Mosul, Iraq–It is October 11 as I write this, the day before Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement is supposed to be a day of fast, reflection, and prayer for the Jews: a time when I reflect on my own actions and intentions from the previous year. But the images I carry into my fast are sad ones, of someone else’s child, a Muslim child. There is blood spattered on my uniform despite the fact that I haven’t been hit or wounded. And yet it is B-positive blood, my own blood, mixed with the blood of a nine-year old Iraqi boy who was observing his fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Today there was a terrorist attack at a place most people have never heard of. Unless you’re a soldier stationed here, the name Tal Afar would probably be insignificant to you. But Tal Afar means a lot to me.
Today some terrorists decided to kill some Iraqi citizens–good Muslims–in order to discourage them from voting on Saturday on the new constitution. These terrorists called themselves Muslims and claimed that what they did was for Allah. But their connection to Islam is about as true and strong as Timothy McVeigh’s connection to Christianity. What they did is so contrary to the holy teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) that to say their name in the same breath as Islam is considered sacrilege.
I was at the Combat Support Hospital–known as CASH–when the call came: Terrorists had hit, no American casualties, but 22 Iraqis wounded, five of whom were children under the age of twelve. I stood on the tarmac watching as the MEDEVAC choppers came in one at a time to deliver the wounded. Many of the wounded had no legs, or deep chest, head, and abdominal wounds. I noticed the children, two in particular who had severe head trauma. I followed them into the ER and then watched our physicians struggle in the OR to stabilize them. After the physicians did what they could, the children were taken to the ICU. I helped carry their stretchers into the ICU and stood by to see if I could help. I had a serious conversation with G-d and pleaded with him to take care of these kids–kids who should be playing soccer, or doing their homework for school the next day, or helping their parents get ready for supper. Both of these children had skulls so badly shattered that their heads needed to be bandaged to keep their brains in. I watched as the nurses and medics gave them pint after pint of blood and as their head bandages turned from white to red. I held the youngest one’s hands, reassuring him to the extent I could.
As they were giving the youngest his third pint of blood, I heard the nurse say that they were running low on O Positive, the universal donor, and that due to the tremendous internal bleeding, this child would need more. I asked what blood type he was, and it turned out both children were B Positive, my own blood type. I went to the head nurse and asked if I could donate blood for the youngest child and they quickly hooked me up and took a pint. After giving it, I went back to see him; he already my blood hooked up to him and surging in his veins.
I held his tiny hand and watched as the monitors told the story: His heart was in trouble owing to the brain trauma. I watched as he fought for his life, fighting to breathe. But I knew he was dying and there was nothing I could do. This innocent Muslim child, who had been observing Ramadan the way a child does, was now dying despite the fact that my blood was moving though his veins, despite the fact that I pleaded with G-d to do what I thought was right, to keep him alive. But G-d had other plans.
I didn’t want this boy to die hearing the strange sounds of a hospital and a foreign language. I wanted him to be comforted by the last sounds he heard, by words that were close to his heart, words that spoke of home and faith. I started to recite the Holy Koran to him.
My close friend, a fellow clergyman, Imam Burgos, the imam for the United States Military Academy, had helped me learn Surahs of the Holy Koran, and I chanted these out to the boy in Arabic. As I chanted, I heard the monitor go flat-line. I held his little hand, as my blood moved through his tiny pure heart that could no longer bear the evil of this world.
I held his hand and cried–cried for a boy whose name I didn’t know, for an innocent Muslim child who gave his life for his G-d, Allah, for his country. He was the true face of Muslim martyrdom. With tears streaming down my face, I looked down and noticed blood on my uniform. His blood, my blood, our blood had dripped from his open head wound onto my uniform.
An hour or so later I walked away into the waiting area as they prepared his body for transport. There I met Chaplain Mark Greschel, a Catholic priest. He looked at me and knew that I was in trouble. He sat with me, somehow knowing that the pain we felt was best not mixed with words. He quietly put his arms around me, and we both sat there in silence. I thought to myself, isn’t this the kind of world we are fighting for–a world where an Imam teaches a Rabbi words from the Holy Koran to comfort a young Muslim boy, and that rabbi himself is comforted by a Christian, a Catholic priest.
On this day before Yom Kippur, the Jewish Fast Day, the Day of Atonement, I ask myself: What is Ramadan all about? Is it about killing, or is it about seeking out G-d through fasting and prayer? For those of us who choose not to carry hatred and prejudice in our hearts, the answer is simple. For the holy Islamic community, Ramadan is a time of introspection, of hope, of belief that if we all work together, we can truly build a better world for all our children, even those whose names we don’t know. There is so much that we can learn about faith and G-d through other religions; there is so much that our Muslim brothers and sisters can teach us about our Creator, about personal sacrifice and selfless service. But if we consider their faith only with mistrust, hatred, and indifference, then this nine-year-old angel with his faith in G-d means nothing. Then we have diminished our own faith in G-d. If we objectify the Muslim people as well as those who don’t share our exact views on the nature of G-d, if we see them as less than our brothers and sisters, then we as a human race are lost.
There are many Americans who ask why we’re here. Why are we sacrificing so many American lives and placing so many in harm’s way? What is the purpose of it all? Well, I don’t really know the big picture. But from my small sector of the battlefield, the reason I am here is to give “the least of these,” my children over here, a shot at “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”–just like my other children living in America.
I didn’t give birth to him, but on this fast day in Ramadan, on this day before Yom Kippur, I lost a son, someone who had my blood coursing through his body. And for him, I choose not to hate, I choose to follow the path that the great Sheik Ibn Arabi followed when he said, “Love is my Faith and my religion and wherever its caravans take me, that is where I shall follow, for love is my religion and faith.” Let us join hands with our Muslim brothers and sisters and let this be the message of Ramadan that we carry in our hearts and take with us. G-d has a new Muslim angel in Paradise. I hope to tell you his name one day when I meet him again.
–Chaplain Carlos C. Huerta is Jewish Community chaplain in Mosul, Iraq.