My America is your America, and your America is mine. It is a refuge and a dream, a place of freedom and respite, responsibility and wonder. To have arrived here, after the journey I took, after the bombs and gunfire and killings, the beheadings and kidnappings, the dangers, after everything that has happened in my life: the idea that I am free now, and the knowledge of everything it means, fills me with gratitude. I am thankful for every moment and every breath. I am grateful to the SEALs who risked their lives for my family, grateful for the sacrifices of other servicemen and -women, grateful to my neighbors and new friends who have welcomed me to this land of large dreams and open skies.
Every day, I live a dream. My dream. But unlike most, my dream began amid a nightmare — a murderous war in Iraq that destroyed not only the lives of many of my friends and relatives, but an entire country and culture. That destruction began long before the war I fought in. Long before that conflict began, Iraq was a broken country, a place ruled more by fear than law, a place where making a decent living was for many an impossible dream.
The American war brought hope to the disenfranchised Iraqis. But soon that hope evaporated, replaced by violence and bloodshed. The Americans were an excuse but not the cause of this nightmare. The hatred and villainy it engendered tore what had been my country apart; its effects continue to this day.
I am far away from that now.
Today, on a cool morning in San Diego, I walk out on the pier at Imperial Beach and feel the wind push against my body, tearing at my clothes and sandpapering my face. It's a wonderful feeling.
At six in the morning, the beach is nearly always deserted. It is as if I have the edge of the world completely to myself.
I wait a little while. The fishermen come and cast their lines into the surf. Someone once told me that fishing is a great act of faith — to fish one must be incredibly patient, but one must also believe. He waits in the water and the wind, casting and standing, believing that eventually his persistence will pay off. He dreams of landing a fish. He rehearses for it in his head; he hopes; he waits.
That sort of dreaming is familiar to me. That is how I came to America, an immigrant before I even knew I could travel, a citizen in my hopes before the wish could even be spoken. A fisherman.
America is a land of immigrants. Every family here has its own unique story of travel, of hardship in many cases, of triumph and sadness. Many of these stories are filled with tears; a few are marked by blood. My story has both.
I have debated how much to say about the war and my role in it. I thought of not telling about these things, but in the end, I decided that people should know the real story. I think a lot of people will say that what happened was very savage. Perhaps they will think that I am a savage as well, though in my mind I did what I had to do and killed only to survive.
Some people, including some of the bravest warriors America has produced — the SEALs — have called me a hero.
That is not a word I use to describe myself. I am only a man who did what I thought I needed to do, what I felt I had to do. I was a man doing a job, one I was happy to have, for it meant I could support my family at a time and place when it was difficult to do so.
And for a while at least, a job I thought meant I was changing my country for the better.
People ask how many missions I went on, how many times I faced death. I don't know. I went on at least hundreds and more likely thousands of operations with just the SEALs alone, sometimes two or three in a single night. American military units rotated in and out of the country every few months, taking a rest back in the States for months and even years. For me, there was no rotation, and the rests were not only very short, but in a war zone. IEDs and stray bullets were as much a danger as actual combat or "direct action," often more so.
It all seemed like a normal life then. Perhaps that itself is a measure of the war's insanity.
If I have courage or fear or even savagery, it is because I am human. These things are in all of us; war only brings them out. We are all capable of the worst possible crimes. We can all kill; we can all destroy. These are far easier to do than build, or help someone live. I have found to my horror that it does not take much to become a monster.
I didn't always think this way. Maybe like most people — I hope most people think this way — I thought at one time that the world was basically good. I believed, and still believe, that we can all live together in peace, and by working together make our communities and the world a better place. I feel, I know, that it is better to make and to build than to tear down and destroy.
I thought all people around me believed that, too.
Little by little, I saw this wasn't true.
I fought it; I tried to change it; eventually I saw my only course was to escape it. But before I was able to call America my home, I had to denounce America. Before I could taste freedom I had to taste death itself.
It was the late summer of 2004. I'd been working for a number of different American organizations, civilian and military, for more than a year. The liberation of Iraq had been a glorious moment, a triumph that nearly all of us in Mosul shared. When I got my first job as a translator, everyone on my street celebrated with me. "Way to go, Johnny," they said. "Now you are made."
"What a wonderful thing."
But in barely a year, all of that changed. Things turned murderously bad. My job went from a thing to be celebrated to a thing to be hidden. Any association with Americans was a death sentence. If Navy SEALs loved me for helping them, mujahedeen terrorists hated me for the same thing.
One morning on my way to the SEAL base, a car pulled up behind me as I approached a traffic circle in western Mosul. Instinctively I knew what would happen. As I looked for an escape route, the car drew close and the man in the passenger seat began firing.
I was lucky. The bullets missed. I veered off the road, then gunned the engine and managed to hit the other car as it turned. I jumped out, AK-47 in my hands.
How many rounds I fired, I have no idea. Both men in the car died, either because of the crash or because of my bullets, I'll never know — and it makes no difference.
People ran to us. As the crowd gathered, I could feel their hatred. "What is it?" they demanded. "What are you doing?"
There was only one way to escape.
"They worked with the Americans," I said loudly. "They had to die."
The crowd began to cheer. A few pelted the car with rocks. Suddenly, the car was in flames.
I quickly made my getaway.
It was one of the worst days of my life, the day that I denounced America. But it was also the day that my escape to the United States began.