By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
The grassy hills and lakeside pier of a sprawling park in Coppell have been transformed into a makeshift boot camp. It's a windy Saturday in December, and as the bullet-gray clouds grow heavy and drop low, newly enlisted soldiers march, read maps and learn rank symbols. One group stands in formation on the basketball court, stepping and turning in unison. "Use that heel!" calls a uniformed drill sergeant. "If you're gonna turn, use the bottom of the foot! This ain't no hip-hop show!"
Down the hill by the pier, seven teens stand in a line. At the front, a gangly kid in a yellow hoodie tries to locate a depression on a map."You're always wrong, right?" the sergeant yells, prompting a flock of gulls to push off the water and fly into the sky. "The drill sergeant's always right—you remember that, right?" The kid nods. When his turn is over, the next in line approaches, listens to the order, looks at the map. "That's what I'm talking 'bout! You 'bout to get trained!"
One enlistee at this "Future Soldier Event" is a Sudanese 20-something who joined the military as part of a specialized Middle Eastern translating program. A native Arabic speaker, he'll serve at least a year in Iraq, get certified as a linguist and spend a minimum of eight years in the U.S. Army, two active and six in the reserves.
The man who recruited him is Adnan Kirkuki, the Army's only Arabic-language interpreter-recruiter in the Dallas area. He is an Iraqi Kurd. An olive-skinned man with curly hair thinning on top, Kirkuki sits at a picnic table, a calm in the day's storm of shouted commands, taut formations and drumming feet. He gazes out over the water and contemplates the country he fled, the Farsi-, Arabic- and Kurdish-speaking youths he turns into soldiers, and his hopes that the military they're joining will defeat the chaos threatening to engulf Iraq and snuff out his countrymen's chance at a decent life.
Like many Kurds, he doesn't refer to the U.S. presence in Iraq as an occupation. "It's a real liberation for us," he says. The Kurds have been the Americans' strongest champions since the invasion, and now, as support for the war has sunk to an all-time low, they are some of the last.
When Kirkuki, now 40, was evacuated in 1996 with his wife and child, he became the only one of his immediate family to escape Iraq. So while his brothers, sisters and parents remain there amid the bombings and sectarian butchery, worry is a constant state for him—the buzzing tightness in the temples, the ever-present upset in the pit of his stomach. The dread.
Yet he and most of his fellow Kurds, whose suffering under Saddam was embodied in the 1988 killings of more than 5,000 by poison gas, do not regret the war. And they don't want U.S. troops to leave.
"Saddam's government treated us like second-class citizens," Kirkuki, who lives in Richardson, says in his accented English. "We were fighting the government for many years for freedom." He comes from a family of peshmerga, Kurdish fighters who for decades have struggled for independent rule for the Kurds, considered the world's largest ethnic group without a state. There are an estimated 30 to 40 million Kurds spread throughout Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, with about 5 million in Northern Iraq.
Kirkuki, who returned to Iraq in 2003 as a civilian translator under contract with the U.S. Air Force, acknowledges the times the United States ignored the Kurds' suffering under Saddam or abandoned efforts to help them, as in 1991 when the United States encouraged the Shiite and Kurdish uprisings after the Gulf War, then left them to fend for themselves. But he says that history has been eclipsed by American support since 9/11. "We had no friends, and finally we got a good friend—the U.S. became our ally," he says. "We came to love the U.S., love the freedom the U.S. Army gives us. Now we have a powerful friend—the most powerful friend in the world."
The question, of course, is whether that power can make a difference in the fractious and brutal landscape of Iraq.
Kirkuki piles a plate with kebabs, rice and vegetables at the buffet, then sits down to talk about growing up in Iraq. The oldest of eight children born to a construction worker and a housewife, Kirkuki was raised in a cement block house in Kirkuk. The city is traditionally Kurdish, but it lies outside the boundaries of Iraqi Kurdistan, the region in northeastern Iraq that operates as its own state, with its own prime minister, army and flag. Kirkuk is home to the largest oil reserves in Northern Iraq, and like many places blessed and cursed with the resource, it has long been a center of power struggles. The city would be economically vital to an independent Iraqi Kurdistan, and Kirkuki's father and uncles—peshmerga fighters—participated in the failed Kurdish revolution that lasted from the '60s through the mid-'70s. In the '80s and '90s, Saddam consolidated control over the city by expelling thousands of Kurdish families and bringing Arabs from the south to live in their homes.