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    ‘Almost Lost Hope:’ The journey from Iraqi translator to Texas Guardsman

    'Almost lost hope:' The journey from Iraqi translator to Texas Guardsmen

    Photo By Capt. Nadine Wiley De Moura | Spc. Khairi, then a private first class, sprints through the finish line of the 8-mile...... read more read more



    Story by Capt. Nadine Wiley De Moura 

    Texas Joint Counterdrug Task Force

    AUSTIN, Texas— An old pot filled with water boils on an electric stove to be used for taking a warm shower, drinking or cooking. The government-run electric supply is limited to five hours a day unless one can afford a generator. The streets are littered with trash and sewage and sometimes it’s unsafe to go outside due to chaos surrounding the regime.

    Ridden with centuries of war and corruption, failing infrastructure, and a people governed and controlled by Sadaam Hussein’s reign of terror, the reality for the people of Iraq was a state of utter disparity.

    For Baghdad native, Hussein Khairi, the reality of the poorly managed resources and living in a corrupt government were interwoven into his daily routine as he studied passionately, under his father’s instruction, to learn English—a language that would one day provide him with the opportunity to contribute to a change in his country.

    Shortly after U.S. troops began arriving in Iraq in 2003, his father was hired as one of the first translators. Seeing the positive impact his father made, as soon as he was able to, Khairi eagerly applied to be a translator as well.

    “Helping translate for U.S. troops was something I really had a passion in doing and I believed in what I did, which was helping both countries, Iraq and the United States,” Khairi, 36, said. “Our convoys had been hit many times by improvised explosive devices and sniper. But I really didn’t care if something happened to me because that was the only way we would be able to stop terrorism.”

    For five years, Khairi worked as an Iraqi translator for U.S. troops and traveled with them on dangerous convoys, before coming to the U.S., becoming a citizen and enlisting in the Texas Army National Guard.
    For translators like Khairi, who speaks five different dialects of the Arabic language, Egyptian, Levantine, Yemeni and Saudi, by assisting U.S. troops he put himself and his family in harm’s way.

    “Translators were under the threat 24-7 because regardless of where you are, the enemy is always hunting for you,” said the Baghdad native. “The translator would be with the troops and they actually would try to target you among the U.S. troops. My family and I were targeted on my days off and in my civilian life. Because they view translators as traitors.”

    Khairi, who had been translating for U.S. troops to include the Navy, Army and Marines since he was 18 years-old, sought to secure the safety and future of his family by applying for and receiving a special immigrant visa that would allow him to apply for permanent residency in the United States.

    “After 5 years of living in the United States, I had the opportunity to become a U.S. citizen,” Khairi said. “In 2014, I was offered a job to work with the Department of Defense as a contractor. Because of the mission, I had to renounce my Iraqi citizenship. I was sent over on a deployment to Iraq and Kuwait as a contractor.”

    While overseas on his deployment, the Department of Defense offered him a three-year contract. Khairi declined. His dream was to serve as an U.S. Soldier.

    “With all of the years that I served alongside the U.S. troops, I was a fully uniformed contractor and translator,” Khairi said.

    “Eighty percent of the time we were carrying a weapon, because I worked with a Military Transition Team. To be honest, I thought that I’d be better being enlisted versus being a contractor. Because when you are a contractor, you are not considered to be a veteran.”

    Upon his return from Iraq and one year shy of the Army age cut off, Spc. Khairi enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard in March of 2017.

    “I always wanted to do something for my country, so joining the U.S. troops to assist in the Iraqi freedom operation was one of the first things that I’ve done,” said Khairi, an information technology specialist Soldier in the 101st Information Battalion, 71st Theater Information Operations Group, 71st Troop Command.

    “It was then that I realized the number of lives that have been sacrificed by the U.S troops helping and assisting people. So the first thing I did when I moved here is try to enlist so that I could give back some of the support that [Iraqis] were given.”

    Khairi’s path to completing Army basic training was not without obstacles. Enlisting as an older Soldier meant that he would have to keep up with his 18-year-old basic trainees.

    “It was hard to be treated as an 18-year-old kid when I was three years older than my drill sergeant,” Khairi said. “On an individual basis I was treated differently because they knew that I’ve been deployed and have been through to a lot of things while I was serving the U.S.”

    Despite the challenges he faced as an older enlistee, he was the fastest among his class with a 2-mile run time of 11 minutes and 10 seconds.
    “It was very difficult,” Khairi said. “But I am one of those people that doesn’t like to give up. The key to what I do is to keep trying.”

    After graduating basic training, Khairi joined the Texas National Guard Joint Counterdrug Task Force and now works as an analyst in support of law enforcement agencies. His job involves monitoring cameras across the border for illegal activities and reporting the activity to the proper agency.

    Because of his language skills, law enforcement agencies across Texas have access to an Arabic translator.

    “Specialist Khairi has been instrumental in capturing a large number of drug seizures in camera images along the border,” 1st Sgt. Demetrice Gonzales, Khairi’s Counterdrug team leader, said. “His professional and keen attitude has improved how Soldiers and Airmen are assigned to the Border Security Operation Center located in Austin, Texas.”

    After a year of being on the task force, it wasn’t long before Khairi sought out the opportunity to represent his unit in the 2019 Texas Military Department Best Warrior Competition.

    Capt. Cecilia Magana, of the 101st Information Battalion, and Khairi’s commander said that Khairi was the first to volunteer to compete for the unit in the competition.

    “For any volunteer opportunities, he is the first to raise his hand,” Magana said. “He is one of those top guys that you love and want them to be a part of your team. If he stays in, he could go all the way up. He would be an amazing first sergeant one day.”

    For Khairi, his participation in the event is just another challenge and opportunity to test his limits.

