I grew up in Iraq as the third oldest of eight siblings. My family was untraditional. My mom was Muslim, and my dad was Catholic. They didn’t force any religion on their children, in part because they didn’t take religion very seriously themselves. My father was a wealthy businessman, so we lived comfortably in a large house, blessed with several vehicles, a housekeeper, and more than 250 sheep.
When I was around eight years old, my father’s business began to struggle. The stress from his work made it unpleasant to be around him. He started drinking and hanging out with people who were a bad influence. About a year later, he was getting into trouble with the police on a regular basis. He would end up going to jail roughly 20 times.
His final stint in prison came after the government found out he hadn’t completed his three years of required service in the Iraqi army. He had joined the army for a year during the Iran-Iraq War, but then he ran away.
As punishment, he was sentenced to one year in an underground prison, where he endured complete darkness, except for two minutes above ground each day. There was no shower, and food and water were scarce. Broken from suffering, he grew desperate and cried out to God.
And sure enough, God began profoundly changing my father’s heart. My family noticed a huge difference when he returned from prison. He became a hard worker, less selfish and an overall happier man who always had a smile on his face. As an example, one week after his release, my father and I went shopping for clothes. We ran into a man wearing tattered clothing who was obviously homeless. My father had compassion for this man and, stripping down to his underwear, gave away the clothes he was wearing. He said, “He needs these clothes more than I do.” I stood in shock because of his generosity. I knew then that my father’s life had been forever changed.
After that incident, I asked God silently if he truly exists. I also prayed, “Please don’t punish me like my dad, but help me to be a good man and seek you.”
Into the War
At age 19, I completed my required training in the Iraqi police academy. I thought I had signed up for five years, but when I looked at my paperwork, the length of the commitment had been changed to 25 years. I was upset but couldn’t say anything for fear of being killed by the government.
In March 2003, my father woke me up to welcome the American soldiers who invaded Iraq. Because my family has always had deep respect for the Americans, I decided to go to Tikrit and join the United States military police. I worked as a security officer at a police station and also as an interpreter, since I knew both Arabic and English (without being quite fluent in the latter).
A few months later, SWAT instructors from the US military police were recruiting Iraqi police members, and I was among those chosen for training. I was very excited. This was my way out of the Iraqi police force, and I was also glad to be working more closely with the United States.
In the spring of 2005, we awoke to what we thought was an earthquake. The building was shaking when we heard a loud explosion from a car bomb. The lieutenant sent us to an area that wasn’t covered by military personnel. I was assigned to direct traffic and inspect suspicious vehicles. After 15 minutes, one such vehicle came in my direction. I motioned for it to stop, but the car kept coming.
I was preparing to shoot at the driver when the car—now about 15 feet away—suddenly detonated. I flew into the air, fell to the ground, and crawled to a curb, where I shielded myself from shrapnel and soldiers shooting in my direction. Once I heard “cease fire,” I examined my body for injuries. I was shocked that I was still alive, with no missing limbs, cuts, or burns—only one bruise on the side of my knee. But my head was hurting from the pressure of the explosion, and I was disoriented when I got up. I looked around and noticed the suicide bomber’s limbs scattered around. It was a brutal, bloody, disgusting scene.