Sam Al Helli’s long journey to wear an American military uniform culminated July 16 when he was commissioned into the Navy Reserve as a lieutenant during a ceremony at Special Operations Forces Memorial Park on MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, Florida. He was pinned by his wife Kayla as his daughter Serein looked on.
For Al Helli, who previously served as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Iraq, the ceremony was both a proud moment and a reminder of how fortunate he was to come to America in the first place. As he was being commissioned surrounded by family and friends, tens of thousands of interpreters and others who helped the U.S. in Afghanistan await an uncertain fate, fearful of the Taliban’s revenge.
“I’m sure all of them have been through as much as I did if not more and helped in saving the lives of our troops and the locals,” Al Helli said.
Born into a relatively wealthy family in Baghdad, Al Helli , now 33, was living a comfortable life. That changed in 2006. A Sunni-Shia civil war broke out in his home country in the years after the 2003 invasion that brought down Sadam Hussein.
His family received a note one day that they needed to leave within 24 hours or face beheading. His father thought it was a joke, until word reached them that other Shiites in the neighborhood had received similar threats. The family left their home, believing they would be gone for a few weeks, maybe a month at the most.
They never went back.
“I wanted revenge on the people that took my home away from me,” Al Helli said in a phone call with Military Times.
He had few options. He could be passively indignant, sitting in his new home — which Al Helli kept private out of concern for his family’s safety — stewing about the wrongs that befell him, or he could pick up his father’s gun and hunt down as many al-Qaida members as possible before U.S. military forces believed him to be a threat. Instead, he took a different route. He joined those military forces as an interpreter.
He worked with the U.S. Army and Marines in Al Anbar province facing sniper fire, improvised explosive devices and firefights. He said that even though it was scary being in the field participating in raids, detainee interogations and patrols, he believed it when the officers told him they had his back.
“They told me ‘Big Sam, we will always keep you safe,” Al Helli said.
Even though he faced combat nearly every day, Al Helli said his biggest worry was that his family wouldn’t be able to recover his body if something happened to him, and that they wouldn’t be able to have a funeral.
Al Helli said he learned English through listening to American rock and heavy metal, including Metallica, Guns & Roses and Megadeth among others.
After being vetted, Al Helli was asked if there was a specific region of Iraq he wanted to be attached to a military unit in.
“I said I wanted to go where I could do the most damage,” he said.
Being an officer in the military was always a goal for Al Helli, but serving in the Iraqi armed forces wasn’t an option. He said the corruption there would have canceled out any good he could have done. So when the opportunity came up to move to Chicago came up in 2012, he jumped at it.
During his time in Chicago, and later Tampa, Al Helli worked different jobs including as a cashier and janitor. He says he saw this as an opportunity to pay it forward to the country that had offered him so much already. It still wasn’t enough to calm the call to serve, however, and on the day he became a citizen he headed to the nearest recruiters office and started thinking about which branch he wanted to join.
He settled on the Navy because the sea service would give him a billet in his preferred field. He was worried that the other branches would just put him where they needed him instead of allowing him to work as an Information Professional, his current job title as a reservist.
Al Helli said the thing he is most excited about looking forward to his service is wearing the uniform and serving his new home country. He said he is thankful to his recruiter, Chief Petty Officer Josh Fletcher, and two former officers for encouraging him on his journey to become an officer in the military.
Scott A. Huesing, a retired Marine major, told Military Times in a phone interview that Al Helli’s service as an interpreter was similar to the early American patriots in the Revolutionary War. He said the love Al Helli had for Iraq was evident, and it was clear that he didn’t want to see it torn apart by terrorists. Huesing also wrote a book “Echo in Ramadi” which discusses his and Al Helli’s work together in more detail. He flew to Tampa for the sole reason of attending Al Helli’s ceremony.
“He could have sat there and been terrorized day in and day out,” Huesing said. “But he wanted to stand up and fight.” Huesing said Al Helli’s service was even more impressive because although he was the same age as many of the Marine’s that he was interpreting for, he didn’t have the same training. He fought by their side anyway, sometimes more than five times in a single day.
“There is nothing more emblematic of the American story than Sam,” Huesing said.
About 750 of Al Helli’s Afghan counterparts will be arriving at Fort Lee in Virginia soon. The State Department is advising interpreters not in the first wave to get to Kabul, or a third undisclosed country while they wait for their visa applications to be processed.
Al Helli encourages those that have moved to the U.S. to pay it forward, and stick to the tough jobs, even if it’s not the place you want to be right now. He said to join a community, whether a religious institution or a community program because that’s what makes America strong.
“If you pay it forward, this country will make your dreams come true,” Al Helli said.