Monday, June 29, 2009

What Nobody Sees

Something happened this past Friday that this country needs to hear. While it may appear inconsequential to most, it represents a side of Iraqi-American relations and relationships that few are so fortunate to observe. Had you suggested five years ago that I would see this, I would have laughed. On Friday, however, I rejoiced. I attended my friend Waad’s wedding in North Carolina

When I served in Habbaniyah, Iraq in 2007, I had the pleasure of working with and living alongside a small crowd of native Iraqi interpreters as we partnered in weapons and marksmanship instruction to the Iraqi Army and Police. Few of us knew any Arabic, so whatever we taught, these men would translate to our Iraqi Police and Army students. In truth, these interpreters had translated the classes so long and so often that we weren’t particularly needed. Our “terps” knew the subject material as well, if not better than us. In fact, we’d occasionally make an error or misspeak ourselves, and they’d automatically correct it in the translation. Without them, we would have been adrift.

More than assistants or partners, however, they were friends. Many were brothers, earning and receiving the same trust and confidence as our fellow Marines. They were universally liked, to say the least. Waad, along with his brother Steve, were among our best.

After five years working with components of the US Air Force, Army and Marines (us), he parted company in mid-2007 with legitimate concern for his safety. It was a well-known fact that he was a marked target in the insurgent networks. After assisting in the training of over 10,000 Iraqis countrywide, he was quickly recognized – and labeled an enemy to the insurgency.

In 2008, a retired senior Marine warrant officer who had worked closely with Waad in Habbaniyah volunteered to sponsor him in the United States, and not long after he immigrated. Because another Iraqi interpreter and mutual friend resided there, he selected Columbus, Ohio as his home and found work at a local gas station.

While in Iraq, Waad had earned a four-year degree, taught himself English, and collaborated for years with the US military on sensitive and classified missions. Still, the welcome he received in the US was embarrassing. People saw an Iraqi, not a close friend and brother to hundreds of Marines and soldiers. He often fielded questions from customers asking why “his people were killing ours,” which he always answered respectfully and patiently. There was a clear distinction between “insurgent” and “Iraqi,” he explained, and he was one of the good guys. The customers remained dubious. I remember him telling me it was hurtful, but he didn’t blame them. They simply didn’t know, and nobody was telling them, either.

Through a friend, Waad met Laura, an American woman, and their relationship soon developed into romance. He had found the woman of his dreams, and she had found a man who truly loved her. On Friday, they were married. While this is certainly a heartwarming story, it’s neither particularly uncommon or terribly interesting to the random stranger. There are other facts, however, that make it supremely so.

First, Laura is Jewish. Second, Waad is of Muslim, and Christian descent. Third, nearly every man in attendance at this wedding reception on Friday is a current, former, or retired Marine who has served with Waad at one time or another, and didn’t simply forget him when the deployment ended and everybody went home. Fourth, Waad’s best man is my former commanding officer, another senior retired Marine. And this, I believe, is what people need to see.

None among us thinks “immigrant” or “Iraqi” when we consider Waad. We see brother, companion, and a man we gladly welcome to this country. We see a friend, and this is why servicemembers all across the country are often the ones doing everything in their power to bring these men and woman to the United States. We love them, and they love this country.

Marines representing nearly every major command of the Marine Corps witnessed this wedding on Friday, and raised our champagne glasses as one in celebratory toast. We are honored to have been invited.

As his best man (the retired Marine) led him through the reception area, he stopped once and wrapped his arm around Waad’s shoulder. “This is my son,” he gushed, with a huge grin. Those aren’t empty accolades, but the heartfelt sentiment of a man who deployed to an Iraqi combat zone and walked away with a friend. We all feel this way.

We loved and served our country, and Waad, in turn, loved and served his. His passion for Iraq and America both make him a priceless addition to this country. In two months time, he returns again to Iraq, where he hopes his countrymen can soon live in peace, free from fear, and liberated to pursue self-governance. If I am lucky, I will see him over there.

There is perhaps a misconception in America that troops deploy to Iraq to “kill some ragheads” and come back home as heroes, and that they despise the place and never wish to return. Half the men in Waad’s wedding reception will return to Iraq within a years’ time. All of them have volunteered. Consider how difficult it is to commit to a mission in which one doesn’t believe. I would submit it is impossible.

Laura, Waad’s new (and beautiful) wife, described the whole affair perfectly: “My mother is Jewish and my father a Christian, and Waad’s mother is a Muslim and his father Chaldean. WE get along. Why can’t everybody else? There should be peace.” And she’s right.

They have beheld one another and rather than seeing different faiths or radically different cultural upbringings, they see something greater. They see a desirable heart – and one worth loving. They have chosen to pursue commonalities while millions of others are content to remain mired in hatred and misunderstanding. They both have clearer vision than many of us, and we all stand to learn a lesson from it. They see hope, and they celebrate, and we celebrate with them. America needs to see this.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is crazy good, Ben. I had goosebumps. We've all been criticized because we look a certain way sometimes, but Waad keeps an open and tolerant mind. I'm glad he's found happiness here in the US with Laura, and hopefully the good stuff keeps coming in. He deserves it after his selfless serice.

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