An Airborne Sergeant's Journey from Africa to Iraq
BAGHDAD – When Sgt. Abdou Cham was a young boy growing up in the town of Banjul in the West African country of the Gambia, people thought he was a little strange.
While the other boys were playing soccer, Cham could usually be found with his head buried in a book about military history.
“I’ve always been fascinated with the military,” Cham said. “The idea of people sacrificing themselves for what they believe in, it always appealed to me.”
Today, the little boy who read books about Soldiers has grown up to be one. Cham, 27, is a team leader with the 82nd Airborne Division on his third deployment to Iraq. His unit, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, arrived in January and was one of the first to move into Baghdad as part of the new security plan. They are based at Coalition Outpost Callahan in the eastern Baghdad Sha’ab neighborhood.
Inside the COP, propped up on his bunk with a mini-DVD player resting on his chest, Cham doesn’t seem any different than the other paratroopers in the room. All of them have unique reasons for having joined the Army. But few had to travel as far as Cham did to accomplish the goal.
Cham’s journey began in Banjul, where he said he had a happy childhood. His father was an accountant and his mother owned her own business. The Chams weren’t rich, but they were always comfortable.
In school, Cham did well until he got to high school. That’s when he discovered girls, and, he said, “I dropped everything.”
Still, his marks were good enough to earn an advanced-level diploma. At that point, Cham decided to continue his education in America. In 1999, he moved to Gaithersburg, Md., where he had relatives, and began attending college. It was there that he met his wife. They now have two young children.
For the next several years, Cham went to school and worked full-time managing a restaurant. With all the obligation of work, school and family, he saw his chance to become a Soldier slipping away.
In 2004, Cham decided he couldn’t wait any longer to pursue his dream. With his wife’s blessing, he went down to the recruiting office and filled out the paperwork to become a Soldier.
“I always knew I would end up in the Army,” he said. “When I called home to tell my folks I had joined, no one was surprised.”
Cham’s immediate family knew how strongly he felt about being a Soldier, but others were shocked that he would enlist during a time of war.
“Coming from Africa, people thought this wasn’t my war,” he said. “But America has given me a lot, so this was just my way of giving back.”
It wasn’t long before Cham was deployed to Iraq, first to Mosul in December 2004 and then to Tal Afar in the autumn of 2006.
During that time, Cham rose quickly through the ranks. He made sergeant in less than three years, and hopes to be promoted again before this deployment is over.
“Sgt. Cham is a hard charging noncommissioned officer,” said his Company’s senior NCO, 1st Sgt. Jason Mang. “He’s real dependable.”
Cham’s background gives him a unique perspective. He is one of relatively few Muslims in his unit. His home country, Gambia, is 80 percent Muslim and children generally begin learning the Koran when they are young, Cham said. He took Arabic lessons up until high school. Now that he’s in Iraq, he said, he wishes he had studied harder.
Even though his Arabic is shaky, being a Muslim can still create a connection with the local people, Cham said. Sometimes, after the company raids a house in the middle of the night, he’s the only one who can calm the inhabitants down.
“I tell them, I’m a Muslim just like you,” he said. “No one is going to hurt you.”
Once, in Mosul, an Iraqi policeman who Cham was patrolling with gave him a copy of the Koran, tucking it into his body armor for safekeeping. It’s still there.
“It’s on its third deployment,” Cham said.
Cham said he tries to correct the bad impressions some people have of his religion.
“I try to tell them about the good virtues of Muslims,” he said. Cham himself gets angry when he hears about insurgents killing innocent people in the name of Allah.
“I sometimes get (mad) because these people give a very bad image to Muslims all over the world,” he said. “Real Muslims believe in peace.”
But in most ways, Cham is no different than the other paratroopers. He laughs at the same jokes, shares the same hardships and sweats in the Baghdad heat the same as the rest. It’s that sense of brotherhood that Cham said he appreciates most about Army life.
“You may not even like somebody, but if he goes down you would go through a hail of bullets to get him back,” he said. “That really amazes me.”
Cham said being a Soldier has more than lived up to the expectations he had when he was a little boy, sitting in the shade in Banjul reading books about war.
Story and photos by Sgt. Mike Pryor