When U.S. Army Sgt. Aqeel Ahmed arrived in Iraq with Soldiers of the 40th Combat Aviation Brigade, he stayed focused on his mission despite this being his first return to the country of his birth in 10 years.
“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 an 88M motor transport operator 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 (CAB) to serve as a unit linguist and cultural adviser in the brigade’s intelligence section.
“I didn’t hesitate,” he said.
Ahmed was 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 liberated 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.”
The immediate effect was a loss of security as Iraqi security forces were dismantled.
“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, schools reopened and Iraqis attempted to return to normal life.
“But everything 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 that mostly.”
A small American forward operating base (FOB) was located in his neighborhood in west Baghdad. The FOB was under constant attack.
Ahmed was in front of his house washing the family car and hanging out with his friends when an 82 mm mortar round fired by an insurgent group missed its target and detonated near him.
“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 multiple places.”
Two of his friends were killed by the blast.
“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. His leg was badly broken. He was taken to a hospital but it was overwhelmed with patients and little care was available for him. 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 his long recovery, he 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. They were sponsored by an uncle who lived in Sacramento.
“It was a huge culture shock,” he said about moving to the United States. “Wal-Mart was a big culture shock. You can find anything there.”
They settled in Modesto, where Ahmed 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.”
He had 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.”
He 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 (OMI), which provides a structured and rigorous academic program for high school students.
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,” he said.
He became an American citizen in 2018. In 2021, he was picked up for the nine-month deployment to the Middle East with the 40th CAB and was stationed at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. He served as a translator and cultural adviser for the brigade and put his military occupational specialty to work running the headquarters company motor pool.
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.”
He said the 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 children still live in Baghdad and he often thinks about their safety and security.
As his 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 he left 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.”