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Ailing Iraqi girl returns home

Local Marine sees child rejoin her father

POSTED: March 20, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Neil Brake Vanderbilt University/

Daniel Saurers, echo technologist at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, gets an image of Amenah's heart to make sure the repair is working correctly, getting more blood to her lungs to get oxygen before it is pumped to the rest of her body. Zainab, the interpreter, far right, sits next to Maha Mohammed Al-Sumaidaie, Amenah's mother, for the exam.

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Maj. Kevin Jarrard of Gainesville knew how the father of 2-year-old Amenah Al-Bayati felt Friday night when he embraced his daughter on a tarmac at Baghdad International Airport.

Amenah, a girl from Haditha City, Iraq, was treated in the United States for a serious, life-threatening heart defect with the help of Jarrard's U.S. Marine unit. She completed the 6,600-mile journey home this week after a successful surgery. Jarrard was there to witness the event.

"It was a pretty joyous reunion last night," Jarrard said Saturday, speaking by phone from Al Asad Airbase in western Iraq. "It was pretty special watching the dad come off the back ramp of that C-130 (aircraft) and meet his wife as she came out of the vehicle to pull (Amenah) out there to the ramp.

"Just being able to see that little girl in the arms of her daddy, being a father of two little girls myself, I felt like I might know something about what he was feeling at that particular moment."

Amenah and her parents flew from Baghdad to Al Asad, then via helicopter back home to Haditha, "where we had a big party," Jarrard said. Amenah's mother, Maha Mohammed Al-Sumaidaie, had made the U.S. trip with her.

The long-term prognosis for Amenah, who underwent a complex procedure to redirect blood from her heart to her lungs, is good, Jarrard said.

"My understanding is the surgery was exceptionally successful, and she's got a very bright future ahead of her," Jarrard said.

The future for Amenah's hometown looks good as well, Jarrard believes.

"I think Haditha's a pretty good place to live right now," said Jarrard, who commands the Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines, a Marine Corps Reserve unit based there.

"It's been very peaceful for the time I've been here, there's a lot of progress being made. The folks seem happy, the economy is rolling along at a pretty good clip, we're doing a lot of rebuilding there. The Iraqis themselves have established a pretty strong and effective local government, so I think Haditha's going to be just fine - it's got a lot of possibility and a lot of potential."

Jarrard and his men encountered Amenah (pronounced "AH-men-a") back in October while on routine patrol and noticed her blue lips and fingertips. The 35-year-old Riverside Military Academy history teacher helped spearhead the effort to get Amenah the medical treatment she needed stateside at Nashville's Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, with a big hand from his "chief of staff," wife Kelly.

"Operation Amenah" as it was coined, is the kind of effort that's essential in the overall mission of the U.S. armed forces in Iraq, Jarrard said.

"Essentially we're here to do two things: Reward good and punish evil," he said.\

And while enemy fighters remain in the area, the majority of the Marines' efforts on this tour have been toward rebuilding and assistance, "where we're able to help out in some way the folks we're serving alongside of, the people of the city of Haditha," Jarrard said.

Dr. Karla Christian, the surgeon who operated on Amenah on Feb. 11, believes little Amenah can serve as a goodwill ambassador.

"I hope she'll be able to go back to Iraq and be a good sign of what America represents to the Iraqi people," Christian told NBC news this week.

It's been a long journey, Jarrard acknowledged. "When I think back to October, when we first started this thing, I would characterize it as miraculous," Jarrard said. "There were a lot of days when I was not sure we were going to be able to do this. I was reflecting yesterday on the way to Baghdad, it seems like October was a thousand years ago."

Credit goes to the staff of Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt, the promotion of local news media and the support of BB&T bank in fundraising efforts, Jarrard said. Private security firm Blackwater Worldwide was invaluable in providing escorts to Amenah's entourage in and out of Baghdad and Amman, Jordan, he said. Then there were the countless others who gave of their time and money to make the mission a success.

"I don't know all the people I need to thank, but I hope when I get home I'll have to the opportunity to thank each of those folks in person," said Jarrard, who expects to wrap up his tour of duty by mid-summer.

Jarrard believes Amenah's story touched so many people because "it's a story of hope."

"I suppose when you look at little Amenah, you think about what's possible," he said. "Not necessarily what has been in the past, but what may be in the future."



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