Courage: One Airman’s journey from Iraq to the Guard

Alzubaidi worked for 8 years as a linguist for American forces in Iraq before moving to the U.S. and enlisting in the Tennessee Air National Guard. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Anthony Agosti)

Senior Airman Mohammed Alzubaidi, an electrical systems specialist with the 118th Civil Engineer Squadron, stands by his unit's sign on Sept. 27, 2017 at Berry Field Air National Guard Base in Nashville, Tennessee. Alzubaidi worked for 8 years as a linguist for American forces in Iraq before moving to the U.S. and enlisting in the Tennessee Air National Guard. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Anthony Agosti)

Nashville, Tenn. --

The worst threats were the ones in person.

“They called Mohammed, I was walking on the street, so I turn, they shoot at me,” said Senior Airman Mohammed Alzubaidi,  an electrical systems specialist in the 118th Civil Engineer Squadron who was then a contracted local national interpreter in Iraq. “Bullets from everywhere around me.” 

Alzubaidi was able to escape this shooting unharmed, but it would not be the first or last time his life was threatened. This was the danger of locals who worked as interpreters alongside US military forces in Iraq. It was a job that took a great deal of courage to do.

“A lot of people die in Iraq for no reason, just because they are people,” said Alzubaidi. “If you are not brave, you wouldn’t get things done, you have to be brave to achieve your goals.”

 

Alzubaidi certainly had to have courage to keep working with the U.S. military. He initially only interpreted part-time, but his great work ethic made the units he worked with want to utilize him more and more. By the end of 2005 he had developed a very good reputation as an interpreter, and found himself working full-time on more and more difficult assignments. With his added presence amidst the U.S. forces however came the threats on his life.

 

Alzubaidi started receiving threating letters in the mail. One threatening to decapitate him. Another with three bullets. Yet another with blood stains on it.

 

He also began to receive threats in person.

 

“I was in a minivan that was empty, only me and the driver. I was going to the city, this guy he comes up next to me and says ‘Hey you, you better quit, because we know who you are,’” said Alzubaidi.  “Just some random guy, he was not even covered, obviously he knows me.”

 

The threats on his life caused him to walk with caution, and change the route he took to go home every day, said Alzubaidi. He even began wearing Kevlar on a daily basis after he was shot at.

 

The threats though did not diminish his courage one bit.

 

“If someone wants to kill they will kill you,” said Alzubaidi.  “I love my job, that’s why it made me do it.”

 

“He’s a team player, he will do the job that is assigned to him,” said Oday Dean, a civilian Arabic interpreter who worked alongside Alzubaidi for two years in Iraq as an interpreter. “If he loves the people that he works with, there is nothing that he can not do.”

 

This courage and work ethic was recognized by unit commanders, who were very grateful when Alzubaidi was assigned to help their units.

 

“I would see him on occasion and when I was to be assigned an interpreter,” said retired Col. Philip McGrath, a brigade commander in 2005 with the U.S. Army Reserves.  “By great luck it was Mohammed.”

 

Alzubaidi had such a good reputation, that when he was assigned to McGrath’s unit, he was given special duties to conduct with a group of local Iraqis.

 

“He said ‘Your job here is to educate those people,’” said Alzubaidi. “’To train them to be the first Iraqi [Motorized Transport] regiment.’”

 

Over the next year Alzubaidi acted as both an interpreter and advisor in training the unit, which was being created to transport Iraqi troops across the dangerous stretch between Baghdad and Fallujah. This assignment though would call on Alzubaidi to again dig deep into his wells of courage.

 

One day he was in the last Humvee of a convoy carrying around 1 million bullets, said Alzubaidi. They had almost finished, and had just reached the base gate when the convoy was hit by three roadside bombs.

 

“We start swerving, they start shooting at us,” said Alzubaidi. “If you get caught on fire you’re done, because that’s a million bullets.”

 

Fortunately no one was killed in the attack, but the attack left Alzubaidi with an injury that was discovered a few days later.

 

“[The doctor] said ‘Did something blast, blow you up?’ I said yeah a few days ago,” said Alzubaidi. “She said ‘There is a scar in your ear, there is a hole in it.’ I didn’t notice until she told me.”

 

Most people would not continue on in a job that would cause you serious injury or loss of life. Alzubaidi though truly believed that he was helping his country by doing this, and didn’t think about quitting for an instant.

 

“Nothing stop me, why would I stop,” said Alzubaidi. “I’m not better than the people who gave their lives away.”

 

Alzubaidi continued to interpret for various units until one day, an Army captain he was working with gave him an incredible proposition.

 

“The captain, you know you would translate for him, like he see you every day,” said Alzubaidi.  “You talk to him and he say I ought to come to the United States.”

 

The captain submitted paperwork up the chain of command on Alzubaidi’s behalf, and in 2007 Alzubaidi was given permission to move to the U.S. under the Special Immigrant Visa program. This program, established by Congress just a year prior, helped trusted Iraqi and Afghani interpreters immigrate to the U.S. and gain permanent residency status.

 

Alzubaidi though was not quite finished with wanting to be an interpreter.

 

“When I step into the United States was October 2, 2007, at 4:00, I remember the day,” said Alzubaidi.  “I of course got on the computer and applied for a job to go back overseas. I got a call at 9:00 because they were in debt to hire people.”

 

Alzubaidi went through several months of training and processing, and eventually found himself back in Iraq in May 2008. This time though he was not a local national working for a contractor. He was a direct employee of the Defense Department.

 

Soon after returning to Iraq, Alzubaidi would mainly translate meetings between high ranking officials, but there were still missions that would call upon his courage to complete them.

 

He played a critical interpreting role in a mission that brought in a person on the most wanted list at the time. He even convincing the wanted person to turn himself in over the phone.

 

He interpreted a tense meeting where an Army colonel reprimanded an Iraqi general for making Iraqi troops drink unsafe river water, and force the general to provide clean water Alzubaidi continued to interpret until the final withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011. He decided to return to the United States, as he still had his permanent residency status. This would draw upon a new type of courage; resettling and starting a new life in a new country.

 

“I did not even expect I would be in the U.S. one day,” said Alzubaidi. “It never came to my mind.”

 

This new life would lead him once again to be closely tied to the U.S. military.