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How one Iraqi boy dodged extremists and came to serve in the US military

Pfc. Mansure, whose identity is being withheld by Stars and Stripes due to safety concerns regarding his family still living in Iraq, salutes the flag in front of the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni headquarters building in February. Mansure beat the odds and through hard work, perseverance and a little bit of luck, went from an Iraqi translator helping the Americans and dodging terrorist threats in his native Iraq to an American citizen and a United States Marine.

MARINE CORPS AIR STATION IWAKUNI, Japan — While his fellow Marine recruits cried and urinated in their trousers in the face of Parris Island’s tough-as-nails drill instructors, Pvt. Mansure had never been more thrilled.

A drill instructor barked at him to run.

“My pleasure,” he enthusiastically replied.

He was told to do pushups.

“I will do this all day long,” he recalled thinking. “I’m like, ‘This is awesome. I have a bed to sleep in, food; I get to work out all day.’”

Plus, he had been spared from the Islamic militants hunting him in his native Iraq. Mansure — whose name has been changed by Stars and Stripes due to safety concerns for his family in Iraq — was so happy to accept the physical and mental punishment that he got in trouble for not looking depressed enough, the Marine said last month from his duty station near Hiroshima in southeastern Japan, where he works in administration.

His story is similar to that of thousands of Iraqis who worked for U.S. forces following the 2003 invasion.

After U.S. forces pulled out in December 2011, many were left to dodge extremists looking to kill “traitors” who had worked for the American military while trying to navigate the bureaucratic process to get U.S. visas.

Mansure knows some didn’t make it. But his story has a happy ending. Now a private first class, the hulking 6-foot-3, 24-year-old is having a big impact on fellow Marines in Iwakuni, where he has been stationed for about three months.

“He’s an outstanding Marine,” said Mansure’s boss, Chief Warrant Officer Jana Tang. “I know he has inspired a lot of Marines in the barracks and the command itself.”

From bad to worse in Iraq

Mansure grew up poor in a large family that shared a single-room house made of brick and mud, northeast of Baghdad. There was a stove in the corner, a rug on the floor and little else.

His father, an Iraqi army veteran disabled while fighting Iranian forces, relied on government assistance to survive.

In 2000, their house and its contents mysteriously burned while they were out for the evening. To help his family, Mansure worked manual labor jobs starting at age 12 while going to school full-time.

“We ended up with nothing,” he said. “I said, ‘Can life get any worse than this?’”

It turns out, it would.

Three years later, the American military invaded Iraq and ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. Iraq fell into chaos.

Jobs were scarce, and while American dollars flowed into the country to rebuild and support the fledgling Iraqi government, it became increasingly dangerous to work for the Americans. Insurgents were gaining in strength and taking territory.

One day, a 15-year-old Mansure came home to find a note left on their house that said, “You have 72 hours to leave or you’re dead.”

He had seen proud people murdered who refused to leave. His family was not going to make the same mistake. So they packed up their furniture and left, bouncing around, before finally settling in another simple mud house.

In 2007, Mansure graduated from high school. The 17-year-old could not afford to go to college, so he decided to join the Iraqi army. He had to borrow money to pay for ID cards and to push through his paperwork. Mansure desperately needed the $400 per month so he could pay off his family’s debts, but his father refused to sign the paperwork. The man processing Mansure’s application signed him up without the permission, saying he was “going to get killed anyway.”

Mansure went through 21/2 months of basic training. He wore the Iraqi uniform, he ate with his fellow troops, he drilled, he practiced shooting, only to find that a clerk had mistakenly forgotten to enter his name in a database to be sent to a unit. He was excused and could go home, he was told, or he could protest and go to jail.

He tried to stay optimistic. “God has a purpose,” he remembered thinking. “Everything happens for a reason.”

As he went back to manual labor and the family’s debts ballooned, insurgents took town after nearby town, finally surrounding Mansure’s village.

Forced to protect himself and his family, Mansure was exposed to the horrors of terrorism and war. One day, he said, he saw a pregnant woman whose stomach had been cut open and her baby decapitated.

The insurgents cut electricity and water to the village. They were under siege.

The American military would not help because they believed the conflict to be sectarian and not the work of al-Qaida in Iraq, Mansure said.

“It was like a prison,” he said.

Mansure said that he had always wanted to learn English, so he picked up an Arabic to English dictionary. He learned the alphabet, some verbs, suffixes. He tried to memorize 15 words per day. He started making sentences.

Later that year, the Americans came and routed the militants from the area, but that wasn’t an end to the problems facing the country. Mansure said they found themselves in the midst of a civil war.

“Everyone [was] trying to kill everyone,” he said.

Fateful visit

Soon after, an uncle whose neighbor was a translator for the Americans came to visit. Mansure asked him to help him find a job with the U.S. military. His uncle refused, saying Mansure would be killed.

“Really, you think I will die?” he recalled saying to his uncle. “You don’t think I die every day seeing my family live like this?”

His uncle relented, but said he didn’t want to be blamed when Mansure was killed.

Mansure had just turned 18 when he met with the translator. He was told to proceed to an American forward-operating base called Warhorse. But there was a catch — the base was surrounded by extremists who targeted everyone coming and going from the base.

