For the past year, a group of Marines in western Iraq have gone on patrol with an Iraqi police lieutenant, Hammad Muhammad. Muhammad gradually became their friend. When they learned that his 5-year-old son, Ammar, had a life-threatening heart problem, the Marines made it their mission to save the boy.
Ammar suffered from a fairly common congenital heart defect called tetralogy of fallot, which deprives the blood of its oxygen. In the United States, it is treated by a routine operation before a child's first birthday. But Ammar, without surgery in Iraq, was expected to die in a few years.
"I can't think of a better way to demonstrate our friendship than to try to save the life of a young child," Maj. Kevin Jarrard of the U.S. Marines told ABC News.
The Marines collected $7,500 for two round-trip tickets from Iraq to Jordan to Charleston, S.C., and the Children's Hospital of the Medical University of South Carolina. The Marines had convinced several Rotary Clubs there, through a Gift of Life grant, to pay for the needed surgery.
"This is an innocent child whose father is risking his life daily with the United States Marine Corp," Rotary Club member Steve Peper said. "I'm an old Marine and it tugged at my heart. I said, 'Look, we've got to do this'."
Peper and his family housed the Iraqi family for more than a week while the boy underwent preoperative tests. A Google Web site helped the two families communicate by translating English sentences into Arabic.
"I'm a father, and he's a father, and there is no language barrier between dads trying to protect their children." Peper said.
Finally, Ammar was ready for open-heart surgery.
During the four-hour surgery, doctors patched a hole in Ammar's beating heart and widened a critical blood vessel to his lungs. The operation succeeded. Within a few days, Ammar was feeling much better, and his heart was finally working normally.
"I thank them," his father said. "These are people I will never forget."