Remember this story?
U.S. and Iraqi army forces found 24 naked and abused boys, ages 3 to 15 years old, in a darkened room without any windows. Many of the children were tied to their beds and were too weak to stand once released.
Nearby in a locked room, the Soldiers discovered food and clothing that could have been used to aid the children. Three women, claiming to be the caretakers, and two men, the orphanage director and a guard, were on site when the Soldiers arrived.
Members of the Fajr Neighborhood Advisory Council were notified by the Iraqi army soldiers and escorted to the orphanage to assist the boys. Paratroopers from Company B, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, and a 492nd Civil Affairs Team also arrived at the orphanage with medics to treat the malnourished boys.
Well, here’s the story after the story.
It often takes the most challenging of situations to bring out the best in each of us. For Maj. Southworth, that paradox led him not only to adopt a disabled Iraqi orphan as his son, but also to wage a relentless battle against bureaucratic obstacles to bring 24 mistreated orphans out of a corrupt Iraqi orphanage, and into the homes of loving American families.
Then-Capt. Southworthâ€™s journey started in September 2003, when, as commanding officer of the Wisconsin National Guardâ€™s 32nd Military Police Company, he led a team in northeast Baghdad responsible for training local police officers. It was exhausting work, both physically and mentally: toiling in triple-digit heat, dangers around every corner, and setbacks such as a car bomb that destroyed one of the police stations the 32nd operated, killing several of the Iraqis with which the team was working. (The station was rebuilt a few months later.)
In addition to their mission, the soldiers wanted to help Iraqâ€™s needy orphans. On Sept. 6, 2003, they visited a nearby orphanage. Some might have found it depressing, but Southworthâ€™s life changed when a young boy named Alaâ€™a â€“ unable to walk, abandoned in the Baghdad streets likely due to his cerebral palsy â€“ pulled himself across the floor and greeted Southworth with a smile and a few English words. It marked the beginning of an unbreakable bond between the two.
Southworth returned frequently over the months to visit with Alaâ€™a, and with each visit they grew closer. With Southworthâ€™s tour set to end in July 2004, he visited the orphanage a final time â€“ not knowing whether he would ever see Alaâ€™a again. He knew he could make a difference in the boyâ€™s life; he was determined to bring Alaâ€™a to live with him in the United States.
And then came the roadblocks. Under Iraqi law, foreigners cannot adopt children. However, just before he left Iraq, the Iraqi government approved of Alaâ€™a going to the United States with Southworth for medical care. Upon his return home, Southworth navigated the bureaucracy and gained Humanitarian Parole for Alaâ€™a, who is now on a path unimaginable only a few years ago. He is in the United States and has made vast strides at school â€“ fluent in English and learning to read. Even his cerebral palsy is being met head-on: with the help of numerous doctors and specialists, some who have donated their time, he is making significant progress. Alaâ€™a is being taught how to walk with his physical impairment on a specialized treadmill. It is his dream to one day walk unassisted â€“ and he grows ever closer to that day.
But Southworthâ€™s story does not end here. A June 2007 CBS exclusive revealed filthy, appalling conditions at a government-run orphanage in Baghdad. As Southworth watched, he recognized some of the boys as the very same orphans that he and his team visited years before at the private orphanage where they volunteered. Southworth, along with two soldiers who served with him, decided to do something about it. They are currently engaged in an unrelenting effort to bring the 24 orphans affected to the United States. Like Alaâ€™a, all of the boys are disabled and require special and frequent medical attention.
He is not alone in his cause: more than 40 families around the country have offered to host the orphans once they arrive. Southworth and his team are lining up doctors and pharmaceutical companies willing to provide, at no cost, the necessary medical care and supplies needed to help these children with their disabilities.
Giving these young Iraqis a chance at a better life has required tireless persistence in dealing with Iraqi and U.S. government officials. As Southworth awaits approval from the Iraqi government to transport the orphans to the United States, he continues to finalize plans, ensuring that each child is provided with the same care and attention that has already transformed the life of one Iraqi child â€“ his son Alaâ€™a.
In 2005, Southworth received the U.S. Armyâ€™s Gen. MacArthur Leadership award, recognizing his commitment to â€œduty, honor, and country.â€
By the time Southworth returned to Wisconsin, the campaign for Juneau County district attorney was in full swing. He was released from active duty at midnight July 30, 2004. At 11 a.m. the next day, he was in his first parade. He won a three-way primary in September and was elected to the prosecutor’s post in November.
Along the way, he networked among attorney friends to find an immigration lawyer and settled upon Laura Danielson of the firm Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis.
“They have a real heart for the disadvantaged in foreign countries, but they had never dealt with Iraq before. It was a real challenge for them,” Southworth said.
With Danielson’s help, Southworth was able to gain approval for Ala’a to enter the United States temporarily under humanitarian parole, which is granted only in extremely rare cases.
“It’s for situations where there is no other hope, no other chance, and you have to demonstrate extraordinary circumstances,” Southworth said.
Just over a month ago, Southworth returned to Iraq to retrieve his foster son.
Ala’a has settled in easily to the former bachelor pad Southworth calls home. His new grandmother decorated a bedroom for him, complete with a red, white and blue bedspread and a yellowed American flag that hung in Southworth’s boyhood room. Ala’a's deep brown eyes grow wide as Southworth tosses him on the bed and tickles him.
“Baba, are you ticklish?” he shrieks between giggles.
After enrolling Ala’a in middle school, arranging for medical care and taking the little boy to “Pooh’s Heffalump Movie” on a Friday night, Southworth definitely feels like a father. He and Ala’a both are optimistic that someday he will be allowed to take on the title permanently and legally in the eyes of both the United States and Iraq.
“He has the true faith of a child,” Southworth said. “I think he knew what was going to happen.”
This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 31st, 2007 at 11:00 am and is filed under War on Terror, Iraq, War on Terror, Iraq, Rebuilding, War on Terror. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.