by SFC Eric B. Thompson
My Army National Guard unit, the 30th Corps Support Group of Durham, N.C., had been deployed in early April 2003 for a three-month Iraqi/Enduring Freedom assignment to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. We had been assigned to Prince Hassan Airbase in eastern Jordan to support the Air Force and Special Forces units with their covert forays into northwestern Iraq and to process, shuttle the occasional unit or stray individual into or out of the region. With the official conclusion of the war on May 15th, our mission was essentially over. The Air Force units were the first to go, and the Special Forces outfits and other support units on base either moved forward into Iraq or were sent home as well. Much to our jubilation, Central Command had decided by early June that there was no further need for the 30th CSG's services within their theater of jurisdiction, so there we were, homeward bound for our Fourth of July homecoming on a commercial jet aircraft, whooping it up with excitement.
For the flight over we'd been encumbered with the full field gear complement of helmet, flak vest, gas mask, web harness and M16 rifle w/ ammunition, all told about forty pounds. More significantly, we'd been laden with our emotions--the uncertainty of the duration and circumstances of our deployment. Would we be away from home a full year or even longer? How would our families deal with our prolonged absence? Though we weren't a combat arms unit, would we, regardless, actually find ourselves in a life-threatening situation at some point, would we actually receive and return hostile fire?
How different the return flight--no such encumbrance, either literally or figuratively. All the tactical gear had thankfully been stowed away and we simply wore our light-duty berets and desert camouflage B.D.U.s (battledress uniforms). As we were on the downside, our commander had okayed the enhancement of our celebration with alcohol, so I promptly ordered a favorite, a double shot of Jack Daniel's and Coke, courtesy of my OIC (officer-in-charge), and we toasted.
Within a couple of hours, most of us had nodded off, settling in for the twenty-odd hour flight. Everyone had been too keyed-up to sleep the night before as we awaited our plane's departure in the wee hours before dawn. But I wasn't sleepy just yet.
I sat back in my seat, full of reflection. I couldn't wait for the holiday get-together and terminal leave I'd planned with my family. My father had been diagnosed with cancer shortly after we'd arrived in Jordan and, contrary to his wishes, I'd been immediately informed of it by my sister. Under circumstances such as this, one would naturally have to ask: are they holding back on me? I had to see him soon.
I counted the full blessings of our deployment experience. We'd been very fortunate to complete our mobilization safely, having been spared enemy engagement, loss of life, and we were returning home early, a full six months before the expiration date of our orders.
With the drop in threat level and our mission coming to a close, we'd been granted the privilege to venture forth and see much of this exotic, beautiful land on which not only Arabic but ancient Jewish and Roman civilizations as well had left their timeless, indelible mark. Our travels were an antiquity lover's dream, and we took in sites few Westerners ever will: The mammoth tomb facades carved into the sandstone canyons of the fabled lost city of Petra. Mt. Nebo with its majestic, awe-inspiring panoramic view from whence Moses saw the promised land and died. Jerash, the "Pompeii of the Middle East," the most complete, most well-preserved Palestinian city of Roman times. The storied Red Sea port city of Aqaba at which the Arabs and Lawrence of Arabia had fought and won a pivotal battle over the Turks.
Yes, all of this was on my mind, but what really preoccupied me the most at that moment was my thoughts I had for the people of this country, the soldiers who had graciously befriended us, taken us to heart and how I had done my best to return the sentiments, however inadequately, in kind.
My thoughts drifted back to the early hours of last night as I glanced back one final time and bid farewell to Camp Scorpion, the gravel-bedded tent city which had been our home for the past three months on Prince Hassan. Giddy with excitement, I turned and was about to make my way to the orderly room and then on to the flight line when Osama, a Jordanian base security guard with whom I had developed a special kinship, approached. Though he greeted me with a customary embrace, it was immediately obvious he didn't share my elation over our departure.
"Your thoughts are no longer with us, they are with your family." His gaze was sober, penetrating.
I did my best to reassure him that I'd keep in touch regularly and hoped to someday comeback for a visit. And I meant it.
His eyes widened in disbelief.
"But you won't see us, me," he mumbled.
