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Brotherly Bonds Withstand Tragedy Of War

Col. Eric Schwartz (left), Dr. Najeeb Hanoudi (center) and Maj. Ron Cooper outside Hanoudi's home in Southfield, Mich.
Emily Fox
Col. Eric Schwartz (left), Dr. Najeeb Hanoudi (center) and Maj. Ron Cooper outside Hanoudi's home in Southfield, Mich.

War always leaves death, destruction and sorrow in its wake, and the Iraq War piled all of it on Dr. Najeeb Hanoudi. Yet his bond with the Americans he aided remains unbroken.

NPR's Jacki Lyden has followed the story of the Oxford-trained Christian ophthalmologist for years.

It begins in 2003, when Hanoudi first met a band of American soldiers patrolling Mansour, his upscale Baghdad neighborhood.

"They called themselves the Rogues," Hanoudi says referring to a Second Brigade, Third Infantry Division battalion out of Fort Stewart, Ga., known as the Desert Rogues. "But they were never Rogues. They were very polite, very civilized, very helpful and very keen on the job."

Hanoudi gave information to the Rogues about a weapons cache in the neighborhood belonging to Saddam Hussein's regime, and so began a deep relationship between Hanoudi and the Americans.

'A Master Teacher'

Col. Eric Schwartz, commander of the Desert Rogues, recently drove from Pennsylvania to Hanoudi's new home outside Detroit for a reunion. Maj. Ron Cooper, a chaplain, came in from Washington state. The three men worked closely together in Iraq, and it has been 10 years since they were all together.

"This is a time for us all to just come together as brothers," Schwartz says.

In Iraq, Hanoudi was a mentor for the Americans.

"We were culturally ignorant," Schwartz says, and Hanoudi was a "national treasure" and "a master teacher."

"I would go to him with our plans, and I would ask him to provide the cultural aspect of the mission," Schwartz says. "He would say, 'My kind sir,' which essentially meant, 'I wouldn't do it that way, I would consider that you do it this way.'"

For his part, Hanoudi was deeply grateful for Hussein's ouster.

"When the Americans came and got us rid of Saddam, I was very happy," he says.

He remembers "clapping and jumping and dancing in the street and throwing roses to the Americans."

A Personal Tragedy

But the next year, Hanoudi's hopes collapsed. His son Nazar was working as a contractor on an American military base of a different unit. He arrived at work using an unfamiliar entrance and the U.S. soldier on duty mistook him for an intruder and shot him. A week later, an ambulance transporting him ran out of oxygen. Left severely brain-damaged, Nazar fell into a vegetative state.

It took Hanoudi and his wife, Firyal, three more years to get refugee status and come to Michigan for Nazar's treatment. They placed Nazar in a nursing home in Southfield, Mich., rarely leaving his side. And, they prayed for a miracle.

"But in the end, there was actually no miracle," Hanoudi says.

His health, and that of his wife's, suffered while caring for Nazar.

Nazar, 40, died a few days before last Christmas.

"Two days later, we laid him to rest in a cemetery here in Michigan," Hanoudi says, his voice breaking.

Nazar was the oldest of his three children. (A daughter, Nadia, lives in Toronto, and another son, Samer, in Southfield.)

A Feeling Of Guilt

Nazar Hanoudi's death has also been difficult for Schwartz to bear, even though his own unit was not involved.

"Weighing heavy on my heart was a feeling of guilt and responsibility because ultimately we chose the Hanoudis," he says, meaning that it was through his team the family became involved with the U.S. military at all.

Hanoudi does not agonize over what-ifs or feelings of resentment.

"I'm not even bitter about the boy, the young boy who shot him, you see, because I would never hope that any father would be in a position like that," he says. "But I am sad about it."

He says that the devastating loss of his son has deepened his bond with the Americans.

"We are more than friends now," he says. "We are brothers, you see."

Healing Through Relationships

Cooper, the military chaplain, worked to help the Hanoudis after Nazar's shooting, both at the time and during his recent visit.

"We were forever changed when we met one another," he says. And while there was good that came out of that, there was also tragedy and sadness, Cooper adds.

"I'm becoming convinced that it's in relationships that we're healed," he says.

Hanoudi is working on a book about this last decade. And it isn't, ultimately, about the grimmest days of the war that destroyed his world in Iraq and took the life of his son.

"I always said and believe very strongly that a life which is worth living is a life which is lived for the others," he says. "And I think that I've shared my life with some of these people, you see."

His military brothers will be there for him next year when Hanoudi, 78, and his wife complete the journey begun on a Baghdad street and become American citizens.

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