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HOSCHTON, Ga. - The last time Ret. Lt. Col. Greg Pepin saw Lava Barwari she was just 36 days old--in Iraq.
The baby girl was in her mother's arms and her parents were desperately trying to flee that country since they were on Dictator Sadam Hussein's kill list. The family is Kurdish, an ethnic group targeted by the former Iraqi government for genocide.
Awaz Barwari was just 22 years old and her name was on the list of Kurds allowed to leave Iraq. But an Iraqi official told her newborn, Lava, could not go since her name was not on the list.
“I told the man I was not leaving without my baby. He said I could leave her with other family in Iraq or not leave Iraqi. So I said I wasn't leaving. Lt. Col. Pepin spotted the family leaving and intervened,” Barwari said.
“I told them if the baby's name was ‘Greg,' she could come with me under my passport,” the Lt. Col. told FOX 5's Portia Bruner. They didn't understand what I was trying to do at first, but then they realized I was trying to help.”
Baby Lava became “Baby Greg” and the family left Iraq that day in December 1996--always wondering what happened to the American soldier who secured their freedom with a simple name change.
“He changed our lives. He saved our lives and wouldn't be here without him,” Awaz told FOX 5 hours before her daughter's graduation from Mill Creek High School in Gwinnett County.
Lava wanted Pepin to witness her graduation, so she tracked him down through an internet channel and sent an email to Boeing Aircraft where Pepin serves as vice president. He told the 18 year old, he wouldn't miss this day for the world.
Thursday, he met the Lava and her mother at the Hoschton, Georgia.
“I wanted him to be here because I wouldn't have made it here or had a better education than my parents if he hadn't helped us that day,” Lava said Thursday afternoon.
Pepin says meeting Lava Thursday and having the chance to watch her graduate makes him proud to be an American.
“This is a real testament to this family's character and their ability to make the most of their opportunities. I'm proud to live in a country that welcomes people in and helps them live a better life,” said Pepin.