September 2011

I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory.  No, I love only that which they defend.

September came in with a flurry of changes. A new Greek team, a new French team. As I look back and reflect on this year nothing is the same. Not here, not home, not me, and after this edition not you. See, the greatest thing we do as a people is share stories. We share our peaceful moments on the shores of life’s lake donned with fog.  The waves lightly lapping the shore and ever so slightly changing it. We share our victories and triumphs over enemies external and internal. At times its our own internal struggles that make the best stories. Valiancy of where honor is won and heroes’ are birthed by chance on the flap of an angels wings. We all excel while fighting the enemies around us, the greatest of which is ourselves.

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I would like to share a few stories of some of the greatest people I have met. Those who have touched me by how they fought, survived, triumphed, and died for freedom of oppression. Both stories I share are very different yet share the common theme of loving something you can’t have. Loving something that even if you had it you would give it away to someone so that they may enjoy life’s sweetest moments.  Love is designed to be reciprocated.

The first tale is of a young soldier, no more than 20. Not bigger than a 15 year old boy living in an US suburbia town. Their sizes are where the similarities end. One focuses on sports and computers, the other on feeding his family and protecting his garden.

This young man lived in a small village miles away. So far away that the trip back is a series of cars, busses, donkeys, and walking.

This soldier trained hard, trained well, he excelled. He found a place as an Afghan Commando, an elite fighting force akin to Army Rangers. A go anywhere, do anything type of person.  He is a man’s man.  Belonged to a unit of warriors who act. One evening he was sleeping in the dusty dessert of Helmand Province when they took indirect fire from mortars.  Eight days later the soldier awoke in a  in the city of Kandahar. He speaks about opening his eyes and feeling wild pain. He was weak and hungry, then passed out. Five days later he awoke to less pain and terrible hunger pains. He had the strength to look around. He found himself completely alone in a hot and stuffy hospital room without arms or legs. He laid back and cried.

I met this soldier after his arrival to NMH for skin grafts. He arrived on my floor silently and settled into his bed. After some conversation I got a glimmer of a smile. A spark I knew contained so much more, but it was lost in the shadows of wounds and untold stories.

Days and then weeks passed with only simple customary salutations exchanged. Slowly over time things changed for me with him. His soul became softer with me around. He became one of the best friends I have made yet on the floor. His attitude completely changed, he became gregarious! We nick-named him Rambo because of the pictures he carried of his prior self. One day I asked “what are your dreams?” He told me of his love.

While growing up in the town he fell in love with a young Afghan woman who lived there. In Afghanistan boys and girls don’t talk, don’t socialize, and don’t EVER date. Their marriage is set up between parents as a way of protecting wealth, promoting power, or assuring tribal peace. This was nothing of the sort. One Romeo longing for a chance to hear his Juliet speak just one word. He has no money; dowry is a custom that must be followed. Where does one get the money for a wedding? The Afghan National Army was his only answer. He enlisted and that brings us full circle to his training and injuries.

So what about his beauty? What about this woman he undertook great risk for the chance to find love from another? I asked if he would see her again. No. I looked at him quizzically.  Never? Can’t you go back and find her? “You don’t understand Young, the Taliban have taken over my town…” I pushed a bit harder. How can you never go back? Your love is there. Sure you can’t fight but you can work at a store. Won’t she still fancy you? “I have asked about her. No one has seen her or her family.  Her family is a supporter of the Karzai administration. Maybe she left, maybe she is dead. If I go back they [Taliban] will kill me because I fought for the ANA.”

“But Zherguy, maybe she could come here! Maybe she could find you one day?”

He dropped his head and shook it no. In Afghanistan where the Taliban are, women are not respected or treated well, they are below second class citizens. She would never be allowed to travel outside her village, let alone to find him. Here is a young man who left his village and his love to seek a chance, a better life, the hope for happiness.

He lost more than his arms and legs that day. His future is uncertain but, he has loved.  Zherguy met one of the US Admirals on a visit.  He told the Admiral that I was like one of his brothers; he would never forget what I did for him.

A warrior takes everything as a challenge.  A common man takes them as a blessing or a curse

The second story is about a young mother who was in the hospital to give birth to her first child. The US team got involved basically by chance. The baby was born via C-section.

The baby girl was cleaned off; the umbilical cord was tied off with waxed dental floss, and the baby was set atop a table on the other side of the room without sides and unwatched. The mother was stitched up but not after she had lost quite a bit of blood. The following morning the US team returned to check on our new mother. The grandmother was in the room holding the baby. The US nurse Capri asked her interpreter if she could hold the baby. The grandmother eagerly offered up the child. The interpreter began to cry.

We see many things up at NMH. Many things that no one should ever see. Our interpreters are resilient people who have picked their side in the fight for freedom.

But, on this day our interpreter was crying. Why? Because the grandmother offered the child not to be held but, to be taken. The mother said that we should take this child; they would have a much better life with us than in Afghanistan. This grandmother lived through the Soviet occupation, constant war of the Mujahadeen War Lords, and the brutal and ruthless Taliban.  Capri was asked to name this child. Arzu is what was picked; you will know her as Hope.

Each time we face our fears, we gain strength, courage, and confidence in the doing.

What strength to offer up your child to a complete stranger. Offer your child up for just the chance at something better for her. Could you? Would you? If there was a chance your child could have a better life because you are not there, could you make that decision?  How often have you made decisions based on what is better or more comfortable for you while ignoring the consequences to others?  Afghanistan is a lonely place and is even darker without the comfort of family around. All they have is family. For an instant that passed slower than a dozen sunrises we considered, considered what could be, if we could. We declined, forever more wondering if we served the world well….

The last story is a brief and telling story.  It is about a father and his desire to find his oldest son, his first born.  This father’s son was injured and sent to NMH.  Once there he was lost to the administration department.  No records exist that he was even here.  The records end on the helo pad.  He arrived and disappeared.  His father came looking for him, for information, for any glimmer of hope he may be alive.  Despite our best efforts we never found him.  The father even went through the bodies in the morgue looking at each one to find his son.  This father has returned a few times seeking any more information about his son.  We have none.  This soldier, this Son of Afghanistan is lost to time.  Never to return home, never to laugh or cry with his family.  He rests quietly and watches the days pass with Saied in a place only known to Allah.

The world is round.  The place which may seem like the end may really be just the beginning.  Take the adventure.

So, what is your story? Are you covered in the rain of God’s tears?  In roses or ashes, or the pain of cuts to your very core? Do you focus a peaceful light on others so they may rest in the hands of comfort? Above all else, this past year I have learned that peace begins with your heart and ends with a soft comforting touch of your loving hands. Serve each other in times of pain, share in life’s great adventures and triumphs.  But, most of all keep a safe place of shelter for others form the storms of life. You’re not alone out there friends.

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Soon I will board a plane for quieter places and safer jobs.  I will leave a place where the birds sing the song of a wounded nation.  We will leave the heroes like Zherguy, Siaed, Arzu, and the unknown soldier who watches us stumble towards freedom.  We may leave but their finger prints cover us, nothing we touch will ever be the same. But, not today, there is still much to do.  Semper Fidelis.

No person is your friend who demands your silence.

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