Former Iraqi citizen returns to serve as Air Force officer

ALI AIR BASE, Iraq -- Capt. Rasul Alsalih, a project officer for the 732nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, oversees construction projects by Iraqi nationals in an “in-lieu-of” tasking for the Army’s 20th Engineer Brigade. The captain was born in Iraq and fought against Saddam Hussein before being granted asylum in the U.S. and joining the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder)

ALI AIR BASE, Iraq -- Capt. Rasul Alsalih, a project officer for the 732nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, oversees construction projects by Iraqi nationals in an “in-lieu-of” tasking for the Army’s 20th Engineer Brigade. The captain was born in Iraq and fought against Saddam Hussein before being granted asylum in the U.S. and joining the Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder)

ALI AIR BASE, Iraq – Capt. Rasul Alsalih, a project officer for the 732nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, discusses a construction project with an Iraqi national. An Iraqi by birth, Captain Alsalih fought against Saddam Hussein shortly after Desert Storm and found refuge in an Army camp in Saudi Arabia. He was educated in the U.S. before seeking a commission in the Air Force. He was one of four servicemembers recognized as an “Outstanding American by Choice” this year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder)

ALI AIR BASE, Iraq – Capt. Rasul Alsalih, a project officer for the 732nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron, discusses a construction project with an Iraqi national. An Iraqi by birth, Captain Alsalih fought against Saddam Hussein shortly after Desert Storm and found refuge in an Army camp in Saudi Arabia. He was educated in the U.S. before seeking a commission in the Air Force. He was one of four servicemembers recognized as an “Outstanding American by Choice” this year. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Jonathan Snyder)

ALI AIR BASE, Iraq -- The journey to American citizenship and eventual commissioning in the Air Force was a long and dangerous path for Iraqi-born Capt. Rasul Alsalih, deployed from Vandenberg with the 732nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron.

He was 29 years old and living in his hometown of Samawah, Iraq, when the United States and its coalition partners ejected the Iraqi army from Kuwait in 1991.

For years, the residents of Samawah suffered under the Baathist regime. The townspeople had a long history of fighting tyranny. In 1964, the people gained popular fame for rescuing more than 1,000 political prisoners who were sent in a "qutar al maut," or train of death, when it passed through the region enroute to the Salman prison.

Before the war in 1990, the people fought to free hundreds of prisoners and Kuwaiti hostages kidnapped by Iraqi occupation forces. The government's response to the heroic struggle by Samawah's residents was fierce.

"I had a lot of relatives, cousins, friends and neighbors who were killed. I was against (Saddam Hussein) from the beginning," said Captain Alsalih.

Fighting back
In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, people took advantage of their government's weaknesses.

"The uprising started in Basra and spread all over the South," said Captain Alsalih. "It went from Basra to the marshes and to the Nasariya area and then to my city and on to Ad Diwaniyah until it reached Babylon," he recalled.

"I was part of the uprising. I fought with my friends."

Resurgent forces held their towns for 23 days. Weak but not defeated, Saddam's regrouping forces came down hard on the rebels.

"He started in with Babylon and then went to Al Diwaniyah. Then he started crushing people in Najaf, Karbala and An Nasiriyah, killing them using helicopters. A lot of people -- civilian and children and women -- died," said Captain Alsalih.

"My town was the last one to be recaptured. We started fighting for about five days to keep the army from crossing the (Euphrates) river that divided the town," said Captain Alsalih. "They started shelling my town heavily with helicopters, mortars, artillery -- everything. Eventually, they were able to cross and start a killing campaign against the civilians in my town."

The chokehold on the town was too much for the fighters of Samawah. Out of ammunition and food, they were forced to regroup to continue the battle. For Captain Alsalih, few options remained. He found the safest place he could for his wife and child. He could not abandon his friends who were forced back to the Western Desert which bordered the town.

Falling back towards the Saudi Arabian desert, the captain and his fellow freedom fighters had to pass through a mine field that was planted by the Republican Guard to delay the advancement of American troops.

The captain used the tracks of a heavy vehicle to lead as many of his fellow Samawah residents through the treacherous stretch to safety as he could. Many were killed, and a close friend lost his legs when he stepped on a mine.

An oasis of hope
"We fled to the American lines (on the Saudi Arabian border). There was the Army and tanks there; and they took us in and gave us some water and food and medical care for the wounded," said Captain Alsalih. "Otherwise, we would have been killed like the others who couldn't make it -- who ended up in massive graves."

The situation at the camp was desperate and tense. With the harrowing journey behind them and survival on the horizon, the men, women and children took inventory of their lives.

"I had lost track of my wife. I thought she was dead with my kid because the city received a big heavy barrage of artillery and helicopter shelling. I thought she died. I was definitely sure she was dead because I didn't see her. I was sad and crying," said Captain Alsalih. "After a few days, I was told by someone that he saw my wife. And I didn't believe it."

"After searching among 22,000 or 23,000 people, or more, I was able to locate her. Imagine the minute I saw her! She was crying and I was crying, and I told her I thought she was dead and she told me she thought I was dead too."

