Iraqi Boy, 12, Burned, Disfigured as Infant Comes to U.S. for Reconstructive Surgery

Eleven-year-old Mohammed didn't speak much English, but Army Maj. David Howell had no trouble understanding the badly burned Iraqi boy's request last November to take him to America.

It took several months to get the paperwork in place, but Mohammed, now 12, finally got his wish and arrived Wednesday night in Michigan for an overhaul, courtesy of American donors.

During the next 12 to 18 months, doctors will perform skin grafts and reconstructive surgery at Lansing's Sparrow Hospital to repair damage Mohammed suffered as an infant when his house caught fire.

With burns over 30 percent of his body, Mohammed was left with scars on his scalp and face. His left index finger is deformed, and he has little use of his left arm.

Mohammed was warmly welcomed Thursday during a ceremony at the Michigan Department of Military and Veterans Affairs along with Howell, a Michigan Army National Guard physician's assistant from Grand Ledge.

Mohammed will attend classes at the Greater Lansing Islamic School in East Lansing and live with a Muslim host family that has roots in Iraq.

Howell said he gets emotional talking about Mohammed, a shy, slender boy who loves soccer and wears a cap to cover places where hair no longer grows.

"If I had known how much effort this was going to take, I might have had second thoughts," Howell told the crowd Thursday. But he added that he knew he wanted to help from the moment he saw Mohammed at a checkpoint in Ramadi, Iraq.

As for Mohammed, "he's very pleased with this opportunity. For him, he says, it's like a dream come true," said Ziena Saeed, of the family hosting Mohammed. She translated Mohammed's remarks during a question-and-answer session.

Like most adolescents, Mohammed had no trouble figuring out the television remote control, although he's been disappointed by the lack of soccer games being shown, Howell said.

The youngster tried a hamburger Wednesday night at McDonald's but preferred the french fries. He's eager to test his soccer skills against one of Howell's sons, who plays for the Grand Ledge High School varsity soccer team.

Howell said he won't publicize Mohammed's middle or last names because the boy's family remains in danger in Iraq. His father was killed by insurgents two years ago for working as a translator for the U.S. Marines in Ramadi.

The insurgents also killed his uncle when he went to the morgue to identify and claim the body, and they warned the boy's mother they'd kill her and her children if she ever contacted U.S. soldiers.

She didn't, but Howell said fate intervened. He was serving his second deployment to Iraq with the 125th Infantry when Mohammed and his mother walked through the checkpoint he was manning.

When the Guardsman went to talk to Mohammed later, "he asked if I would take him to America," Howell recalled Thursday. "There was no doubt in my mind I needed to help this boy."

Howell started the nonprofit Martyr Medical Fund for Children to help cover Mohammed's expenses and get medical treatment for other children of Iraqi translators who have been killed for helping U.S. soldiers.

Several Michigan businesses are contributing supplies for Mohammed's use, and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm sent a soccer ball she'd signed.

Howell said he's keeping in touch with Mohammed's family by e-mail and will bring him back to Iraq when his treatment is done.