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A new life...A chance to serve Iraqi intrepreter joins Guard
Story and photo by Sgt. Wayne Woolley, N.J. Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, Public Affairs

The room full of recruits preparing to ship to basic training sat motionless as Sgt. Patricia Beecher asked the question one more time.

"Come on people, who knows the Soldier's Creed," the New Jersey Army National Guard recruiter asked. Silence. Finally Pfc. Saif Odah's hand shot up; again.

With precise, swift motions, the reed-thin recruit strode to the front of the class room at the National Guard Training Center at Sea Girt.

"I am an American Soldier," he began.

After Odah finished without missing a word, Beecher smiled. "You all should talk to Pfc. Odah a lot to get your heads ready for basic training."

Pfc. Saif "Sonny" Odah hoists Pvt. Phillip Sardinha during an injury evacuation exercise held at the New Jersey Army National Guard Training Center at Sea Girt. Odah was one of only 28 Iraqi interpreters who served with American forces to receive a visa to enter the United States in 2009. Odah decided to enlist in the New Jersey Army National Guard shortly after coming to the United States.

They probably should.

One year ago, Odah, 25, was living in Iraq as a man marked for death. He spent nights sleeping with an AK-47 to fend off the insurgents who vowed to kill him and his days on dismounted patrols with American Soldiers, serving as an interpreter for the troops who called him Sonny.

Odah's journey to America is a testament to his will to survive and his enduring bond with Sgt. Edgardo Torres, a New Jersey Army National Guard Soldier who spent $17,000 of his own money to help his friend make a perilous journey to safety. The work by Torres, 36, and several other Soldiers from his unit allowed Odah to become one of only 28 former interpreters to earn a Special Immigrant Visa for Iraqi and Afghan Translators and Interpreters in 2009, the last year of the program's existence.

Torres didn't feel he had much choice.

"I love the guy," Torres said. "He is one of the smartest, loyal hardest working guys I've ever met. No matter how bad things get Sonny smiles."

By the time Torres's unit arrived at Camp Ashraf in August 2008, Odah had already been working as a military interpreter for more than five years. He immediately caught Torres's attention because Odah as one of the few interpreters who wore no mask when he went outside the wire.

When Torres asked, Odah said simply: "It doesn't matter; they already know who I am and where I live."

Within a few weeks, Torres started talking to Odah about coming to America.

"I was like 'That's a nice dream, but I didn't think there was any way he could be serious,'" Odah said.

Odah realized his friend wasn't joking a short time later when Torres and another Soldier from the unit, Sgt. David Brimmer, began the massive paperwork project involved in obtaining the visa. Torres fell ill in January 2009 and was shipped back to the United States for treatment for a benign tumor in his back. From his hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he kept at it.obtaining the visa. Torres fell ill in January 2009 and was shipped back to the United States for treatment for a benign tumor in his back. From his hospital bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, he kept at it.

Back in Iraq, life grew more dangerous for Odah; he received death threats nearly every day.

He was in Baghdad for a visa interview on May 29, 2009 when he learned that his brother, Khalid al-Saad, who was working with the United Nations, was killed by a roadside bomb that hit his convoy.

His brother, a published poet, had been his role model and best friend.

It was then that Odah decided that if he ever made it to the United States, he would do everything he could to join the military. But first, he needed to escape from Iraq. His visa arrived in October. His plane landed at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport a month later. In April, he enlisted in the New Jersey Army National Guard. He ships to basic training in September.

As he waits to ship to basic training, Odah has been living in Elizabeth with Torres and Torres's wife and son. Odah has spent his nights working at a warehouse and his days volunteering at the Elizabeth recruiting office. His recruiter, Sgt. 1st Class Jose Malave calls Odah the best accession he's ever made.

"You can just tell that Sonny's desire to serve comes from the bottom of his heart," Malave said. "So smart, so dedicated – I mean the guy should have a combat patch – and he even turned his only weakness into a strength."

That would be pushups. Odah could manage five when he first met his recruiter. Now he can knock out 75. He wants to go to Airborne and Ranger Schools. Although his ASVAB scores qualify him for any specialty, and his language skills make him a natural for a linguist, Odah insisted contracting as a 19-Delta, a cavalry scout, just like Torres.

Torres admits he worried when Odah insisted he was going to join the Guard, saying simply his friend had already sacrificed enough to help American Soldiers.

Odah says he hasn't even started.

"This is what I want to do. This is what I need to do. These guys gave me everything I have," Odah said.

And that would be a new life in a country he loves.

Odah, who dabbles in poetry, put it this way: "Iraq is silence. America is beautiful, orchestral music that is played every day."

Story by Spc. Saul Rosa with photo by Sgt. 1st Class Joseph L. Donnelly
444th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

50th Financial Management Company held a farewell salute on April 18 at the Flemington Armory for the 350th Financial Management Detachment's deployment to Kosovo. Although the 50th is a small detachment, it is receiving a lot of support from the community as U.S. Rep. Rush Holt (D-12th Dist.) and state Sen. Leonard Lance attended the send off. "I'm very comfortable," said Detachment Commander, Capt. Margaret Bundesen. "They are giving us as much support as the brigade." The detachment left to complete their training with the 92nd Maneuver Enhancement Brigade at Camp Atterbury, Indiana before arriving at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo. FINANCE DET BIDS FAREWELL Story by Spc. Saul Rosa with photo by Sgt. 1st Class Joseph L. Donnelly 444th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment While at Bondsteel, the 50th will be supporting the international NATO-led Kosovo Force, also known as KFOR 13, with core finance functions such as military pay, commercial vending services and travel related activities. This deployment is a first for more than half of the 14 soldiers being deployed. "To go on a peacekeeping mission on their first deployment is a good experience," said Bundesen. "We are all excited." Kosovo may not have the political attention that Iraq or Afghanistan has, but it is equally as important. "It's the sort of deployment that fills people around the world with admiration and gratitude for the United States of America," said Holt.

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Volume 35 Number 1 Staff / Information
(c) 2010 NJ Department of Military and Veterans Affairs