PHILADELPHIA – At age 13, Tony al-Shammeree was in Iraq being trained in the use of guns, grenades and other weapons as part of the failed Shia Muslim uprising against Saddam Hussein after the first Gulf War.
Now he's girding for a rematch — this time as a U.S. Marine.
Iraqi dissident groups in the United States consider al-Shammeree a rarity because he actually enlisted in the military rather than just helping U.S. officials as translators or as sources of intelligence.
Ala Fa'ik, a spokesman for the nonprofit group Iraqi Forum for Democracy, said the choice to enlist makes perfect sense if you consider the 24-year-old lance corporal's background.
"For somebody who is born in Iraq and has seen the oppression of Saddam Hussein, they would have a much stronger sense in seeing the need to get involved in getting rid of that regime," Fa'ik said.
Al-Shammeree's admiration for the Marines began when his family was aided by a group of the military branch's soldiers on the road to Basra, and later at a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia.
Before the first Persian Gulf War, al-Shammeree's family lived in Baghdad. His father, Salih al-Washah, graduated from Baghdad University and had opposed Saddam Hussein's Baath Party since the 1960s because they kept him from being able to work as a civil engineer.
Although the Shiite Muslim family didn't have strong ties to any particular anti-Saddam movement, they fought the Baath party in any way possible from the 1960s through the 1990s.
They were later forced to move around the country, taking part in the uprising against Hussein in 1991.
When the family eventually got to the border of Kuwait and Iraq, they interviewed with teams from the United Nations and the United States. After filling out applications to be refugees, the family was granted asylum, left the country and moved to the United States in April 1991.
The family had many skills, and have gone on to become engineers, teachers, lawyers and students. Tony was living in Detroit in 1999 when he decided to enlist with the Marines.
Al-Shammeree's older brother, Mahdi al-Shammeree, who lives with his parents, brothers and sisters in northeast Philadelphia, said his brother's experience with weapons made him an excellent Marine candidate.
"My grandpa taught him to shoot, using a sniper gun at a very young age," said Mahdi, 27.
Sgt. John Lawson, a U.S. Marines spokesman at the Pentagon, said there are about 175,000 Marines, but the military doesn't track specific ethnic minorities. He said he suspects Tony is one of very few Iraqi natives serving, if not the only one.
Nael Alwashah, Tony's 19-year-old younger brother, could be next.
"I'd join now, but I know if I joined now I wouldn't be able to make it to the war," he said.
Muhannad Eshaiker, a board member of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy near Los Angeles, said he doesn't know any Iraqis serving in the U.S. armed forces.
Many of those young enough to have a good command of English and pass fitness tests don't have positive memories of their time in Iraq and want to stay in the United States rather than join the military.
"They don't want to remember their time in Iraq," Eshaiker said.