A Kurdish-American teenager invited the soldier who saved her life to her high school graduation.
Lt. Col. Greg Pepin first met Lava Barwari 19 years ago, when she was just a month old, ABC6 reports. Lava's mother Awaz was fleeing political persecution in Iraq.
As a Kurd who had worked with an American NGO, Awaz was on Saddam Hussein's "kill list" and had a bounty on her head. In December 1996 she fled to the Turkey/Iraq border, where she could get out because of her persecuted status.
But when the 22-year-old Awaz arrived at the border with baby Lava, Iraqi soldiers refused to let Lava through because her name wasn't on the list of Iraqis permitted to leave.
“He actually pointed to the window and said, ‘You can toss her to somebody who can deliver her to your family,’” Barwari told the Gwinnett Daily Post. “She’s not a sack of potatoes. I’m not giving her to anybody. That’s my baby."
Pepin was stationed at the border crossing, and he came up with a novel solution. “I told them if the baby's name was ‘Greg,' she could come with me under my passport,” he told FOX 5. "They didn't understand what I was trying to do at first, but then they realized I was trying to help.”
He escorted mother and baby through the border into Turkey, where they travelled to Guam and eventually to Hawaii. The Barwaris settled in suburban Atlanta, where Lava graduated high school. She will enroll in Georgia Gwinnett College later this year.
The family hadn't spoken to Pepin since that day. That changed when Lava decided to track him down as part of a language arts class.
According to the Gwinnett Daily Post, her email to him began: "I’m not sure you remember me, but I’m the baby who took your name." He remembered her, of course.
"The day I got Lava's email was one of those signature days that kind of makes your life worthwhile," Pepin told ABC6. After his military career, he had gone on to work at Boeing, and is now in his seventies.
Lava invited Pepin to her graduation. He told Fox News that the ceremony made him proud to be an American.
“This is what America’s all about. Letting people like Lava and her folks into America," Pepin told The Gwinnett Daily Post.