CAMP TAJI, Iraq – With Iraq in the clutches of Saddam Hussein, one man made the critical decision to leave his native country.
It took him 20 years but he finally returned, serving with the U.S. Army, now attempting to rebuild his nation.
For Spc. Khalid Hermez, from Detroit, linguist, Company F, 3rd Battalion, 227th Aviation Brigade, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Multi-National Division – Baghdad, his deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom brings him back home to the country he left so many years ago, this time as part of an army fighting in the country he was born and raised.
The story began for Hermez when he was born in 1974 in al Karada, a city in the heart of downtown Baghdad, where he lived until he was 16.
“I left when Saddam was ruling Iraq and things were very bad,” Hermez said. “I wanted to leave and have a better life.”
Hermez said under Hussein the simplest things were forbidden, such as hair length, even down to the way you held your schoolbooks, something which even at his age he knew he did not want to follow.
“It was uncomfortable as a Christian living in Iraq because we had no freedom in our lives,” Hermez said. “At school we were forced to learn Islam and take their classes. If you had a hobby you weren’t able to do it.”
“You were under pressure all the time,” he added.
This meant leaving Iraq, something which was extremely difficult in those years, Hermez said, which meant taking chances.
“At that time you weren’t allowed to leave Iraq, but we managed to get someone to make a passport for me and take me to the airport and fly me to Turkey,” Hermez said.
From Turkey Hermez then flew to Greece, where he stayed until he went to the U.S., leaving by himself without his family.
“It was just me in the beginning,” Hermez said. “I managed to leave because they (his parents) didn’t want me to go into the (Iraqi) army like my two brothers.”
“The next year my family decided to leave as well,” Hermez said. “They went to Syria and from there they went to Sydney, Australia.”
After leaving Iraq Hermez realized he was on his own, which made his attempts to start a new life difficult.
“It was hard, especially when I went to Turkey because everything was new and fresh,” Hermez said. “I didn’t have to stay long and I went to Greece on a small boat to a village called Saloniki.”
Hermez said he traveled to Athens where he found fellow Iraqi Christians who aided him in finding a job and how to survive, which eventually led to him departing for the U.S., starting from scratch again.
“When I got to America it was harder, because everything was new, even more than in Europe where things are simpler, like the life I used to have in Iraq,” Hermez said.
Despite not knowing anyone, Hermez said he adapted to the U.S. and found work in the Midwest, settling in Chicago for the better part of 10 years before he met his future wife and moved to Michigan and its cold winters.
“I was a valet, parking cars and dealing with a lot of students, which helped me learn English more … and I was shoveling a lot of snow under the cars,” laughed Hermez at the memory.
While working in construction, Hermez soon had another calling, one which involved joining the Army of the country he had adopted.
“I met one of my father-in-laws friends and he asked me if I spoke Arabic,” Hermez said. “He told me the Army had positions for interpreters and said it would be a better life for my family and my future.”
Hermez said he was excited to join the Army, despite being 35 at the time he enlisted, which for him was no roadblock to serve the nation he was now a citizen of.
“It’s never too late and the Army gave me the opportunity to be a translator, so I went through basic, AIT (Advanced Individual Training) and all that good stuff,” Hermez said. “I was patient, I graduated and finished everything and got the chance to deploy and once again see Iraq after 20 years.”
Hermez , who was assigned to the 1st ACB’s only ground unit, said the deployment has been somewhat bittersweet, as the unit has yet to conduct extensive ground operations.
“So far on all the missions we’ve flown on Blackhawks, so I have only seen Baghdad from the air,” Hermez explained. “It would be nice to go outside the wire and see more.”
However Hermez sees the improvements that have taken place since the fall of Hussein and said people are finally communicating with each other more.
“They are learning how to protect each other and protect themselves,” Hermez added. “I’m looking forward to seeing it myself one day.”
The addition of Hermez to Co. F has been vital, given his mastery of the Iraqi language, which is a major asset for the ‘Felons’, said Spc. Justin Birht, from Sumter, S.C., saw gunner, Co. F, 3-227th, 1st ACB.
“He is very valuable if we have to roll out and talk to somebody and extract information,” Birht said. “He knows if you’re on the eastern side or western side and how the Sunni’s and Shiites do this or wear this. He knows all of it.”
“He can tell the differences between the languages and cultural accents too,” Birht continued. “Personally he is an awesome person and I hang out with him all the time.”
Hermez said he likes the Army life and would like to stay in, not regretting his decision to move to the U.S. and forge the life he has carved out for himself.
“I’m not the kind of person who looks back, I just keep going forward,” Hermez said. “People were impressed when I learned to speak English, learned their culture and how to fit in with people and adapt.”
“I like my job and I’m looking forward to doing more missions,” he said.
(This story was originally written in 2009 but not released due to security concerns)