Captain Alsalih, his wife and their toddler daughter lived at the camp for a year and three months. During that time, he worked as an interpreter and organized logistical support to help his fellow refugees.

In 1992, he and his family were granted asylum in the United States. They arrived Sept. 22.

A new world
"I ended up in New York. It was a strange feeling to get into the United States. We were told during the Saddam era and Baath era a lot of bad things about Americans and we were so happy to see the country and to see that the American people are so caring. They cared about us," Captain Alsalih said.

"My wife was taken to the hospital because she became ill. Upon our visit to the hospital, they told us that she needed open-heart surgery or she would die in six months because her heart was getting larger," he said.

At Lourdes Hospital in New York, she received a life-saving procedure. The family felt it was the second time Americans had saved their lives. They applied for citizenship and became naturalized American citizens in 1992.

The captain was granted a scholarship to finish his education at New York State University-Binghamton, where he studied engineering. He earned a master's degree in systems engineering from the Watson School of Engineering.

Giving back
After completing school in 2000, he said he decided to serve his adopted country and was commissioned in the Air Force.

"I had a lot of admiration and respect for the military because my experience in the refugee camp gave me a good impression of them -- of how strong they are, how caring they were. They took good care of us in the camp," Captain Alsalih said. "I formed my opinion about the military and I wished to become one of them because they did a good job for us. I still remember the names and the faces of the soldiers who helped us in the refugee camp."

Before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he said he never imagined he'd return to the home he loved. After 9/11, he was assigned to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., where he developed curriculum for immersion and joint training exercises and the pocket-sized field manual "Iraqi Language Kit" that is used by thousands of deployed servicemembers.

He also taught courses in Arabic and educated foreign-language experts on the Iraqi dialect. In 2003, he served as the operations officer for all linguistic operations at the detainment facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Returning home
"My first deployment (to Iraq) was in 2004. The first minute I landed in Iraq it was a strange, undescribable feeling," said Captain Alsalih.

"Toppling (Saddam) was a miracle and no one believed that the regime would go. People tried many times to get rid of this corruptive regime, and they failed despite everything. But with the aid of the Americans and the support of the American military, it was the greatest thing that happened into the lives of the majority of Iraqis."

"It was a good feeling (to return to Iraq). I felt that I'm giving to my country -- my old country," he said.

The captain was assigned as a liaison officer with Multinational Corps-Iraq's joint area support Group in Baghdad. He worked with Ambassador Paul Bremer and other high ranking State Department and Iraqi officials daily in transitional-government activities.

"I did a lot of things to help people and to facilitate communication between the Iraqi military and the government of the United States. It was a tremendous opportunity to help the countries I love to make this historic step together," he said.

He was assigned to 30th Civil Engineer Squadron as the deputy commander of engineering before he began his assignment with the 732nd ECES as a combat Airman attached to the Army. He supports the U.S. Army's 20th Engineer Brigade where he oversees construction projects not far from his hometown. He is a liaison between the unit and the Iraqi contractors building up the base to improve the security of his home country.

"I feel I have a lot of specialties and they are taking advantage of that. I speak the language here and have an expert knowledge of this country and culture. They take advantage of that and ask me questions. They ask me a lot of things about what is going on and what will happen and the news," said Captain Alsalih.

"I deal with Iraqi contractors every day. They're surprised when they see me in uniform and I speak the same language. It's a plus for my colleagues and the whole team," he said.

American by choice
On Sept. 24, 2007, nearly 15 years to the day after the captain's family was granted asylum, he was the recipient of the Outstanding American by Choice award at Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

"Captain Alsalih's story is that of our immigrant ancestors who fought tyranny at home to escape and become an American," said Col. Karl Bosworth, 732nd Air Expeditionary Group commander, at Balad Air Base, Iraq. "His patriotism to both Iraq and the United States is what drives him to bring democracy and freedom to his native country. Daily he makes a lasting difference in our multi-national effort to stabilize Iraq and form a new government. I am proud to have had the honor of serving with such a great American."

The captain looks forward to a time when he and his family can visit a peaceful Iraq, and said the situation in the country is constantly evolving for the better.

"People are happy, but there are some people in the minority who are not happy to see a good, democratic, prosperous Iraq. Iraq is a very rich country with its resources, and its population is one of the smartest and oldest civilizations in the world," he said. "They can build their country if they're given the chance to do so. And they're having that chance now."

He pointed out the country is a struggling democracy facing challenges by dictatorships in the region. External pressures pose constant challenges to Iraq's security situation. Likewise, a dangerous minority of the population benefits from creating chaos and expanding violence.

"You'll see in the coming time that things are going to be for the better here. The southern part of Iraq is stable. Local governments are working hard to retain services and start the reconstruction efforts and they're succeeding in that. There's advancement at all levels -- the economy is improving and education, government and democratic establishments are continuing to grow," he said.

"For me, it's an honor to come back here and serve and be a part of the history that is happening here."