I was taken aback, touched by his genuine, very real sadness. My spirits began to sink, my grin faded.
We stood for a long moment, saying nothing.
Finally, he patted me glumly, resignedly on the shoulder and moved on.
"See you on the flight line" were his last words as we parted company.
A few hours later I was sitting on my cot in a hangar adjacent to the flight line, having just cleared customs and awaiting our departure. My eyes began to tear up a bit as I thought about my last encounter with Osama. Chaplain Patton noticed and asked me if everything were okay. I assured him that everything was fine, that I was just a little overcome with emotion at the moment about going home, that's all.
Prior to getting the call to mobilization, I must admit to being woefully ignorant of Jordan--her history, her people, her culture. Like most Americans, the overwhelming impression I had of Muslims, of Arabs was shaped by what I saw on the nightly news.
Fed a steady stream of disturbing images and accounts from the region, one might readily conclude that all Muslim, Arab societies and individuals are inherently and relentlessly violent, inhumane and totally unforgiving in their culture, that in their world the value of an individual life is cheap, that they all want nothing more than to expunge every non-believer from the face of the Earth in a systematic fashion not unlike Hitler's "Final Solution."
What doesn't make the mainstream news--or at least not often enough--are the endearing and deeply touching acts of kindness extended to foreigners, including Westerners, which you'll find in evidence among the more moderate Muslim, Arab societies as Jordan. I was struck by how immediately apparent it was that the Jordanian soldiers, irrespective of differences in creed, color, or race, had taken their American counterparts to heart and were surprisingly very demonstrative in their expression of it. These people truly live by the credo that it is better to treat your fellow man better than he does you and are, indeed, some of the most hospitable people I've ever met.
It came as quite a surprise, even a shock, to witness some of the customs and courtesies of Arab, Jordanian men in their interaction with one another. During our pre-mobilization briefing, we were told that they observe close personal space, typically hug and kiss one another on the cheek in greeting and are sometimes even observed holding hands when standing or sitting together.
Jordanian women were beyond the scope of our briefing; none were to be found anywhere on base (to the best of my knowledge). Though women are allowed to serve in uniform, they are relegated to essentially non-combat roles such as those of clerical, medical, and communications specialists. And unlike the men, their service is not compulsory. As regards to women's rights, Jordan is very progressive for a Muslim nation. Women may train and serve in professional capacities such as doctors, lawyers, and nurses. Women are not required to wear veils or cover their hair, and I only saw one burkha the entire time I was in the country. It was understood with our male soldiers that should you encounter any Jordanian women during off-post excursions, they were off limits for social interaction.
Though we'd had our introduction to Jordanian culture and how the men warmly greeted one another, we really didn't have any idea as to how we ourselves, the men and women of the 30th CSG, would be received in their midst.
The first Jordanian soldiers I met, Emad and Samer, were actually Catholic. Christians in Jordan, unlike their brethren in most other Middle Eastern Muslim countries, are able to practice their faith freely, without persecution. Indeed, some of the best schools in Jordan are Catholic, and Muslim parents, truth-to-tell, enroll their children in these schools with little or no concern for proselytizing influence.
Both Emad and Samer spoke English well. Samer was in fact multilingual, having prepared himself for the priesthood, wherever it might end up taking him. I would find that most of the Jordanian soldiers spoke at least some English. As a reflection of British influence, English is regarded as a language of commerce in Jordan, appearing side-by-side with Arabic on all the road signs. You can expect to go anywhere in the country, save perhaps some of the smaller communities, and find that the shopkeepers communicate adequately in English.
Unfailingly, Emad and Samer would drop by the bunker every night to visit those of us on the late shift, bringing freshly-brewed tea and, occasionally, a cake baked by Emad's wife, and they asked nothing in return. Often there would be long silent stretches between bits of conversation; you sensed that just their being there for you, your being there for them was enough in itself.
I found out during our first session with Emad and Samer that the Arab observance of personal space is just a little too close for comfort for most of us Westerners. As I consulted an English dictionary over a word which had proven troublesome in our communication, I suddenly found both of them standing over me, one on either side, cheek-to-cheek with me, looking on.
