When Ahmed Totti left Iraq after serving for almost four years as an interpreter for U.S. forces, he never expected to return to his home country.
He certainly didn't think he'd return as an American soldier.
"When the plane landed in Baghdad, I didn't expect I'd ever come back," said Totti, who is now an E-4 linguist and cultural advisor with Task Force Al Asad.
Totti also didn't expect that his deployment to Iraq, specifically to al Asad, would lead him to run into an old friend.
Spc. Ahmed Totti with his mother, who has also relocated to the United States.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Spc. Ahmed Totti
"I was walking in the small chow hall we have here, I was about to sit down when I saw someone. I looked at him and I said, 'this face is familiar,' " Totti said. "I don't forget faces, especially the people I've worked with."
It was Marine Maj. Brandon Stibb, who was deployed to Iraq as a captain in 2009 and for whom Totti worked as an interpreter.
"I walked to him and said, 'sir, I just can't believe my eyes. Is that really you?' " Totti said. "He looked at me and said, 'no way, is that you, Totti?' I hugged him. It was really awesome."
Stibb, who is now back at Marine Corps Forces Pacific after his deployment as a training team leader, said he never thought he'd see Totti again.
"Linguists have come and gone during all my deployments, and this is the first time that I ever saw one again, especially years later," he said.
Stibb, an infantry officer who has now deployed four times to Iraq, saw Totti out of the corner of his eye.
"He looked familiar, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly where I saw him before," he said. "What threw me off was he was in a United States Army uniform."
When Totti came up to introduce himself, "it was like we saw each other yesterday," Stibb said.
Stibb is "one of a kind, to be honest with you," Totti said.
"When I first met Maj. Stibb in Iraq, I saw a huge person. When I'm standing next to him, I reach his hips," Totti said, laughing. "He's fearless. It's awesome to find someone like this to inspire you. He makes you so proud to be part of his team, to be rolling with him."
Stibb said Totti "got bigger" since he last saw him.
"He was a very short, very small statured young man, but he's definitely stockier now," Stibb said. "I guess the Army's feeding him well."
Marine Maj. Brandon Stibb, left, and Army Spc. Ahmed Totti, right, pose for a photo together aboard Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, on Jan. 17.
Photo Credit: Cpl. Carson Gramley/Marine Corps
Stibb laughed when he heard that Totti described him as a large man.
"I'm about 6' 3", 6' 4", maybe 6' 5" with my boots on," he said. "He's 5 feet nothing."
Stibb said he was pleasantly surprised to see Totti had become an American soldier.
"Every young linguist that I've ever worked with has told me they want to come to the United States, join the Marine Corps, join the Army, join the Navy," he said. "Obviously, it's not impossible, but there are a lot of things that have to happen in his favor and a lot of hard work on his part of make it come true. It was definitely good to see that he was able to better himself, get out of Iraq at a young age and continue to serve his home country via the United States."
Totti, 29, was born in Ancona, Italy, and raised in Iraq from the age of 5.
He grew up in Baghdad, and when the U.S. invasion kicked off in 2003, Totti was just starting college at Baghdad's University of Technology.
Totti began working with the U.S. military at al Asad in late 2008 after graduating from college and motivated by the loss of at least two of his uncles to the violence in the Baghdad area.
"I still remember they got boots and a uniform for me," Totti said. "I didn't even know what to do with my boots. I'd never had that in my life."
On his first mission, Totti didn't know how to work the doors to the Humvee.
"I'd never been in a military Humvee before," he said. "The [truck commander] had to close the door for me. I'd never done any missions in my life."
Totti quickly got the hang of his new life, however, eventually moving from al Asad to Basra where he worked for almost four years with U.S. troops.
It was in Basra that Totti met Stibb.
Stibb was part of a military training team, and Totti was one of the many linguists assigned to the team.
Stibb remembers Totti being "very energetic," and Stibb said he was impressed at Totti's ability to speak English.
"It was actually quite humbling for somebody who's never had any formal training in English and yet he spoke it very, very well," Stibb said. "And he also understood all the military jargon."
Totti is still energetic and passionate about his work, Stibb said.
"He has the same energy level, the same passion to make his home country better," he said. "Now he's channeling that energy serving the United States."
As someone who grew up in Iraq, Totti brings to the fight a deep understanding of the culture and how to relate to the Iraqis, Stibb said.
"You can't get that from someone who just translates," he said. "A lot of information gets lost in translation."
In 2012, the men Totti served with helped him get his visa to move to the U.S. When he arrived in Alabama, he moved in with one of the NCOs he'd worked for.
"I got introduced to southern culture, southern hospitality," Totti said.
His adopted family in Alabama, including Army Reserve Sgt. Brandon Teague and Army Staff Sgt. Tim Tingle, also helped him do the paperwork to move his mother and brother to the United States, Totti said.
Totti joined the Army in 2014 and is assigned to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at Fort Irwin, California.
Joining the Army was an easy decision for him, Totti said.
"All of my life, I worked doing missions, being with the troops," he said. "When I came to the States, I was missing the time being back with the Marines, being with the soldiers, doing the missions."
The men he served with also were strong influences on him, Totti said.
"I was blessed because I met a lot of people who were really, really decent," he said. "They played a big part of my life. They are honorable people."
Totti, who's about a third of the way into his yearlong deployment, says he's not sure what the future holds for him.
"I see myself staying in the Army," he said. "It was a long journey for me. It was a long time for me to put on this uniform."