By Army Spc. Ruth McClary
Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 14, 2009 - U.S. soldiers, family members and friends have brought the gift of sight to an Iraqi baby born blind with congenital cataracts. North Carolina National Guard soldiers of Troop C, 150th Armored Reconnaissance Squadron, 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team, were invited to a small celebration Dec. 9, hosted by the family of Noor Hassam Oudah – known as "Baby Nourah" -- in appreciation for setting up and covering expenses for the baby's Nov. 15 eye surgery, three days after her first birthday.
Though Nourah's condition is reversible with surgery, the operation is out of reach for a family living in Baghdad. The city's hospitals lack the facilities and physicians to perform the procedure.
"I was very pleased to be able to do something for this family," said Army 1st Lt. Jason Hickman, a platoon leader. "They have been very hospitable. It has truly been a pleasure to be able to help Nourah. I was relieved and very pleased that everything fell into place, considering all the obstacles that we faced."
Hickman said that if ever there were a more perfect example of divine intervention, it happened on a dark road about five months ago when a convoy made a wrong turn and ended up in Zwaynat, a small village southwest of Baghdad. Nourah was there visiting with her uncle, Muhameed Gharbi Sultan, who informed him of the baby's plight.
"So there we were at a place we hadn't intended on being," said Hickman. "Wrong turn, perhaps, but that's not how I see it. My interest and contacts with the Order of Saint John, the wrong turn, her being there with her uncle instead of with her parents in Baghdad -- no, not a coincidence."
The Order of St. John, accredited by the United Nations, provides first aid, health care and support services in more than 40 countries.
"I don't believe in the traditional sense of the word 'destiny,' but I do believe that God puts people in certain places at certain times," Hickman said. "Things don't happen solely by coincidence. All you have to do is look for the road signs. The signs were clear, so I sent some e-mails, and that's how we arrived here."
Once Nourah was diagnosed, Hickman e-mailed St. John's Jerusalem Eye Hospital, the main provider of eye care in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, and a cause he has contributed to in the past.
Through contact with Ruth Ann Skaff, the U.S. executive director of the Priory of St John's, Hickman was referred to Dr. Mehyar of the Khalidi Medical Center in Amman, Jordan, where the procedure was performed.
Hickman asked for donations from his fellow brigade soldiers, and e-mailed his family about the baby. Family members and friends from the West Virginia communities of Greenville, Belmont and St. Marys were the main contributors of the $5,000 needed to help Nourah.
From that point on, Hickman said, he was determined to help Nourah, and even in his darkest hour, he thought of her.
"Lieutenant Hickman's father passed away as we were working out all the details for Nourah," said Army Staff Sgt. Travers Brake of Elkins, W. Va., who took over the campaign while Hickman was on emergency leave. "He asked for the guys in the platoon to give donations to Nourah in lieu of sending flowers. Now that's special."
Many e-mails and meetings followed, and led to the celebration where Hickman, who didn't get a good look at Nourah that first night, finally was able to hold her. Dressed in a plush, pink, puppy snowsuit with a yellow-and-pink hat and yellow-rimmed glasses, Nourah made her rounds at the celebration; oblivious to her stardom. She looked around, waved and stared at some of the people instrumental in giving her such a special gift.
Nourah's paternal grandfather, Oudah Ghardi Sultan al-Jubori, said she has to go back for a check-up in a month and will have to wear glasses for five years -- a small sacrifice for a lifetime of vision.
"We are very grateful to you," Jubori said to Hickman and the other soldiers. He recalled a time when Iraqis and U.S. soldiers couldn't sit and talk without wearing armored vest and helmets. "Now we are very close," he said. "You should visit more. Please come back and visit before you go back to the states."
Hickman, Brake and the elders of Nourah's family shared a traditional Iraqi meal together, drank chai tea and talked late into the evening; laughing and joking like old-time acquaintances.
Since the operation, family members said, Nourah crawls, grabs for things and follows hands, fingers and objects placed in front of her. With her big, pouty cheeks and little cherry lips, she quietly absorbs her surroundings and responds at will.
"The Lord may not push you around the board like a pawn, but every now and again he puts you where he wants you," Hickman said. "We were supposed to end up in Zwaynat that night. It was just up to us what we were going to do when we got there."
(Army Spc. Ruth McClary serves in the North Carolina National Guard's 30th Heavy Brigade Combat Team public affairs office.)