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Same team, different uniform: The story of an Iraqi translator who became an American Airman

Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa, an aircrew flight equipment technician assigned to the 811th Operations Support Squadron on Joint Base Andrews, Md., poses for a photo on base, June 6, 2019. Shnawa is an Iraq native who served as a translator for coalition forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook)

Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa, 811th Operations Support Squadron, aircrew flight equipment technician poses for a photo at Joint Base Andrews, Md., June 6, 2019. Shnawa is an Iraq native who served as a translator for coalition forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook)

Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa, an aircrew flight equipment technician assigned to the 811th Operations Support Squadron on Joint Base Andrews, Md., displays his commemorative coin collection on base, June 6, 2019. Shnawa received coins and letters of commendation for his work with the U.S. and coalition forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook)

Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa, 811th Operations Support Squadron, aircrew flight equipment technician, displays his commemorative coin collection, at Joint Base Andrews, Md., June 6, 2019. Shnawa received coins and letters of commendation for his work with the U.S. and coalition forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook)

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. (AFNS) --

In 2003, Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa was not Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa. He was a 21-year-old Iraqi student of technology at a university in Baghdad.

That’s when American and coalition forces arrived to overthrow the Iraqi government, turning Baghdad into a war zone. Like many young men and women in Baghdad, Shnawa fled the city, bound for western Iraq, where his parents lived at the time. His life was upturned, his future uncertain.

Shnawa said Saddam Hussein’s propaganda convinced much of the country that America was evil. But those notions were soon tested when he came face to face with American service members.

"I fled to West Iraq -- where my parents lived around that time," Shnawa said. "Many villages, including that area, had been deprived of necessities by the regime. That's where we first met."

The first meeting happened when he noticed a crowd of people surrounding an American convoy. Curious, Schnawa approached the crowd and discovered the troops were having great difficulty communicating with the villagers.

"Where are the women and children in need?" he heard the uniformed troops ask, in a barely intelligible attempt at a local dialect. Because he attended college in the capital, Shnawa seemed to understand the communication better than the gathered Iraqis.

"I jumped in to help the elders, but was quickly kicked out of the crowd," he said. "But I was persistent, and instead of going to the elders again, I went directly to the Americans. When I broke through the crowd I said, 'I can take you to the women and children in need of supplies. I know where they are.'"

The troops immediately loaded Shnawa into their Humvee, and he directed them where to go.

"After we delivered all the supplies, the commander told me the location of their base, in case I wanted to help again," Shnawa said. "At that point, I was still very hesitant to join them on a regular basis. After accompanying them again to deliver aid to some families in need, though, I was convinced of their sincere motives to help my people. All of my preconceived notions about the Americans went out the window, and the rest was history."

It was those early interactions – right around the time the coalition was overthrowing the Hussein regime – that put him on the long winding path that ended with Shnawa becoming an Air Force Airman.

Now, 16 years later, he’s an 811th Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment technician, stationed at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.

From then on, Shnawa translated for the Americans frequently at various locations. They not only provided supplies and essential aid, but also removed rockets left by the regime from abandoned schools and medical clinics.

"I witnessed, time and time again, the good deeds of the U.S. and coalition forces in the Sunni and Shia regions of Iraq," Shnawa said.

Side by side, coalition troops trained new Iraqi forces, acquired contracts to rebuild schools and hospitals and empowered citizens with resources. Shnawa worked with both the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Army, receiving letters of recognition and commemorative coins as tokens of gratitude from every unit rotation.

Shnawa said he loved the work he was doing and he developed an admiration for the different branches of service. Because of them, he felt he was able to help impact his nation on a large scale.

"But the great heroes of the U.S. forces did not get to see what I saw,” he said. "While they were trading off for year-long deployments, I was observing. And I observed many accomplishments."

From 2003 through 2008, Shnawa said he watched as the nation grew and improved thanks to the military efforts. But even in all his pride, he said he found himself disappointed; he said he wished the troops who did the work could witness its long-term, positive impact.

