4:25am

Sat November 10, 2012
StoryCorps

Amidst War, U.S. Guardsman Forges Unexpected Bond

Originally published on Sat November 10, 2012 2:11 pm

The Military Voices Initiative, a StoryCorps' project, collects stories from members of the U.S. armed forces, with a special focus on those who served in post-Sept. 11, 2001, conflicts. Every month, highlights from that initiative air on Weekend Edition Saturday.

Spc. Justin Cliburn, 30, was deployed to Iraq in 2005 with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. His job was to train the Iraqi police in Baghdad. During his time there, he got to know a boy in his early teens named Ali, who walked through their compound one day.

"He was very shy. And the second or third time that I met him, he brought his best friend, Ahmed," Cliburn tells his wife, Deanne. "Ahmed was much more outgoing, and so Ali really opened up. And, once I met these children, it made every day something I looked forward to."

They would play "rock, paper, scissors" and soccer.

"We were about as close as people that don't speak the same language can be," he says. "I had never been really good with children, and this was the first time I felt like I loved someone who wasn't my family member."

But then one day something was wrong. Ali kept saying, "Ahmed, Ahmed, boom." They found out Ahmed and his mother were at a gas station when a suicide bomber attacked. Though his mother died instantly, Ahmed was at a hospital.

Cliburn and the other soldiers pooled money for Ali to take to Ahmed's father, "but later, I saw Ali walking up very slow and he sat down on the curb next to my Humvee," Cliburn says. "He dug a hole in the ground with his fingers. He picked up a rock and put it in the hole and then he put the dirt back over it. And he just pointed to the ground and said, 'Ahmed.' And I knew that Ahmed was dead."

Sitting on the curb — "me in desert camouflage, carrying an M-4 rifle, and him just a North Baghdad kid" — they cried together.

"I don't know what came of [Ali]. That's the nature of war I suppose," Cliburn says. "But whenever I see any footage from Baghdad, I'm always kind of looking around, wondering if he's in the frame."


Audio produced for Weekend Edition Saturday by Yasmina Guerda.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This Veteran's Day weekend, we introduce a new StoryCorps project. It's called the Military Voices Initiative and it features members of the U.S. Armed Forces.

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SIMON: Once a month for the next year, we'll be hearing stories from veterans, particularly those who served in conflicts following the September 11 attacks. The first story comes from Specialist Justin Cliburn. He deployed to Iraq in 2005 with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. His job was to train the Iraqi police in Baghdad. Specialist Cliburn sat down for StoryCorps with his wife Deanne, and he told her about his friendship with a young Iraqi boy.

SPECIALIST JUSTIN CLIBURN: One day, we saw this child walking through the compound. His name was Ali, and he did not want to talk to us.

DEANNE CLIBURN: As opposed to a lot of the other Iraqi kids that you encountered?

CLIBURN: Yes. He was very shy. And the second or third time that I met him, he brought his best friend, Ahmed. And Ahmed was much more outgoing. And so, Ali really opened up. And once I met these children, it made every day something I looked forward to. We would play rock, paper, scissors. We would kick around a soccer ball. We were about as close as people that don't speak the same language can be. I had never been really good with children, and this was the first time I felt like I loved someone who wasn't my family member. But one day Ali showed up and I could tell something wasn't right. He kept saying Ahmed, Ahmed, boom. We learned that Ahmed and his mother went to the gas station and a suicide bomber detonated. Ahmed's mother is dead. She died instantly, and Ahmed is in a hospital somewhere. And so other soldiers and I collected what cash we had and gave it to Ali and said go take this to Ahmed's father. But later, I saw Ali walking up very slow and he sat down on the curb next to my Humvee. He dug a hole in the ground with his fingers. He picked up a rock and put it in the hole and then he put the dirt back over it. And he just pointed to the ground and said Ahmed. And I knew that Ahmed was dead. And so I sat on the curb with him - me in desert camouflage, carrying an M-4 rifle and him, just a North Baghdad kid - just sat there and cried. I don't know what came of him. That's the nature of war I suppose. But whenever I see any footage from Baghdad, I'm always kind of looking around, wondering if he's in the frame.

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SIMON: That was Iraq War veteran Justin Cliburn remembering Ali, his friend from Baghdad. His story will be archived at the Library of Congress. To get the StoryCorps podcast, you can visit npr.org.

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SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.