It often takes the most challenging of situations to bring out the best in each of us. For Maj. Southworth, that paradox led him not only to adopt a disabled Iraqi orphan as his son, but also to wage a relentless battle against bureaucratic obstacles to bring 24 mistreated orphans out of a corrupt Iraqi orphanage, and into the homes of loving American families.
Then-Capt. Southworth’s journey started in September 2003, when, as commanding officer of the Wisconsin National Guard’s 32nd Military Police Company, he led a team in northeast Baghdad responsible for training local police officers. It was exhausting work, both physically and mentally: toiling in triple-digit heat, dangers around every corner, and setbacks such as a car bomb that destroyed one of the police stations the 32nd operated, killing several of the Iraqis with which the team was working. (The station was rebuilt a few months later.)
In addition to their mission, the soldiers wanted to help Iraq’s needy orphans. On Sept. 6, 2003, they visited a nearby orphanage. Some might have found it depressing, but Southworth’s life changed when a young boy named Ala’a – unable to walk, abandoned in the Baghdad streets likely due to his cerebral palsy – pulled himself across the floor and greeted Southworth with a smile and a few English words. It marked the beginning of an unbreakable bond between the two.
Southworth returned frequently over the months to visit with Ala’a, and with each visit they grew closer. With Southworth’s tour set to end in July 2004, he visited the orphanage a final time – not knowing whether he would ever see Ala’a again. He knew he could make a difference in the boy’s life; he was determined to bring Ala’a to live with him in the United States.
And then came the roadblocks. Under Iraqi law, foreigners cannot adopt children. However, just before he left Iraq, the Iraqi government approved of Ala’a going to the United States with Southworth for medical care. Upon his return home, Southworth navigated the bureaucracy and gained Humanitarian Parole for Ala’a, who is now on a path unimaginable only a few years ago. He is in the United States and has made vast strides at school – fluent in English and learning to read. Even his cerebral palsy is being met head-on: with the help of numerous doctors and specialists, some who have donated their time, he is making significant progress. Ala’a is being taught how to walk with his physical impairment on a specialized treadmill. It is his dream to one day walk unassisted – and he grows ever closer to that day.
But Southworth’s story does not end here. A June 2007 CBS exclusive revealed filthy, appalling conditions at a government-run orphanage in Baghdad. As Southworth watched, he recognized some of the boys as the very same orphans that he and his team visited years before at the private orphanage where they volunteered. Southworth, along with two soldiers who served with him, decided to do something about it. They are currently engaged in an unrelenting effort to bring the 24 orphans affected to the United States. Like Ala’a, all of the boys are disabled and require special and frequent medical attention.
He is not alone in his cause: more than 40 families around the country have offered to host the orphans once they arrive. Southworth and his team are lining up doctors and pharmaceutical companies willing to provide, at no cost, the necessary medical care and supplies needed to help these children with their disabilities.
Giving these young Iraqis a chance at a better life has required tireless persistence in dealing with Iraqi and U.S. government officials. As Southworth awaits approval from the Iraqi government to transport the orphans to the United States, he continues to finalize plans, ensuring that each child is provided with the same care and attention that has already transformed the life of one Iraqi child – his son Ala’a.
In 2005, Southworth received the U.S. Army’s Gen. MacArthur Leadership award, recognizing his commitment to “duty, honor, and country.”