Tears in Baghdad

Tags: HeroStories

My mom asked me to share this story with you.  This is the story of the two Iraqi boys I befriended in my year there and one's untimely death.  I call it "Tears in Baghdad."

Tears in Baghdad: I never knew war would be like this.

It never ends.

Ali was trying to tell me something about Achmed with a seriousness I had yet to see from him, and I took it to mean that Achmed had somehow been injured in an explosion, but I wasn't sure. With the language barrier, it was difficult to understand what was being said all the time, even with the seemingly obvious body language. One time, I thought that Achmed was telling me Ali had been hurt in a blast, but it turned out he was saying that Ali was working on his home, so it could have been anything. I told myself it was probably nothing and tried to forget about it; ignorance is bliss.

I thought about what it was that Ali was trying to tell me all weekend. Ali and Achmed were my saving grace in Iraq: those boys had been what had kept me sane for the last nine months. They couldn't have been more than fourteen years old, but they had seen more than I ever will. Their sense of humor and positive attitudes were infectious, however, and I and the rest of my squad had unofficially adopted them months before. Baghdad seemed a lot more like home with those kids around.

I wish I was right about it being nothing; I wish that Achmed was simply working on his house. After a few days of walking around in denial, I again saw Ali and this time I had our linguist mediate the conversation. According to Ali, Achmed and his mother had gone to the fuel station to buy fuel for their home. As they were leaving, a suicide bomber appeared and Achmed, who was holding the can of fuel, and his mother were engulfed in a ball of fire. Achmed's mother had died instantly. Achmed was burned terribly from head to toe. As he sat in an Iraqi hospital, his father was out doing anything he could to come up with the money for his treatment, as there is no insurance and hospitals there expect payment up front. I felt like I had just lost a lifelong friend, if not a family member. For all I had done for those two young men, I felt so helpless that no matter what I did in our trivial hours together at that police station, I would never be able to protect them from the horrors of everyday life in Baghdad. When I left them each day, I returned to the heavily fortified base complex that allowed me to sleep easy at night. Of course, it was hard to rest easily when you know that your friend is in horrific pain in a sub-standard hospital, and the bags under my eyes could attest to how worried and tired I had become. Myself and two other guys did what any self-respecting man would do: we gave what little cash we had to help pay for our friend's hospital bill. Together, though, we were only able to give him roughly $30. If there had been an ATM nearby, I would have contributed my daily limit to that poor boy's hospital care, but life in Baghdad limits you in ways that you never know until they appear.

What upset me was the general indifference the rest of the squad treated the news. Some gave an unconvincing exclamation of their sorrow, but all said they had no money . . . something that I know was untrue. Some cited their inability to believe Ali 100% for their reluctance to help, but I found that to be nothing more than a cop out. Say, for example, that Ali made it all up and he and Achmed were splitting the proceeds behind our backs; what are you out? $5? $10? Weigh the risk/reward of that scenario in your head: if you are right, you have thus gained a whole $10; if you are wrong, an innocent little boy waits in pain as his father searches for a way to pay for his treatment. Take into account the risk of infection and the prompt treatment of his injuries becomes imperative. What further blewtheir argument out of the water was that these were not exactly fiscal conservatives we are talking about. They blew money on two or three DVDs a week (at almost $20 a pop), ate Pizza Hut, Popeye's, Burger King, and Hardee's at least four times a week; paid crazy amounts of money for fancy coffee in the morning from Green Beans Coffee (usually $5 a cup); and the list goes on.

These, aside from two individuals, were also the religious wing of the squad. They had told me that they are Christians and wish to live a Christian lifestyle and questioned my lack of faith. No amount of religious posturing, however, will make me forget how they elected to treat not only our friends Ali and Achmed, but the Iraqi people in general. If anyone of them ever again in my lifetime attempt to tell me what Christianity is about or what they are about, I will not hesitate to throw this back in their collective faces. This is just one example of their hypocrisy, but I think it is the most glaring. Good Samaritans they were not. This is not to criticize the faith itself, but I never again want to hear these men pretend to be men of God.

