Wednesday, August 4, 2021
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North Dakota soldiers repay a debt to Iraqi family
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Members of the North Dakota National Guard's 141st Engineer Battalion are raising money to bring an Iraqi family to Fargo. The soldiers spent months in Iraq clearing roadside bombs. They were helped by an Iraqi man they call Mr. M. He was killed and the soldiers want to bring his family to live in Fargo. (MPR photo/Dan Gunderson)
North Dakota National Guard soldiers are raising money to bring an Iraqi family to Fargo. The guard members say they're repaying a debt to an Iraqi man who was killed because he helped them.

Fargo, N.D. — The 141st Engineer Battalion of the North Dakota National Guard spent months in Iraq clearing roadside bombs. Four of their soldiers were killed by those bombs.

One day while on patrol, they stopped to check out a stalled vehicle. That's how they met a man they now call Mr. M. He befriended the U.S. soldiers and invited them to his house for dinner. Soon Mr. M was a valuable intelligence source. He warned soldiers about roadside bombs, and told them where to find the insurgents who were making the bombs.

North Dakota National Guard Capt. Grant Wilz says Mr. M knew he was risking his life, but he continued to work with the soldiers. Wilz says while on patrol one day he heard the shots that killed Mr. M.

"He was pulled over and stopped, his 11-year-old son was with him," Wilz said. "His son was pulled from the truck and forced to witness this. Mr. M was shot over 30 times. Just gunned down. Murdered in cold blood."

Wilz says the murder of Mr. M hit the North Dakota soldiers hard.

"He was one of our family. He was our family away from home," Wilz said. "There's probably not a man of mine here that hadn't given those kids a hug, or given them $5 to buy a shirt or shoes, or given them food."

Capt. Wilz says he and Sgt. Shayne Beckert made a promise to help Mr. M's wife and seven children come to the U.S. Wilz says Iraqi insurgents have threatened to kill the entire family. They've been in hiding for several months.

"I wake up every day wondering if they are still alive," said Wilz. "Myself and Sgt. Beckert have made this our mission. They're a part of our family. Imagine if you will, part of your family being taken away and not knowing if they're going to live from day to day. I think that's what many of us are going through. Sgt. Beckert and I are having a helluva time with it."

I wake up every day wondering if they are still alive. ... We have made this our mission. They're a part of our family.
- National Guard Capt. Grant Wilz

The Department of Defense has now granted the family parole status. That means they can come to the United States and apply for political asylum.

The North Dakota troops have raised enough money for airline tickets for the family. They hope to bring them to Fargo as soon as the family is given passports.

Capt. Wilz says under the provisions of the parole status, they also need to provide living expenses for the family for six months, because they won't be eligible for any government assistance.

When Mrs. M and her family make the trip to Fargo, she will also be reunited with a brother she's not seen in 15 years. His first name is Ali. Ali left Iraq because he says Saddam Hussein killed many of his family members.

U.S. Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who has been assisting the effort, asks that Ali's last name not be used to protect him and his family. For the past several years, Ali has lived in the United States and helped train U.S. Army special forces to fight in Iraq.

Ali says his brother-in-law, Mr. M, spent five years in the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, where he was tortured for opposing Saddam Hussein. Alkaabi says Mr. M escaped a half-dozen attempts to kill him for helping U.S. soldiers.

"He never stopped. He knew he would be killed," said Ali. "He said, 'I know they will kill me today or tomorrow, but I won't stop. I will do this for my kids and my wife.' He told U.S. soldiers, 'Just protect my kids if something happens to me.' He knew he would be killed."

Ali will relocate to Fargo, and hopes his sister and her family will soon join him.

"Whenever the phone rings my heart is beating," he said. "I'm so scared something has happened to them. I don't need anything bad to happen to them. I love them so much."

North Dakota National Guard Capt. Grant Wilz says he can't release any information about where Mr M's family is. Insurgents recently sent a message they intend to kill the family. But Capt. Wilz says he's found an apartment for the family, and he's hopeful they will arrive soon.