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FORT CAMPBELL, KY. — In the months after American forces invaded Iraq in 2003, Abdulla Mizead would look warily as soldiers carrying heavy weapons patrolled his neighborhood in Najaf.
Normally, he would keep his distance. But one afternoon he approached some American troops stopped on a street after seeing them having a tough time communicating with an Iraqi man.
The man had been trying to tell the Americans about detainees in a presidential palace who were trapped. The man, an engineer, had built the palace.
“That staff sergeant just goes nuts about it,” Mizead said. “And, he (the Iraqi) is yelling at him, ‘You need to come with me right now!’”
Mizead, 25 at the time, had learned English growing up around the world and stepped in to help translate.
A few minutes later, he started to walk away and a sergeant asked him to wait. The soldiers needed a translator to replace a Kuwaiti who was returning home. Would he be interested? Unemployed at the time, translating seemed like an adventure, a chance for Mizead to see parts of Iraq he had never visited.
He agreed and that encounter set him on an improbable course that has brought him full circle with the invading American forces who many Iraqis still blame for the ills plaguing the country: He is now a lieutenant in the U.S. Army at Fort Campbell.
Born in Iraq, Mizead grew up internationally as the son of an Iraqi diplomat whose assignments took him to Mozambique; London, where he learned English; Washington; and Tanzania. Mizead and his family returned to Iraq in 1990, around the time President Saddam Hussein was invading neighboring Kuwait.
After graduating from high school in Iraq, Mizead earned a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s in English literature from the University of Baghdad, where he relished digging into the works of American literary greats like playwright Eugene O’Neill.
Like for all Iraqis, the U.S.-led invasion upended daily life for Mizead’s family. Overnight, American soldiers were patrolling major cities, and Mizead kept his distance — until the day he stepped in to translate.
At first, Mizead had mixed feelings about helping American soldiers. As Shia Muslims, his family had been oppressed for years by the minority ruling Sunnis and Saddam Hussein — some of his father’s cousins were killed during the failed 1991 Shia uprising — so anything to help topple that system seemed worthwhile. Still, like many Iraqis, he had grown up hearing propaganda about the evils of America.
A month after he began translating for American troops, Mizead started working with the 1st Battalion, 187th infantry, a Fort Campbell-based unit known as the “Rakkasans” — a term the unit ironically got from a Japanese translator after World War II who couldn’t immediately come up with the word for airborne unit so used called them “rakkasan,” or “falling down umbrella men.”
Over the course of three months, Mizread interpreted as troops moved north from Baghdad to Tikrit and Mosul. It was the adventure the man was hoping for when he first signed up, and the Iraqi native brought an expertise to the job that few others would have had.
While working with an intelligence division in Tal Afar, west of Mosul, Mizead’s family background came into play. The area was filled with Shiite Turkmen who refused to speak to any of the Kurdish interpreters the Army had been using — a remnant of the long-standing animosity between Turks and Kurds in northern Iraq.
Mizead noticed a picture of a Shiite saint hanging in the house of a village elder.
“I said ‘You’re Turkmen, right? Shiite Turkmen?’” Mizead asked. “And as soon as I told them I was from Najaf, my parents were from Najaf, they just loved me.”
Working north of Baghdad, Mizead followed the soldiers into several towns and villages that backed Saddam’s Baath party. Back at the battalion base, Mizead would always lay out for intelligence officers his impressions of people he interviewed while on a mission.
“This guy’s faking it. This guy’s hiding something,” Mizead recalled telling an officer. “I’m just giving him my gut feeling.”
As the military moved north, Mizead hoped to go to the Kurdistan region near the Turkish border — a place he had never been. However, the Army had other plans and headed west instead, and he never made it to Kurdistan. Ready for something new, Mizead took a job with National Public Radio, where he was “the street guy.”
“I’d roam the streets of Baghdad, go into the provinces, talk to the people. I went to rural places that nobody had ever heard of, places nobody would ever cover,” Mizead said.
One day, the horrors of war hit home.
Mizead’s father was kidnapped. Four men put pistols to the heads of Azer Mizead and another family member and forced them from the car. The men switched Azer Mizead to another car and fled. Later, they called Mizead’s family asking for ransom.
Mizead feared his father would be killed regardless of any ransom, but they had to try to save him.
“I don’t want to live with the idea of him knowing we weren’t going to pay the ransom,” Mizead recalled telling himself. “I don’t want him to die knowing his family abandoned him and were not willing to pay $20,000, $30,000 or $40,000.”
The family scraped together the cash from savings and Mizead’s earnings. Mizead declined to disclose how much the family put forward, but his employer at the time, NPR, put up $10,000 toward the ransom. The kidnappers guided Mizead by phone around Baghdad for about 45 minutes before he dropped the money at a dictated location. He never saw Azer Mizead again.
“I waited and waited and waited for nothing,” Mizead said.
Mizead took to searching for his father in the morgues.
“Every time I’d go there, it was like hell,” Mizead said.
Soon after his father disappeared, a translator Mizead knew was killed by insurgents, and Mizead worried he could be next. The family decided to leave Iraq.
Mizead applied for a student visa and got into Columbia University and arrived in early 2007 with his wife and two young children.
While completing a master’s degree in journalism and working for War News Radio at Swarthmore College, Mizead sometimes thought back with nostalgia on his time translating for the Army. He had enjoyed the camaraderie, adventure and sense of purpose. In 2010, he signed up.
After bouncing around several military posts, including Fort Carson, Colorado, Mizead began working in intelligence for the “Rakkasans.”
Mizead saw familiar faces after being transferred to Fort Campbell. Many recognized him, as well.
Seeing Mizead in uniform was “fairly surreal,” said Lt. Col. Clint Cox, who was with the 3rd Battalion based at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, during the initial invasion of Iraq. “I knew that I knew who he was, but it took a minute.”
Mizead, who remains an Iraqi citizen, today looks and acts every inch the soldier, and like many soldiers, he doesn’t betray much. Not even about the profound decision to sign on with the invading Army he once eyed warily.
One of the few times he softens is when he concedes he worries about relatives in Iraq. The country is mired in near-daily violence, and many Iraqis blame the U.S. military and President George W. Bush for the invasion that allowed ethnic tensions to come to the fore. Still, Mizead says family back home support his career path, and that someday he may return to help his homeland, much the way he has helped America.
“My family is still there,” he said. “It is still where I’m from.”