Soon word got out about the social opportunity to be had with the Americans on the late shift, and more and more Jordanian soldiers showed up for these nightly sojourns until an altogether stop to the visits had to be implemented owing to security protocol.
I lost track of Emad and Samer for several weeks there, and I was finally able to re-establish contact just prior to our homeward departure. As Sergeant Judah and I approached them with an ammo crate full of left-over goodies (snacks and toiletries), Emad smiled broadly, sheepishly looking down at the ground, his interlaced fingers fumbling.
"We thought you forget us," he said, reaching out for an embrace.
Shortly after we'd arrived in-country, the base swimming pool and gymnasium, which was available for both American and Jordanian use, had opened, and I had my first conversation with a Muslim Jordanian soldier, Mohamad. Sergeant Phillips and I had our first full day off from duty, and we decided to check out the pool and its facilities, which included a small gift shop.
Mohamad, who'd just finished cleaning the pool, served us tea and joined us at our table. He spoke no English and we no Arabic, but both parties were game to attempt communication with hand gestures and facial expressions. It was exhausting, trying to keep up a prolonged conversation in this fashion, but Mohamad proved tireless as we endeavored to teach each other new words and expressions in each other's tongue and learn a little bit about one another in the process.
At one point, a gust of wind rose up, tousling my hair. Mohamad immediately withdrew a brush from a bag beside him, leaned over and brushed my hair back into place for me as Sergeant Phillips and I chuckled.
I was having difficulty pronouncing a particular Arabic word when Mohamad suddenly leaned forward and began to gesture frantically at me, his eyes widening, voice rising as if in anger, to my considerable alarm.
"C'mon, let's get out of here", Sergeant Phillips said, nudging me, likewise concerned that our new acquaintance was for some unknown reason inexplicably, violently upset with us.
I took one last stab at pronouncing the troublesome word and Mohamad suddenly responded with a resounding: "Naam! Naam! (Yes! Yes!)"
He rapped the table loudly several times with his fist, grinning from ear-to-ear. He'd merely been an impassioned instructor who was now elated that his student had finally passed the lesson, made the grade!
Moments later Mohamad eyed his watch, grinned and informed us that he had to go to the mosque now for prayers but that he hoped to see us again another day. He paused some hundred yards hence, turned and waved, shouting at the top of his lungs, proudly employing some of the new English words we'd taught him: "Goodbye, good friends!, Goodbye, good friends!"
He then went merrily on his way again, arms swinging freely behind him.
A few weeks later I was making the rounds on base in a commercial vehicle when a Jordanian soldier on foot recognized one of the U.S. soldiers in our party. He cried out, waving frantically, absolutely overcome with emotion, unable to coherently utter a greeting, his reaction completely unloosed; never before in my experience had I witnessed a human being become so totally unhinged with joy over the sight of another. The sergeant toward whom this was all directed immediately rolled down his window and shouted out:
"Hey, there's my gym buddy!"
I consider myself fortunate to having been assigned to joint U.S. / Jordanian front gate duty after our infantry outfit had moved forward into Iraq, for this proved to be my best opportunity to really get to know these people. We'd recently been told that we were homeward bound in a few weeks hence, and this was to be my last real duty assignment.
"Welcome to Jordan, your second home," a Jordanian Special Forces officer said to me on my first day of duty.
I then greeted one of them who was seated nearby, taking a smoking break.
"America good," he nodded emphatically.
"Jordan good?" he would ask of me, beaming, wide-eyed with expectation.
I was offered the last remaining seat under the shaded gazebo and began to get acquainted with them all. A few moments later a Jordanian Major, one of the ranking officers on base, arrived and I immediately offered him my seat.
Hand to his heart, he bowed slightly, begged off, and thanked me graciously.
"Your eyes, they're green, nice," one of them would say, unabashedly leaning in close and staring at me. Not sure how I should respond, I smiled somewhat self-consciously and thanked him.
I met Osama on that first day. He spoke English exceptionally well and proved overly eager-to-please--so eager, in fact, that the more suspicious, untrusting of my fellow soldiers would, to my considerable humor, repeatedly and unjustly question his motives.
