It was June, and summer in Iraq was merciless. The air reminded me of a car that had been baking in the hot Arkansas sun all day long, trapping the heat that smacks the face of the unfortunate soul who has to open the door. Only there was no window to roll down, no air conditioner to turn on, and 130 degrees of misery that beat down on SPC M and I from above and rose off the rocks beneath our feet. We sat in quiet agony as we waited impatiently for the helicopters to arrive to take us on our way out of Iraq and back home for a couple of weeks of R&R.
The boredom of slowly cooking on the rocks of the flightline was interrupted by two military police officers as they escorted a prisoner across the rocks toward the holding area for passengers; toward us. The man’s hands were bound and he had a bag over his head which completely concealed his face. His clothes were dirty and torn and he was barefoot. Under each arm was the hand of an MP as they controlled his every move, guiding him across the rocks.
I held my breath. I had never been this close to an enemy combatant. Was he responsible for all of the nights I had been woken up by rockets and mortars crashing into our camp? Did he know who had ambushed us two weeks before? Did he sing praises to his God when our soldiers were killed in those blasts? Would he be happy to know that I had been wounded? Was it an answer to his prayer? In the midst of these questions I felt my heart starting to race. My breathing quickened, making up for the moments I held it. One question rang louder in my mind than all of the others; would he be flying in my helicopter?
I began to imagine scenarios in which he broke free from his restraints, removed the bag that was over his head, and tried to fight the MP’s mid-flight. Were they trained for that? He was getting closer now and I prayed he would be on the other helicopter; helicopters always fly in pairs (except medivacs). What if he broke free and charged me? What if the young MP’s, desperate to restrain him, foolishly shot at him on the helicopter and accidentally killed me?
Nonsense. God has a plan for my life.
What if he is really important? What if he is barefoot and blindfolded because he is a “mob boss” for the Shiite Militia? What if he has people waiting to shoot our helicopter down? I looked over to see what SPC M thought of this development. SPC M had his nose buried in his duffle bag and then abruptly stood up and started toward the prisoner.
He walked briskly across the rocky flightline and knelt down in front of the barefoot man. He lifted the man’s shackled ankle and slid a flip-flop onto his foot. Then he lifted the man’s other ankle and slid another flip-flop onto his other bare foot. Then he stood up, turned around, walked back, and sat back down next to me.
I don’t remember which helicopter the man flew on, but I remember how much easier he walked across those rocks with flip-flops on his feet.
I’ve thought about that day every day since it happened. I was so afraid of that man that I had failed to notice how gingerly he walked over those jagged rocks with his bare, shackled feet. I was so concerned about my own safety that I never considered the pain in that man’s body. I never asked myself why I was afraid of a man rendered powerless by shackles; the tools of domination. SPC M, on the other hand, saw the same man I saw and responded to his need. It didn’t seem to matter to him whether the man was good or evil, guilty or innocent. He cared only for his feet.
Perhaps SPC M had a different perspective because of his experience of living in America as an immigrant. Perhaps he was less keen to villainize a person simply because our government deemed them “criminal” in their own country. Perhaps my privilege, my whiteness, and my American birth made it easier for me to see the brown man in custody as a threat. Or maybe SPC M was a different kind of Christian. My Christian identity caused me to view Muslims as my natural enemies. His Christianity caused him to give away his shower shoes to a barefoot, blindfolded man in shackles. His faith wouldn’t let him demonize another human being. I want my faith to be like his.