All I could do over the weekend was hope that the money raised was enough to precipitate the treatment of Achmed and that that treatment could have at least alleviated the pain he was in. I had said many times before that I will never forget about these young men and that hasn't changed. I am so thankful that my children, when I have children, will not be subjected to the things these boys were.

That night, an Iraqi girl instant messaged me out of the blue. She was worried that I might be reluctant to speak to an Iraqi woman, but I assured that was not a problem. We talked for hours about our respective lives and how different and alike they were. It wasn't long before she asked me about my Yahoo picture, which was one of little Ali wearing my helmet and goggles. I told her about him and Achmed, what I had done with them and the bond we had forged. I expressed my regret that I had not been able to do more for them in my time in that country and she really put me at ease. She said, "I think you have done all you could have done and I think you are a very kind man . . . They will never forget you, you know." A peace truly did come over me after hearing that; perhaps I needed to hear it before I left my habibis, my good friends. It made the day's news just a little more bearable and alleviated any guilt I may have been feeling.

If I was a man of faith, I would have been convinced that she was an angel because no one on this Earth could have made me feel as at peace as she did in that moment. Somehow, she picked the perfect time to come into my life and I thank her to this day for that.

I spent that weekend hoping against hope that Achmed would be okay. I had hoped that our money was enough to get him the treatment he needed, that he received it in time, that he had not succumbed to infection, and that he was in as little pain as humanly possible. Within minutes of arriving at the police station, I saw Ali and knew that I would have some type of news. As I approached him, his eyes met mine, and I knew. As Ali made a digging motion towards the ground and repeated "Achmed, Achmed" over and over, the cold reality sunk in: Achmed was dead.

Ali said that Achmed's father had told him to please thank us for all we had done for him and especially for the money we gave him to pay the hospital. Ali thanked us profusely for trying. Of course, I didn't think we did anything incredibly special. Achmed was a friend and a friend in need. I did what friends do; I helped as much as I could.

The last time I had visited with Achmed, I taught him how to play 'Rock, Paper, Scissors' and laughed as he went 'rock' twenty hands in a row. We goofed off playing for twenty minutes and I'll never forget him giggling like the little boy he was as I tried to explain something to him that he obviously didn't understand, as long as it was in English. No matter, we killed a lot of time and had some fun doing it. He again asked me over and over when I was going to give him a picture of him, Ali, and me together and I told him I would get it to him before I left. Oh, how I wish I had gotten it to him in time, but I always thought I'd have time later. When it was time for me to leave, he gave me two kisses on the cheek and told me he would see me next week. That was the last memory I will have of him, and it is a cherished one.

I know that I meant a lot to him, or at least brightened a number of his days. I know I did, but I don't think he ever knew how much he had meant to me. He and Ali were what I looked forward to on mission days; on weekends, I thought about them. I dreamt I had adopted them. They brightened my day as much as I did theirs and I worried about them when I didn't see them. Every time there was an attack or an explosion in that area, I held my breath until I saw them again. I knew that this day may come, and I wasn't particularly surprised or angry when I heard the news. I accepted it rather matter of factly, but I indeed hurt inside. Afterwards, I sat in my humvee silently as tears rolled my face. I didn't sniffle. I didn't wail or moan. I didn't punch anything. I didn't even breathe heavily, but I cried. It was a type of cry that I had never before experienced. I felt like I was watching myself deal with the news from someone else's point of view; I felt detached.

How had this happened? What did Achmed do? All he was guilty of was being born in Baghdad. He was a victim of circumstance, bad luck, bad timing, and, some would say, fate. He did what millions of people do everyday: he bought fuel from the neighborhood fuel station. At that same time, someone detonated a suicide vest and Achmed and his mother were lost.

