Code Name: Johnny Walker: The Extraordinary Story of the Iraqi Who Risked Everything to Fight with the U.S. Navy SEALs

BOOK: Code Name: Johnny Walker: The Extraordinary Story of the Iraqi Who Risked Everything to Fight with the U.S. Navy SEALs
7.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub



To my wife and children, the great loves of my life


Livin’ the dream . . .

A Note to the Reader

Though many people know me as Johnny Walker, it is not my real name. It’s actually a nickname the SEALs gave me while I served with them in Iraq.

In order to protect my family, both here and in Iraq, I have decided to use
that name. I have also found it necessary to omit and generally obscure the identities of those closest to me in Iraq, along with other identifying characteristics, so that their lives will not be endangered. I have done the same for security reasons involving some of the missions I undertook with American and Iraqi forces, as well as changed or otherwise used my own nicknames for all former and active-duty SEALs important to the story.

The incidents recounted here are from my own memory. Admittedly, time blurs much, but I and my cowriter have tried to corroborate everything possible. The dialogue has been reconstructed and in many cases translated from Arabic; it is not meant to be verbatim but rather representative of what was said and what happened at the time.




Johnny’s ingenuity, indomitable spirit, and utter fearlessness not only protected the lives of many SEALs, but also saved the lives of countless innocent Iraqis. He is a true hero to all of us.

Some of my most memorable moments in Iraq took place while hanging out with Johnny and the Iraqi commandos, marveling at Johnny’s ability to unite Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds as we discussed challenging topics like religion and ethnic conflict. This continues to be Johnny’s contribution—his monklike, thoughtful appreciation of how life works and how to lead it well.

Seeing Johnny and his family living safely in the United States, embracing life as patriotic Americans, is something I will cherish forever.



The war in Iraq: No issue has divided our country more since Vietnam. The soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and their families have paid an incredibly high psychological and physical toll. The same can be said for the Iraqis. Economists decry the amount of money spent with little return on investment. Parents lost children. Husbands and wives lost spouses. Children lost parents. Warriors lost brothers and sisters. The question I have been asked many times, by others and even myself, is: Was it worth it?

While deployed to Iraq, that answer changed many times. When a suicide bomber detonated himself at Checkpoint 12 in the Green Zone, killing a young National Guardsman, the answer was no. But when we decimated an al-Qaeda cell responsible for training and equipping suicide bombers, then it was absolutely yes.

When an IED detonated and killed not only American soldiers but also a mother and her children, it was a resounding no. But when our snipers killed a mujahideen fighter placing an IED, it was a resounding yes.

Of course, without the war, or without any war for that matter, those situations would never present themselves. War is worth it only for those who don’t have to fight it or live with the consequences. But make no mistake, there are some horrific people in the world who will stop at nothing to impose their twisted vision on all those who won’t fight or fight back. They need to be dealt with viciously, yet surgically.

I have come to realize lately that perhaps the better question to ask is whether any good came from the war. I will allow the historians and politicians to debate endlessly on the strategic impact. I, like every other person who fought there, can only answer on the personal level.

My answer is yes.

For me, the little things made all the difference. Conducting a direct-action mission in al-Dora to capture an al-Qaeda member may have had little strategic significance. But it meant that the California National Guardsmen and -women who controlled that jewel of a neighborhood would not get hit with an IED for a week.

Lives were saved; others found a moment of respite from horror.

There were many similar tactical victories that did much good. For me, the most surreal and decisive came during the trial of Saddam Hussein. At the time, I had two of our new interpreters living in my room. We had a satellite television hookup, and it quickly became the hangout for all the linguists, better known to us as “terps.” The day the verdict was to be read, representatives from every demographic in Iraq crowded into my room. One was a Shia who had fled to the States after the first Iraq war when he and the other Shia were systematically wiped out following their unsuccessful uprising. Another was a Kurd who had escaped with his family to America following the extermination of his village from a gas attack by Saddam; he and his wife had carried their children to safety by trekking fifty kilometers in the winter to the Turkish border. One gentleman was a Christian who had had the misfortune of taking care of Uday and Qusay—Saddam’s sons—when they were children; he’d left the country after the first Gulf war and moved to Pasadena. And, of course, Johnny Walker, still an Iraqi citizen, was there.

