“Hi, I Achmed.”
Achmed was an Iraqi soldier working the front gate of our forward operating base in Balad where I was stationed in Iraq in 2004.
“Step away from the vehicle,” I responded, authoritatively.
It was another oppressing day in the desert pulling guard duty. Sitting atop a metal armored vehicle only encouraged the incessant sweat through my army uniform as I manned a .50 caliber rifle. Looking down at Achmed stone-faced, I pointed at the gate.
Achmed nodded, achknowledged my command with a wave, and returned to his post.
I was on guard duty over the next few days. Everyday Achmed was there, he greeted me with his wide, effortless grin.
“Hi, me,” as he gestured to himself. “…Achmed.”
I wondered how many attempts he made to befriend other soldiers. I asked the guys in my unit if they ever interacted with him. No one did. Most ignored or yelled at him to return to his post.
Aren’t we partners in all this? Weren’t we supposed to be building good relationships? I understood what enlisting after 9/11 meant. I understood my job as an artillery soldier.
Yet my participation in this theater of combat had to be more than pointing a rifle toward a seemingly empty space beyond the front gate.
The sun rose in the sepia hazed morning not much different than many ones before it. Roosters crowed. The prior evening’s patrol roared back onto post. Mothers called out for their children. The morning call to prayer floated gently through the air.
I returned to guard on my fourth day to find Achmed at the front gate.
“Hi, I Ach-,” he started as he always had.
“Achmed, yea,” I replied. “I’m De-, Matt, my name is Matt.”
Achmed’s eyes widened like he had had just received a gift from another world. A profound happiness tugged at the corners of his lips as he clasped his hands and let out a joyful and hearty laugh.
“Ah my friend, he speaks!”
The next time I saw Achmed, he brought freshly made pita bread that his wife made. He kindly shared it with me and my buddy in the driver’s seat. The freshness of the bread was a comforting change to our own monotonous meals. I was enjoying some classic MRE crackers with jelly. I offered some to Achmed.
“Army feeds you this,” Achmed asked. “This is army secret weapon.”
He crushed the cracker in his hand as he bursted into his typical gut wrenching laugh. He gestured for some water as I joined him in his chorus.
Achmed was the only Iraqi soldier I interacted with directly during my deployment. I didn’t see him often. It was only when I was sent to guard duty as a break between 12 hour missions of firing off 100 pound artillery rounds.
I was always in lifted spirits when I returned to guard duty.
Achmed often brought food from home. He insisted on sharing his meal that often inlcuded falafel, kebabs, and rice. We’d stuff our mouths with food, swallowing as fast as we could before something else needed our attention.
Being back at the front gate was like visiting a good friend that I hadn’t seen in months. To returning to see Achmed was the thing I looked forward to throughout the year besides our unit’s departure date.
Achmed’s English wasn’t as strong as he wanted. He often apologized for his inability to understand or express what he wanted. I didn’t know enough Arabic except for simple greetings and some basic words. Through exaggerated gestures and simple drawings we understood each other well enough. After a few months we started developing our own way of communicating like you do with a close friend.
On several occassions he’d bring pictures of his family to show me. There was one picture that I remember vividly. It was a picture of his wife, daughter, and younger brother. It was taken on a bright and seemingly peaceful day. Achmed and his family were enjoying a Sunday together along the banks of a river. Achmed’s brother was fishing in the background. His wife’s and daughter’s smiles preserved in the photo.
The scene was warmingly familar.
Achmed also enjoyed comparing stories of army life.
“Do you enjoy bootcamp?” Achemed asked.
“It wasn’t too bad,” I said recalling my training. “Just needed to play the game to get through.”
“Ah, yes, is like a game,” he replied. “Until no longer just a game.”
It had been nearly a year. Our deployment was nearing the end. We all had been counting down the days since our arrival to Balad. Convoys of new soldiers began streaming in on a daily basis while battle-worn soldiers were leaving. At any moment we could be told to grab our gear and form up.
Our artillery guns had already left post in preperation of our departure. I was doing some final guard shifts at the front gate. I was thrilled to see Achmed again before we had to leave.
“We’re headed out soon, “ I explained to him. “I have some things I want to give to you.”
I had a few CDs, a portable DVD player, and DVDs that I bought from some Iraq merchants who had set up a makeshift shop on post.
“No no, I cannot take from you.”
“They’re a gift. Give them to your little brother,” I insisted.
Achmed grabbed my hands and shook them fervently thanking me. I looked at my friend, my new brother formed by the bonds of war. His bright hopeful eyes and his infectious smile looking back at me. I told him that I’d be back in a 20 minutes.
I returned to my room and started to pack up some things for Achmed. There was a knock at my door.
It was my gunnery sergeant. It was time.
I had expected a few days even a week to go by. I grabbed my ruck, my rifle, and the bag for Achmed. I ran out to meet the rest of the guys in my unit.
As we waited to form up, we retold stories of the past year. I remembered the day we arrived. I remembered our first fire mission and its aftermath. I recalled the first incoming round that flew above my head and the strong vibrations it exploded on the ground. I remember how frightened I was in the beginning. But after a year it just became a normal daily occurance that no longer scared me.
We shared a lot of “remember when’s” and “damn, those were intense missions” with intermittent moments of quiet reflection.
There were several dozen faded and dust-covered vehicles lined up ready for us eager yet wearisome soldiers. Our gunnery sergeant motioned to us. We helped each other up into the back of our 5-ton trucks. Our slow and final march off base had begun.
I could feel the pressure of my heart intensifing in my chest. I was excited and relieved. I looked at everyone in the back of our truck. We were headed home.
As more vehicles moved out, the air became thick with dust and sand. I thought about Achmed. I looked down at the bag I was holding onto.
I never made it back to the front gate.
I fell into my seat unsure of how much time had passed.
As we inched our way out, I could see Achmed running to each vehicle. When he didn’t find what he was looking for, he stepped back and saluted the passing soldiers.
I yelled out to him as I lifted the bag. Achmed laughed and crossed his arms. I tossed it to him anyway.
He opened it and pulled out a CD.
“Tom Petty! My Favorite!”
He ran up to our truck and reached out for my hand.
“We meet someday when life is peaceful again.”
“As-salaam‘alaykum my good friend,” I said softly.
As our 5-ton pulled away, Achemd stepped back, stood at attention and raised his right hand to his head. I returned my salute.
Achmed stood holding his position until he drifted out of sight.