Long before he settled in the United States and joined the Army, Ahmad F. Al Rawi put his life on the line for this country.
“It was dangerous for people who helped the U.S. military in Iraq,” said Al Rawi, 34. A husband and father, he’s now a staff sergeant working at the U.S. Army’s recruiting office in Lynnwood.
Fernando Moratalla was 14 when his family moved to Washington from their homeland of Venezuela. An aunt and uncle were U.S. citizens here. He dreamed of joining the Marine Corps while at Shoreline’s Shorewood High School. He was 20 when the 2001 terrorist attacks killed nearly 3,000 people. “9/11 solidified my choice,” he said. “I had to do it.”
Now 38, Moratalla is a Marine veteran whose duty included two deployments to Iraq. He works as an Edmonds Community College security officer.
Al Rawi and Moratalla will talk about being immigrants who’ve served their chosen country as part of EdCC’s seventh annual Veterans Day Celebration. It’s scheduled for 10:30 a.m.-noon Wednesday in the Black Box Theatre, part of Mukilteo Hall on campus. The free event is open to all veterans, students and the public.
The Army recruiter said his family was running a store in Baghdad when U.S. troops would come in. He had earned a university degree and learned English in Iraq. Americans talked with him about being a translator. More than translating words, Al Rawi said his role was “to shrink that gap between two cultures.”
In his homeland, some would have branded him a traitor, he said. His link to the Americans was so perilous he used a false name. Yet those links “helped me immigrate to the U.S.,” Al Rawi said. “It was a long and very difficult process.” He came first to California and later to Kansas. In Kansas, he met his wife — she’s an Army veteran.
Along with a special tribute to immigrant veterans, Wednesday’s celebration will honor all U.S. military vets and mark the 10th anniversary of the “Boots to Books and Beyond” monument on campus.
The sculpture, with bronzed boots atop a stack of books, includes a plaque: “To All Veterans Past, Present and Future.” It’s in a grassy space outside Lynnwood Hall, where the EdCC Veterans Resource Center welcomes vets to its second-floor offices and meeting areas.
Chris Szarek, a retired U.S. Navy Seabee, is director of the Veterans Resource Center. He said it was Peter Schmidt, a former EdCC Dean for Student Success and Retention, who was instrumental in bringing the monument to campus.
Schmidt, now director of behavioral health with the state Department of Veterans Affairs, will speak at Wednesday’s event, along with Timm Lovitt and Troy Montgomery. As members of EdCC’s Student Veterans Association in 2009, they helped plan and design the monument and raised money to build it.
The Edmonds Community College Foundation launched a $1 million campaign to support student veterans, and by 2014 the college had an expanded Veterans Resource Center. Szarek said about 180 military veterans are current EdCC students.
On Tuesday, the center was abuzz with activity. Students and staff stopped by for morning coffee while Al Rawi and Moratalla talked about their journeys. Gold Star Mother Myra Rintamaki paid a visit. Her 21-year-old son Steven Rintamaki, a Marine corporal from Lynnwood, was killed in Iraq in 2004.
She had a surprise for Moratalla. He was thrilled when he opened an envelope Rintamaki handed him Tuesday. Inside was a card with the signature of James Mattis. The former secretary of defense spoke in May at Seattle’s Museum of Flight during the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Park — and Rintamaki was there.
For the veteran from Venezuela, the signature of the retired Marine general nicknamed “Mad Dog” Mattis was an immediate keepsake.
Allowed to join the Marines with a permanent resident card known as a green card, Moratalla said he became a U.S. citizen on July 13, 2005. Three days later, he was deployed to Iraq. His first deployment was in Al Anbar Province, and the second was in the city of Barwanah.
Part of the 3rd Amphibious Assault Battalion, Echo Company, Moratalla was first attached to the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines and later to the 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines. He left the military as a corporal. “Every Marine is an infantryman — we adapt,” he said, explaining that amphibious assault vehicles aren’t ideal for desert duty.
“Going there and coming back were both tough,” Moratalla said. It was a challenge to be in classes with 18-year-olds who “haven’t explored the world.” At EdCC, he earned a degree in information technology. He’s worked at the college since 2010.
Moratalla said many Americans aren’t aware of the military’s diversity. In boot camp, he met recruits from Africa and China.
“I felt very welcomed in the Army,” said Al Rawi. “The Army honestly gave me a life.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.
EdCC celebrates veterans
Edmonds Community College’s annual Veterans Day Celebration is scheduled for 10:30 a.m.-noon Wednesday, Nov. 6, at the Black Box Theatre in Mukilteo Hall on campus, 20000 68th Ave. W., Lynnwood. The event is free and open to all veterans, students, college employees and the public.