FORT HOOD, Texas — Gazing out a window at 35,000 feet flying over American airspace for the first time, Salam, a native-born Iraqi, was amazed at how much green was prevalent on the ground below.
The experience left him overjoyed. "It was like something is new, like when you're opening up a gift," he said. Having served as an Arabic linguist supporting coalition forces in Iraq, Salam had never left his home nation, but was given an opportunity to better his life in the United States.
Arriving in Seattle in October 2008, Salam began a journey to become a U.S. naturalized citizen, and joined the U.S. Army in June 2014. Today, he is Spc. Salam, a Soldier in the 163rd Military Intelligence Battalion, 504th Military Intelligence Brigade, on Fort Hood, Texas, where he serves as a 35P - cryptologic linguist. The specialist asked that his full name not be released for security reasons.
For Salam and another native-born Iraqi, who served as a coalition forces' interpreter, Sgt. Yaseen, who works as a cryptologic linguist in the 163rd Military Intelligence Battalion, the prospect to transform their lives to U.S. Soldiers was unquestionable. Sgt. Yaseen also asked that his full name not be released due to security concerns.
Although the two were raised in different provinces of Iraq, they shared a common upbringing and early life of struggle. Yaseen was raised about 80 miles south of Baghdad, and said he spent the majority of his life in his hometown. A childhood in Iraq meant relying on whatever was nearby to entertain a young pack of children.
"Kids play soccer, but I remember when I was in middle school, we used rocks or stones to play," Yaseen said.
Elementary and middle school-aged children often worked laborious jobs to support their families, and Yaseen worked early on a multitude of jobs that would help pay the bills.
"I helped my uncle as a butcher, then I fixed motorcycles and I had to do a couple things on my own, like sell groceries all the way up to high school, where I graduated in 2000," Yaseen said. "Then a high school friend used to be a carpenter, so he made me his assistant, and that took me all the way through college."
Salam, who is one of seven children in his family, had a father who was an older man and a well-regarded home builder, and made a decent living to support his sizeable family.
Life under the late Saddam Hussein's regime took its toll, literally and figuratively, on citizens' daily lives. Many people feared for their privacy, their well-being and their lives. Personal conversations were hushed, inner feelings restrained, and overall anxiety was limited. Neighbors would vanish, never to be seen again. Oftentimes, the two said, conversations within one's home were guarded.
"[Saddam] was a horrible leader, the destroyer of all life, the oppressor of all hope, any word you name it," Salam said. "He made people completely different people."
"If I was talking to my mom or grandfather, and I mention any subject, they would say, 'Hey, sssh, maybe the walls have ears,'" Yaseen said.
With no cell phones or satellite television, Iraqis could watch two TV channels via antennas, but Saddam's face was usually plastered throughout the daily programming. Before both Soldiers were even born, the Iraqi dictator and his army invaded Iran in September 1980. Lasting eight years, the Iran-Iraq war would become the 20th Century's longest conventional war.
For Yaseen, the conflict became a life-altering experience for his family. His father, who served in the Iraqi army, was captured by Iranian forces and served time as an Iraqi prisoner of war, or POW.
"When I was in first grade, my dad got captured and became a POW," Yaseen said. "My mom was working for the power company, and she had to raise me and my younger brother. On the day my dad got captured, I was six years old, and my brother was an 11-month-old infant."
His father would be held captive for 12 years - a "virtual lifetime" for a young boy and teenager. Upon his release, the father and son had a hard time reconnecting and embracing all that was lost throughout a decade of separation.
"In 2000, my dad got back, so that's a huge impact. When I was raised without a dad, now I've got a dad in my home and I've never spent my childhood with him, so we got into fights, because I was the oldest and he just got back from jail," Yaseen said. "God knows what the Iranians did to the Iraqi captures at that time."
When Yaseen's father pressured him to join the Iraqi army, he refused and instead said he was going to college. Graduating four years later with a degree in materials, Yaseen found limited job opportunities, and began to study an English dictionary. Reading the "whole dictionary inside and out," he learned English well enough to be proficient in five months.
For both Soldiers, learning English would be the gateway to new possibilities as interpreters with coalition forces operating in Iraq in 2003-2004.
Salam was a second-year college student when a classmate said a U.S. military contractor was looking for English-speaking Iraqis, and the job paid $1,200 per month. Passing an English proficiency exam, Salam began working with U.S. Marines in Anbar province. Yaseen would take a nearly-identical path, and began working with Marines in Diwaniya province.
Linguists working on the front lines play a critical role for units and battlefield commanders. They serve as a connection between coalition forces and the local population.
"By chance, I ended up playing a part, simply because I had a functional knowledge of the language involved. My work as a linguist with coalition forces allowed me to feel part of the bigger picture that the United States of America plays in the world," Salam said.
Serving with U.S. Marines had its benefits and concerns. Both Soldiers said they observed well-mannered discipline throughout the ranks, which led to high morale across their units. The consequences, however, could prove deadly for interpreters and their families. Salam's mother often pleaded with him to give up the interpreter job, as she feared an Iraqi insurgent would throw a grenade into the family's house as retribution.
Marines in both men's units prodded them to apply for U.S. Special Immigrant Visas, a benefit provided by the U.S. State Department. Under this program, the department issues 50 visas to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, and their families, who worked for U.S. forces in those respective countries.
Both men couldn't believe a visa program existed, and promptly started application packets. The entire process took nine months, but once completed, the process moved rapidly.
"On Feb. 19, 2014, at [8 a.m.] was my citizenship interview," Salam said. "There was a 15-minute test and naturalization interview. [The interviewer asked] 'Do you have time to come back at 11:40 for the naturalization ceremony?' I said, 'Are you serious? I will leave everything to come back.'"
For Yaseen, he graduated from U.S. Army basic combat training and became a naturalized U.S. citizen the same day. In fact, he was the Soldier of the Cycle, and was sought by drill sergeants to teach new Soldiers about Iraqi culture, language and geography. Since then, Yaseen has served on Fort Stewart, Georgia, and Fort Hood, Texas, and deployed to Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan as a cryptologic linguist, where he identifies and analyzes foreign communications.
Salam said working as a 35P allows him to use his language skills to be an asset to the military.
"As a native speaker, the use of my language skills in the military roles on translating in the field is crucial. I love the activity, adventure and the team work," Salam said. "This [military occupational specialty] provides a particular job for me that I am passionately well-suited for."
For both Soldiers, the opportunity to enlist into the U.S. Army and become naturalized citizens has provided chances of a lifetime.
"Enlisting in the U.S. military is certainly the best and most advantageous opportunity for me in many ways because it has helped begin my life in America," Salam said. "I am very pleased that I now live in the greatest country on the planet, and that I can call it home - in a place where all people are equal and no one is above the law."