Mansure devised a plan. He jumped out in front of a column of Iraqi troops in armored vehicles on their way to the base. The gunner in the lead vehicle threatened to shoot him. He explained that his brother had been arrested by the Americans. He asked for a ride.

When Mansure got to the base, barely speaking any English, he asked a screener about a job. He was told he would have to come back four more times for interviews.

The interviews were held on Saturdays and when they were completed, he would face deserted streets. Anyone leaving the base could easily be seen and shot by extremists.

Mansure kept hitching rides on Iraqi military convoys. He would arrive Friday night for his interviews and sleep in a carpet near the gate. It was bitterly cold at night.

After the final interview, he was hired.

Over the next two years, Mansure’s English improved. He went from working the gate at forward-operating bases to going out on important missions, raids, ambushes and searches for weapons caches. He said he dodged IEDs and bullets, working 15-18 hours per day, seven days a week.

“I had seen what the terrorists had done,” he said. “Now I get to hurt them.”

After every mission he made time to hit his beloved gym.

His family rarely saw him, and knowing that terrorists were hunting him, often thought he was dead. From time to time he would go outside the wire to surprise his family with a visit. One time, Mansure, who had never held $500 in his hand at one time, brought home $2,800. He took his sisters to Baghdad and to the fanciest clothing store he could find.

“I told them to buy the most expensive thing in there,” he said. “I said buy everything … I was really, really happy. This was a dream I had been thinking of.”

In 2010, on one visit home, he said he was arrested by corrupt Iraqi police.

“They said I betrayed my country,” Mansure recalled. “They handcuffed my hands behind my back and said, ‘Where are the Americans now?’ … The three cops were beating me with their fists and kicking me. They said, ‘You’re not getting out of here alive.’”

He said they put him in a cell with al-Qaida terrorists. He survived that encounter thanks to American intervention, but said he would later sleep in his parents’ house clutching an AK-47. He knew the threat was real.

Coming to America

Army 1st Lt. Thomas Ormsby met Mansure in 2011 as U.S. forces were preparing to depart Iraq for good. A veteran of multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ormsby, a self-described “door kicker” and “trigger squeezer,” felt little sympathy for the Iraqi people. Yet he was impressed by Mansure, who was translating on convoy escorts. When he went out on a mission, nothing bad ever happened. He was self-taught, driven and spent more time with his American counterparts than fellow Iraqi translators.

“He was an integral part of the team,” Ormsby said by phone last month. “Here was a really good kid who was going to slip through the cracks.”

Ormsby heard that militants pledged to kill Mansure, so he began vetting him to make sure he wasn’t a security threat. The men also bonded over faith — albeit different denominations.

When Ormsby was leaving for Kuwait, he tried to see if members of the Air Force would continue to help Mansure, but they refused. Ormsby left but was more resolved than ever. He told Mansure to stay alive and he would work to get him to America.

Mansure, who had first applied for a U.S. visa in 2009, stopped working on base at the end of 2011. The Americans were finally leaving and he would have to fend for himself.

“That was a reality check for me,” he recalled. “If the U.S. leaves, nobody is going to protect you.”

The translator went back to work doing manual labor, then became an AK-47 toting translator/mercenary for a British company building an oil port. Finally, an old contact hooked him up with a job translating at the U.S. Embassy in May 2012. Mansure watched his back and got occasional emails from Ormsby, who was working with lawyers to expedite the process.

“Are you alive?” Ormsby would ask.

Finally, in June 2012, he heard his visa had been granted. Ormsby arranged for him to live with his family in Kentucky.

Five days before he left for the United States, Mansure visited his family. He gave them $10,000 he had saved and said goodbye forever.

A new life

In the states, the former Iraqi translator found life to be safer but still difficult. He worked on Ormsby’s parents’ farm and did odd jobs as he endeared himself to their family, Ormsby said. The family helped him prepare for tests to join the Marines.

Mansure failed several times before he was successful. But he said he refused to give up. He had seen the Marines take the fight to the enemy in Iraq. He said he wanted to be among the best warriors in the world.

Mansure became an American citizen on July 2, 2013, the day before he graduated from boot camp. He said it was the happiest day of his life.

After a lifetime of hard knocks, combat missions, IEDs and flying bullets, Mansure requested a job in administration so he could gain a sense of normalcy he had never known. He wanted to be clean all day, to wear crisp cammies — and he wanted to be able to keep his regimented gym schedule.

He was sent to Japan, where his wisdom is having an effect on his Marine brothers and sisters.

Nearly everyone in his office is on a special diet and gym program, thanks to their new “older brother,” Tang said. Physical training benchmarks like pull-ups are improving by leaps and bounds.

He walks through the halls of the headquarters building at MCAS Iwakuni as a warm yet imposing presence.

“You need to hit the gym. Oorah,” he tells a Marine lance corporal with a smile.

Mansure hopes to stay in the Corps for eight years and then work for the CIA, FBI or Homeland Security. He hopes to put his sisters through college someday.

“I always set the goal and I work for it,” he said. “The money I’ve made here is the easiest money I’ve made in my life.”

burke.matt@stripes.com

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