A US soldier reunites with the Iraqi girl he saved
For US Army Capt. Tom Hickey and his platoon, saving Sadeel in 2007 was the best part of their tour in Iraq.
Eight-year-old Sadeel giggles and holds up her curly black hair, revealing the faint scar from a bullet wound.
"I'm so happy to see you," says US Army Capt. Tom Hickey, sounding nervous and slightly overwhelmed. It's the first time the two have seen each other since he helped rush her to the hospital four years ago, her body seemingly lifeless in her father's arms. "I don't know if you remember me. It was a long time ago," he says, looking at the lively little girl across the table.
In 2007, when I first met him, Hickey was a lieutenant and a platoon leader in the volatile neighborhood of Amariyah. Now, deployed again in Baghdad, he sits at a restaurant with Sadeel and her parents, who have traveled from their neighborhood into the unfamiliar territory of the Green Zone to see the young officer who helped save their daughter's life.
Sadeel doesn't remember the operation that removed the bullet from her throat, where it had lodged after she was hit by a stray gunshot in her violent neighborhood, or her parents' desperate dash into the street with their wounded daughter. But she recalls the kindness of Hickey and his soldiers, who visited the family and brought them gifts after they had left the hospital.
"He gave me lots of crayons and they gave me a toy car – I still play with it," she says shyly.
Hickey uses some of the Arabic he has learned during his time in the Middle East to talk with the family. "Two months ago, I married my sweetheart in my parents' house," says Hickey, of Stow, Ohio, holding up the hand with his wedding ring.
It was January 2007 in Amariyah – a Sunni enclave between Shiite neighborhoods engulfed in a struggle with Al Qaeda. US forces had blocked the neighborhood and Hickey's platoon was on patrol when Sadeel's father, Mohammad Adnan, rushed outside carrying his daughter. She had been playing in the garden when a bullet hit her – no one knows who fired it.
"I was certain she was dead," says Hickey. His staff sergeant, Chris Moore, ignoring the security checks that they were supposed to do on neighborhood residents, frantically pushed Sadeel, her father, mother, and grandmother into his Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
"They opened the hatch of the armored vehicle and they threw me inside and started doing first aid," says Mr. Adnan.
The driver, Pfc. Alex Verela, sped around that obstacle course of blast walls and security barriers that dotted Amariyah. At the hospital, while US Army medics operated on Sadeel, Moore waited with her father.
"That night in the hospital he sat with me for a long time," says Adnan. "Everyone else went for dinner, and he sat down and talked and showed me pictures of his three girls."
At the reunion, as Hickey sits down over pizza with Sadeel and her family, his metal bracelet glints in the Baghdad sun. It's engraved with the initials of Moore, Verela, and four other soldiers from his platoon who were killed a few months after helping Sadeel.
Moore and the entire crew of the Bradley he commanded, along with their Iraqi interpreter – almost all the soldiers who had helped save Sadeel – died instantly on May 19, 2007, when a bomb buried under the pavement ripped their vehicle apart. It was one of the single biggest losses of life in the US military surge that pitted American forces against Al Qaeda fighters and Shiite militants.
Hickey, who had injured his hand, was back at the base that day and wasn't with his unit.
In a battle zone where they regarded every Iraqi they met as a potential enemy, saving Sadeel was the best thing that happened to his men, says Hickey.
"Staff Sergeant Moore had three baby girls – 9 and below – and that guy was on cloud nine," says Hickey. "I said to him, 'Why are you so happy?' He said, 'You don't know, but you will,' because he had daughters. He was always talking about going home, being on the Texas State Highway Patrol and seeing his daughters and being with them."
Far from their families, visiting Sadeel and her brothers and sisters was some of the only normal interaction the soldiers had with Iraqis.
The story of the shooting has faded into family lore among her sister Dima, 13, and her brother Youssef, 16. Outside the restaurant, Sadeel, dressed in a red-and-white gingham dress with puffy sleeves, runs through the garden, chasing after a huge dog, happy and unafraid.
"That wasn't an easy time for my soldiers, but one of the things I can truly say is their favorite thing of being here was meeting you guys," Hickey tells them. "It was one of the few times they got to be around regular people without being nervous. They brought stuff for you guys but they were doing it because it made them feel really good – I don't know if you realize that."
Amariyah and much of Baghdad remains dangerous – so much so that Hickey, serving in what could be the last US military deployment in Iraq, leaves the Green Zone only on official missions and under heavy security. But the surge is credited with helping Iraqis outside the Green Zone's blast walls breathe more easily.
While the worst parts of Iraq's eight-year war are receding into history, it's young men like Hickey who keep that history alive. Perhaps the only equation for calculating the real cost of war is lives saved versus lives lost.
When I sat down with him four years ago after his men had been killed, I asked if he believed the war was worth the sacrifice.
"I think if you could ask Sergeant Moore what the price of that little girl's life was, I think he would take comfort in that, and I think it would make him proud of what he's done here," he said. "I seriously think if we pull out of Iraq or anything else like that, this place will turn into a very bad place to live and a lot of people will die, and I think we keep a lot of that from happening."
On a recent night at one of the last remaining US Army bases in Iraq, I asked Hickey how he would answer that question today.
"I think people find their own way to deal with grief and loss," he says, "and I know that the people we lost ... helped everyone else get home."