my daughter Amira had cancer, and they didn’t know if she would make it,” she said. “They were able to fly me home to Salt Lake City to see her, and when I came back to continue training, my first sergeant told me these were extraordinary circumstances; so extraordinary that I could get out of the Army and go back home if I wanted. But I told him ‘No, first sergeant — I have to continue training; I have to be strong for her.’” Frelund said now more than ever, she knew she was where she needed to be — her daughter needed the health insurance, after all. She had to keep going.
And so, as part of a compassionate reassignment to keep her as close to her sick daughter as possible — and as a private first class in the U.S. Army, Frelund reported to Fort Carson in the summer of 2019, where she joined the 4th Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division.
And when another Red Cross message came in August — another round of chemotherapy for Amira — her command helped her get an Army Emergency Relief loan to cover the expenses she would need to travel to Utah to see her.
Amira is doing well now, Frelund said. She’s beaten the cancer, but the chemotherapy has left her immune system incredibly vulnerable, and in the age of COVID-19, which meant Frelund can’t safely see her daughter. However, it is also the age of online video chat, and Frelund said she gets to “see” her Family regularly, and she’s motivated, touched and encouraged by their support.
“At the beginning of March, I competed in the brigade’s Soldier of the Quarter board,” Frelund said. “I was so nervous, and the day before the competition I told Amira ‘pray for Mommy’, and when I got to tell her that I’d won, she ran to the phone to give me a big hug. She said, ‘I knew you could do it; you’re a super-mommy.’”
Onward and Upward
For Frelund, winning the brigade Soldier of the Quarter board represented another way of doing her absolute best — a way of giving back to the Army that has done so much for her.
“I want to be that role model,” she said. “I want people to look at me and say, ‘I want to be like her,’ or if they’re doubting themselves, I want them to look at me and say ‘If she can do it, I can do it,’ because I always look up to the people who are stronger than me, smarter than me, better than me. I feel that’s the only way I can better myself.”
When her former section leader approached her platoon sergeant, Sgt. 1st Class David Clark, about sending Frelund to the 4th Sqdn., 10th Cav. Reg., Soldier of the Month board, Clark highly encouraged it.
“I’ve been asking her section leaders, her squad leaders to give her more challenges, more opportunities for leadership, because she needs that,” Clark said. “And she’s responded really well to it. With these boards, she’s taken care of all her responsibilities at work, and then gone home and done everything she needs to do to study, to get herself ready. I think she feels she owes it to the Army to be here, and that makes her extremely determined.”
Clark said he still sees what he calls “growing pains” as the Army adapts to female Soldiers in combat arms roles. “You still see it, there are some males who aren’t happy about having female Soldiers around,” Clark said. But, for Frelund, it’s even more motivation.
“To me, we’re all Soldiers, male or female, but if you want to look at it like that, and if you think you have more of a right to be here than I do because you’re a man — then I’m going to see that and I’m going to do my job 10 times better,” she said.
“So now what are you upset about?” she asked. “I wake up earlier, I get there earlier than anyone else, and the more I train myself physically, the more mentally tough I am for the job.”
Frelund’s first sergeant, 1st Sgt. Donald Gillam, said he could vouch for her attitude and initiative.
“I can’t say enough about her; she’s always willing to go the extra mile,” Gillam said. “And she does — I firmly believe the Soldiers around here look at her as a Soldier, not a female Soldier. It’s unfair that she would have to prove herself more than anyone else, but she has.”
Gillam said he sees Frelund as being a part of big changes in the Army.
“We’ve gone through all the integration with female Soldiers entering into combat arms, and since the Fort Hood report has come out, we’ve seen a lot of change in our (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention) training and with People First,” he said, “But what the Army is really lagging in is strong female leadership in combat arms. There is no leadership for them to come into because they came in as privates; now they’re coming up on eligibility for E5, and I think to take that next step forward, there’s no better way to start stomping some of this nonsense out than to have strong female leadership at platoon level.”
Frelund is the perfect kind of person to step into that role, he said. And while he doesn’t want to put too much pressure on her — “it’s been a male profession forever,” he said — she’s up for any challenge to come her way.
From winning the board, and beginning preparations for the next level, to mentoring new female Soldiers as they arrive to the unit, Frelund’s determination to give back to the Army highlights how much potential she has as a leader, Clark and Gillam agreed.
Fulfilling that potential, Frelund said, will mean someday achieving her ultimate goal of becoming a command sergeant major in the U.S. Army. Her sights are set, and while they may be far-off in the distance for a 31-year-old Army specialist whose next hurdle is the promotion board, she’s already shaping her leadership philosophy with that scared 19-year-old refugee in mind.
“I may push myself hard, but I think I’m going to be a compassionate leader,” Frelund said. “I don’t want to just be that hardline leader; I want to be the one who sits down with you to see what’s wrong and how we can fix it.”
That’s the “People First” model in a nutshell — and because it’s what the Army has given to Frelund, it’s what she said she’s determined to give back.