February 28, 2007
This is a story about two men. Both are brave, committed soldiers. Each has a long and distinguished military record. Both are likeable, selfless, and humorous. They are the kind of guys you'd want as a neighbor, a drinking buddy, a teammate on a sports team, or a brother. Both are stubborn in their onset of middle age. It would be dishonest to say they are perfect. We all have our character flaws, and these two are no exception. But the balance sheet on their personal and moral fiber weighs heavily in their favor.
They are good men pretty much every day, all day.
One is American, and the other is Afghan.
And unfortunately, at the end of this story, one man lives, and the other man dies.
Ali Raza makes his own introduction. At first glance, he appears like a large bear walking on hind legs. Gruff, barrel-chested, a hulking man ruggedly assembled from head to toe. His face is like a map of old battlefields, with a network of scars weaving through his black beard. Ali Raza is a veteran of nine years of intense fighting during the Soviet/Afghan War, and now four more years against the Taliban. Some of his war stories from the 1980s may be a little far-fetched, but one cannot deny the scars on his body, and the hardness of his warrior eyes.
The first time I met Ali Raza, he literally pulled me off the ground with the strength of his handshake. Startled by this power, I composed myself and said the first thing that came to mind: "This man is a bear!" Once this was translated into Pashto by my interpreter, Ali Raza let out a laugh that shook the mountains.
While I may have painted a picture here of a hardened veteran, I must add that Ali Raza is not a cold or cruel man. His heavy arms are equally suited for hugging his small children, and for giving them a sense of security and protection in this violent environment. And so this bear of a man goes about his military duties with all the energy and force he needs to accomplish them. Sometimes this force may be a bit overboard, but Ali Raza is honest enough to admit he is not perfect. Although he is a devout Muslim, he still fancies vodka and beer, an acquired taste developed during years fighting with the Russians. Before you judge him for this religious infraction, Ali Raza will happily show you a doctor's prescription recommending alcohol for "medicinal purposes".
In the realm of tactics, there is no ambiguity with Ali Raza. He unabashedly prefers the Russian approach to clearing enemy villages: "Bomb everyone with airplanes and artillery, and then let them rebuild a new, friendly village." (How we guarantee the future friendliness of a village we just destroyed is a simple technicality to Ali Raza, a technicality I'm still waiting to hear him explain.) Suffice to say, if you ever met Ali Raza your immediate reaction would be simple: "I'm glad he is on our side!" One could only assume that if he hasn't been killed yet in decades of warfare, he's never going to be.
In some ways, Master Sergeant Scotland shares many similarities with Ali Raza. Both are above average in size and demeanor. MSG Scotland is perhaps one of the tallest ETTs ever to come in country. Both men have a long record of service, although Scotland is a Senior NCO, while Ali Raza is an Officer.
MSG Scotland comes from the Midwest, and volunteered for the year-long ETT Mission in order to do his part as a soldier. With his rank and time in service, he could have easily hidden under some rock back home and avoided a deployment into harm's way. But he didn't shirk his sense of duty, and he ended up here as a volunteer combatant, on the same FOB that Ali Raza and myself call home.
Scotland never shirks the dangerous aspects of the ETT mission. He embraces the risks as if they were free of all possible negative consequences. He even goes so far as to tempt fate with his humor and sarcasm. Before missions, he jokingly tosses his cell phone to the Afghan interpreters and urges them to use it: "Here, call your Taliban friends. Tell them I'm coming for them."
Every day, MSG Scotland volunteers for every mission. When he is not selected to go, he works back channels to get on one of the Up Armored Humvee Gun Truck crews. A day with no mission for Scotland is a day of lost chances to engage and destroy the enemy.
And like Ali Raza, he has a family and children back home. No one doubts a happy homecoming in the future for this loving and patriotic father.
Many bullets were fired that hot July day. All anonymously passed through time and space, and disappeared into oblivion. All except one, which struck its mark. It dove into the shadow of a soft ticklish armpit. A split second later, it passed completely through the body, came out the other side, and was gone.
Where it landed no one knows. But for that split second, this bullet left a wound that no medic or bandage could fix. The injury was gentle enough to let the wounded man sit back and realize he had been hit, but violent enough to impress upon him the fact he would likely die.
Had he been an average-sized man, the high-velocity round would have passed harmlessly above his shoulder and smashed into nothing but air and empty space. The harm inflicted by this bullet on someone smaller would have been purely psychological. A simple cracking noise, a reminder to keep one's head down.
For his comrades, who tried unsuccessfully to stop the bleeding, it must have seemed like furious seconds passing, and then he was gone. And for the dying man, time might have passed slowly, like sand through an hourglass.
Miles away, at the exact moment of his death, I sat listening to the morbid codes and phrase words being passed over the radio. Like you, I was only aware that a man was dead. His identity remained a mystery.
This story's end is not a surprise. One of these two men is dead. In fact, he's been dead now for months. Only today did chance events transpire to weave these two lives together into this story. And as I prepared to craft the ending to this sad tale, and to reveal the identity of the fallen man, I realized that it wasn't something I wanted to do. I realized that his death is only as real as I make it for you.
Both of these men are alive in your mind until I tell you one isn't. Can't you see Ali Raza hulking over his men on this chilly Afghan winter day, the steam rising from his mouth as he yells fiery insults to motivate his sluggish soldiers? And look at Scotland, standing before the desk of our Commander, pleading his case why he should be on today's combat patrol into a tough nearby village.
Don't they both still feel alive to you?
So as I write this, I find myself in a unique position to grant what I think is the "universal soldier's wish", that upon our death in combat, we are not forgotten.
That we can live on in the minds of our comrades, our families, our friends, and even strangers. That we can be seen much like you envision my two comrades in this story -- still active, still engaged, still alive. If we can live on in the memories of those we touched, then we can cheat the bullet's bite. And so I'm going to grant my fallen comrade this simple soldier's wish, and let him cheat the death that claimed him. I feel some solace in knowing that right here, right now, he is still alive in your mind's eye.
Note: "Ali Raza" and "Scotland" are modifications of the true last names of these men.