    “I always like to get out of my comfort zone, try new things and test my ability of reaching a new goal,” Khairi said. “It’s not necessary for me to win the best warrior-- completion will be a win for me. It’s the fact that I am even competing and going to the competition that is the win for me.”

    At the competition, Khairi, once again, had to compete against competitors almost half his age.

    “One thing that I kept reminding him of, was that he was physically out there competing with people who were 15 years younger than he was,” said Sgt. Kristopher Celaya, Khairi’s sponsor for the competition. “I think it says a lot about an individual to be able to physically outperform or match people who should be in better shape than you. I reminded him how his own children and peers will look up to him. Knowing that in the back of his mind helped him drive past the challenges that he faced.”

    Being the oldest competitor wasn’t the only challenge that Khairi overcame. Celaya, who is in the same unit as Khairi, explained that as a Muslim, Khairi could only eat meat that is Hallal.

    However, during the four-day competition, there was no Hallal food available.

    “Sometimes you can get it at training events and sometimes it’s harder,” said Celaya. “In order to compensate for the meals he couldn’t eat, he would eat a lot of fruit, extra eggs, fish snacks and vegetables. That helped drain him and made him more exhausted because he couldn’t eat as much protein as the other competitors.”

    Celaya learned a lot about Khairi and the Muslim culture during their monthly trainings at their unit.

    “He would take me to different Middle Eastern restaurants in the Austin area and to the San Antonio area and I learned about his background and history,” Celaya said. “It was eye-opening to know that he had a very extensive background even before enlisting.”

    But Khairi didn’t complain once during the competition about the food, he drove on.

    “Don’t take what you have for granted,” Khairi said. “I tell my kids, when food is served, don’t complain because there are other people who would be so happy to have what you have. So appreciate what you have and work on improving it.”

    Meeting Khairi left an impact on Celaya, who said that he now feels more appreciative of the freedoms that he has as an American, and an understanding of what the allies in the countries that the U.S. is at war with have to sacrifice for a better life.

    “I think Khairi’s story brings to the Texas National Guard a sense of understanding of the other side of the conflicts that are happening in the Middle East,” Celaya said. “We are born here understanding that you are free and have these rights but you don’t know what it is like to fight for and appreciate them. For someone to live there, put himself in harm’s way, fight for us, then come back, enlist and fight for America—it gives you a better sense of respect and that these freedoms should not be taken lightly at all.”

    The freedoms that Khairi has fought for are the reason he never passes up an opportunity.

    “A couple of reasons give me this drive,” Khairi said. “Coming from a country that doesn’t offer that many opportunities and you have to fight really hard to get into something that you like. In fact, sometimes you have to fight really hard to get into something that you don’t even like, but you just want to get a job and to be able to feed your family. Then I came to a country that is full of opportunities. All you have to do is keep on trying.”

    Khairi had to make time for training while maintaining his full-time job on the Counterdrug Task Force, fulfilling his monthly drills with his unit, maintaining a family of six and studying for his criminal justice degree at Austin Community College.

    “Finding the time is the most difficult thing, especially when you have a house of my size—two adults and four kids,” Khairi said. “Regardless of how many things that you have on your plate, you can still manage if you do time management well.”

    Khairi accredits much of his success to his wife, Otoor, and her unwavering support and sacrifice for him and his family.
    Khairi and Otoor both graduated college and received degree
    s in Iraq that do not transfer to the United States. When the couple made the decision to move to the U.S., Otoor had to leave behind her family and her job.

    “It was her who lost everything and sacrificed everything for me,” Khairi said. “I had always worked with U.S. troops and was familiar with the language and culture. For her it was all new, so she did not speak English as good as now. She left a really good job with the Ministry of Oil, and was going after a bachelor’s degree. She left all of that for me so I appreciate it.”

    While juggling Khairi’s hectic schedule and tag-teaming with Khairi to take care of the kids, Otoor is also studying for a pharmaceutical degree at Austin Community College. Despite the sacrifices and challenges, Otoor remains positive.

    “What he does means a lot because he is perfect in his work in whatever he does,” Otoor said. “Whether it be the military or Counterdrug-- in everything he does, he is the best. I like what he does and I like to see him be number one for everything-- his job, his family, his imagination. We work together.”

    With the Best Warrior Competition out the way, Khairi has his eyes set on his next endeavor.

    In a few short months Khairi will join the U.S. Customs and Border Protection as a Border Patrol officer.

    “We want to take full advantage of all of the skills that I have,” Khairi said. “In the customs program, because of my language skills, I will be an asset and they will assign me to a port of entry where there is a large Middle Eastern community.”

    The Border Patrol training will require six months in Georgia and an additional 10 weeks of Spanish classes.

    Upon learning that Khairi is also striving to challenge himself again by taking on a new career, Khairi’s sponsor wasn’t surprised.

    “Specialist Khairi teaches younger, older and all Soldiers that the only limits we have are the ones we put on ourselves,” said Celaya. “He is a great Soldier, he is a great husband, father, he is an all-around a good role model to have for lower enlisted Soldiers. I believe he will go far, and the kind of person who can be the leader to raise morale and people to look up to.”

    By becoming a border patrol officer, Khairi will be fulfilling his other dream of becoming a law enforcement officer.

    “I think that is one of the keys also having lived in a period of time in a country that has almost lost hope, to coming to a country that is full of hope and opportunities,” said Khairi. “I definitely strive to take advantage of every single opportunity that we have.”



    Date Taken: 04.11.2019
    Date Posted: 04.11.2019 16:41
    Story ID: 317741
    Location: AUSTIN, TX, US 

    Web Views: 166
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    ‘Almost Lost Hope:’ The journey from Iraqi translator to Texas Guardsman