Their friendship began in Iraq, during long nights on dangerous missions, and they thought it would remain there.
James Adkins was a National Guardsman from Raleigh. Wissam Al-Hammash was an Iraqi who had found wartime work as an interpreter with the U.S. military.
In February 2005, nine months after they met, Adkins left Iraq. He quickly retired from the Guard and resumed his life as a project manager for IBM. He didn't expect to see Al-Hammash again.
But now, four years after their last mission in Iraq, Adkins is giving his old friend a new life in Raleigh.
Al-Hammash, who was granted refugee status and arrived in North Carolina on Aug. 31 with his pregnant wife and two young children, says it is because of Adkins that he was able to leave behind a country where his family lived in hiding, under constant threat of death or kidnapping.
Without Atkins, he said, moving to the United States with no family or friends to fall back on would have been too risky and overwhelming. He would have feared ending up homeless and destitute. But with Atkins, anything seemed possible.
"Because I have James here, it's like I have my brother here," Al-Hammash says. "I know I'll find everything because I have James here."
Al-Hammash, 29, is one of about 20,000 Iraqis, many of whom worked with the U.S. military, who have been granted the right to live permanently in the United States because their lives were in danger in Iraq. About 200 have come to North Carolina.
They come with the help of federally contracted refugee agencies. But without friends or family in the area, many have complained of isolation, had trouble finding work and struggled to navigate the basic tasks of everyday life in a foreign country.
But for Al-Hammash, Adkins is taking on many of those burdens. He and his wife, Desiree, organized a volunteer effort to fully furnish their North Raleigh apartment. Adkins has taken days off work to help Al-Hammash set up his Internet service and utilities, to apply for a driver's license, to apply for his government benefits and Social Security number.
He has served as a sort of taxi service for the family, which has no car, shuttling them to grocery stores, Target and doctors' offices. He is working his contacts to find Al-Hammash a job and a donated car.
Adkins, 42, says it's not much to ask for a friend who risked his life to serve the U.S. military. After Adkins left Iraq, Al-Hammash was injured by explosive devices four times during missions with other units.
"If we came under fire, he's right there with us," Adkins says. "I have all my gear and my gun, and he has nothing. He was probably putting himself at more risk than I was."
Army, then Guard
Adkins joined the Army in 1985, shortly after graduating from high school in Ohio.
He served as a full-time soldier, based in South Korea and then at Fort Bragg, for four years before moving into the National Guard.
When his unit was called to duty in Iraq in 2003, he and his wife, who had just given birth to a son, were shocked. Until the Iraq war began, it was all but unheard of for National Guard units to be drafted into war.
But Adkins went without complaint, arriving in Iraq in February 2004. His unit was sent to Jalula, in one of Iraq's most dangerous provinces.
As a platoon sergeant, he helped root out one of the Bush administration's most wanted terrorists and found a large munitions cache buried in the desert, acts that earned him a Bronze Star and a letter of commendation. Two of his unit's members were killed by an explosive device in June 2004.
Through it all, he worked with Al-Hammash at his side. And during the long nights patrolling streets and staking out buildings, they began to talk -- about their families, their religious beliefs and what they saw as the pointlessness of religious and ethnic divisions.
What had seemed unlikely at first -- a friendship between a patriotic U.S. soldier from the Midwest and an Arabic interpreter born in Baghdad -- began to feel as natural as a brotherhood.
"We came to find out, our moral values are exactly the same," Adkins says. "We both want the same things. We want our families to be safe."
Al-Hammash said he worked with many U.S. soldiers during five years of service with the military, but the bond he developed with Adkins was unique.
While Adkins and his men handed out pens and candy to Iraqi children, leaders in some other units shooed the children away out of security concerns, Al-Hammash said. While Adkins was careful to hold his gun at his side during encounters with Iraqi civilians, soldiers in other units kept their weapons drawn, often pointing them at people.
Al-Hammash said he lived with U.S. soldiers, and risked his life beside them, but Adkins was one of only a few who fully trusted him. He said one Army captain told him, "Every time we go out, I think you're going to shoot me from the back."
Staying in touch
When Adkins returned to the United States, he and Al-Hammash kept in touch by e-mail. Desiree Adkins said she was surprised at the devotion her husband seemed to feel to his new friend.
She said he rarely keeps in touch with old friends but that he talked about Al-Hammash often and showed growing concern as he and his family were forced to move from one place to another, on the run from terrorists who knew about his work with the U.S. military. In the e-mails he showed her, the two always referred to each other as "brother."
Still, she said, she never expected to meet Al-Hammash.
Then, a few months ago, Al-Hammash wrote Adkins that he had been granted refugee status and that he had asked to come to Raleigh. The refugee agency contacted Adkins to ask if he could donate furniture and household supplies, so the cost wouldn't have to come out of Al-Hammash's limited government assistance.
Adkins quickly sent e-mails to everyone he knew and asked Desiree to send an appeal to her co-workers at SAS. Soon, they were inundated with offers from SAS employees to help. They rented a truck and, a few days before Al-Hammash arrived, filled his apartment with furnishings and gifts.
"It almost brings you to tears the generosity that these people had," James Adkins said of his wife's co-workers. "They don't even know him, but they recognize the sacrifice that he made."
But Desiree said it wasn't until the night her husband returned from picking up Al-Hammash and his family at the airport that she realized how lasting their connection would be.
"Seeing my husband's face when he came back from the airport," she said, "pretty much solidified for me that this was now a member of our family."