Capt. Alea Nadeem decided to serve her country in the U.S. military after Sept. 11, 2001, when she was just a junior in high school.
But as a child, the idea of her joining the Air Force seemed impossible. Taken to Iraq by her father, she never thought she would even live in the United States again.
“I got stuck there for four years, essentially,” Nadeem, 34, told NBC News’ Lester Holt in an interview.
Nadeem was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, where she lived with her parents and younger sister. When she was 8 years old, her father took the family to his home country, Iraq, to visit his mother, who he said was sick.
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The family didn’t realize that he never intended to return to the United States at the end of the trip. He told Nadeem’s mother, Cindy Kurtz, whose visa was about to expire, that she could take just one of their two children back to the United States with her.
“I don't blame my mother for having to make that choice. No mother should ever have to be forced to pick between two children,” Nadeem said.
Kurtz took her younger daughter, Ayesha, back to the United States, where she worked with authorities to get her older daughter back. The three women appeared on "Megyn Kelly Today" on Wednesday to discuss their ordeal.
Though Nadeem had no understanding of the language at the time, she stayed in Iraq with her father. The Gulf War was underway and Saddam Hussein was in power. She remembers encountering American soldiers and asking them to take her home to her mother.
“Being born in America, you kind of know what freedom is like. And then going back to Iraq it’s just kind of a constricted environment,” Nadeem said. “I could feel that as an 8-year-old.”
Nadeem returned to the Middle East years later, when she deployed as a member of the Air Force. Nadeem chose to enlist in the military out of a desire to serve her country — but also to confront the false perceptions of her fellow Arab-Americans that she noticed after Sept. 11, 2001.
“People started saying crazy things about Arabs, Muslims, you know kind of associating them with terrorists,” she said.
“It was this kind of — I want to go help. I want to educate people to understand that Middle Eastern people are good.”
Nadeem first enlisted in the security forces in 2003 — asking her recruiter for whatever role would allow her to deploy as often as possible — before becoming an officer.
Her cultural background as an Iraqi-American has had an important impact on her work throughout her career, especially in her current work as an intelligence officer.
She encourages fellow Arab-Americans seeking to join the military to follow her lead: “We need those different perspectives. We need that cultural aspect. We need people with different views.”