Early that evening a tour bus full of off-duty American soldiers arrived at the checkpoint and Osama leapt up onto the bus to greet their Jordanian tour guide. He exchanged a few impassioned words with the guide, gazed adoringly into his eyes, embraced him and then proceeded to plant a couple of quick, darting little kisses squarely on the man's lips!
I turned away, cringing with laughter.
"You might think we are gay, but we're not," he would explain later. "That's just the way we are. We should not hide feelings."
The following week Osama would serve as our tour guide to Jerash and Mt. Nebo. Along the way he took us to a café in his hometown of Madaba and proudly introduced us to the owners of the establishment as his American friends. They cheerfully, promptly responded by treating us all, no charge, to a mid-morning snack of Falafel and tea.
Later we had a buffet lunch spread in Jerash, and Osama made the rounds, wanting to make sure everyone was having a great time. I had a couple of beers under my belt, was feeling pretty good and didn't hesitate to indicate so.
"Yes, but I think you need to feel even better," he winked slyly, beckoning with a nod.
He and I went back to the tour bus whereupon he produced, to my great surprise, a bottle of chilled vodka from an ice chest. The Jordanian bus driver looked back, feigned alarm, and pretended to report us to the authorities over his radio, a grin spreading across his face. In theory, Muslims aren't supposed to consume or even serve alcohol to others but, in fact, many of them do. One-by-one, Osama furtively invited several of us back to the bus for shots of ninety-proof.
I glowed with a strong, heady buzz for several hours later, giddily wandering among the ruins of Jerash on that golden afternoon, feigning fistic combat with Sergeant Judah in the center of one of the well-preserved coliseums, imagining throngs and throngs of people cheering us on, a procession of dignitaries coming and going. What a great day, what a great day it was to be deployed and to know that, yes, you'd be going home soon and that this was your big in-country celebration; I could hear my niece and nephew now--so, Uncle Eric, just what did you do during the war?
"Look who came to see us!"
By this time I was back at the flight line, and my thoughts of home were suddenly interrupted by Sergeant Seetin.
Abdullah and Ahmad, two of the Jordanian soldiers who'd served on gate guard with us, had stopped by to say their goodbyes. It was late, after midnight. We hugged. As they couldn't partake of the ham (pork) sandwiches, we offered them coffee, potato chips and sweets.
"Thompson, it's been sad all day at the gate for everyone," Abdullah said sipping his coffee.
They'd all been most gracious in their farewell gift-giving.
Osama had dropped by Camp Scorpion with gifts for several of his American friends but had been turned back with hostility by one of our soldiers who told him that he had no business coming anywhere near our quarters; instead, the recipients went to meet him at his duty station.
Khaled had a necklace for me and a shawl for my girlfriend (though I didn't have a girlfriend at the time and never bothered to tell him). He asked in return that I send him something, however modest, that he could remember me by. He also requested that I return one day and be a guest in his home.
Before we knew it an announcement was made for everyone to move closer to the flight line. Abdullah and Ahmad gave me a final embrace. I looked about for Osama, but he was nowhere to be found.
"Remember that you will always have another home in Jordan, my brother," Abdullah said. "Let us know when you are home safe."
Moments later I was on the plane. As we gained altitude, I watched the sunrise break over the horizon, streaking across the broad expanse of the open desert, wondering if I'd ever return, if I'd ever see these guys again.
My last thought before fading from consciousness was of Osama a few weeks back sitting at the guard shack deeply preoccupied, dejectedly staring off into the vast emptiness of the desert. I approached and asked what was the matter.
"My friends from Indiana left today for Baghdad. I did so much for them, care so much for them, showed them Jordan, took them to my home. I hear the planes leave all day but cannot look up at the sky, it's all so sad. "
His gaze remained fixedly in the offing.
"Life is short--I know I won't see them again. I worry for my friends. I am only twenty-three years old, but my hair is already gray."
He took off his beret revealing, truth-to-tell, strands of silver among the black.
"No, it's not good for me," he sighed wearily.
The wind rose up, blowing the sand, the dust across our feet.