It is impossible for me to describe the emotion and elation when the verdict of “guilty” came across the TV. They were all dancing, hugging, shouting in celebration. I could literally feel the yoke of tyranny being lifted off their collective shoulders. It was good.

For all of them except Johnny, it was closure. They could do their time in Iraq and return to the new lives they had made for themselves in America.

Not Johnny.

This was when the gravity of the situation really hit me. Johnny Walker would have to live with the aftermath.

Shortly thereafter, I hit up Johnny to see if he wanted us to work on a path to citizenship for him and his family. He responded, “Brother, this is my country. I am going to see it through.”

I kind of figured he would say that, but I could tell that I’d blown oxygen on a flame that was lit in the room on the day of the verdict.

Over the course of the next month, I hoped in vain that Johnny would come and take me up on the offer. Finally, in October 2005, the day came for me to depart Iraq and head home. It goes without question that I could not wait to see my family. But I had a huge pit in my stomach. I knew the danger Johnny was in. (He understates it in this book).

When we said good-bye, I feared he wouldn’t survive the war. He risked so much to help us and there was no way to repay him if the U.S. pulled out of Iraq. It felt wrong not having him come to the States, but I respected his dedication to his country. Still, upon my return to the safety of my country and the love of my family, I felt a lingering guilt.

That changed months later when I got the call from the CO of SEAL Team 1 telling me that things had gotten too bad for Johnny and family and he wanted to come to the States. The concern and guilt now had an outlet. Over the next three and a half years, countless SEALs played a part in moving the painstakingly slow immigration process forward. It is a testament to Johnny’s incredible character when I look at the time and energy put into this endeavor by so many warriors.

I must pause here and thank George, the lawyer, for all his help. He managed the process with incredible patience and a tireless work ethic. Without his benevolence and skill, Johnny’s story may not have been told.

On July 8, 2009, I was out in the desert conducting training prior to a return trip to Iraq. I knew Johnny and family were inbound to San Diego, but until I had confirmation I couldn’t be at ease. Finally I get a text from George: “He made it. They are all here.”

Instantly, nearly four years of stress disappeared. My eyes welled up. Next to my marriage and the birth of my kids, I have never been happier.

Only a psychopath or someone with no skin in the game wants war. But good can come out of any terrible situation and war is no exception. Because of war, Johnny and his family, whom I love like my own, live in the United States: safe, free, and at peace.

These days, I can’t help but smile every time I see Johnny Walker. He still has that cool swagger he had in Iraq, but he looks genuinely happy and at ease. We talk about the mundane things in life instead of targets or the history of the rift between Sunni and Shia.

Johnny and his family are living proof that the American Dream still exists. I hope, no
I know,
his incredible children will grow up to be wildly successful. After all, they inherited the genes of a warrior, of a hero, of a true American.


Prologue: Freedom

your America, and your America is mine. It is a refuge and a dream, a place of freedom and respite, responsibility and wonder. To have arrived here, after the journey I took, after the bombs and gunfire and killings, the beheadings and kidnappings, the dangers, after everything that has happened in my life: the idea that I am free now, and the knowledge of everything it means, fills me with gratitude. I am thankful for every moment and every breath. I am grateful to the SEALs who risked their lives for my family, grateful for the sacrifices of other servicemen and -women, grateful to my neighbors and new friends who have welcomed me to this land of large dreams and open skies.

Every day, I live a dream. My dream. But unlike most, my dream began amid a nightmare—a murderous war in Iraq that destroyed not only the lives of many of my friends and relatives, but an entire country and culture. That destruction began long before the war I fought in. Long before that conflict began, Iraq was a broken country, a place ruled more by fear than law, a place where making a decent living was for many an impossible dream.

The American war brought hope to the disenfranchised Iraqis. But soon that hope evaporated, replaced by violence and bloodshed. The Americans were an excuse but not the cause of this nightmare. The hatred and villainy it engendered tore what had been my country apart; its effects continue to this day.

I am far away from that now.

Today, on a cool morning in San Diego, I walk out on the pier at Imperial Beach and feel the wind push against my body, tearing at my clothes and sandpapering my face. It’s a wonderful feeling.