As I went from tears and sullen silence to bittersweet reflection and drier eyes, I took out my journal (which I had not written in nearly as much as I should have) and started writing what I was experiencing. At that time, the cutest little girl, maybe three years old, passed by holding the hand of her father. I couldn't help but wonder how long she'd be allowed to live, how long she'd be allowed to be a child. I certainly hope it is longer than Ali and Achmed got. She looked so much like my brother's daughter; it was uncanny, and I was immediately grateful that she was being raised in the United States, far from IEDs, car bombs, and mortars. It is unfair indeed, and it is easy to feel a certain level of guilt. I know, however, that I had about as much control over where I was raised as Achmed did. It's no one's fault, and there is no sense in feeling guilty over it. I took solace in what Sarah, who lived in Baghdad, had told me about these two boys in our instant message conversation the night I had first heard the news about Achmed: She was certain that I had done everything within my power to help the young man, and I had made a difference in his life that I could never measure. That comforted me.

I was also slightly comforted in knowing that he was no longer suffering. Third degree burns can be extremely painful even with the world's best medical treatment; they must have been terrible in an Iraqi hospital with limited resources. I did not want to think of what pain he felt in his last few days; I was just thankful that it was over. If I had to pick one memory of him, it would be the sight of his face peering into the humvee window looking for me, and then his yell of "Justin!" when he spotted my face. I will surely remember that face for the rest of my life; I had never seen anyone, outside of my parents, so happy to see me.

After sharing the terrible news with me, Ali begged me once again for a picture of me, him, and his best friend, and this time I couldn't drag my feet. I knew that I had to get those pictures developed and in his hands as soon as possible. In the meantime, he said he wanted a picture of me and my family and I obliged. I took out a photo of our family portrait and wrote "To my friend Ali, Justin" on the back. He was happy and said that he would try and get a picture of Achmed with his family for me.

The news was sobering and not at all what I was hoping to hear, but the memory of the day is bittersweet. Sergeant Bruesch and I talked to Ali for at least a couple of hours and we all shared nervous laughs. Later, Gonzo, our linguist, came out and translated everything. He said that Achmed had given him the shoes I bought for him, but they were too small. I told him I would bring him a bigger pair the next week and we shared a smile and a firm handshake (Ali never hugged and gave cheek-kisses like Achmed) as he left us to go collect some more cans.

Two weeks had gone by since I learned of Achmed's death and had promised Ali a picture of the three of us together. My mom did a great job of developing the pictures I sent her and shipping them back in a folder for Ali. I was ready to fulfill my promise.

Within minutes of arriving at the Traffic Police station, I heard the familiar voice yell my name; it was Ali. I walked over to him calmly, shook his hand, and simply said, "Pictures." "Achmed!?!" he asked excitedly. "Yes." As I turned around to go retrieve the pictures, I heard Ali behind me telling one of my comrades in his broken English that I had pictures of Achmed for him; it dawned on me just how important this was to him.

I brought the folder to him and recognized a familiar look on his face, yet it had been years since I had seen that look. It was the face of a boy at Christmas waiting for the go-ahead to rip open his presents. The folder had barely switched hands before he had pulled it out of its envelope and opened it to page one. Staring back at him was a full page picture of Achmed, smiling like always. I saw a sudden shift in Ali's posture, and he slowly fell to his knees . . . and wept. He tried to hide his face, hide his sniffles, hide his breathing, but it was to no avail. Ali wept like a little boy, and I had never heard a little boy weep for such a right reason. These were tears of love, friendship, memory, and closure. I'd seen those tears before, but rarely had they come from the eyes of a boy so young, yet so aged. Such is life in Baghdad.

I tried to comfort him; I did what I could. I placed my hand on his back and told him it was okay. He was embarassed, but no one could fault him for letting it all go. As I uneasily watched him alternately weep, look at the photograph again, and wipe his eyes, a strange peace came over me, and it was then that I realized it: this was my closure. I had fulfilled my promise to Ali and, posthumously, Achmed to bring them pictures of the three of us together; we, the "Three Habibis." I even brought pictures of Hidar, whom I had seen less and less of as of late. I didn't get to witness a funeral, or a eulogy, or wake, or burial, or memorial, but I got to see the emotions that were present in all five. Ali was certainly solemn and depressed when he first told us of the news, but other than the deep sorrow I saw in his eyes, I saw very little emotion. If the tables were turned, I would have expected to see Achmed cry everyday; he was a very emotional kid, but Ali had always been a little bit more reserved. Ali tried to be a tough guy; Achmed just acted like a kid.

