SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – Saeed Shnawa was a target any time he left his home.
His family, too.
The computer science engineering student at the University of Technology in Baghdad, Iraq, had lived in the Iraqi capital and grown accustomed to the dangers on the streets in the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom when U.S. armed forces pushed into the country to depose President Saddam Hussein. Bomb threats. The Iraqi Republic Guards. The life he was used to was no longer safe.
Danger was close to home now, a small village in Western Iraq he fled to, supposedly away from any of the fighting. It was there in 2003 that a convoy of Marines rolled into the village, ready to hand out food, water and supplies to citizens as part of the humanitarian mission U.S. forces also performed.
Those days are long gone for Shnawa, now an airman first class in the U.S. Air Force. The journey from Western Iraq to North Texas, where he was a 361st Training Squadron aircrew flight equipment apprentice course student, is one that took determination, sacrifice and a desire to serve.
The Marines passing through his village were accompanied by a translator from Egypt, but communications with the village elders was lacking, resulting in fear and confusion regarding the intent of the convoy. Shnawa said he saw what was happening and stepped in to help.
He was eager to use the English he had been studying since grade school, but he was dismissed and not taken seriously.
“Egyptian Arabic is different,” Shnawa said. “It has a different style and slang. The translator was having difficulties explaining their purpose for being there. I jumped in to try to help, but they pushed me out saying I was just a kid.”
He wasn’t going to stop there. Shnawa said he then headed to the back of the group and spoke with some of the Marines.
“I told one of them ‘Sir, I can speak English. I know these families. They want help. They want this food and water,’’ Shnawa said.
Shnawa said the Marines recognized how helpful he could be to them and passed that information up the chain of command until their commander decided to give Shnawa a chance.
Allowing Shnawa to become their interpreter was a game changer for the mission. He rode around the village in a Humvee as a part of the convoy, breaking down communication barriers between the service members and villagers. He gave the villagers clarification and peace of mind that the Americans were there to help, despite the anti-America propaganda portrayed by the Iraqi media. He gave the Marines the tools to effectively communicate and accomplish their mission.
“I got in and I showed them around,” Shnawa said. “When we got out and the villagers saw us, they were happy and surprised to see us together, and I was excited to see them, too. We gave them clean water. It was one of the best moments of my life seeing this in action.”
Thrilled with the success of the mission, the Marines invited Shnawa to accompany them for another mission just a week later. With a new sense of pride and purpose, Shnawa knew he could be of great service. However, Shnawa also knew that no good deed goes unpunished.
The political climate during Operation Iraqi Freedom was hostile. Working with the troops meant he was putting not only his life, but his family’s life at risk of being targeted by opposition forces.
Completely torn, Shnawa sought his father’s guidance. He said his whole family encouraged him to pursue this new path, no matter the risk it posed.
So with his family’s support, Shnawa got into the Humvee yet again. This time, he accompanied the Marines as they removed missiles being stored in a primary school and a clinic. Seeing these men and women bravely rush in and take action so that children could once again attend school and those in need of health care could receive it in a safe environment made Shnawa feel all the more inspired.
“No one forced them to be there,” he said. “No one is forcing them to help. They weren’t there to rescue their own people. They chose to provide security and hope to people who weren’t their own.”
This mission sealed the deal for Shnawa. He now fully believed the troops were there to do good and trusted them. He was ready to pursue this new path and continue as a translator for any mission he could assist with. However, with the political climate becoming more hostile by the day and the media pushing an anti-American agenda, Iraqi government officials ordered Shnawa to stop working with American forces. His father encouraged him to continue, but to continue elsewhere.
That’s what he did. Shnawa signed a contract to serve with the American forces and officially became one of their translators. Over the next five years, he would work alongside Marines, soldier and sailors. In between missions and in his free time, he continued his studies in computer science engineering, and also speaking with his new love interest, a woman named Inaam.
His relationship with Inaam flourished, despite being away so much for work. He cared for her so much, that he decided to keep his career secret for her safety.
“Our relationship was really hard in the beginning,” Shnawa said. “We relied on phone calls to communicate. I was away so much and I only saw her every few months. I didn’t want her to worry and I wanted her to be safe. I witnessed many translators whose families were tortured and killed because of their work. They considered the entire family traitors. I told her I was working for a traveling information technology company.”
In 2007, they were married and in 2008 his daughter, Sally, was born. This was an eye opener for Shnawa. He said he wanted to be there to take care of his family. Instead, he was accompanying missions and putting his life on the line.
With no end in sight of Operation Iraqi Freedom and no chance of ending Iraqi government corruption, Shnawa was ready to make a change. In 2010, he traveled to Jordan as a refugee. From there, he came to the United States on refugee status.
“I’ve got to retreat,” Shnawa said. “It’s my time to step away from all this.”
While he was relieved to be safe and free from the persecution and corruption he faced in Iraq, he said adjusting to life in Arizona was a challenge. He worked multiple jobs and volunteered to work with charities to save money and fill his time until his family could join him in the U.S.
In 2013, Shnawa’s wife and daughter joined him in Arizona and just a short year later, they welcomed a second baby girl, Rose.
“It was a huge blessing to feel like a family,” he said. “It was amazing to live normally, without fear. My double life was over.”
Shnawa continued to work and settle into his role as husband and father, however, he just couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that he wasn’t doing enough. He said he understood on a deep level the sacrifices that thousands of men and women have made so he could enjoy the freedom of the life he was living. The guilt began to consume him.
“I am only alive because of those guys,” he said. “So many times it could have been me, but it was them.”
In 2017, Shnawa sat down with his wife and proposed a new life plan; joining the Air Force. Inaam was hesitant, but agreed once he explained that this would not be like before, that this would be a different type of service.
Shnawa joined the Air Force because it was the only branch that he hadn’t experienced in action. He said he was especially inspired after taking a tour of Luke AFB, Arizona, and specifically intrigued by the Air Force specialty code aircrew flight equipment. He said he liked the idea of doing important work that’s more behind the scenes.
So, Shnawa began his Air Force career just like every other enlisted Airman, at Joint Base San Antonio Lackland Air Force Base basic military training.
“BMT was quite the experience for me,” Shnawa said. “I really needed that transition into working with the troops, and this time as one of them!”
Shnawa shared stories from his experiences as a translator with his flight and they were intrigued and motivated by him, he said. Shnawa, in turn, was motivated by his flightmates’ vigor and energy, which helped him with his physical training performance. As an interpreter, he was only able to watch U.S. military members as they did their PT.
Upon graduating BMT and officially becoming an Airman, Shnawa headed to Sheppard AFB to begin his technical training in the aircrew flight equipment course, which trains Airmen to maintain all flight and safety equipment used by pilots and aircrew in all Air Force aircraft. Air crew flight equipment specialists make sure Airmen have the supplies necessary for any situation, from packing emergency items like parachutes and survival kits to maintaining regularly used items like flight helmets and oxygen masks.
Shnawa graduated the course on Jan. 31, 2019.