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Sun November 25, 2012
Brotherly Bonds Withstand Tragedy Of War
Originally published on Mon November 26, 2012 10:25 pm
War always leaves death, destruction and sorrow in its wake, and the Iraq War piled all of it on Dr. Najeeb Hanoudi. Yet his bond with the Americans he aided remains unbroken.
NPR's Jacki Lyden has followed the story of the Oxford-trained Christian ophthalmologist for years.
It begins in 2003, when Hanoudi first met a band of American soldiers patrolling Mansour, his upscale Baghdad neighborhood.
"They called themselves the Rogues," Hanoudi says referring to a Second Brigade, Third Infantry Division battalion out of Fort Stewart, Ga., known as the Desert Rogues. "But they were never Rogues. They were very polite, very civilized, very helpful and very keen on the job."
Hanoudi gave information to the Rogues about a weapons cache in the neighborhood belonging to Saddam Hussein's regime, and so began a deep relationship between Hanoudi and the Americans.
'A Master Teacher'
Col. Eric Schwartz, commander of the Desert Rogues, recently drove from Pennsylvania to Hanoudi's new home outside Detroit for a reunion. Maj. Ron Cooper, a chaplain, came in from Washington state. The three men worked closely together in Iraq, and it has been 10 years since they were all together.
"This is a time for us all to just come together as brothers," Schwartz says.
In Iraq, Hanoudi was a mentor for the Americans.
"We were culturally ignorant," Schwartz says, and Hanoudi was a "national treasure" and "a master teacher."
"I would go to him with our plans, and I would ask him to provide the cultural aspect of the mission," Schwartz says. "He would say, 'My kind sir,' which essentially meant, 'I wouldn't do it that way, I would consider that you do it this way.'"
For his part, Hanoudi was deeply grateful for Hussein's ouster.
"When the Americans came and got us rid of Saddam, I was very happy," he says.
He remembers "clapping and jumping and dancing in the street and throwing roses to the Americans."
A Personal Tragedy
But the next year, Hanoudi's hopes collapsed. His son Nazar was working as a contractor on an American military base of a different unit. He arrived at work using an unfamiliar entrance and the U.S. soldier on duty mistook him for an intruder and shot him. A week later, an ambulance transporting him ran out of oxygen. Left severely brain-damaged, Nazar fell into a vegetative state.
It took Hanoudi and his wife, Firyal, three more years to get refugee status and come to Michigan for Nazar's treatment. They placed Nazar in a nursing home in Southfield, Mich., rarely leaving his side. And, they prayed for a miracle.
"But in the end, there was actually no miracle," Hanoudi says.
His health, and that of his wife's, suffered while caring for Nazar.
Nazar, 40, died a few days before last Christmas.
"Two days later, we laid him to rest in a cemetery here in Michigan," Hanoudi says, his voice breaking.
Nazar was the oldest of his three children. (A daughter, Nadia, lives in Toronto, and another son, Samer, in Southfield.)
A Feeling Of Guilt
Nazar Hanoudi's death has also been difficult for Schwartz to bear, even though his own unit was not involved.
"Weighing heavy on my heart was a feeling of guilt and responsibility because ultimately we chose the Hanoudis," he says, meaning that it was through his team the family became involved with the U.S. military at all.
Hanoudi does not agonize over what-ifs or feelings of resentment.
"I'm not even bitter about the boy, the young boy who shot him, you see, because I would never hope that any father would be in a position like that," he says. "But I am sad about it."
He says that the devastating loss of his son has deepened his bond with the Americans.
"We are more than friends now," he says. "We are brothers, you see."
Healing Through Relationships
Cooper, the military chaplain, worked to help the Hanoudis after Nazar's shooting, both at the time and during his recent visit.
"We were forever changed when we met one another," he says. And while there was good that came out of that, there was also tragedy and sadness, Cooper adds.
"I'm becoming convinced that it's in relationships that we're healed," he says.
Hanoudi is working on a book about this last decade. And it isn't, ultimately, about the grimmest days of the war that destroyed his world in Iraq and took the life of his son.
"I always said and believe very strongly that a life which is worth living is a life which is lived for the others," he says. "And I think that I've shared my life with some of these people, you see."
His military brothers will be there for him next year when Hanoudi, 78, and his wife complete the journey begun on a Baghdad street and become American citizens.
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. For years, I followed the fortunes and misfortunes of an Iraqi family I met in Baghdad in 2003 - the family of Dr. Najeeb Hanoudi. From the start of the war, Dr. Hanoudi, an Oxford-trained Christian ophthalmologist, supported the American invasion and the toppling of Saddam.
In April of 2003, on his street in the upscale neighborhood of Mansour, he met an American patrol from the Second Brigade, Third ID. The battalion was called the Desert Rogues.
DR. NAJEEB HANOUDI: They called themselves the Rogues or the Rogues or something like that, but they were never Rogues. They were very polite, very civilized, very helpful and very keen on the job which they were doing.
