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Another POW Comes Home

Friday, March 9, 2012, 18:21 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Staff Sgt. Ahmed AltaieSomehow, I missed the news for 11 days. But earlier today, while reading announcements of war casualties on the U.S. Department of Defense web site, I learned that my adopted POW was dead. I read the details at the Army Times:

A Shiite extremist group handed over a simple wooden casket containing the remains of the last U.S. soldier missing in Iraq, a prominent Iraqi lawmaker said Monday, drawing a close to a case that has anguished the American’s family since his 2006 disappearance.

Shiite lawmaker Sami al-Askari, a close ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said the remains of Staff Sgt. Ahmed Altaie were turned over last week as part of a prisoner exchange agreement between the Iraqi government and the militant group Asaib Ahl al-Haq.

The Pentagon confirmed Sunday that it had recently received remains that were verified as Altaie’s. But al-Askari’s comments provide the first confirmation that Asaib Ahl al-Haq, an Iranian-backed insurgent group, was responsible for the 2006 kidnapping of Altaie after the Iraqi-born soldier sneaked out of the heavily guarded Green Zone in Baghdad to visit his wife and family on a Muslim holiday.

Al-Askari said Asaib Ahl al-Haq last week acknowledged killing Altaie within a year of his October 2006 abduction. He said he did not know exactly when Altaie was killed.

Before I took it off this afternoon, I had worn Staff Sgt. Altaie’s bracelet since early autumn of 2009, when it was still hoped that he was alive. I put it on just a few weeks after removing U.S. Navy Capt. Scott Speicher’s bracelet, which I wore from January 2004 until his remains were brought home in August 2009. With the exception of the brief time between bracelets, that’s more than eight years of wearing a stainless steel bracelet 24 hours a day without interruption. It wasn’t exactly a fashion statement, and it didn’t always look good when I was dressed up for weddings, dinner-dances, or other formal occasions. But I believed, as I know others who still wear bracelets going back as far as the Vietnam war believe, that the act of never removing it was a small act of solidarity with the service member, who couldn’t “take off” his captivity for special occasions. It was also a reminder that the families of POW-MIA service members are never really free until their loved ones return, alive or dead.

Altaie POW bracelet

The POW bracelet I wore for Staff Sgt. Altaie, showing (front) his name, rank at time of capture, date of capture, and (back) home state and status

Staff Sgt. Altaie, an Iraqi-born American citizen whose family moved to Michigan when he was a teenager, was a hero in every sense, serving both the country of his birth and his adopted country at the same time. Even as an armed soldier, his work as an interpreter made him literally a bridge of peace and understanding between the American reconstruction teams to which he was assigned and the Iraqi people they worked with. I had often worried aloud for his safety, knowing that as much as Islamic terrorists hate Americans, they hate even more Muslims who collaborate with Americans. Apparently, he was aware of the risks but didn’t allow them to deter him in fulfilling his service or living his life. Indeed, when he was captured, he was believed to have been headed to the home of his in-laws to spend time with his Iraqi wife, whom he had married after the fall of the Saddam Hussein government but before he joined the Army Reserve.

The Defense Department press release of February 27 noted that, with the war in Iraq officially over, Staff Sgt. Altaie is “the final…casualty to be recovered from the Operation Iraqi Freedom/Operation New Dawn mission.” The U.S. armed forces now have only one service member confirmed held as a prisoner: Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, U.S. Army, who was captured by the Taliban in the summer of 2009. Sgt. Bergdahl is known to have been alive as recently as late last summer, when he escaped, only to be recaptured after three days.

I haven’t decided yet whether I will now wear Sgt. Bergdahl’s bracelet. I’m 0-for-2 with POWs, and frankly I don’t know if I can get that emotionally invested again. What I will do, regardless, is pray: for eternal life for Staff Sgt. Altaie, for strength and safety for Sgt. Bergdahl, for the consolation of the Altaie family and the comfort of the Bergdahls, and for all who await the final return of their loved ones from past wars. Alive or dead, everyone deserves to come home.

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