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thedrifter
03-15-09, 08:50 AM
Iraqi native returns home as U.S. soldier
By Randy Dockendorf - Yankton (S.D) Press & Dakotan
Posted : Saturday Mar 14, 2009 13:43:35 EDT

YANKTON, S.D. — Sarah Abdalkreem left her native Iraq as the target of insurgents. Now, she is returning to that nation as a United States soldier.

Spc. Abdalkreem saw her brother killed and her father kidnapped — never to be seen again — from their Iraq home. She and the rest of her family barely escaped with their lives, relying on others to get them out of the country.

The family was targeted because Abdalkreem’s mother, Mayasa Abass, translated for U.S. and coalition forces. Maj. Lyle LaCroix of Yankton, who worked with Abass, pressed for her family’s safe departure from the country under a special immigration program for Iraqi interpreters. LaCroix then welcomed the family into his home while they resettled in Yankton.

Nearly 18 months later, Abdalkreem has joined the South Dakota National Guard. Following in the footsteps of her mother, Abdalkreem will serve as a translator during her 400-day deployment in Iraq.

“This is my first time back to Iraq since we left [as a family],” she said.

Even before arriving in her new homeland, Abdalkreem envisioned serving as a U.S. soldier.

“I was always thinking, if I go one day to the United States, I would always like to do something in the military,” she said. “It’s sure to give me some experience and teach me a lot of things. It will be a big change in my life. I have never done anything like this before.”

Abdalkreem inquired about serving in the U.S. military even before she became an American citizen, SDNG recruiter Sgt. Shane Toupal said.

“Sarah approached me even before she had her resident alien status. Maj. LaCroix was her sponsor, and he referred her to me,” Toupal said. “Just as soon as her resident status went through, it was enough for her enlistment and to get her through the program. We hope she will have full citizenship before she deploys to Iraq.”

Abdalkreem anticipates becoming a citizen before she leaves for her mission. Back home from her training in Michigan, she took an examination and attended an interview in Sioux Falls last week as part of her naturalization process. She said that she needs final paperwork and will then be sworn in as a citizen.

Abdalkreem has completed her basic training and is ready for deployment. Toupal has served not only as a recruiter but also as a support system during the process, she said.

“I really don’t know how to thank Shane for everything he has done for me,” she said. “Even when I went to basic, he was always encouraging me and supporting me. Shane has always contacted me every step of the way.”

Abdalkreem said she sees her military service as payback for the new life and freedom found in the United States. Her mother is working at a Yankton hotel and attending school to become a certified nursing assistant. Her younger sister and brother attend classes in the Yankton School District.

“Everything seems good since our move from Iraq,” she said. “I feel we have changed [as a family]. Life here has been so great. We have all the opportunity to do whatever we want.”

Abdalkreem and her family present a phenomenal story, Toupal said.

“This is probably one of the more incredible stories of immigration that I have ever seen,” he said. “These folks have already sacrificed so much for the United States as well as for the country of Iraq. I think it’s a great testament to them (and) a great testament to our country.”

Abdalkreem’s life story and her drive to serve in the U.S. military have drawn widespread attention, Toupal said.

“We have become the subject [of study] because this is such a unique experience for South Dakota and our National Guard,” he said.

While recruited in South Dakota, Abdalkreem will be deployed through a special translator program with the Michigan National Guard. The program is based in Michigan because of that state’s large number of Arabic-speaking residents, she said.

“Sarah will be doing a one-year deployment with the option to do another year of training troops before they go overseas,” Toupal said. “Once Sarah has finished her tour of duty with the Michigan unit, we view her as rejoining the South Dakota National Guard.”

Abdalkreem will work with military units and civilians in translating documents, Toupal said. “Sarah’s knowledge of the Arab culture, and specifically the Iraqi culture, will definitely be assets,” he said.

Abdalkreem brings a number of strengths besides her language skills, Toupal said.

“Sarah is a pretty wonderful young person,” he said. “She is very motivated, and her enthusiasm and her desire to be a good soldier are assets for whomever she works.”

Abdalkreem looks forward to seeing the changes in her homeland, Toupal said.

“I think it shows a great deal of not only who she is as a person but who she is as an American,” the recruiter said. “She is not even a citizen yet, but she is doing as much or more to serve this nation than many others.”

Abdalkreem has already lived through a lifetime of tyranny and war, Toupal said.

“I said to Sarah, you have seen more combat than many of the people who trained you,” he said. “It shows what kind of young person she is, to know exactly what she is going into and think it’s important enough of a mission to do it.”

Despite the dangers of war, Abdalkreem said she remains confident about her upcoming mission.

“Everything is going well,” she said. “My mom is really trying not to be worried, but I will really be fine.”

Abdalkreem does not speak out about U.S. politics, but she has watched President Obama’s televised speeches about drawing down American troop levels in Iraq. She would like to see some continuing U.S. presence in the region.

“They need more Americans to stay over and help stabilize the area. Some troops can be very helpful,” she said.

Abdalkreem will mark her 21st birthday in Iraq, serving both the land of her birth and the nation that she now calls home.

“In recruiting, I have been fortunate to meet some really wonderful people over the years,” Toupal said, “and she is definitely one of the best.”

Ellie