Rescuing an Iraqi Family

Mercury News

June 24, 2008 – On a warm day last summer, new father and Marine Corps Capt. John Jacobs got an e-mail from a buddy he’d served with in Iraq.

“I do need help in get(ting) out of home for awhile, or maybe for good,” the message read. “All I need is moving my family in any place that might be safer than where we live now.”

Jacobs, a 34-year-old Santa Cruz native who was deployed twice during the war, knew without hesitation he had to help his brother in arms.

He had to rescue his Iraqi translator, Haitham, a man he calls “Falcon.”

“He believed in our cause,” Jacobs said. “He was willing to stand beside us and face the same danger that we were facing. He rode around in Humvees waiting to get blown up like everyone else.”

Nearly a year later, Haitham, his wife, Jameela, and their two young children are about to arrive in San Jose – thanks to the efforts of Jacobs and his wife, Veronica, to bring the Iraqi family to safety.

The 34-year-old Haitham is one of the estimated 7,000 Iraqis who have served as translators for the American military during the war. While the job is a way for educated Iraqis to help rebuild their country, it also comes with many risks. Translators are seen as traitors among insurgents and supporters of the old regime.

The interpreters and their families are often targeted for retaliation, Jacobs said. Haitham, who served with Jacobs in the Third Battalion, First Marines in Al-Hadithah during 2005 and 2006, goes only by his first name for security reasons.
And despite the practice of adopting code names – such as “Falcon” – to further protect their identities, some secrets get out. Haitham’s father was kidnapped in 2005 and hasn’t been seen since.

After receiving Haitham’s plea, Jacobs and his wife launched Operation Falcon, a Web site aimed at bringing the family to America and raising awareness of the plight of other Iraqi translators. Jacobs is seeking donations of cash, gift cards and household goods.

He recently lined up an apartment for the family, who will arrive July 4. The Jacobses have a garage full of donated furniture ready to be moved in.

During two stints in Iraq, Jacobs worked with dozens of translators. But he says there was something special about Falcon.

A graduate of the University of Technology in Baghdad with a degree in electrical engineering, he spoke English well and seemed smarter than the other translators, Jacobs said. And he cared.

When told that Veronica Jacobs was expecting a baby girl, “he bought gifts for my daughter – baby clothes, a rattler, that kind of stuff,” Jacobs said. “It meant a great deal to me. It showed me that he listened and that he paid attention.”

In response, Jacobs’ wife sent coloring books and markers to Haitham’s children, who are 7 and 3.

“He was just a good guy,” said Jacobs, the principal of the private Challenger School in San Jose.

The Marine is also involved with a documentary project. With footage of the two families in Iraq and San Jose, filmmaker Tim O’Hara has created a 16-minute video that highlights the bond between the two – and Jacobs’ efforts to save his friend.

“I really do think that what he is doing is a great thing,” O’Hara said. “He sees helping Falcon as an extension of his service.”

Ironically, the lives of the Marine and the translator soon will switch: Jacobs has been deployed back to Iraq next spring.

It will be the first time he’ll be away from his children, 2-year-old Mae and 9-month-old Ellie.

“It will be tough,” he said simply.

While he’s gone, Jacobs hopes to keep Operation Falcon alive and rescue more interpreters like Haitham.

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