HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. – Uncertainty waits outside the wire. Incoming fire, attacks and ambushes are a moment away.
To survive in a war zone, U.S. troops must rely on their teams, putting their trust in their equipment, their wingmen and their interpreters.
In 2009, Senior Master Sgt. Patrick Lombardo, 66th Security Forces Squadron superintendent of operations here, began a seven-month deployment to Iraq. Lombardo’s team was paired with a group of Iraqi nationals and contractors who served as translators during missions outside the wire of Joint Base Balad, and he quickly realized how much trust they had to place in each other.
“Bombs are flying, bullets are going by and [improvised explosives devices] are going off,” said Lombardo. “They’re right there next to us. They’re risking their lives for their country as well.”
Locals who choose to aid coalition forces can face scrutiny in their communities and threats on their lives.
“It is not thought highly of to help us,” said Lombardo. “People get killed, and their families get killed. Our interpreters are sacrificing their own well-being for their country.”
Lombardo explained that it didn’t take long for the two teams to develop a strong personal relationship. They would share meals and talk about their religions; fasting with their counterparts during religious holidays and breaking bread after sundown.
“It was really more like family,” he said.
Lombardo grew especially close with one member of the interpreting team, a young Iraqi man who went by his given call sign, 007.
At the time, local nationals who served as interpreters could apply for U.S. citizenship through the Special Immigration Visa Program. The process was long and complicated, but Lombardo initiated 007’s application with the State Department and sent letters in to vouch for the young man.
About a month later, Lombardo’s time in country was up and he returned stateside.
“I lost contact with those guys about six months later,” said Lombardo. “I hadn’t heard from any of them, or at least 007, until recently.”
In September 2019, Lombardo was preparing for his tenth deployment. Days before he was set to leave, he walked into the Hanscom Finance Office to finalize his travel plans and spoke to the young Airman at the service desk.
“The Airman came up to me and asked me if I was in Iraq in 2009, so I said ‘yes’,” said Lombardo.
In 2009, now Airman 1st Class Aws Hussein, 66th Comptroller Squadron financial management technician, was working as a translator for U.S. troops at the [northern perimeter] of JBB, helping troops and the locals who came through the gate understand each other.
Hussein was a Theology major at Baghdad University when he first learned English.
“My mother always told me and my brothers that if we ever left Iraq we would need another language to communicate with the world,” he said. “We picked English, but never expected to use it as much as we did.”
Hussein wasn’t looking for a job while he finished school, but his younger brother convinced him to use his language skills to translate for the Americans. Before long, all four of the Hussein brothers were interpreting for the troops.
Soon after, Hussein was dubbed 007.
“Every interpreter had a call sign, and it was to protect us,” he said. “We didn’t want to use our real names when talking with the locals. I have no idea why I got that one, but I was okay with it.”
Protecting the interpreter’s identity was crucial to not only their safety, but for their families as well, Hussein explained.
“If the enemy knew you were helping the U.S., you’d be hunted down and shot,” he said. “Our families could be kidnapped and held for ransom. If anyone asked you what you did for work, you would just tell them you owned a store.”
By the time Lombardo arrived, Hussein was a seasoned interpreter. Despite working with countless service members, he remembers the daily missions with Lombardo.
“Sgt. Lombardo was so fun to work with and was just easy to talk to,” said Hussein. “We were able to have fun while we did our job. It was really like being family.”
After Lombardo returned stateside, Hussein continued to work as a translator until 2011. In 2013, the visas finally came, and Hussein moved his wife and two young children to Rapid City, South Dakota, before joining his brothers in San Antonio, Texas.
However, Hussein wasn’t immediately sold on joining the Air Force when he arrived.
“I didn’t want to be in the military,” he said. “I had seen enough fighting. I had finally made it out of a war zone and I didn’t want to live it all over again.”
Still, Hussein couldn’t shake the idea of enlisting.
“It was always in the back of my mind,” he said. “Finally, I just said I have to do it. If I had kept waiting, I would have missed my chance.”
Hussein completed basic training and attended technical training school at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, earlier this year, and received orders to Hanscom. He was only on station for a few weeks when a man with a familiar face walked into his office.
“He looked familiar, but when I heard his voice, I knew it was him.”
Both men were in shock during the reunion.
“I couldn’t believe he was standing there,” said Lombardo. “It was 007, but really I was looking at Airman 1st Class Hussein.”
To see his dear friend after ten years, not only living the American dream but serving as an Airman, Lombardo said he could not be prouder.
“He is the piece of the puzzle to make our Air Force better,” said Lombardo. “I’ve seen where he’s come from. When it comes to resiliency, 007 is the success story.”
Hussein hopes to stay in the comptroller career field and retire from the Air Force.
“If I could give my younger self a piece of advice, I would say, ‘keep going, you’ll make it,’” he said.