Handful of Iraqis Fighting in U.S. Uniform
In the fall of 2007, Forat Aldawoodi fled Iraq through a special visa program for Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government. He landed in Pawtucket, R.I., where he soon became a New England Patriots fan, traveled to the Atlantic Ocean and enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves.
Today, after a year's absence, Aldawoodi is in Iraq again - this time as an American soldier.
In fact, until recently transferred to a post outside Baghdad, he was assigned to a unit patrolling his former neighborhood, Dora, in southern Baghdad.
"I know it might sound a little strange that I am back in Baghdad so soon after leaving here," Aldawoodi said in an interview at Forward Operating Base Falcon in Baghdad. "But I knew before I came (to the U.S.) that the Army was something I wanted to try."
Aldawoodi, who is an Army interpreter, is one of at least eight Iraqis who fled to the United States in the midst of the war, only to have returned home as members of the U.S. Armed Services, according to Lt. Col. Les Melnyk, a Pentagon spokesman. Melnyk said the figure likely understates the actual number of Iraqis in the U.S. military because personnel records don't require recruits to list their nationality.
"Most of us had worked with the U.S. Army for a long time, so we had a good idea of what it's like to be a soldier and what life is like in the Army," said Aldawoodi, who had been a civilian interpreter for the Army before enlisting. He said two other Army recruits who went through training with him are also serving in Iraq.
Aldawoodi's dual identity has provided an interesting dynamic in interactions with his countrymen. Many Iraqis, he said, see the U.S. uniform and assume he's just another American soldier. As soon as they learn of his background, though, they become suspicious of him.
He recalled a recent discussion with an Iraqi police officer speaking candidly to him about possible criminal activity by other police officers. When it dawned on the officer that Aldawoodi was Iraqi, he expressed concern about speaking too freely. Many officials in the security forces are reluctant to speak out about corruption within their ranks for fear of retaliation, Aldawoodi explained.
"I reminded him that I am an American soldier, and that he had nothing to fear from me," Aldawoodi said.
Soldiers with something extra
The U.S. Army has long relied on civilian interpreters in Iraq, but they don't provide the same professionalism as a U.S. soldier, said Lt. Col. Dave Bair, the commander of Aldawoodi's 82nd Airborne Division battalion.
What makes Aldawoodi so valuable is his familiarity with the area and a native understanding of Iraqi culture, Bair said. On almost every mission, Aldawoodi accompanies him, according to Bair. After meeting with a community leader or local Iraqi security force commander, Bair usually calls Aldawoodi into his office to get his impressions and thoughts on what was said between the lines.
When not on patrol, Aldawoodi spends much of his time on the phone, reaching out to Iraqi leaders on behalf of Bair or calling friends to get a better sense of the mood on the street.
Though Aldawoodi is barely a year out of boot camp and holds a junior rank, Bair said he considers him a trusted adviser. "I have to remind myself that he's just an E-4 (specialist)," Bair said. "I load him up just as much as I do some of my officers. I can't stress how valuable he's been to us here."
At boot camp, Aldawoodi said there was initial resistance to him from some military instructors. The drill sergeant would refer to him and two other recruits who signed up to be interpreters as "09 Lima," the U.S. Army's code for their occupational specialty, instead of calling them by their last names, as he did with the other recruits. After a while, Aldawoodi said, the instructors came to respect him and the other 09 Limas because they were among the most disciplined soldiers.
Three rules for success
When he served as a civilian interpreter, he learned there were three basic rules to success in the Army: Be on time, be in the correct uniform and always do the right thing. "Still, it's far different to come here as a U.S. soldier," Aldawoodi said. "With everything we do or say, there is much more at stake."
Despite having lived more than a decade in Dora, Aldawoodi said he didn't feel nostalgic patrolling his former neighborhood. Soon after he arrived in Baghdad, an officer took him on a patrol and insisted that Aldawoodi show him where he lived. When they got to the house, Aldawoodi said, the officer asked him if he wanted to knock on the door and meet the new occupants. Aldawoodi declined. "That was the past," he said.
Last year, Aldawoodi's parents joined him in Pawtucket, arriving in the United States just two days before he left for his Iraq tour.
Aldawoodi's father, Kamel, said in a telephone interview that he and his wife try to avoid asking their son too many details about what's going on in Dora. "We try hard to hold our tears back," Kamel Aldawoodi said. "We are very proud of him. It was his decision, and we are very happy that he's found himself in such a good position."
On July 4, Aldawoodi is scheduled to take his oath to become a U.S. citizen at a naturalization ceremony in Baghdad. He plans to return to Pawtucket in the fall to resume his life as an American - and U.S. soldier.
"When I get back, I'd like to try for the Special Forces or maybe something else," he said. "I think the Army will offer me the best options."