It’s hard to stare at a blank screen, wondering if I should write something or just let the screen remain blank, clean, and innocent. An internal dialogue goes on in my head, “Should I write something? Should I just close this window and listen to more metal/rock music through my headphones?” A minor battle ensues, just for today in this lifetime war known as existence. I will persevere, and whatever happens… well you’ll be the judge of that.
There is somewhat of a known/unknown secret that I have. It’s known to those few who I’ve shared it with, and unknown to just about everyone else. You see, I haven’t slept much over the last 18 years of my life. Think about it, a full voting-eligible aged adult of a span of time. I haven’t slept much because I can’t allow myself to sleep. I am tortured daily by a memory that I will never forget. There are constant reminders of this memory, specifically five of them living in my home. Though recent events, scenes of despair shown in our living rooms on a nightly basis, have caused me to lose the last few moments of sleep that I was able to call my own.
My current duties require that I communicate with colleagues in time zones hours ahead of our own in the United States. Every now and then I will respond to an email and get similar responses to the effect of “What are you doing awake at this time,” or “Do you ever sleep?” I respond with a “Superheroes never sleep,” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” But in reality, the reason I am awake at the oddest of hours is because I get up multiple times a night… to check on my children, to see if they are still breathing, if they possess something a child I encountered, less than the age of 1 lost, life.
I was a 24-year Staff Sergeant of Marines in 2003, a Platoon Sergeant to about 80 Marines. Looking back at it now, I am in awe of how young I was and how my leaders entrusted me to lead men into theater. I also had a unique specialty, I knew how to speak some Arabic, so I was the best piece of gear a Marine Officer could have with him, besides his weapon of course. I had just gotten back from a rigorous 2-3 days of meeting with local leaders either inside the vicinity or on the outskirts of Baghdad (I rarely knew where I was at any given moment). I hadn’t shaved or eaten much in that time; I was beat. I start to prepare MRE number 21, Chicken Tetrazzini and left it to heat up while I went over to the Command Post (CP) to meet and be debriefed by my Battalion Executive Officer (XO).
When I met with my XO, he noticed how I looked, completely exhausted, frail, and hungry. Yes, I looked hungry because I was! He told me to clean up and get some chow in me, I thanked him and before I could head out on my way to eat my perfectly heated meal by now, a few Marines rushed over to the CP frantically, asking for me to come to the compound entrance, that they needed me to speak with someone. So off I went, muttering to myself and complaining just loud enough for them to hear me, but not too loud for them to call it “bitching”.
I met with a gentleman, my memory deceives me now because it was so long ago, but it wasn’t much of a discussion. He just wanted a piece of the lucrative pie that was now to be Iraq. I asked the Marines at the entrance to let him out and they did. Before they could close the entrance doors, a man, woman, and a teenaged boy barged in, in the father’s arms was a boy no older than a year. The boy was struggling to breathe. You could see the look on his face, a blind stare and his chest struggled to rise with each labored breath. His color was green, a color I had never seen on a human being. The father pleaded with me to help him, I brought them in and asked the Marines with me to get our Navy Doctor ASAP.
I spoke with the family, trying to reassure them and could not help but stare at the boy. It was March, my wife was home pregnant at the time, due in August. I thought about this poor boy and his poor family, what all that was going on around them and how it impacted the life of this child. The boy was in the hospital for some time, and when our forces got closer to Baghdad, Saddam Hussein had evicted all the hospital’s patients. This is what the father told me, I felt responsible for this and in reality, there was a slight bit of responsibility justifiably placed on me. I was part of these forces, had we not moved north, the boy would still be hospitalized and would have been receiving care.
The Navy Doctor arrived, examining the boy without a look of hope in his eyes. He held him, tried to assist his breathing, handed him back over to his father and not soon after he did, the boy took one last breath, and died. We all knew what had happened, the Marines there with me turned around and started crying, I started to cry as the Doctor gestured with his hands that the boy was gone. The family looked at him and though the Doctor’s hand gestures were obvious, they were not so to the family. They looked over at me, and his father asked me in Arabic an ask I will never forget, “He died?” I said nothing, I was unable to speak. I could only muster tears as they flowed down my face. The family, what was now left of them, burst into tears and wailed in agony as they turned around and walked toward the exit of the compound.
I was frozen, I was crushed, I was no longer the man I was moments before this encounter. I was changed.
I never got the boy’s name, I don’t think it would have helped, if anything it probably would have made things much worse for me and the other Marines. I know that since that tragic moment, and later that year when my son was born to me and my wife, I have not been able to sleep. Fear grips me each night as my children sleep, I get up in the middle of the night, many times a night, go into their rooms and check their breathing. I sometimes nudge them, move their arms, reposition them. All so I can feel some semblance of calm before I check on them again, and again later that night. So no, I don’t sleep much, and probably will never sleep soundly again.
I don’t know what the long term affects of this will be on me, nor do I care. I share this story because this story is one of many stories involving a tragic event we experience as Marines, as service men and women. Though they may haunt us, scar us, and alter our lives, but there is one similarity with these stories that should highlight our impact, why there is nothing that we do that will ever been done in vain. We are who strangers will go to in the worst of times, who they trust to do what’s best, what’s right. Seeing mothers hand their children over razor wire to Marines in Kabul in an act of desperation reminded me of this fact. We are the first line of defense to salvation, and it’s a role we accept, though we wish these roles did not have to exist.
So, to my brothers and sisters in arms, each time you struggle to cope, struggle in your thoughts, and struggle to sleep at night, remember one thing…
Superheroes never sleep.
Written By: Khaled Hafid
Former Marine and Current U.S. State Department