Abdullah Alshimmari vividly remembers the fragile line between peace and chaos.
As a young boy growing up in the heart of Baghdad, he would stare out the kitchen window of his family home at the houses in his neighborhood — so close to each other that one could practically leap from one roof to the next. As he sat eating biscuits and tea from a tray on his lap one day, the serenity of a summer breeze on his face suddenly turned to violent destruction as a mortar exploded on the house two doors down.
“Everything started to move in slow motion, and the tray flipped in my hand,” Alshimmari recalled. “Biscuits flew everywhere, and I saw metal window casings and bars flying past. I knew this was a firefight. Every time it happened was scary, but I had grown used to it.”
Alshimmari’s mother and sisters were in the house, and the dust and smoke became so thick the family had to evacuate to an alleyway between their house and the neighbors’. Alshimmari could see what he assumed were Al Qaida insurgents running past carrying rifles, RPGs, and other ordnance. As one of three men in the house, Alshimmari, who was 11, had the responsibility of running to the store where his uncle and father worked to warn them to find safety.
The firefight raged for hours, and after the smoke settled, the family emerged to find their neighborhood in chaos. Buildings were scarred and pockmarked with bullet and shrapnel holes. Twisted metal and debris were scattered everywhere. Though such destruction had become a common sight, the disarray unnerved Alshimmari.
“I was judged by where I came from and what I looked like. That was until I found the Marine Corps.”
“Ever since the war started, my childhood was really scary,” Alshimmari said. “You hear something pop off and your only thought is, ‘Thank God it wasn’t me.’ It was horrible; you had to come to peace with the fact that you were going to lose family members and friends.”
But Alshimmari said American service members treated him and his family with kindness.
“The Marines would give me and my sisters gifts when they could stop on their patrol,” he said. “I got a football, a bag of tennis balls … I actually ate an MRE before I even joined the military. Giving a kid something like that is giving them the world, even if I didn’t know what something like a football was used for at the time.”
Alshimmari’s father worked as an electrician on the military base near their home. After they received death threats, Alshimmari and his father were given work visas to travel to America. With assistance from the US Government, Alshimmari’s mother and sisters were granted asylum in Jordan, and he and his father moved to Texas in 2011.
“In school in America, I felt like I was a part of something, but I didn’t ever really belong,” Alshimmari said. “Every 9/11 remembrance day, I would sit at the back of the class and just watch as heads would turn to look at me. I was judged by where I came from and what I looked like. That was until I found the Marine Corps.”
“I saw joining the military as a way to give back. I never really liked to take the easy way in things.”
After a friend mentioned joining the Marines, Alshimmari looked into the various opportunities online.
“I saw joining the military as a way to give back,” he said. “I never really liked to take the easy way in things. I saw the Marine Corps as a challenge I had never experienced, and I had already been through so much worse.”
Ashimmari said his recruiters immediately noticed his mental and physical toughness and his strong desire to excel as a Marine. He graduated recruit training in November 2015.
As a student in Parris Island’s Drill Instructor School, he is focused on growing as a Marine leader and embodying the highest standards of military professionalism, which drill instructors are known for. He said he looks forward to making Marines and hopes his story inspires others to overcome adversity.
First Sgt. Juan Segura, the senior enlisted advisor for the Drill Instructor School at Parris Island and one of Alshimmari’s instructors, recalled meeting Alshimmari in the first days of class and being struck by his story of resilience. As a Marine deployed in Iraq, Segura and his squad would stuff their pockets with candy and small trinkets from their care packages to give to children as they patrolled the area.
“I always apply what I went through in the past to how I am now. Often, I see people given one and only one chance, and if they make a mistake, they are labeled for life. Second chances are a must.”
“The kids we saw when we went on patrols were the future, and we learned that if we treated them as such, they would go on to do great things just as Alshimmari has,” Segura said.
Alshimmari said his desire to take care of his Marines and recruits in the future is galvanized by his experiences in war-torn Iraq.
“I always apply what I went through in the past to how I am now,” Alshimmari said. “Often, I see people given one and only one chance, and if they make a mistake, they are labeled for life. Second chances are a must.”
Segura said Alshimmari’s story is a testament to the American dream and the pride of belonging that comes from serving.
“To come to the United States to become a citizen … and on top of everything, have the desire to make and lead the Marines of the future — that is admirable,” Segura said.