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From war-time interpreter to Navy officer, Iraqi thankful U.S. welcomed him

Sam Al Helli was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve at MacDill Air Force Base. His thoughts turn now to his counterparts in Afghanistan.
Iraqi interpreter Sam Al Helli went into battle, sometimes five times and more a day, with U.S. Marines who had a higher level of training than he did. As soon as be became a U.S. citizen, he worked to enlist in the U.S. military.
Iraqi interpreter Sam Al Helli went into battle, sometimes five times and more a day, with U.S. Marines who had a higher level of training than he did. As soon as be became a U.S. citizen, he worked to enlist in the U.S. military. [ Military Times ]
Published Jul. 26
Updated Jul. 26

TAMPA — Iraqi Sam Al Helli finished his quest to wear an American military uniform this month when he was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve during a ceremony at MacDill Air Force Base.

For Al Helli, pinned with the emblems of his rank by wife Kayla with their daughter Serein in attendance, it was a proud personal moment — and a reminder of how lucky he is to have made it to the United States.

Al Helli, 33, was an interpreter in Iraq for the U.S. military. Today, his thoughts are with the tens of thousands of interpreters and others who helped the U.S. in Afghanistan during the past 20 years. With the final withdrawal of U.S. troops, they await an uncertain fate as the Taliban retakes territory.

“I’m sure all of them have been through as much as I was,if not more, and helped in saving the lives of our troops and the locals,” Al Helli said.

His wife Kayla pins Navy Reserve lieutenant Sam Al Halli with the emblems of his rank during a ceremony July 16 at MacDill Air Force base.
His wife Kayla pins Navy Reserve lieutenant Sam Al Halli with the emblems of his rank during a ceremony July 16 at MacDill Air Force base. [ Military Times ]

Born into a relatively wealthy family in Baghdad, Al Helli was living a comfortable life. That changed in 2006. A Sunni-Shia civil war broke out in his home country in the years after the 2003 invasion that brought down Saddam Hussein.

His family received a note one day that they needed to leave within 24 hours or face beheading. His father thought it was a joke, until word reached them that other Shiites in the neighborhood had received similar threats. The family left their home, believing they would be gone for a few weeks, maybe a month at the most.

They never went back.

“I wanted revenge on the people that took my home away from me,” Al Helli said in a phone call with Military Times.

He had few options. He could remain passively indignant, sitting in his new home — which Al Helli kept secret out of concern for his family’s safety — stewing about the wrongs that befell him, or he could pick up his father’s gun and hunt down as many al-Qaida members as possible before he came to the attention of U.S. military forces. Instead, he joined those military forces as an interpreter.

He worked with the U.S. Army and Marines in Al Anbar province facing sniper fire, improvised explosive devices and firefights. It was scary participating in raids, detainee interrogations and patrols, but he believed it when the officers told him they had his back.

“They told me ‘Big Sam, we will always keep you safe,” Al Helli said.

Even though he faced combat nearly every day, Al Helli said his biggest worry was that his family wouldn’t be able to recover his body and have a funeral if something happened to him.

Al Helli said he learned English listening to American rock and heavy metal, including Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and Megadeth.

After being vetted, Al Helli was asked if there was a specific region of Iraq where he wanted to be attached to a military unit.

“I said I wanted to go where I could do the most damage,” he said.

Being an officer in the military was always a goal for Al Helli, but serving in the Iraqi armed forces wasn’t an option for him. He said corruption there would have canceled out any good he could have done. So when the opportunity came to move to Chicago in 2012, he jumped at it.

During his time in Chicago, and later Tampa, Al Helli worked jobs including cashier and janitor. He saw this as an opportunity to pay it forward to the country that had offered him so much. He still felt the call to serve, though, and on the day he became a citizen he headed to the nearest recruitment office.

He settled on the Navy for the chance to work in his preferred field. He was worried the other branches would put him where they needed him instead of letting him work as an information professional, his job title now as a reservist.

Al Helli said he is grateful to his recruiter, Chief Petty Officer Josh Fletcher, and two former officers for encouraging him to seek an officer’s commission.

In a phone interview with the Military Times, Scott A. Huesing, a retired Marine major, compared Al Helli’s service as an interpreter in Iraq with early American patriots during the Revolutionary War. Huesing said Al Helli clearly loved Iraq and didn’t want to see it torn apart by terrorists.

Huesing wrote a book, Echo in Ramadi, that features his work with Al Helli. Huesing flew to Tampa to attend Al Helli’s commissioning ceremony July 16.

“He could have sat there and been terrorized day in and day out,” Huesing said. “But he wanted to stand up and fight.”

Al Helli’s service was even more impressive because he fought beside Marines of his age without the level of training they had — on occasion, more than five times in a day.

“There is nothing more emblematic of the American story than Sam,” Huesing said.

About 750 of Al Helli’s Afghan counterparts will be arriving at Fort Lee in Virginia soon. The State Department is advising interpreters headed to the United States to get to the city of Kabul or to a third undisclosed country while they wait for their visa applications to be processed.

Al Helli encourages those that have moved to the U.S. to take on the tough jobs and become part of the community because that’s what makes America strong.

“If you pay it forward,” Al Helli said, “this country will make your dreams come true.”

- Military Times