- Associated Press - Sunday, April 29, 2018

AMARILLO, Texas (AP) - The value of a certain American flag, signed by members of a Marine platoon, cannot be measured for Dr. Mohammed Bahaa Aldeen.

The Amarillo Globe-News reports they would not know him by his true professional name, this newly promoted vice-chief of medicine at Northwest Texas Hospital.

To them, he was “Chris,” an indispensable part of fighting in Fallujah during the Iraq War. So this flag, it symbolizes just about all Aldeen was, is and will be.

Other than wife Nibras, and their three children, that flag is the lifeblood of this Iraqi now an American citizen. Maybe that’s why he recently, for the first time in a decade, took the flag from his home to bring to his hospital office if only for a day.

“After my family, it is the most precious thing in my life,” said Aldeen of the flag. “It means a new start in the United States and endless opportunities for my kids and grandkids. It means I was right, that the years of hardship and sacrifice were right. It was worth it.”

Before his new position, before his previous one as hospitalist at Northwest, before the home in La Paloma, and the internal medicine program at Texas Tech, Aldeen wasn’t sure he would see tomorrow in war-torn Iraq. Insurgents would kill him, maybe kidnap Nibras, just as they had done to his friends.

“They had my name,” Aldeen said. “I was at the top of the list and if they found me, I’m dead.”

Aldeen and his family were from the southern Iraqi city of Karbala. After the Gulf War ended in 1991, but with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein still in power, he turned on many in that region, despised because they weren’t pure Arabic and for their alliance with neighbor Kuwait. Saddam’s brutal Republican Guard troops quelled a southern revolution with genocide, killing as many as 250,000 over 40 days.

Aldeen’s family of six fled to the desert about 10 miles away for seven days. Hungry, they returned only to see civilian dead in the streets. Women, children, it didn’t matter.

“The people of the south, they never forget,” Aldeen said. “We would wait for the Americans to come back so we could get justice back.”

Aldeen was only 12, but he began to study English at his father’s insistence. His father learned Farsi when he was young, and during the Iraq-Iran War in 1980, he went into the linguistics department of the Army and not the certain death of the infantry.

“English saved my life,” he said. “It saved my life. I would have either been killed or a refugee somewhere like Jordan or Saudi Arabia without it.”

Aldeen, bright and focused, also wanted to be a doctor. He was 23 and in residency in Karbala in 2003 when the U.S. invaded Iraq. Finally. Aldeen knew what Saddam’s dictatorship meant to his ethnicity, and knew what an American presence meant. For him, it was an easy choice.

“I went to the American camp and said, ‘Listen, guys, I know the culture. I know the language. I can help you.’” he said.

Aldeen began to interpret for the Marines with hospitals and with city infrastructure officials. He initially volunteered, and then got a small salary.

But nine months later, Aldeen became a target of insurgents. The militia was looking to kill those who supported the Americans. Two of his friends were killed within two months. Ken Booth, Aldeen’s officer in charge, had him transferred to Baghdad in early 2005. His parents were told he immigrated to Australia.

Aldeen had lost his medical career. He was separated from his wife and infant twins, who were moved to a different city.

“You have to understand how I felt,” he said. “I was a young resident with a brilliant future, soon with a clinic and financial prosperity, and I lost everything because I was helping my country with the Americans. These Iraqis were bad. They were Al Qaeda. They were vicious and we had to kill them.”

At the end of 2005, he decided to raise his game. He asked his commanding officer where the two hottest spots were. Fallujah and Mosul, he was told. He volunteered to Fallujah.

He went by helicopter, a temporary civilian among Marines. He took with him the name of “Chris,” a name he borrowed from an American officer in Karbala by the same name.

“Chris” was told to wear a uniform. Snipers knew an American talking with a civilian Iraqi was an officer, and an inviting target. So was the civilian, who was a communication conduit for the Americans.

“‘Interpreter and Cultural Advisor’ was my technical job title, but I was a fighter,” he said. “I participated in many shootback actions.”

His first night, a car bomb killed 36 Iraqi policemen and number of Marines. Ten of the 12 interpreters left. Not “Chris.” He joined the Marines in a house-to-house hunt for insurgents.

He was among brutal short-range combat for three years. He lived in the camp, and in the eyes of his Marine platoon, “Chris” was one of them.

“I couldn’t go back because my future is lost, and second, I’m not an easy man,” Aldeen said. “I take revenge. Someone takes something from me. I will hunt him down for the rest of the war.”

Claude Drevet, his commanding officer, asked him once why he knew all these medical terms. He told him he was a doctor, which Drevet didn’t initially believe. Toward the end of the war in late 2008, Drevet used what influence he could to get Aldeen one of the precious 25 yearly immigration visas for Iraqis.

“Because he knew once the Americans left, I’d be killed,” Aldeen said.

Aldeen, wife Nabris, 4-year-old twins Fadi and Maryam, and Zainab, 3, got the visas. Aldeen found himself in Tucson, Arizona, with $4,000, but no credit history and no idea what to do.

John Church, brother of an American colonel from the Fallujah camp, helped him get an apartment and driver’s license. Aldeen bought a used Camry for $2,000 and began driving a taxi, in particular, driving refugees for the International Rescue Committee.

When he took a refugee to a hospital for an X-ray, the technician, from Columbia, asked him how he knew all these medical terms. When Aldeen told him he was a doctor, he was asked why he was driving a taxi.

“I asked, ‘Do they allow me to be a physician again?’” Aldeen said.

He was told if he passed the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam, he would be eligible for a residency program. Aldeen was loaned the expensive books to study. He studied 10 to 12 hours on his days off, and six hours when he worked. In 2011, he took the exam. The average American score is 82. Aldeen scored a 99.

He only had the money to apply for two residency programs in internal medicine, one of them with Dr. Brian Weiss, then the director of the residency program at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center in Amarillo.

“All applicants have to write personal statements, and especially for foreign candidates, often these incredible stories come out,” Weiss said. “His story really moved me. In interviewing him, he was the real deal, the full package. I told him if you’re willing to come here, we have you a spot.”

Aldeen canceled an interview in Nebraska.

In the ensuing seven years, Aldeen has never left Amarillo. After his graduation in internal medicine, he cast his lot with Northwest Texas. His parents visited him on a visa for six months, and he returned to Iraq to visit in 2014 and 2017.

He became an American citizen in 2013. His children became citizens just in the last few months. Nibras, who sacrificed much as well, will begin the same residency program as her husband on July 1, which makes Aldeen happier, he said, than when he was accepted. And now this new promotion.

“This country is a great nation, no question about it,” Aldeen said, “but I have to be honest, I have some concerns that a lot of people take things for granted and they don’t appreciate the freedoms and laws we have.

“You will never find another country in the world that will give someone like me this opportunity. So the United States, it is the greatest nation the world.”

And that flag. On the day he left camp in Iraq in 2008, 50 Marines stood alongside him to shake his hand, and to give him that signed flag. It was too dangerous to have with him, so platoon leader Brian Mushida kept it, and shipped it to him when he arrived in the U.S.

That flag and this country. For Dr. Mohammad Bahaa Aldeen, there’s nothing like them.


Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, http://www.amarillo.com

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