A Soldier's Thanksgiving

We’ve been hearing a lot of good news coming out of Iraq recently.  But the positive stories aren’t limited to plummeting death counts and increased Iraqi cooperation.  Iraq offers many personal stories of heroism that most Americans never hear about.  Herewith a soldier’s story so inspiring that even the mainstream media couldn’t ignore it. 

In September 2003, Major Scott Southworth was in command of the Wisconsin National Guard 32nd Military Police Company, whose difficult mission was to teach local police officers how to operate in a democracy.  Southworth and his troops also volunteered at the Mother Teresa Orphanage in Baghdad, where he befriended Ala’a, a nine-year-old boy with cerebral palsy who had been abandoned in the city’s streets as an infant. 

Ala’a and Southworth developed an instant rapport.  During a recent interview, Southworth, currently the district attorney for Juneau County, Wisconsin, explained how his relationship with Ala’a developed. 

“Immediately, he wanted my full attention when my soldiers and I would arrive at the orphanage.  We became "buddies"; I felt like a big brother.  Ala’a began to tell staff and the other orphans that I was his "baba" ("daddy") when I was not there.  I was honored he’d feel that way.  Throughout the fall I began to feel very protective of him.  At Christmas time 2003, when the sisters of the orphanage told me that they were going to have to move him to a government facility a year from then, I immediately said, ‘Then I’ll adopt him.’  My response was so swift because I understood that Ala’a felt special to somebody for the first time in his life, he had nobody else to depend on, and I knew it was my responsibility to step up to the plate and give him a better life.”

Southworth’s Christian faith was at the heart of his decision to adopt Ala’a, and he says he first realized God was calling him to be Ala’a’s father when, while in Baghdad, the Army chaplain arranged for the troops to watch the film “The Passion of the Christ.”

 “After watching it, I realized that if Jesus Christ could do that for me, I could sacrifice a little for Ala’a,” explained Southworth.  “I also envisioned what I would tell Ala’a in Heaven one day if I didn’t go back to get him.  Every ‘reason’ I came up with made me feel guilty, and I realized they were just excuses.  I told myself that if I would be ashamed in Heaven for all eternity for not doing the right thing, then there was only one answer – take the step of faith and get Ala’a to the U.S.”

Thus began the arduous process of adopting an Iraqi child.  Ala’a was initially allowed to enter the U.S. under a “humanitarian parole,” which the Department of Homeland Security describes as an “extraordinary measure, sparingly used to bring an otherwise inadmissible alien into the United States for a temporary period of time due to a very compelling emergency.”  Ala’a’s situation was considered an emergency because he was nearing the age when he would have been forced to leave the orphanage and move to government-run housing for the disabled, where he would not have received adequate medical care.  The adoption process was difficult, but finally on June 4th, 2007, Southworth, 34, was granted full legal adoption, and the two became father and son.

Some have wondered how a young, single man decides to adopt a child with cerebral palsy.  For Southworth, the answer is rooted in a constant pursuit of openness to God’s will.  Southworth explained:

“Special needs adoption is a real blessing.  These children have God-given talents and abilities to share with others, and it’s a real joy to be their parent.  There are thousands – likely millions – of orphaned children around the world with special needs who desperately need a loving home.  If people are willing to take a step of faith and open their hearts, God will lead them to the child He has chosen for them to adopt.”

Southworth entered the orphanage that day to try to offer something positive to children in need.  Yet, he soon discovered what to some would seem paradoxical:  that Ala’a could offer him so much more than he could ever impart to Ala’a.  In Southworth’s words, “Ala’a is so much more of a blessing to me than I am to him.” 

And so it is with anyone who encounters with an open heart a person with special needs.  While the world often looks upon persons with special needs with sad eyes, loving them cannot help but awaken our hearts, allowing our love to radiate to others.  After all, Christians are taught that the type of love Christ has for man — unconditional, self-giving and patient — is also the type of love we are required to have for one another.
Southworth says he’s happier than he’s ever been before.  “I feel incredibly blessed, and I’ve learned to strive toward "absolute faith," which I learned from Ala’a.  Ala’a is so happy, so secure, feels so incredibly loved and safe, and recognizes that he’s very, very special to God, to me, to my family and to the world.  I cannot imagine my life without Ala’a in it.”

CNN recently profiled Scott and Ala’a’s story in its “Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” program.  Their story was chosen as one of six finalists to receive a $25,000 viewers’ choice award as the most inspiring story of “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.”  Southworth would use the prize money to pay for medical equipment, a stair lift and legal bills for Ala’a.  Voting ends on Monday, November 26, and the winner will be announced during a CNN special on December 6th.  I encourage you to take a moment to view a two-minute video of Scott and Ala’a and to vote for their inspiration story of hope and love at here.