In 2004 I sat in an Iraqi café studying. I had reading books and paperwork spread across four people’s worth of space on the counter. I frequented this location the way you frequent your favorite coffee house. If I wasn’t on convoy or in the trauma bay you could be certain to find me studying in the café. This was the place to do it. There was always a national on hand hoping to improve their English skills and a trade for trade came naturally. There was so much to know. I wanted to master the language so that when the moment came I would be able to disable any intense situation. I would be successful. I would fail. But what really mattered was the lesson that I was about to learn that day.
He was 5’8″ on a tall day. He may have been 28 years old if I aged him due to circumstances. He had been selling “hodgie” DVDs downstairs earlier in the day. Now he served me a hot cup of chai and helped me to perfect my Jordanian grammar.
As an interesting side note and lesson: hodge has a loose but direct translation of “wise old man.” It is a distinguished title the same as our hard earned warfare devices. The title “Hodge” means a person has pursued and completed the highest of Muslim trials. The word is regarded among the most highly disciplined and devoted. To be known as a Hodge is the equivalent of what most of us lay people would think of someone with “Saint” actually in a person’s title. We use it as a derogatory slang by adding the “ie” at the end and making it childish, undermining its importance and disgregarding the work it would take them to apply themselves to earning the title. That being said, that’s ignorance and arrogance, not superiority. Similar to how we use the word “nip” in a negative context for the Japanese. Nip is short for Nippon. Nippon (Hiragana: にっぽん) is a reading of kanji 日本 that refers to Japan. Nippon is the more formal and rarer than Nihon (にほん), an alternative reading….but I digress.
These men worked here after having been brought in as informants or otherwise by our teams. They were compromised after having been seen “visiting” an American base. If they left they would be considered defectives and would be killed or worse, yes, there is worse than death. Because of this well know and rarely discussed fact often they stayed. Working on the base in the capacity of food, cleaning or sales.
He was new. He’s been here almost two weeks. We hadn’t spoken much. I was used to dealing with his predecessor who had recently “vacated” the position at the café. This man had fed me many a dinner after closing up shop. He had helped me with my language stills. He had served me enough chai to keep a small village hydrated. What was his name again?
I had been struggling to learn the “G” sound in the Arabic language for weeks. Recently one of my Marines had walked into the café describing a victim and I made the sound we make when something is disgusting. “Yes!” He exclaimed “That’s it! That’s the G sound! You finally found it!” The excitement on his face said it all. He had invested. Seeing the accomplishment on his face for me finally making the right sound was the look you give a friend when they inevitably hone something they’ve been struggling with.
“That’s why we think American is stupid,” he said to me.
Shocked I glanced up at him.
“That’s why we think American stupid.” He pointed to a small mounted television in the corner of the café. It was televising a presidential discussion. They were arguing over something frivolous. What? I don’t remember. All the other details are crystal clear. The song that followed for commercial break was the French “Numa Numa” song. The clothing of the vendor; red scarf, blue tee and grey pants with sandals. The smells of coffee and naan. The chai. It’s all so clear. The presidential discussion though….that’s blurred for me.
What’s painstakingly and dramatically sharp for me is this. What that conversation turned into. I asked him one simple question that spun the conversation and our points of view on their axis, “Why?” Why was he doing what he was doing? And his answer was so simple. So concise.
“I want my boy to play football (soccer) on Thursday. Same as you. Not Allah. Not God. Not country. My boy. You know?”
I was in disbelief I suppose. I had no kids at the time. I had never been married. When convoys were presented I jumped at the chance to go. I begged to take the place of people who had kids back home. No. What does soccer have to do with any of this. Why not God? Why not country?
It’s been over a decade since that day that I sipped my chai in the café. Since learning the local’s language from the locals with a focus on dismantling them. Was I too young to get it? Was I hyper focused on the mission? Was I too into my studies to get the whole picture?
It’s been over a decade. And now, 4 kids (2 bio and 2 step) later, I get it. At least I’m starting to get it.
Isn’t that what we all want? Our kids to be happy and healthy? Our kids to play ball on Thursday and their biggest fear or concern to be winning? Isn’t that why this entiltled generation has started handing out these bullshit participation awards like water bottles following games? Are we all too young to get it? Are we all in denial or shock? We can’t possibly all be that blind to the entire senario around us and what’s being left on the battlefield by both sides. Can we? What is our heartfelt and genuine end game?
I always say when fighting a lover that the intention to win a fight projects your intention for your partner to fail. How can we, in love, hope for our loved one to fail? In anything? If a simple apology can move us through anger and into acceptance why wouldn’t we embrace that? If a misplaced Iraqi national can celebrate with me, an American soldier, over my tiny victory of language why can’t we embrace the simplicity of our own first world problems? Was that all he was destined to teach me? Or is that why he and I were in that very place at that very moment? To learn that our end objectives were the exact same despite the roads we were traveling to arrive?
I don’t wonder where he is now. I’m fairly certain I know the answer if I was bold enough to accept it. But I do wonder where his boy is. Did he get to play soccer on Thursdays? Does he know all that his dad wanted for him? Does he know what was risked, sacrificed and even gained to open those doors for him? Do you know those answers in regards to your own life?
I believe that with patience there is a love that can supersede all first world problems and delve into something as simple as this truth: We all just want our kids (our people) to be safe, playing ball on Thursdays.
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