Ali was embarassed and composed himself within a couple of minutes, but he cried just long enough for him to get it out of his system and for me to feel like a chapter in my life was indeed coming to a close. He cheered up and was back to his usual self again. I gave him some socks that he had asked for the previous week and he told us that someone had tried to steal his "junta" (backpack) after he left us last time, but he had thrown "chocolata" in the opposite direction for them to chase while he ran away. We all shared a laugh and were in mutual agreement that the awkward moment of before was over, although no one said it outright.

Before he left, he said, in one way or another, several times that it will be a sad day for him when I returned to the States and indicated that tears may flow by repeating a wiping motion across his eyes. He asked me if America would be good for me without Ali, and he asked how much time I had before I left him. Guilt is not the correct word, but I was sure I would feel something when I left and it wouldn't dissipate simply because I was home and away from the tears in Baghdad. I knew that I would be leaving one of my best friends, and I didn't like it, but I knew I would have little choice in the matter.

That day has come and gone, and I still think my Iraqi friends and those tears in Baghdad. Not a day goes by that I don't wonder how Ali is doing or how Achmed's father is coping with the loss of his wife and son. I left Baghdad eight months ago, but Baghdad has yet to leave me. I don't think it ever will . . . and I don't ever want it to.

This one is about the day I heard a soldier's life end through radio transmissions.

The Radio

When I was in Mrs. Riner's junior English class at MacArthur high school, we were required to read a short story titled "The Radio."  The premise was simple.  A couple in the 1930s were given a special radio that allowed them to hear all their neighbors' conversations.  At first they were elated, but, ultimately, they were haunted by the miracle of their ability.  They could hear all the horrors of society that usually go unnoticed or are covered up and sterilized . . . and they couldn't turn it off.  They couldn't change the channel.  It took seven years, but I eventually went back to that story in my head and felt their horror.

August 24th, 2006 was a routine day for my squad in Baghdad.  We had gone to Traffic Headquarters and I had gotten to visit with Ali.  Business taken care of, we started to make the familiar trek back to Camp Liberty.  It was a hot day, over 120 degrees, and I stood up just a little higher than usual with my sleeves unbuttoned to let the air circulate inside my body armor and clothing.  It had been a good day.

Back on Route Irish, we were on the home stretch when the call came out over the radio:

"Eagle Dustoff, Eagle Dustoff, this is Red Knight 7* over"

"This is Eagle Dustoff, over"

"Eagle Dustoff, I need MEDEVAC; my gunner has been shot by a sniper."

The voice went on to recite the nine line MEDEVAC report and I marveled at how cool, calm, and collected he sounded.  My squad leader plotted the grid coordinates and found that this had occurred only a couple blocks away from one of our two main destinations on Market Road.

"Cliburn, go ahead and get down; someone might be aiming at your melon right now", CPT Ray said.  Sergeant Bruesch concurred and I sat down, listening intently to the radio transmissions that I couldn't turn off even if I wanted to.

Five minutes in, the voice on the radio was losing his cool.

"Have they left yet?!  He's losing a lot of blood; we need that chopper now!"

In the background, you could hear other soldiers yelling, screaming, trying to find anyway to save their friend's life.  At one point, I swear I heard the man gurgle.

Ten minutes in, the voice on the radio was furious.

"Where's that fucking chopper!?  We're losing him!  He's not fucking breathing!  Where the fuck are you!?"

Every minute to minute and a half the voice was back on the radio demanding to know what the hold up was.  Every minute to minute and a half the other voice on the radio, a young woman's voice, tried to reassure him that the chopper was the way from Taji.  She was beginning to tire herself; I could hear it in her voice.  She was just as frustrated as he was.

