When worlds collide: 934th Airlift Wing Airman's journey to serve

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Matthew Residorf
  • 934th Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office

Coming to a new country from across the world with a different lifestyle is one of the most challenging things a person can experience. 

That is precisely what Airman 1st Class Riyadh Al-Shihmani, a 934th Force Support Squadron services specialist, has done.

“My journey started in Iraq,” Al-Shihmani said. “I was born on March 25, 1985. I’m the youngest one in my family.”

The Air Force is not even Al-Shihmani’s first military experience he’s had before, let alone the first branch of service he’s been affiliated with. 


He joined the Iraqi police department after graduating college. The U.S. Army created his unit called the community police, a partnership between the police department and the community. Around this time would come another exciting point: when he met the person he would soon spend the rest of his life with.

“I met my wife on Facebook,” Al-Shihmani said. “She is from Iraq. The first time she came to the U.S., she opened a case for me to come to the United States.”

Though, this excitement in his life would soon come to a concerning halt. Coming to the United States was crucial for numerous reasons, as there were some unexpected troubles going on in Iraq. 

“In 2012, the [Islamic State group] came to Iraq,” Al-Shihmani said. “They invaded a lot of lands. They were close to overtaking the country.”

Coming to the U.S. and becoming a citizen was a goal for Al-Shihmani. He can trace those dreams back to when he was a child. 

“It’s a dream come true for me,” Al-Shihmani said. “I grew up watching a lot of American movies like everybody else in the world. When I was eight or nine, I was telling my brothers to not call me by my name ‘Riyadh.’ Call me the ‘American Riyadh.’ They would tell me that I was going to be killed if I kept saying that.”

Once Al-Shihmani was in the U.S., he took the Armed Services Vocal Aptitude Battery. It was a process that was not easy for Al-Shihmani. With Arabic being his first language, he struggled with the ASVAB. On his first attempt, he scored a three. He took his second attempt six months later after getting laid off during COVID-19, studying long hours into the night. 

“I did the test again and scored a 50,” said Al-Shihmani. “I thought I would be too old, but you know what? It’s never too late.”

Passing the ASVAB was just the beginning of Al-Shihmani's obstacles to joining the military. Once he achieved a passing score, he was then told that he would have to lose a significant amount of weight.

“When I first joined, I was 288 pounds,” Al-Shihmani said. “My recruiter told me that I could not make it. I told him he doesn’t know who I am, just give me time. In three months, I lost 77 pounds.”

Losing weight can be a struggle for anyone. Al-Shihmani watched what he ate and started working out every day to accomplish his goal. When he was laid off, he worked out for four hours each day.

Once he could join the Air Force, Al-Shihmani left for basic military training. At the time he left for BMT, he was 36 years old. 

“When I went to BMT, I was older than most of the people there,” Al-Shihmani said. “I was housed with a lot of different ages. One of my roommates was half my age! It was like looking at my own son or something like that. It never felt like that though. I felt like we were together. We are going to do everything together to reach the success which is graduation.”

Al-Shihmani reminisces on the day he got his uniforms with his name sewn onto them. A priceless moment forever captured in his memories. 

Graduating from BMT was a highlight for Al-Shihmani. He remembers crying to a great extent and everyone asking him why. The reason for his sudden burst of emotion was familial in nature.


“I was making history by graduating from BMT,” said Al-Shihmani. “I was the first one from my entire family to come to the U.S. and also the first one to join the U.S. military. I am really proud of myself for doing this.”

Al-Shihmani has two children of his own. He wants them to join the military someday, as he did. 

Al-Shihmani has had to deal with several negative incidents in his life because he is a practicing Muslim. One such incident happened when he was in uniform.

“I met with my wife here in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport when I came back from BMT,” Al-Shihmani said. “There was a guy in his seventies, and he came up to me and asked if I was a Muslim. I said that I was, and then he said, ‘I want to tell you that even when you serve this country, we will never change our ideas about your religion.’ 

Al-Shihmani’s brother-in-law was with them then, and he wanted to confront the man. Al-Shihmani wished to avoid an altercation and told him that he couldn’t because when he was in uniform, he represented the United States Air Force. 

“I just let the man go,” said Al-Shihmani. “It was a really sad moment for me.”

The U.S. military is made up of people from all over the world. To Al-Shihmani, the military has made him feel at home.

“Everybody in the military has shown me respect,” said Al-Shihmani. “Most people recognized my beard. I look like I am from the Middle East. It doesn’t matter to anyone. They appreciate what I’m doing, and they respect the sacrifice that I have made.”

Being a U.S. citizen and being in the United States military was something Al-Shihmani had wanted since he was a child. He worked tirelessly to achieve his goal, and his efforts reaped the awards he desperately wanted.

“I love being an American,” he said. “I knew that I would make it happen one day, and now here I am talking to you. I’m part of this great country. Dreams do come true.”