I saw this in the morning paper.
October 19, 2004
Baghdad hero gets new home
BY CINDY GONZALEZ
WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER
Girls and Boys Town
He was a young street orphan in his native Baghdad before being "adopted" by a U.S. military unit stationed there.
Johnny after he arrived at Eppley Airfield Monday.
Johnny, as officials are calling him, quickly rose to the status of "American hero" after he warned troops of impending attacks and armed them with key surveillance.
Now the United States is returning the favors with a life-saving mission of its own.
Johnny, a target on insurgents' wanted posters in Iraq, was whisked Monday night to Omaha, where he will become part of the Girls and Boys Town family.
The 16-year-old will live and study alongside other formerly neglected or abandoned kids and go down in Boys Town history as a rare wartime informant who found refuge on the famous campus founded by Father Flanagan nearly 90 years ago.
"I feel great," Johnny said after arriving at Eppley Airfield, an American flag peeking out of his shirt pocket. "Everything is OK."
Accompanying the teen from his connecting flight in Chicago was the Rev. Val Peter and John Mollison, associate executive director and Boys Town alumnus.
Both talked about how excited the Boys Town village was to see its newest citizen, who will be introduced at an assembly today. Students started hearing about Johnny in June and erupted in cheers Monday when they learned that he finally was coming.
"Our kids know what it means to be lost, to be alone," Peter said. "This will say to them, 'We'll go all the way to Baghdad to help an abandoned boy, especially one who loves this country.'"
Johnny's journey to Omaha began about four months ago when Boys Town received an electronic message from Lt. Col. Brian McKiernan, commander of an Army unit stationed in Baghdad.
Information provided by McKiernan, Johnny and others make up this account:
McKiernan's unit was about to be relocated to Germany. Before it left, soldiers wanted to secure a haven for a homeless Iraqi youth who had assumed a unique place in their military operations as well as in their hearts.
The boy, who had been living on the streets since about age 8, had been with McKiernan's crew since they found him sick on the street and took him to a U.S. medical station. He started out performing menial tasks on base and quickly picked up English.
"It soon became apparent that he knew a great deal of information about people living in the zone where the unit was working," said John Melingagio, Boys Town spokesman.
Soldiers tapped Johnny as an interpreter. He was responsible, Boys Town was told, for the unit's success in capturing more than 40 insurgents and numerous weapons caches.
On several occasions, Johnny warned soldiers of impending attacks on them. He became a target for insurgents and terrorists in the zone and, according to McKiernan's correspondence, was even listed on their wanted posters.
"Johnny was right on the soldiers' sides, sharing risks and providing invaluable translation support," Melingagio said. "This was a marked boy in Baghdad."
Boys Town officials found an ally in the Omaha-based Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Jerry Heinauer, the bureau's district director, suggested and supported the request for humanitarian parole.
Yet it was not until Sunday that Boys Town knew Johnny's entry was a go. Much of the difficulty, said Boys Town Associate Executive Director Daniel Daly, was the teen's lack of a birth certificate or other documentation to prove his identity.
Now here, Johnny will start the education he never got in Iraq. He wants to play soccer, and maybe study medicine.
"I promised Colonel McKiernan that I'll join the Army," Johnny said. "Because the Army helped me."
After this week, the teen will keep a low profile because of concerns for his safety, Melingagio said. Boys Town wouldn't disclose his real name or details about where he'll stay.
Not since the Korean War has there been a similar placement at Boys Town, officials said.
In 1951, a military unit sent a letter asking Monsignor Nicholas Wegner to make a home for a 13-year-old Korean boy they called Jimmy.
The boy had been quick to pick up English, was an interpreter and rode along with soldiers, helping pick out snipers.
Melingagio said Boys Town also was a refuge for youths from Iron Curtain countries and more recently from war-torn countries of Africa.
Johnny was the first to come in the war against terrorism and was the first case pleaded via a computer from several countries away.
At Boys Town, Johnny will have the family, education and security he lacked in his home country. But, Peter noted, Boys Town also will get something from Johnny's case.
"It talks about patriotism, loyalty - about not giving up."
Welcome to the country. You, for one, DESERVE it!