Delivering Democracy

6/19/2005 8:59:28 AM

A family’s role in shaping history

On the day of Iraq’s first free election, Hedy Dagher’s heart swelled with the pride of a patriot and the fear of a parent.

How many times had the Wheeling woman explained the importance of a free Iraq to her sons when they were young?

How often had she explained what a democracy would mean to their long-suffering people?

She cast her historic ballot knowing her sons had listened. At that very moment, both men were playing roles in the execution of the country’s first true election. As she watched their selflessness bear fruit, Hedy Dagher had just one nagging question left: Would her boys be safe in the process?

The eldest, Dan, was in Iraq serving with the U.S. Air Force. The 41-year-old father of two had volunteered to fly security missions that day, transporting military supplies across the war-torn country.

As Lt. Col. Dan Dagher took to the skies, Hedy Dagher’s younger son, Pete, helped Iraqis cast absentee ballots in Rosemont.

Separated by 6,000 miles, the brothers were united by a historic, familial and patriotic cause: Bringing democracy to their mother’s homeland.

The family united again nearly five months later to reflect upon the event they hope will eventually bring stability to Iraq. Hedy Dagher finally can talk openly about the election — now that Dan’s home and both her sons are safe.

“That day,” she said, “was like a dream.”

An American story

Hedy Dagher, a single mother, raised her sons amid the Chicago area’s thriving Assyrian community. Like many first-generation Americans, they grew up with a deep affection for their mother’s adopted country and an appreciation for their ancestors’ struggles.

Assyrians, as the brothers learned at an early age, have struggled since biblical times.

Their mother had grown up in Baghdad, where Assyrians remain an ethnic minority. She left in 1958, seeking freedom and economic opportunity in the United States.

Saddam Hussein rose to power 10 years later, unleashing nearly four decades of misery on her people. The largely Christian community could not teach in its native language and was never fully recognized by the government.

Christians could convert to Islam, but Muslims were forbidden from becoming Christians. Meanwhile, Saddam forced Assyrians, who do not consider themselves Arabs, to declare themselves such in an act of ethnic cleansing meant to stoke a fervent nationalist ideology.

An estimated 1.5 million Assyrians still live in Iraq, their native and biblical home. Another 4 million live outside the country, having fled after centuries of religious persecution.

About 80,000 live in the Chicago area. Nearly 25 percent were eligible to vote in the Iraq election last January.

Neither Dan nor Pete Dagher, however, could cast a ballot. Despite their mother’s nationality, Iraq’s laws prevented them from voting because their father was born in Lebanon.

Their ineligibility never bothered them. The brothers’ American citizenship fueled their commitment as much as the family’s Assyrian heritage.

“I’m doing this for the United States,” Pete Dagher said. “If we get this country to be a democracy, we don’t ever have to go back and fight a third war there.”

They found comfort and inspiration in the family’s efforts to ease Iraq’s burden. Mother voting, one son protecting, the other poll-watching.

“It made me feel a lot closer to home,” Dan Dagher said while recently visiting his mother in Wheeling. “It’s like looking at the same moon. You know they’re participating in the same thing half a world away.”

To help write history

Pete Dagher, 39, a former Congressional candidate who worked for the Clinton administration, volunteered to be an election judge overseeing absentee ballots.

Organizers later tapped him to manage the voting in Rosemont, one of only two polling sites in the upper Midwest.

He helped nearly 1,200 expatriates cast votes over a three-day weekend, while handling security concerns and administrative duties at the site.

Homeland hostilities, however, quickly manifested themselves in stateside voting. Kurds thought they were being mistreated because they couldn’t campaign at the polling site. Local Assyrians complained there hadn’t been enough voter outreach in their community.

When the International Office of Migration — the U.N.-sanctioned group overseeing the absentee voting — became flustered by the task, Pete Dagher stepped forward to ease political tensions among local Iraqis and serve as a media liaison.

Worried the high-profile position would make her son a target, Hedy Dagher cringed when he appeared on television or in local newspapers. Pete Dagher believed himself safe, but asked reporters not to mention his brother’s deployment.

He didn’t want to put Dan in any more danger by flaunting the fact that an Air Force officer in Iraq had a brother running stateside voting. The family was all too aware a violent faction in the country didn’t want Americans there and had vowed to thwart the elections by any means necessary.

The stakes became even higher when a British Royal Air Force C-130 transport plane — the same type of aircraft Dan Dagher pilots — crashed on the day before the election. All 10 people onboard died.

“People said we were brave to help with the voting,” Pete Dagher said. “But the worst thing that could have happened to me was being called some names. My brother could have been killed.”

Dan Dagher doesn’t let his younger brother diminish his contribution to Iraqi democracy.

“I knew what he was doing, and I was proud of what he was doing,” he said. “It’s not often you have a chance to help write history.”

