CHARLESTON - Adam Hodson interacted with a lot of everyday Iraqis during his 2006-07 deployment with the Illinois Army National Guard but never met any officials there, let alone a high-ranking ambassador.
Consequently, Hodson said he appreciated being able to shake hands with Iraq's ambassador to the United States - Samir Shakir Mahmood Sumaid'ie - Monday night during this official's visit to the the campus of Eastern Illinois University in Charleston.
"You get a lot of ‘thank you's' from the American public, but this is probably one of the first ‘thank you's' I have gotten from an Iraqi," said Hodson, a Lerna resident who is studying engineering at Lake Land College in Mattoon.
Sumaid'ie, who has served as ambassador to the United States since 2006, was on EIU's campus to serve as keynote speaker at a Mideast conference and to personally thank local veterans for their service in Iraq.
"I always make a point wherever I go to express gratitude and appreciation to the soldiers that helped my country free itself from dictatorship, making sacrifices in the process. It's always a good thing to remember what they did and and say thank you," Sumaid'ie said earlier Monday. He said this event was the first time he has met with veterans in the Midwest.
More than a dozen veterans and family members of those who served in Iraq shook hands with the ambassador in a receiving line that ran along the front of the stage in the Dvorak Concert Hall at EIU's Doudna Fine Arts Center.
The line of veterans included Army veteran Blake Leitch of Mattoon. Leitch said Monday's event was a great opportunity to meet a man - Sumaid'ie - whose love for his home country of Iraq is greatly evident and who wants to do all he can to help it move forward.
Leitch said Sumaid'ie's passion for Iraq's future means a lot to him because he had fellow soldiers in his unit die for that country. Leitch said if he were asked two to three years ago to attend such an event, he would have said "no way" because the memories of his service were still so raw.
Since then, Leitch said he has experienced healing through the passage of time and by speaking with other service members.
"The more I talk about it, the easier it is for me to talk about it and the easier it is for me to carry on with my day to day life," Leitch said. He is a junior communications studies major at EIU and a state coordinator for the Student Veterans of America.
Mattoon resident John Mefford, who served in a small boat unit off the coast of Iraq, said he appreciated seeing such a high-ranking Iraqi official come to small-town Charleston.
Mefford said he wishes more veterans had attended Monday's event, but added that a lot of them "don't want to look back" to their service in Iraq yet. Mefford, a senior political science major with a minor in prelaw, encouraged fellow veterans on campus to use the support services of the Student Veterans of Eastern, of which he is treasurer.
"We are here for anyone who needs us for benefit questions or just someone to talk to," Mefford said.
Contact Rob Stroud at email@example.com or 238-6861.