Know Your Military

Same Team, Different Uniform: Iraqi Translator Becomes U.S. Airman

Oct. 4, 2019 | BY Air Force Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook

In 2003, Air Force Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa was not Air Force Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa. He was a 21-year-old Iraqi student of technology at a university in Baghdad.

Airman in camouflage uniform poses for a casual portrait.
Saeed Shnawa
Air Force Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa, an aircrew flight equipment technician assigned to the 811th Operations Support Squadron at Joint Base Andrews, Md., is an Iraq native who served as a translator for coalition forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2017.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook
VIRIN: 190614-F-NC065-048

That's when Baghdad became a war zone. Like many young men and women in the Iraqi capital, Shnawa fled the city. "I fled to West Iraq — where my parents lived around that time," he said. "Many villages, including that area, had been deprived of necessities by the regime."

Shnawa said Saddam Hussein's propaganda convinced much of the country that the United States was evil. But those notions were soon tested when he came face to face with American service members.

The first meeting happened when he noticed a crowd surrounding an American convoy. Curious, Schnawa approached and discovered the troops were having great difficulty communicating with the villagers.

All of my preconceived notions about the Americans went out the window, and the rest was history."
Air Force Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa

"Where are the women and children in need?" he heard the troops ask, in a barely intelligible attempt at a local dialect. Because he attended college in the capital, Shnawa seemed to understand the communication better than the gathered Iraqis.

"I jumped in to help the elders, but was quickly kicked out of the crowd," he said. "But I was persistent, and instead of going to the elders again, I went directly to the Americans. When I broke through the crowd I said, 'I can take you to the women and children in need of supplies. I know where they are.'"

The troops immediately loaded Shnawa into their Humvee, and he directed them where to go.  

"After we delivered all the supplies, the commander told me the location of their base, in case I wanted to help again," Shnawa said. "At that point, I was still very hesitant to join them on a regular basis. After accompanying them again to deliver aid to some families in need, though, I was convinced of their sincere motives to help my people. All of my preconceived notions about the Americans went out the window, and the rest was history."

Airman trains in setting up an ejection seat.
Flight Course
Air Force Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa, 361st Training Squadron aircrew flight equipment course student, sets up an ejection seat system at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Jan. 29, 2019. Shnawa is now an aircrew flight equipment technician assigned to the 811th Operations Support Squadron at Joint Base Andrews, Md.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook
VIRIN: 190129-F-PQ209-0039

Those early interactions put him on the long, winding path that led to Shnawa becoming a U.S. Air Force airman. Now, 16 years later, he's an 811th Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment technician, stationed here at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

From then on, Shnawa translated for the Americans frequently. They not only provided supplies and essential aid, but also removed rockets left by Saddam Hussein's regime from abandoned schools and medical clinics.

"I witnessed, time and time again, the good deeds of the United States and coalition forces in the Sunni and Shia regions of Iraq," he said. 

Shnawa said he loved the work he was doing, and he developed an admiration for the different branches of service. Because of them, he said, he felt he was able to help his nation on a large scale. "But the great heroes of the U.S. forces did not get to see what I saw," he said. "While they were trading off for year-long deployments, I was observing. And I observed many accomplishments."

Two hands hold an array of commemorative challenge coins.
Commemorative Coins
Air Force Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa, an aircrew flight equipment technician assigned to the 811th Operations Support Squadron at Joint Base Andrews, Md., displays his commemorative coin collection. Shnawa received coins and letters of commendation for working as a translator for U.S. and coalition forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook
VIRIN: 190904-F-NC065-1013

From 2003 through 2008, he watched as the nation grew and improved, thanks to the military efforts. But he said he also found himself disappointed, wishing the troops who did the work could witness its long-term, positive impact. 

To make matters worse, he said, news outlets across the world had turned on the U.S. and coalition forces. From his vantage point, he said, media coverage focused too much on bullets and bombs and not enough on the progress, noting that less than 1% of the operations he observed involved violence.

I knew if I stayed in Iraq, my family and I would not survive."
Air Force Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa

Soon, though, the calculus of danger changed for Shnawa. He'd spent years as one of the coalition forces' most trusted translators, but that also meant he was known by the enemy. Insurgent forces could recognize him, he said, and that’s when he started to worry — especially thinking about his new bride, Inaam. In an effort to protect her, Shnawa kept his job a secret from her, sometimes leaving for days at a time without communication. 