LYDEN: He offered some information to the commander of the Rogues, Colonel Eric Schwartz. There was a weapons cache in the neighborhood belonging to the regime, and so began a deep and ultimately unbreakable relationship. Recently, Colonel Schwartz drove from his home in Pennsylvania to reunite with Najeeb Hanoudi outside Detroit. They began by looking at some old photos.
HANOUDI: I have your picture when you were coming from Kuwait when you were caught in that huge brown storm.
LYDEN: Colonel Schwartz remembers what drew him to Najeeb Hanoudi, even though it's hard to trust a stranger while patrolling in Iraq.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL ERIC SCHWARTZ: There's this instinct you have, not only as a commander and as a soldier, but just as a man and as a father, that when you meet someone that you trust, it's hard to fight it. He said: Can we sit around and talk? We sat around the table. We drank some chai tea, which was always the direction to my heart.
If you poured a cup of tea, I was always ready to sit and talk. We talked in great detail about the political situation, geography, religion. I learned right at that moment that he was a jewel. He was a national treasure. That he understood so much that we never took the time to learn.
LYDEN: Eric Schwartz was keenly aware that he and his troops were culturally ignorant and that that was a liability. And that's where Najeeb Hanoudi would prove to be an invaluable asset.
SCHWARTZ: I had an ace in the hole. He's a master teacher. And I would go to him with our plans, and I would ask him to provide the cultural aspect of the mission. Najeeb, does this make sense? He would shrug his shoulders, and he would say: My kind sir, which essentially meant I wouldn't do it that way. I would consider that you do it this way, or perhaps a better approach is this.
LYDEN: Dr. Hanoudi vividly recalls those early days of the invasion.
HANOUDI: When the Americans came and got us rid of Saddam, I was very happy. And I was with my grandson clapping and jumping and dancing in the street and throwing roses to the Americans. It was amazing.
LYDEN: But the optimism and jubilation of the war's early days didn't last. The next year, in 2004, Dr. Hanoudi's world feel apart. His son Nazar was working as a contractor on an American military base. One day, he arrived at work using an unfamiliar entrance. The U.S. soldier on duty mistook him for an intruder and shot him.
Though American doctors in Baghdad tried to treat Nazar, a week later, an Iraqi ambulance transporting him ran out of oxygen. He was left in a vegetative state. It took the Hanoudis three more years to come to America with Nazar. They came to Michigan seeking treatment for him, but Nazar died just before Christmas last year in a nursing home. In all the exhausting, intervening years, Dr. Hanoudi and his wife and other son rarely left Nazar's side.
HANOUDI: There are cases in the literature which have recovered. And all the time, we were hoping that he would be with good care, with the best possible nursing assistance, he would recover. But I always believed that the expected reversal would only happen - as a physician, as a scientist, you see, myself - that we need some kind of a miracle.
I knew that miracle happen. There is a big power - but there was no miracle. In the end, there was actually no miracle. And the story ended a few days before Christmas. And two days later, we laid him to rest in a cemetery here in Michigan.
LYDEN: The long, lingering death of Nazar Hanoudi is also difficult for Colonel Schwartz to bear.
SCHWARTZ: Weighing heavy on my heart was a feeling of guilt and responsibility because ultimately, we chose the Hanoudis. We chose to ask for Nazar's help and assistance in our stabilization of a future for Baghdad. He graciously volunteered to assist us. When we departed, Nazar in turn went and worked for another army unit, another army team, who ultimately killed him. So many of us have tremendous weight on our heart that if we hadn't involved ourselves in that day, things would have turned out a lot different.
LYDEN: But Najeeb Hanoudi doesn't agonize over the what-ifs or feelings of resentment.
HANOUDI: I'm not bitter. I'm not even bitter about the boy, the young boy who shot him, you see, because I would never hope that any father would be in a position like that. But I am sad about it.
LYDEN: And Dr. Hanoudi's feelings about the war itself?
HANOUDI: I have came to the conclusion that it was either a very bad mistake as a result of some stupidity and not understanding the place they were going into - the planners, not the people who affected the change, who helped us get rid of Saddam, to whom I'm still - feel a great debt - or it was some very cynical, you know, bad, terrible agenda by some terrible force.
SCHWARTZ: We'll never have closure. We'll never complete this puzzle. But this is a time for us all to just come together as brothers and as family. More than friends, this is truly a family that was built starting the 11th of April.
LYDEN: Dr. Hanoudi's working on a book about what this last decade has meant to him and his family. And it isn't ultimately about the grimmest days of the war but about what has sustained him in this last chapter of his life.
HANOUDI: I have a motto. I have something which I go by. I always said and believe very strongly that a life which is worth living is a life which is lived for the others. And I think that I shared some of my life with these people, you see.
LYDEN: His military brothers will be there for him next year when Dr. Najeeb Hanoudi, now 78, and his wife, Firyal, complete the journey begun on a Baghdad street in 2003 and become American citizens.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.