Former Iraqi interpreter discovers renewed service as Soldier

By Columbia Recruiting Battalion Public AffairsFebruary 21, 2024

Former Iraqi interpreter discovers renewed service as Soldier
Former interpreter, Spc. Omar Haider (right), stands with Lt. Col. Brian Meister, Columbia Recruiting Battalion commander (left), following his completion of U.S. Army Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Haider previously served as an interpreter for U.S. forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Photo Credit: Columbia Recruiting Battalion Public Affairs) VIEW ORIGINAL

FORT JACKSON, S.C. – Although many Soldiers today have prior experience deploying to Iraq, one new Army recruit has a far more unique background within the country’s borders.

Specialist Omar Haider’s Army story began more than 20 years ago in his native home of Sinjar, Iraq, where he resided with his family. When U.S. troops arrived in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003, Haider said he felt the call to serve.

“I wanted to be a part of it,” Haider said. "I wanted to make a difference.”

Upon their arrival, Haider said U.S. forces began seeking interpreters to aid their mission. He said he saw it as an opportunity to reciprocate the assistance Soldiers provided his community.

In 2009, Haider began working with the 855th Military Police Company, an Army National Guard unit based in Phoenix, Arizona, which was conducting operations near Forward Operating Base Sykes in Iraq.

It was during this time Haider worked alongside Sgt. Brice Box on missions in the area.

According to Box, Haider played a critical role by providing vital information from perilous areas, oftentimes having to conceal his identity to safeguard his family. Box said the camaraderie he and his fellow Soldiers experienced with Haider transcended the confines of military uniforms.

“Omar is responsible for saving hundreds of U.S. Soldiers,” Box said. “He put himself in unimaginable places to make an impact on the mission.

“U.S. Army uniform or not, Omar is my brother, and he always will be.”

Although Haider said he experienced many great triumphs throughout his time as an interpreter, the years were also filled with tragedy.

As a member of the Yazidi, a small religious community in northern Iraq, Haider said he witnessed ISIS inflict devastation on his people from 2014 to 2017. During that time, he said the terrorist group claimed the lives and abducted a total of 36 members of his family.

Then, several years later, Lt. Col. Brian Meister, Columbia Recruiting Battalion commander, received an unexpected phone call.

The call was from Haider, his former interpreter, and he was expressing the desire to join the U.S. Army. Meister said Haider shared how he had successfully immigrated, gained citizenship, and was approaching his graduation from Virginia Tech. Now, Haider aspired to continue serving the Army in a new and more direct way.

Hearing Haider aspired to continue serving the Army in a new and more direct way, Meister said he was overjoyed.

“We’re going to take any opportunity we can to pay it forward to these incredible individuals who gave so much,” Meister said.

Meister said he recognized the unique challenges of integrating Haider into the U.S. Army and selected Sgt. 1st Class Kyle Donnelly of Asheville Company for this crucial task. Having prior experience collaborating with interpreters overseas and also maintaining contact with one who since moved to the U.S., Donnelly was uniquely qualified to help Haider acclimate.

According to Donnelly, however, it’s Haider that deserves all the credit.

“He tried for nearly eight years to join the Army,” Donnelly said. “He had to improve his English proficiency, graduate from college, diligently study for the Army aptitude test, and navigate several other hurdles – all while striving to stay motivated.”

Command Sgt. Maj. John Kortz, the Columbia Battalion senior enlisted adviser, pointed out how Haider’s story not only demonstrates exceptional determination and resilience, but also the military's commitment to inclusion.

“It was definitely a tough one,” Kortz said. “Despite the hurdles, this warrior is serving again. I could not be prouder of him and the whole team involved in bringing this hero into the ranks.”