"He told me he was a computer technician and translator with embassies," Inaam said. "I always knew he was covering something up, and I felt he was in danger."

A year after their marriage, 2008 brought the birth of their first child. "I thought that because we had a child he was going to be home more often," Inaam said. "After she was born, though, my life was turned upside down."

Airman trains in setting up an ejection seat.
Ejection Seat Training
Air Force Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa, 361st Training Squadron aircrew flight equipment course student, sets up an ejection seat system at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Jan. 29, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook
VIRIN: 190129-F-PQ209-0041

In November 2009, Shnawa locked his phone and disappeared for longer than ever before. "That was the worst seven months of my life," Inaam said. To keep his family safe, Shnawa had cut off all contact with his wife while he was gone working with coalition forces.

"When my baby came, I had to make a choice," he said. "I was living in paranoia and knew I was being watched." 

Finally, he returned home to Inaam, but was unable to give her answers about where he had been or what he'd been doing. He only told her he was OK. Too soon after, he had to leave again. And again. 

Something changed when Shnawa left for another mission in late 2010.

"This time it was different, I just knew it," Inaam said. "He sent me a message saying, 'I'm going to find a better life for us,' and turned off his phone. I cried frequently and did not know what to do. I just waited in fear for him to call me."

Airmen train in setting up an ejection seat system.
Training Squad
Air Force Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa, right, and Air Force Staff Sgt. Abdullah Alnajey, 361st Training Squadron aircrew flight equipment course students, set up an ejection seat system at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Jan. 29, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook
VIRIN: 190129-F-PQ209-0055

Shortly thereafter, Inaam recalled, someone from the village came to her brother and asked questions about Shnawa.

"He came forward questioning whether or not my husband was a translator for the American forces," Inaam said. "I told him I was sure he was not, but I was still warned. He said, 'They know you are the wife of Saeed Shnawa. If you want your family to remain alive, then do not leave the safety of your home.'"

She complied. Finally, her husband broke the silence. One call turned into a few text messages, followed by daily emails. Her fear began to give way to hope.

Inaam still didn't know where he was — and she never would have guessed he had escaped to Jordan and sought asylum in the United States. "I knew if I stayed in Iraq, my family and I would not survive," Shnawa said.

Inaam finally got the whole story in 2011. "He called me from America and finally told me everything," she said. 

He said, 'Good people here in America saved our lives. I want to serve this country because of those heroes, and all they sacrificed for us.'"
Inaam, Shnawa's wife

Inaam said she spent much of the next two years being interviewed at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq. Whenever they could schedule it, they spoke on the phone. "It was hard, but so much better than before," she said. "I finally had assurance that he was alive."

In January 2013, after more than two years apart, Inaam was finally reunited with her husband in the United States. The disappearances, the hiding and the fear were over.

"When I arrived here, I felt a sense of peace," Inaam said. "We started a better life together." Shnawa, however, said he still had a dream to fulfill. 

In 2017, he came home with his citizenship papers and an idea his wife did not expect to hear. "After all the dangerous things he had done, he still wanted to join the military!" Inaam said. "Of course, I said, 'Absolutely not!'"

"And I didn't blame her," Shnawa said. "No one in the world could blame her because of the torture I put her through."

Airman trains in setting up an ejection seat.
Translator to Airman
Air Force Airman 1st Class Saeed Shnawa, 361st Training Squadron aircrew flight equipment course student, sets up an ejection seat system at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, Jan. 29, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook
VIRIN: 190129-F-PQ209-0139

After they researched the service branches, Inaam said, she started to warm up to the idea. "I realized it was different than his service in Iraq," she said. "Together we made the decision he would enlist in the U.S. Air Force."

This time, the separation had an entirely different meaning.

"When Saeed left for basic military training, he reminded me of all the bad things that happened to us and our country," Inaam said. "He said, 'Good people here in America saved our lives. I want to serve this country because of those heroes, and all they sacrificed for us.'"

(Air Force Senior Airman Alyssa D. Van Hook is assigned to the 11th Wing at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.)