All the while, there I sat.  Sitting in the gunners hatch, listening to life's little horrors with no way to turn the channel.  No one in the truck was speaking.  The music was on, but no one heard it.  There was just an eerie silence.  All I heard was the radio transmissions; I watched as the landscape passed me by in slow motion.  I didn't hear wind noise or car horns or gunfire or my own thoughts.  I was only accompanied by the silence of the world passing me by, interrupted only by the screams of the voice on the radio.

At this point, I was as frustrated as I had been all year.  Where the fuck was that goddamn chopper and why was it taking so long?!  What if it were me?  Would I be waiting that long?  Would this pathetic exchange be included in the newscast if the guy dies?

I was angry, upset, frustrated, and anticipating the next transmission in this macabre play by play account.  Forget about TNT, HBO, and Law and Order: THIS was drama.  This was heart wrenching.  Seconds seemed like hours; minutes seemed like days.

Finally, after several more non-productive transmissions where Eagle Dustoff attempted to reassure the voice, after twenty minutes and a few more frantic, screaming transmissions by the voice, the man's voice was calm again.

"Eagle Dustoff, cancel the chopper.  He's dead."

. . . and that was that.  The voice had gone from being the model for the consummate soldier (cool, calm, collected, professional) to more human screams and frantic pleading for help and, finally, to solemn resignation.  Now, the voice was quiet.

"Eagle Dustoff: requesting recovery team.  We can't drive this vehicle back; we need someone to come get the vehicle and body.  Over."

"Do you have casualty's information?"

"Yes.  SGT King, over."

I sat in that gunners sling in a fit of rage that I couldn't let out.  I had to be a soldier; I had to keep my cool.  We all did.  I was so angry, I still am, about being an unwilling voyeur, forced to listen to the gruesome play by play of another soldier's life and death.

We had been told that the insurgency was in its last throes, that they were just a bunch of dead enders.  No, not this day.  Today, SGT King was in his last throes, and I was there to listen to the whole damn thing, whether I liked it or not.  A soldier's death isn't anything like the movies.  There was no patriotic music; there was no feeling of purpose.  It's just . . . death.  I wasn't there physically; I didn't see him, but I was there.

Any sane person would have wanted to turn the channel.  No one wants to hear the screams of a man losing his friend, but I couldn't turn it off.  We were required to monitor that channel.  Either way, it didn't take long to become emotionally invested in it; was he going to make it?  I needed to know, damnit.  I hung on every word until I got the final, sobering news.

My truck was the only one in the convoy monitoring that net.  When we got back to base, no else had heard it, and SSG Bruesch, CPT Ray, and I didn't discuss it.  I don't think we ever did.

A few days later, I felt like I had to find out more about this soldier.  I felt like I had lost a friend, yet I didn't  know anything but his name and rank.  Looking back on it, I should have just let it go, but I didn't.  Using the miracle of the Internet, I found out all I needed to know about the young man, and to this day I don't know if that was a good thing or a bad thing.

SGT Jeremy E. King was 23 years old.  He was from Idaho, where he played high school football.  He had joined the army to get out of Idaho and see the world.  He was one year younger than I was, and he was dead.  He sounded like any of a number of teammates I played high school football with.  What irked me the most was how sanitized the news account of his death was:

A Fort Hood soldier from Idaho has died in Iraq of injuries sustained when troops came under fire during combat, the Department of Defense said Friday.

That's it?  That sounds almost peaceful, maybe even heroic.  I can attest that the whole thing was anything but peaceful, anything but heroic.  Who am I though?

I've replayed that scene in my head more times than I'd ever want since that day.  I don't believe in fate or karma or any type of pre-destined event, but I often wonder what made that sniper hole up on North Market Road instead of South Market Road, where I often found myself.  If it had been me, would SGT King have found himself in my shoes, reluctantly following the play by play of my ultimate death?

I was fortunate enough in my time there to never have to call in MEDEVAC.  I didn't bury any of my comrades, but I will always remember what it was like listening to the miracle of modern communications, the radio, and for the first time in my life being terrified, much like the couple in the story over eighty long years ago.

This August 24th, remember Jeremy King: http://iraq.pigstye.net/article.php/KingJeremyE

Justin Clib