The face of America

Dan Dagher, though, has had ample opportunity to shape history. In his 18 years with the Air Force, the Gulf War veteran has flown high-risk missions in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Rwanda and Iraq.

He was stationed at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, but was not in the building at the time of the attack. His unit was deployed the very next day and has been on continuous deployment ever since.

Dagher’s squadron, the 50th Airlift, spent several months in Afghanistan before being sent to Iraq in October of 2004. They arrived in his mother’s homeland with orders to fly transport missions and teach the Iraqi air force to pilot the three C-130 planes donated by the United States.

The transport missions were critical because they reduced the need for convoys, a favorite target of local insurgents. By using planes instead of trucks to move people and supplies, the military could prevent many deaths.

“I was really proud to be doing that,” said Dan Dagher, who commanded roughly 250 airmen. “It gave our guys a sense of purpose.”

Dagher, who was stationed in southeastern Iraq, had not stepped foot in the country since his family last visited in 1977. His mother’s sister still lives in Baghdad, but he never considered visiting her.

He feared for both of their safety if insurgents discovered her nephew was a U.S. military officer.

“We didn’t even tell her I was there,” he said, “because I knew she would try to come see me and that would have been too dangerous.”

Dan Dagher, though, did not hide his heritage while in the country. The Iraqi air force pilots he trained all knew of his background and it helped foster friendships between the two groups.

In months leading up to the elections, Iraqi Christians endured assassinations and kidnappings. More than 60,000 Christians have fled Mosul, the modern city that surrounds the Assyrian capital of Nineveh.

Dagher, however, said he experienced no hostility from the Iraqi pilots with whom he worked. To the contrary, they appreciated his heritage because he could speak to them in Arabic.

As in most cultures, the Iraqis found it easier to trust someone who looked and talked like them. It reassured them even more to see an American of Middle Eastern descent serving as a high-ranking U.S. officer.

“We were the face of America to them,” he said. “If the face of America looked different, it might not have gone as smoothly as it did.”

The Iraqi pilots — many of whom had more flying experience than their American counterparts — quickly learned how to handle the C-130s, Dagher said. Keeping their identities hidden, however, was a much more arduous task.

The men spent weeks training in secrecy, as they attempted to rebuild the country’s air force. They told no one of their efforts for fear insurgents would learn they were working with the Americans.

With the threat of rebel attacks looming on Election Day, the Iraqi pilots were spirited away to secret locations to cast ballots. Dagher, for his part, volunteered to fly that morning in an effort to protect both his men and Iraq’s fragile democratic process.

He wanted to be at the controls of the aircraft, doing everything he could to complete the mission quickly and safely.

“If anything would have gone wrong, it would have been not only a personal tragedy but also threaten the entire process,” he said. “One small event would have had huge implications.”

Dagher spent much of the historic weekend flying election officials to polling sites. Insurgents shot anti-aircraft missiles at a plane under his command but caused no severe damage.

Though Iraqis celebrated their small taste of democracy, Dagher didn’t join in the revelry. He was too concerned about his squadron’s safety and 11th-hour attacks to enjoy the festive mood.

“I can’t say I was elated,” he said. “I was happy for the Iraqi people because it was so important to them. But I was more worried about my men.”

Six thousand miles away in Rosemont, Pete Dagher wasn’t celebrating, either. Local election workers gathered to toast the election’s surprise success, but he didn’t feel like rejoicing.

He sat outside the party for 45 minutes, futilely trying to talk himself into going inside. Still haunted by the Royal Air Force’s C-130 crash, he decided he couldn’t do it.

“I couldn’t be happy at that moment,” he said. “I knew there were British families getting knocks on the door at that very moment.”

Helping a country

Five months later, the two brothers sit at the dining room table of their mother’s Wheeling home. They joke and tease each other, downplaying their role in Iraq’s fledgling democracy.

Their mother, however, doesn’t let them gloss over the importance of their efforts.

She recalls a once-prosperous and stable Iraq where Muslims, Jews and Christians lived as neighbors. She prays it will one day return to its old ways, thanks in small part to the selflessness of her two boys.

“They did their jobs well,” she said. “I am so proud of both of them.”

The significance of a free Iraq, however, escapes the next generation of Daghers. As Dan Dagher shows photographs of his time in Iraq, his 10-year-old daughter, Alex, climbs onto his lap and questions the war.

“Are we trying to hurt Iraqis or help them?” she asks.

Dagher stops to describe how the military has improved life for many Iraqis. He gently explains why insurgents are angered by the American presence and why many Iraqis — people like his aunt and cousins — have freedoms they didn’t have before.

He instills in her a sense of history and purpose, much like his mother did when he was a boy.

“We’re helping them,” he tells her. “We’re helping a country move toward the things it wants.”