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Soldier's determination gives hope to injured Iraqi girl

BAGHDAD, Iraq—James Mattwig hoped there would be a happy ending to the story of the injured Iraqi girl he'd tried to help, and Saturday he found the answer.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Army staff sergeant met Aya, a 3-year-old Iraqi girl with a patch over her left eye. Mattwig was told an artillery round had landed outside her family's home, shattering windows and sending a shard of glass into her eye.

A local doctor had told her she was permanently blinded. That wasn't good enough for Mattwig, a 31-year-old D-Troop scout with the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division. He assembled a medical team the following day, Easter Sunday, and returned to her house.

Aya was taken to a U.S. Army hospital, where doctors said she would have to be taken to the U.S.N.S. Comfort in the Persian Gulf for treatment.

And that was the last Mattwig heard of Aya.

Until Saturday.

Once again, Mattwig assembled a convoy to Aya's home in downtown Baghdad.

It was bright, warm morning and the D-troop scouts were feeling good in the knowledge that they'll soon be going home.

They arrived outside Aya's home almost as celebrities; neighbors gathered around the two Humvees as soon as they stopped.

Wading through the crowd, Mattwig popped his head over the covered metal gate outside Aya's house. A member of one of the five families living there recognized him, grinned and disappeared inside the small flat.

Moments later, Aya Nahi and her smiling mother, Akhlas, emerged from behind the gate. Aya's eye remained nearly closed, but Akhlas delivered some good news in broken English.

"They fixed her in American hospital," Akhlas Nahi said. "She's not blind anymore."

Then, speaking through an interpreter, Akhlas Nahi explained that her daughter had not been taken to the Comfort after all, but somewhere near Kuwait—that was all she knew. She said Aya's eye was expected to open up soon.

"This is my God—He sends you," Akhlas Nahi said. "Thank you very much."

She served orange juice in ice to Mattwig and the soldiers and told him he had to visit again before he left because she was making a gift for him. "Something to remember," she said.

"You don't need to give me nothing," said Mattwig, a married father of three from Ashtabula, Ohio.

But Akhlas would not be swayed, and Mattwig agreed to return.

Then Aya, who is very shy, walked to him and kissed him softly on the cheek. He beamed and picked her up.

Uncertainty remains. Life in Iraq remains tough, especially for children. Even so, Mattwig took solace from knowing that he had helped restore hope to one young girl's life.

"I feel like I've fulfilled something," he said after returning to camp. "I feel like I've done something very good. At least there's a shining gem in the middle of this devastation, and maybe these people will remember that Americans did something good."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-BLINDCHILD