U.S. Citizen, Army Soldier Returns To Birthland
by U.S. Army Maj. Jason Sweeney
January 4, 2021
Despite it being the first return to the
country of his birth in 10 years, when U.S. Army Sgt. Aqeel Ahmed arrived in
Iraq with Soldiers of the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade he stayed
focused on his mission.
December 31, 2021 - U.S. Army Sgt. Aqeel Ahmed
stands in front of helicopters
at Camp Buehring, Kuwait while deployed to the Middle East
with the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade. (Photo courtesy of Army Sgt. Aqeel Ahmed)
“It didn’t feel strange because it’s
all about the unit and the team that you’re with,” Ahmed said. “You
keep your emotions in check because you have a job to do. I was
focused on my job.”
Ahmed is a motor transport operator who
serves in the California Army National Guard. Due to his language
skills, he was asked to deploy to the Middle East with the 40th
Combat Aviation Brigade to serve as a unit linguist and cultural
advisor in the brigade’s intelligence section.
hesitate,” he said about joining the deployment.
born in Baghdad to a traditional Middle Eastern family. His father
worked and his mother stayed home to raise him and his siblings.
When coalition forces entered Iraq in 2003, Ahmed was a 13-year-old
middle school student. The arrival of the U.S. military turned his
country and his life upside down. School was suspended and everyone
sheltered at home.
“Everything was shut down. The feeling was
terrifying. We didn’t know what was going to happen.”
immediate effect was a loss of security as Iraqi forces were
“It was an opportunity for anyone to do anything.
The Americans could only patrol so much. There were a lot of areas
in Baghdad where it was completely not under control by any security
force at all.”
After a few months the schools reopened and
Iraqis attempted to return to normal life.
was different,” Ahmed said. “I remember my life before the invasion
during the dictatorship where you had a lot of rules and you were
extremely monitored. Then we went to completely free. At school, the
curriculum had changed quickly. Before the invasion, the curriculum
was focused on the regime and how great it was. Afterward, they
changed the textbooks. The school staff was confused about what they
were teaching. But we went to school and we resumed life. People
resumed life semi-normally, but at their own risk. Groups started
fighting against the Americans. When they conducted an attack on the
Americans, most likely there was other damage. People suffered from
A small American forward operating base was
located in his neighborhood in west Baghdad, which came under
Ahmed was in front of his house washing the
family car and hanging out with his friends when an 82mm mortar
round fired by an insurgent group missed its target and detonated
“All I remember is I woke up coughing and
everything was completely black because of the smoke and the
explosion. I couldn’t breathe. My body was wet because I was hit in
Two of his friends were killed by the
“When you wake up in the darkness, you find bodies
right next to you not breathing. I started screaming. I lost it.
Trying to stand up, I fell because my leg was broken. I noticed the
shin was not straight.”
Pieces of shrapnel were lodged in his
back, leg and neck. He was taken to a hospital but it was
overwhelmed with patients. It took him four years to recover from
his injuries. Today, the shrapnel in his body sets off alarms when
he walks through metal detectors at airports.
After a long
recovery, Ahmed went back to school. He attended the University of
Baghdad’s School of Languages, majoring in Spanish with a minor in
English, graduating in 2014. That same year, he and his parents were
allowed to immigrate to the United States as refugees, sponsored by
a relative who lived in Sacramento.
“It was a huge culture
shock,” he said about moving to the U.S. “Wal-Mart was a big culture
shock. You can find anything there.”
They settled in Modesto
where Ahmed went straight to work. He got a job as a
Spanish-to-English translator at a mental health agency, and a
second job at a school where he worked with special needs children.
“When you’re fresh coming to the States, you have all these
dreams. You see the first world country that you’re living in with
all the opportunities, all the great things that Americans have,
that maybe they don’t see because they live there.”
always been attracted to the discipline associated with military
service. In 2017, he joined the Army National Guard, choosing the
Guard over active duty so he could remain close to his parents.
“You can’t find a greater organization than the U.S. Army to
join. I found an opportunity to change my life. Physically and
mentally, I struggled a lot after my injuries. The military put me
back on track, got me in shape. It’s not about yourself anymore.
It’s all about the team.”
Ahmed was assigned to the 2632nd
Transportation Company in Sacramento where he became friends with
Sgt. 1st Class Michael Traver. Traver worked full time at the
California National Guard’s Oakland Military Institute, which
provides a structured and rigorous academic program for high school
Traver became a mentor to Ahmed and encouraged him
to apply for a position at OMI. Ahmed was hired by the school on
state active-duty orders to serve as an assistant supply sergeant.
He said he enjoys his full-time job there, working with cadets and
seeing how OMI transforms their lives.
“Seeing the transition
they go through is amazing,” Ahmed said.
American citizenship in 2018 and in 2021 was picked up for the
nine-month deployment to the Middle East with the 40th CAB,
stationed at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. Not only did he serve as a
translator and cultural advisor for the brigade, he also put his
military occupational specialty to work when he was put in charge of
the headquarters company motor pool.
December 31, 2021 -
Sgt. Aqeel Ahmed in the motor
pool at Camp Buehring, Kuwait while deployed to the Middle
East with the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade. (Photo courtesy of Army Sgt. Aqeel Ahmed)
During the deployment,
he made two trips to Erbil Air Base in northern Iraq. “I had visited
Erbil as a teenager, but now I returned in a different status.”
Iraqis he interacted with on the base were welcoming and curious
about his story.
He said maybe one day he will return to
Iraq. His siblings, their spouses and kids still live in Baghdad and
he often thinks about their safety and security.
deployment in the Middle East came to an end, he said he planned to
remain focused on his career in the National Guard and on returning
to his job at OMI. He completed his deployment with the 40th CAB in
late December when he left Camp Buehring for demobilization at North
Fort Hood, Texas.
“When I get back home I’m probably going to
reflect back,” he said before leaving the camp. “But when you’re on
mission you don’t think about the past. It’s about the people to
your left and right.”
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