By Sgt. David Bryant, 36th Inf. Div. Public AffairsJuly 14, 2011
BASRA, Iraq (Army News Service, July 14, 2011) -- “When the explosion came, it was like being in the middle of an earthquake. We were shaken just like that,” said Sgt. Mahad Ahmed, a U.S. Soldier for the 36th Infantry Division.
Ahmed describes one of his early encounters with the United States"or, rather, a U.S. rocket"as a corporal in the Iraqi Army under Saddam Hussein. Now he wears the uniform of the country that nearly blew him up eight years ago.
The day this rocket hit was just one of Ahmed’s near-death experiences.
The sergeant currently helping the U.S. transition out of Iraq was on weapons guard duty for Hussein’s army. About 15 of his officers were already gathered in a four to five foot hole for shelter. Ahmed saw the rocket dropping overhead and joined them right before it hit.
This was the day the Soldier, who grew up in a house quietly against the Hussein regime, unofficially changed teams. He climbed out of the shelter hole, dropped his weapon and walked away.
“I figured, I don’t like the government, don’t like anyone in it, so why am I holding a weapon and just waiting to die?” he said.
Forty Iraqi soldiers followed his lead.
Soon after, an incident occurred in Baghdad that drew the attention of a platoon of American Soldiers and landed him a new job.
“The guy couldn’t go anywhere, so he swallowed the grenade and blew himself up,” Ahmed recalled.
The “guy” Ahmed referred to was a Syrian and member of Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen, a suicide squad known also as “The Sacrificers.” He and one other Fedayeen had been walking around Ahmed’s neighborhood pretending to be followers of Hussein, the respected Shia Imam, when they encountered Shia brothers who invited them to lunch, not knowing the truth.
Both Fedayeen were soon cornered in an alley with Iraqis. One was beaten to death. The other followed his instructions.
“We checked the body and saw a letter saying, ‘kill nine Shia and you will go to heaven. If you kill no one and come back home, you will be killed. If you get captured, kill yourself.’ Which is what he did,” Ahmed said. “At the bottom was the signature of his mom and dad.”
Iraqis spit on the body until Ahmed and a group dragged it to a garden area for burial. American Soldiers watching came over and wanted to know what happened. He told them in an accent that sounded American and was asked where he was from in the States by the lieutenant in charge.
“That’s how my story with the U.S. Army started,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed taught himself English at age 15 by mimicking the sound of American movie actors, reading the translations at the bottom and trying to speak it. The exercise in his teens influenced his future"the grenade incident ended with an offer to become a translator. He soon began working on a forward operating base outside of Tarmiyah, just north of Baghdad.
One day a mortar round missed American Soldiers re-building a police station and instead hit a house, killing most of an Iraqi family except one son. The lone survivor blamed Ahmed, the translator, because he was the only Iraqi he knew with the U.S. Army. Ahmed tried to explain “bad guys,” not Americans killed his family, but did not convince the boy.
The boy said, “I don’t know the bad guys. I know you.”
From that moment on, Ahmed said he was marked for death in that city. His unit soon informed him he could no longer go to his home in Baghdad. They had received an intelligence report of a plot to kill him, and for his own safety he would be restricted to the FOB.
“Everyone was looking for me,” he explained. “I had to live on base and be a stranger in my own country; be a foreigner in my own country.”
Ahmed was willing to risk his life helping the Americans help the Iraqis. He said he figured God was responsible for his life or death, so he even left the plates out of his body armor.
“I can die for my people; I would give everything for my people and my family. I don’t care about anything else,” he said.
Ahmed might not have cared about death threats, but his boss did. He told him about the new Special Immigrant Visa program Congress approved, which would allow Ahmed to go to the U.S.
Travelling for the necessary interview, scheduled at the U.S. embassy in Syria, was dangerous. The U.S. Army was hated in the region and Ahmed had to badmouth it for his safety. Others who had come to the embassy for interviews under the SIV program were killed or taken by Syrian intelligence. Ahmed was, in fact, the first to make it to the U.S. He flew into John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.
When his name was called in a room for immigrants, Ahmed said he thought he did something wrong. The lieutenant working there just said, “Welcome to the States.”
Ahmed had no family to meet like other people on the plane. “I just stood there, looking left and right, wondering where I was going to go,” he said.
He wound up calling a girl he’d met online who lived in Tucson, Ariz. She was enthusiastic he’d made it to America and immediately invited him to come out and stay with her. His only problem was that he didn’t know how to go about getting there; the trip from Syria was his first time on a plane, and the process of buying a ticket was still a mystery.
“I went to a guy standing outside at the airport and asked him what I should do; I told him I was trying to get to Tucson,” Ahmed said. “He seemed knowledgeable, and he told me that Tucson wasn’t an international airport so I should go try Southwest. I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go. But I need to know where and what Southwest is!’”
The only things Ahmed said he could think of when he arrived were food and sleep. Fruit juice and coffee had sustained him for the 72 hour trip from Syria to Tucson.
He stayed with his friend for two weeks, to adjust, before calling an Iraqi friend who set him up with an uncle " one of the richest men in Tucson.
When Ahmed’s first job at a fast-food restaurant ended because his Arabic looks led his anti-Muslim boss to fire him, he took an $8 an hour printing job. The meager wage prompted a former boss from Iraq to push him to get his education.
“He knew that my dad’s dream was for me to finish my education, get a master’s degree or something from the United States. He used that on me; he said, ‘Are you going to let your dad down? Are you going to keep working for $8 an hour?’” Ahmed explained.
The former commander convinced him to enlist in the Texas Army National Guard.
“I did it to prove a point: that all Iraqis are not bad guys,” said Ahmed.
Ahmed hates Al Qaeda and the ideology they espouse. Their brutal treatment of the Iraqi people is one of the reasons he decided to fight them as a U.S. Soldier.
He soon had an opportunity to deploy with the 36th Infantry Division for Operation New Dawn. Ahmed moved to Austin for the unit’s pre-mobilization and is now serving a second tour in his native land as a liaison between U.S. Division-South and local Iraqi contractors, assisting in the transition of U.S. forces out of Iraq.
“Iraqis were victims, trapped in a cage for 35 years under Saddam Hussein,” he said. “But the U.S. Army, we came and opened that cage wide open. The uniform I’m wearing, I wear first for my people.”