To make matters worse, he said, news outlets across the world had turned on the U.S. and coalition forces. From his vantage point, the media coverage was focused too much on bullets and bombs and not enough on the progress.

According to Shnawa, less than 1% of the operations he observed were met with violence.

Soon, though, the calculus of danger changed for Shnawa himself. He’d spent years as one of the coalition forces’ most trusted translators, but that also meant he was known by the enemy. Insurgent forces could recognize him, he said and that’s when he started to worry – especially thinking about his new bride, Inaam.

In an effort to protect her, Shnawa kept his job a secret from her, sometimes leaving for days at a time without communication.

"He told me he was a computer technician and translator with embassies," Inaam said. "I always knew he was covering something up, and I felt he was in danger."

A year after their marriage, 2008 brought the birth of their first child.

"I thought that because we had a child he was going to be home more often," Inaam said. “After she was born, though, my life was turned upside down.”

In November 2009, Shnawa locked his phone and disappeared for longer than ever before.

"That was the worst seven months of my life," Inaam said.

In order to keep his family safe, Shnawa had decided to cut off all contact with his wife while gone working with coalition forces.

"When my baby came, I had to make a choice," Shnawa said. "I was living in paranoia and knew I was being watched."

Finally, he returned home to Inaam, but was unable to give her answers about where he had been or what he’d been doing. He only told her he was ok. Too soon after, he had to leave again. And again.

Something changed when Shnawa left for another mission in late 2010.

"This time it was different, I just knew it," Inaam said. "He sent me a message saying, 'I'm going to find a better life for us,' and turned off his phone. I cried frequently and did not know what to do. I just waited in fear for him to call me."

Shortly thereafter, Inaam remembers an individual from the village came to her brother and asked questions about Shnawa.

"He came forward questioning whether or not my husband was a translator for the American Forces," Inaam said. "I told him I was sure he was not, but I was still warned. He said, ‘They know you are the wife of Saeed Shnawa. If you want your family to remain alive, then do not leave the safety of your home.'"

She complied. Finally, her husband broke the silence. One call turned into a few text messages, followed by daily email. Her fear began to give way to hope.

Inaam still didn't know where he was -- and she never would've guessed he had escaped to Jordan and sought asylum in the U.S.

"I knew if I stayed in Iraq, my family and I would not survive," Shnawa said.

It was 2011 when Inaam finally got the whole story. "He called me from America and finally told me everything," she said.

Inaam said she spent much of the next two years being interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. Whenever they could schedule it, they spoke on the phone.

"It was hard, but so much better than before," Inaam said. "I finally had assurance that he was alive."

In January of 2013, after more than two years apart, Inaam was finally reunited with her husband in the U.S. The disappearances, the hiding, the fear -- it was over.

"When I arrived here, I felt a sense of peace," Inaam said. "We started a better life together."

Shnawa, however, said he still had a dream to fulfill.

"I hold a tremendous amount of honor toward those troops in Iraq," Shnawa said. "It's something I will never be able to describe. I used to wonder, 'Will I ever get the chance to do their job, in their uniform?' Before, I wrote it off as an impossible dream."

In 2017, Saeed came home with his citizenship papers and an idea his wife did not expect to hear.

"After all the dangerous things he had done, he still wanted to join the military!" Inaam said. "Of course, I said absolutely not."

"And I didn't blame her," Shnawa said. "No one in the world could blame her because of the torture I put her through."

After they spent time researching the different service branches, Inaam said she started to warm up to the idea.

"I realized it was different than his service in Iraq," Inaam said. "Together we made the decision he would enlist in the Air Force."

This time, the separation had an entirely different meaning.

"When Saeed left for Basic Military Training, he reminded me of all the bad things that happened to us and our country," Inaam said. "He said, 'Good people here in America saved our lives. I want to serve this country because of those heroes, and all they sacrificed for us.'"

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