At six in the morning, the beach is nearly always deserted. It is as if I have the edge of the world completely to myself.

I wait a little while. The fishermen come and cast their lines into the surf. Someone once told me that fishing is a great act of faith—to fish one must be incredibly patient, but one must also believe. He waits in the water and the wind, casting and standing, believing that eventually his persistence will pay off. He dreams of landing a fish. He rehearses for it in his head; he hopes; he waits.

That sort of dreaming is familiar to me. That is how I came to America, an immigrant before I even knew I could travel, a citizen in my hopes before the wish could even be spoken. A fisherman.

America is a land of immigrants. Every family here has its own unique story of travel, of hardship in many cases, of triumph and sadness. Many of these stories are filled with tears; a few are marked by blood. My story has both.

I have debated how much to say about the war and my role in it. I thought of not telling about these things, but in the end, I decided that people should know the real story. I think a lot of people will say that what happened was very savage. Perhaps they will think that I am a savage as well, though in my mind I did what I had to do and killed only to survive.

Some people, including some of the bravest warriors America has produced—the SEALs—have called me a hero.

That is not a word I use to describe myself. I am only a man who did what I thought I needed to do, what I felt I had to do. I was a man doing a job, one I was happy to have, for it meant I could support my family at a time and place when it was difficult to do so.

And for a while at least, a job I thought meant I was changing my country for the better.

People ask how many missions I went on, how many times I faced death. I don’t know. I went on at least hundreds and more likely thousands of operations with just the SEALs alone, sometimes two or three in a single night. American military units rotated in and out of the country every few months, taking a rest back in the States for months and even years. For me, there was no rotation, and the rests were not only very short, but in a war zone. IEDs and stray bullets were as much a danger as actual combat or “direct action,” often more so.

It all seemed like a normal life then. Perhaps that itself is a measure of the war’s insanity.

If I have courage or fear or even savagery, it is because I am human. These things are in all of us; war only brings them out. We are all capable of the worst possible crimes. We can all kill; we can all destroy. These are far easier to do than build, or help someone live. I have found to my horror that it does not take much to become a monster.

I didn’t always think this way. Maybe like most people—I
most people think this way—I thought at one time that the world was basically good. I believed, and still believe, that we can all live together in peace, and by working together make our communities and the world a better place. I feel, I know, that it is better to make and to build than to tear down and destroy.

I thought all people around me believed that, too.

Little by little, I saw this wasn’t true.

I fought it; I tried to change it; eventually I saw my only course was to escape it. But before I was able to call America my home, I had to denounce America. Before I could taste freedom I had to taste death itself.


late summer of 2004. I’d been working for a number of different American organizations, civilian and military, for more than a year. The liberation of Iraq had been a glorious moment, a triumph that nearly all of us in Mosul shared. When I got my first job as a translator, everyone on my street celebrated with me. “Way to go, Johnny,” they said. “Now you are made.”

“What a wonderful thing.”

But in barely a year, all of that changed. Things turned murderously bad. My job went from a thing to be celebrated to a thing to be hidden. Any association with Americans was a death sentence. If Navy SEALs loved me for helping them, mujahedeen terrorists hated me for the same thing.

One morning on my way to the SEAL base, a car pulled up behind me as I approached a traffic circle in western Mosul. Instinctively I knew what would happen. As I looked for an escape route, the car drew close and the man in the passenger seat began firing.

I was lucky. The bullets missed.

I veered off the road, then gunned the engine and managed to hit the other car as it turned. I jumped out, AK-47 in my hands.

How many rounds I fired, I have no idea. Both men in the car died, either because of the crash or because of my bullets, I’ll never know—and it makes no difference.

People ran to us. As the crowd gathered, I could feel their hatred.

“What is it?” they demanded. “What are you doing?”

There was only one way to escape.

“They worked with the Americans,” I said loudly. “They had to die.”

The crowd began to cheer. A few pelted the car with rocks. Suddenly, the car was in flames.

I quickly made my getaway.

It was one of the worst days of my life, the day that I denounced America. But it was also the day that my escape to the United States began.

BOOK: Code Name: Johnny Walker: The Extraordinary Story of the Iraqi Who Risked Everything to Fight with the U.S. Navy SEALs
7.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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