Abdul Zhaiya pulls from Iraqi background to better the Marine Corps

“Picture this: It’s 2008 and I was 13 years old,” started Abdul Zhaiya rubbing his calloused hand on the worn portion of his knee as he recalled a faded memory. “We had four 100 gallon water steel tanks on top of our house, that’s the water supply you have for the week, the government replenishes the water weekly.

If I remember correctly, we were three days into the week and my dad asked me to check the water level to see how much water we had left. Rationing your water is important because if you run out, that’s it. I went upstairs to the roof and checked the first tank, it was empty. The second was a quarter of the way full. The third was only halfway full.

Then I checked the last and final one, I opened the lid on top and noticed it was full but also had a dead rat floating on the surface. Clearly the water was contaminated and so I sat there on the roof, thinking. These are the two scenarios that played out in my mind. One, I could go downstairs and tell everyone what I’d seen and end up having to drain all of our water.

The only water we had for cooking, cleaning, showering, drinking, anything you could think of. Two, I could take the rat out, throw it off the roof and go downstairs and tell my dad that it was good. If we got sick and died, we died. After a while, I chose the second option.”

Abdul Zhaiya, a Mosul, Iraq, native, was born in the middle of America’s war on terror. At the time his father, Nizar, was an employee for NATO, and his wife, Hanan, daughter, Aysha, and son, Abdul, became a target for terrorists.

Within months of Zhaiya’s birth, Zhaiya’s family was moved to a refugee camp in Guam by the United States government. Six months later, Zhaiya’s family was brought to America, where Zhaiya would live for 10 peaceful years. Despite the peaceful lifestyle, Zhaiya’s family longed to move back to their home. As the war came to a close, Zhaiya’s family began to plan to move.

Zhaiya’s parents feared that Zhaiya and his sister would never learn about their beloved Middle Eastern culture. In August of 2006, their family moved to outskirts of Dubai. In August of 2007, Zhaiya returned to Iraq. “I’ll give you a good example of Iraq, I’ll paint you a picture of my school,” said Abdul Zhaiya his lips twisting into a smirk.

“My first year of school in eighth grade had 75 students in it, and the whole class was the size of this wall to this wall, and it fit 75 people in there with desks.” Zhaiya motioned with his bronze arms showing the classroom that held more than six dozen students was roughly the size of a cubical. 

“There were wooden desks with wooden seats that were lined up in 5 or 6 rows and the people who sat in the back always had to climb up onto the desks just to get to the back, there wasn’t any room in-between the desks for people to walk through. The walls were kind of a stained brown-yellow, a dirty, dusty color. We had three windows, two of them were shattered with bars on them.

There were a bunch of bullet holes that littered the wall right across from various firefights that had happened. In the middle of summer when it is 120 degrees, with 75 people it got hot. We had eight periods per day but we would only go to about five classes per day because teachers wouldn’t come and we didn’t have substitute teachers. We would just go outside and play soccer until we heard gun shots and then we would run back inside.”

After five years of Zhaiya going to school in Iraq, Hanan and Nizar chose their children’s education and safety over their desire to stay at home. With heavy hearts, they moved back to the United States, where Abdul would pick up high school from the beginning. At 17 years old, despite his recognized intelligence, he struggled to transition from the Iraqi school system to Lincoln, Nebraska. After graduating high school, Zhaiya struggled against his desire to join the military.

Then, an unsuspected death changed everything. “I initially joined the Marine Corps because of a third of ISIS was back in my native country, it became a personal battle,” shared Zhaiya. “I was 21 years old when my cousin was killed by a mortar attack from ISIS during my third phase of boot camp. He was kind of like my younger brother.

When I moved to Iraq he was the one who showed me what to do and what not to do. We were close, his name was Abdul too. He really liked cars. He talked about cars like Lamborghinis all the time, and he kept saying one day he would own one. His death motivated me, making we want to go to the Middle-East to serve over there.”

As Zhaiya began to look into enlisting in the Marine Corps, he realized his options were limited. Due to the education conflicts, when Zhaiya took his Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery as a student, his scores were low. The ASVAB is a multiple-aptitude test that measures developed abilities and helps predict future academic and military occupational successes.

The military utilizes it as a qualification for enlistment into various military occupational specialties. “I chose utilities because my ASVAB score was pretty low because of the education system that I went through in Iraq,” said Zhaiya.

“Education wasn’t consistent and it was different than what the United States had. I narrowed down my few choices and security forces was set for me until the night before I left for boot camp, I had 24 hours to pick an MOS. I considered being utilities because I thought it was just being an electrician.

Iraq only has power for two hours a day, so I thought I could help my friends or family if I understood it. When I became a water support technician, I was content though. After living in Iraq, I understood the importance of not having running water, and having clean or purified water to drink. I understand the importance of my MOS in missions and field ops.”

Now, Zhaiya is a water support technician with Marine Wing Support Squadron 172, Marine Wing Support Group 17, 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, III Marine Expeditionary Force. Water support technicians, commonly known as water dogs, install, operate, inspect and perform corrective and preventive maintenance on pumps, water filtration and purification equipment, water storage and distribution systems and laundry and shower facilities.

Water support technicians are key in establishing and maintaining water and sanitation systems for Marines deployed and in garrison. Zhaiya is well known throughout his chain of command for his resilience, dedication and commitment to MWSS-172’s mission and the betterment of the Marine Corps. Zhaiya constantly pushes the envelope, constantly asking questions and tactfully striving to better his unit and fellow Marines.

“What is interesting with our platoon is a lot of our Marines have very different backgrounds,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Ross D. Larson, the utilities platoon commander of MWSS-172. “With Zhaiya being from Iraq and many of our staff non-commissioned officers having been deployed there, it brings new perspective. I think commitment is the most important value and Zhaiya upholds it.

He’s committed to serving his country and fellow Marines and he understands the importance of our freedoms.” Even after his long days of working in the blazing Okinawa sun, Zhaiya has dedicated countless hours to volunteering at the United Service Organization, playing ping pong and talking to countless Marines about their life goals. 

“If I could share anything with other Marines, I would say that every effort is initially your own,” said Zhaiya. “No one can force you to do anything. There is a difference between an order and an instruction. Be humble, take everything around you with a grain of salt. Everyone has different battles and experiences, respect them.” 

As Zhaiya’s career continues, he looks to take his fourth and final language test for another dialect of Arabic and to retake his ASVAB. Zhaiya’s future goal is to be a translating asset to the U.S. helping strengthen and preserve our most precious resources while strengthening and enhancing our relationships with allies and partners, enabling their success as he pursues his own. 

“If I could say thank you to the Marine Corps, I guess I’d say thank you for letting me travel, meet people and serve,” stated Zhaiya. “The United States gave me a roof over my head and so I felt like I needed to serve for at least one term to show my gratitude and repay the country that brought me in. I don’t care about the title of being a Marine, I care about the brotherhood.” 

by Lance Cpl. Tayler Schwamb, The Marine Corps Installations Pacific



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