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4 people recall the invasion of Iraq and say the consequences live on

From left: Ali Adeeb Alnaemi, Carlos Gomez-Perez, Kayla Williams.
Courtesy of Ali Adeeb Alnaemi, Carolos Gomez-Perez and Kayla Williams.
From left: Ali Adeeb Alnaemi, Carlos Gomez-Perez, Kayla Williams.

To mark the anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we've gathered the recollections of four individuals who witnessed the events first-hand, each from a distinct perspective – a college student, a U.S. Army intelligence officer, an Iraqi translator and former U.S. Marine.

We asked each of them to share the memories they still carry from the first days of a war that lasted nearly a decade.

These interviews were lightly edited for length and clarity.


Interview Highlights

Mohammed al Dulaimy

It changed my life in so many ways. And whenever someone is talking about life, I remember that kid, who held my hand and said, 'Swear by God that my life will be okay and I will not live an orphan.

Born in Iraq, al Dulaimy was studying engineering as an undergraduate at the University of Baghdad when the U.S. invaded.

"I was living in Fallujah. I was an engineering student at the beginning of the war, with all the confusion that was happening. It was the first time in my life I made a lie. And I lied to a child."

"There was a shooting on the highway in Fallujah that resulted in many deaths of civilians, and I saw what I never thought I would see in my life. So many cars shot. So many people lying on the side of the street. One of the cars was a pickup truck. [The] father, in the driver's seat, was killed. The mother was in the passenger seat. She was killed. And the kid, I think he was ten years old. They took him out of the car. They laid him on the side. His back was to the car. He cannot see his mom and dad. And his injury was severe. And he refused to go to a hospital. He said, 'I don't want to live if my father and mother are dead.'"

"He was holding my hand in such a force. It was amazing for me, how a 10-year-old can do that. And he said, 'Please. I don't want to be an orphan. If they are dead, let me die.'"

"And that was my first lie in my life."

"I was like, 'No, you're going to be okay, we're going to take you to a hospital.'"

"And he said, 'Swear by God, they are alive.'"

"And I did."

"It changed my life in so many ways. And whenever someone is talking about life, I remember that kid, who held my hand and said, 'Swear by God that my life will be okay and I will not live an orphan.'"

After the war, al Dulaimy went on to earn an engineering degree in the U.S. He now works at a robotics firm in Virginia.

Kayla Williams

An American, she's a former U.S. Army sergeant who served as an Arab linguist in a military intelligence company of the 101st Airborne Division.

"When we first arrived there, the people who were willing to come up and talk to me as a woman in the U.S. Army, they all wanted to tell me how they had suffered under Saddam Hussein and their hopefulness for the future. And I was there when that started to turn and to curdle, as we were unable to provide security, unable to keep the electricity on."

"Years later, some folks called it 'Man On The Moon Syndrome' — 'You Americans could put a man on the moon. What do you mean you can't do X, Y or Z here in Iraq?'"

"And you could see the anger starting to come. You could see the rage. You could see people losing their hope and getting more and more frustrated."

"And shooting at us."

"And at that point, when people I knew were getting hurt, I at least am not mature enough to have been able to not get angry. It's really hard to keep an open heart towards people who are trying to kill you."

"So, you know, I think that curdling was happening on both sides and that took some time, after coming home, for that sense of empathy to return."

"And thinking back to how young — how young — everyone was, and what we ask of people who are barely adults, is kind of shocking today."

Williams is now a senior policy researcher at RAND Corporation in Washington, D.C.

Ali Adeeb Alnaemi

I remember how devastated I was, as an Iraqi, because of the looting of the National Museum.

An Iraqi journalist and translator at the time of the U.S. invasion, he went on to work as a news editor at the New York Times Baghdad bureau before emigrating to the U.S.

"When the war started, I was working as a translator in a contracting company. I had this perception that Americans were always read, you know, 'the biggest country in the world...The Superpower'. And what shocked me actually was the lack of preparation."

"I remember how devastated I was, as an Iraqi, because of the looting of the National Museum. As you know, Iraq is the land of Mesopotamia, and we have antiquities and we have a civilization that goes back 6000 to 7000 years. The museum was without any kind of protection for days, while troops were protecting other facilities in Baghdad — buildings like the Oil Ministry."

"Imagine the Metropolitan in New York open for looters for two or three days. Imagine how devastated you would be as an American citizen."

"On TV, I remember seeing [U.S. Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld saying that 'the American Army is not a police force'. You know, '...it's not our job'. To me that was shocking: to just let it go in the hands of looters. To me, that was even more than painful, I would say."

"It's a disaster to the memory of the nation."

Alnaemi now lives in New York City and teaches journalism at New York University.

Carlos Gomez-Perez

And no one prepared us. We didn't know how to deal with it.

A U.S. Marine who rose to the rank of Lance Corporal. He was awarded the Silver Star for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action against the enemy" during a 2004 combat operation in Fallujah, Iraq.

"I was in the Marine Corps, Echo Company, Second Battalion, First Marines. In 2003, I already had a son, even though I was only 21. I was in Iraq, and I remember going to different houses, doing door-to-door checks. And literally, they were handing me babies – like, 'Please. Mister, mister, take her, take her'. My child's back home, and you're giving me your kid, so that I can take him somewhere better. Replaying in my mind is that."

"And no one prepared us. We didn't know how to deal with it. And no one discusses. Because it's not fun to talk about those experiences that you have to live with the rest of your life."

(Ret) Cpl. Gomez-Perez now lives in San Diego. He's currently unemployed.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barry Gordemer is an award-winning producer, editor, and director for NPR's Morning Edition. He's helped produce and direct NPR coverage of two Persian Gulf wars, eight presidential elections, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. He's also produced numerous profiles of actors, musicians, and writers.
Jacob Conrad