By Connie Storch Fort Wainwright PAOSeptember 7, 2007
How does a U.S. Army Soldier become a champion for a 7-year-old Iraqi girl'
Sgt. 1st Class Johnny Kempen, recalls first noticing Zahraa during a visit to the local clinic.
He said Soldiers in his unit - the former 4th Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment (now the 3rd Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment) - liked to toss out candy and treats to the local children while on patrol in the villages.
"Usually children rush forward, but in Zahraa's case, she didn't get candy unless someone brought it to her. She would shield her eyes from the light, and shy away from others," Kempen said.
As Kempen and his brethren from the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team - now the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division - saw their tour extended, Kempen renewed his resolve, and looked around for a way to make a difference.
"That was part of it," he explained to local reporters about his duties in Iraq, "humanitarian missions."
"Our medic looked at her," Kempen said of Sgt. Adam Worthington. "(And) her parents took her to doctors when she was younger. They said they didn't know what was wrong with her."
The doctors in Baghdad gave Zahraa's family eye drops, but they did not seem to help.
Repeated trips to coordinate medical help for Zahraa involved Soldiers from the 4-23rd forming security details, gathering interpreters, "a whole group of people," Kempen said.
Zahraa was also seen by a doctor from the Navy and another physician from the National Iraqi Assistance Center.
The NIAC coordinates medical care for Iraqi citizens whose conditions require extraordinary treatment.
The NIAC medical team was among the first to suggest it would be faster to get help for Zahraa in the U.S.
Kempen said the NIAC resources were tapped, and the waiting list for assistance like Zahraa needed, a corneal transplant, were very long - about 1,500 people.
Her father explained since she was an infant, Zahraa has had the feeling of sand in her eyes constantly.
"I just can't imagine that," Kempen said, "from the time you wake up until the time you go to sleep, to always have that feeling of sand in your eyes.
"That would be the best thing, if they could make that feeling go away." Kempen said of Zahraa's pain and discomfort.
"Of course we know now that there were blisters on her eyes, but we didn't know then. To relieve that pain would be the icing on the cake," he added.
Zahraa's stateside doctors described her vision like looking through a very steamy window.
"She can see objects and shapes but she cannot make out anything clearly," according to Dr. Kevin Flaherty of the Eye Clinic of Wisconsin.
Enter Kempen's family in Crandon, Wisc.
Kempen's mother and sister both became involved in the effort to get treatment for Zahraa.
"We would e-mail back and forth," Kempen said. "My mom is a medical transcriptionist. My sister, Kristin, a state trooper, got the Lions Club involved. Mom got in touch with Dr. Kevin Flaherty (who donated his services)."
Kempen's mother also helped line up the host family.
"I didn't know the Lions Club did all this stuff," Kempen said, "It's amazing."
It's been nearly a year: a long involved process, with the dedicated involvement and coordination by many individuals.
It was the Lions who stepped in to arrange travel documents for Zahraa and her grandmother, who accompanied her.
But the Lions Club did, and still is, doing much more.
The Lions Club International is the world's largest service-club organization, with 1.3 million members in approximately 45,000 clubs in 200 countries.
The Lions Club has been aiding the blind and visually impaired since 1917.
"Sgt. Kempen and his mother called us because they knew Lions fight blindness - and that if anyone could help Zahraa, it was the Lions," said former president Frank Bocek.
"This was a real community effort and we thank Aspirus Wausau Hospital, the Lions Eye Bank and all the others who helped make this possible. We hope we can help Zahraa see well and make her eyes feel better, too," he added.
Zahraa's first corneal transplant surgery took place Aug. 28.
According to Flahery, the surgery went well, and Zahraa is recovering.
She's also a quick learner, according to the doctor: she already knows the words for water and ice cream.
Through an interpreter, Zahraa said even if she didn't get her sight back after the surgery, it was worth it because she got to meet many nice people, like her host family member, Diane Wasniewski of Kronenwetter, Wisc.
Zahraa was also interested in going to school for the first time when she returned home.
When asked what he hoped others would take away from Zahraa's time here, Kempen said he hoped people would see that the Iraqi people are, "for the most part, just like us."
Kempen said most Iraqi people he came in contact with wanted the same things as Americans.
"They want their kids to be healthy, to be able to go to school," he said. Kempen's hopes to bridge cultural divides are represented by Zahraa and her journey here.
Zahraa and her grandmother continue to stay with their host family during her recovery.
If everything goes as planned, a second eye surgery will take place around Sept. 18.
Kempen hopes to visit with Zahraa in October.