I still believe in, and love America. Not the geographic borders, or the fortunate accident of my birth of being born inside them. I mean the greater metaphysical concept of what it is to be an American. I do have a very complicated love/hate relationship with Americans as a people, finding them often to fulfill many of the negative international cultural stereotypes. But I love the spirit of independence, the endless optimism, the generosity, and ideals enshrined (and occasionally even upheld) in our Constitution. But one of the things that I love the most is that almost anyone can become one of us.
Shortly before my Afghanistan deployment I spent a few weeks in Mozambique training peacekeepers for the African Union. Well, that’s what I supposed to do, but I didn’t end up doing that. My unit sent me there because I was the “Subject Matter Expert” (SME) on Mozambican affairs. How did I become the SME on Mozambique you ask? While overhearing a conversation between two officers about an upcoming training mission in Southeast Africa, I suggested the take SPC Fabio (Name Changed), as he was born and raised in Brazil. The paraphrased conversation cemented my position as an expert.
“Why the fuck would we want to send SPC Fabio? He’s from Brazil, Mozambique is in Africa. They speak some African language. Stop eavesdropping and get back to work”
“You do know that Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony, right? And that their national language is still Portuguese…..”
“What else do you know about Mozambique?”
“Not that much. Colonial history, geography, exports, I’m more up on South Africa though”
“Well, I guess the both of you are going. Fabio as he speaks the language and you because you know more about Mozambique than anyone else here. Pack your shit, you leave in 3 months”
My small detachment arrived in Mozambique at the beginning of summer/their winter and linked up with the Marine rifle regiment that would be conducting most of the training. Initially, the Marines were just as foreign and incomprehensible as the Mozambicans, but after learning their language of exaggerated gestures and grunting noises, we were able to communicate with our beloved jarheads. All joking about inter-service rivalries aside, the Marines were a joy to work with. Watching them do weird things like bayonet practice with live bayonets or drinking hot sauce was all part of the mission’s entertainment.
They managed to get all my attention while setting up an expeditionary water filtration system in the local river. To do this a Marine PFC waded out deep into the river to set a weighted hose to suck up the river water away from the bank. The river water then passes through some magical box that makes the water drinkable. What was more interesting to me, was the Marine PFC wading through obviously crocodile infested waters. This was obvious because of the signs warning of crocodile attack, and the locals hooting warnings from the opposite side of the river, and the crocodiles that were clearly swimming in the river. When I pointed this out to the Marine SGT in charge of the detail (in particular, I emphatically gestured to the ACTUAL CROCODILES in the water), he calmly spit out his dip and said “It’s ok, he doesn’t have any sensitive items on him”……Fucking Marines.
SPC Fabio quickly made himself indispensable, as he was the only American service member who was fluent in Portuguese. Honestly, that is selling him short. He’s also older and wiser than the average SPC (10 years older than me in fact), has traveled all over the world, speaks five languages, and has this amazing ability to magically get shit done. He also has this supernatural sixth sense that no matter where we are, he seems to always find other Brazilians even in exotic locations such as Maputo, Mogadishu, Kandahar and Dallas. I’ve witnessed this inter-Brazilian radar on many occasions, and it never ceases to amaze me.
My friend also has a massive leg up on most of the US born troops in that he grew up, quite literally in the Amazon jungle. He understands the people of the developing world that we work with, because he grew up in a similar environment. It’s not unusual for him to casually bring up in conversation the age he was when he owned his first pair of shoes (14), the number of times he had malaria (5), and the number of anacondas he has killed in defense of hearth and home (many). His language skills, life experience, innate problem-solving abilities and work ethic make him the best Soldier I’ve ever commanded. And finally, since the Marines don’t have the rank of Specialist, his funny (Army) uniform and strange rank insignia further impressed our local allies and marked him out as someone even more unique.
He was called in to solve and fix all sorts of problems from the mundane to the serious. Initially, the Marines were providing the Mozambican soldiers with 3 Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) a day. Now, I’m sure many of you in the crowd are shaking you head at that already. Americans can’t eat 3 of these things a day. The locals were going digestively bonkers trying to process this amazing caloric windfall. And they were eating the silicon packets. And drinking the hot sauce. And burning themselves with the chemical heaters. So SPC Fabio conducted an amazingly informative class on how to eat food that I’m sure literally saved lives.
After mastering the ins and outs of MREs the Marine cooks began providing prepared meals and materials to the locals. The first cross cultural hiccup occurred when they provided them with several giant bags (the size of pillows), of powdered eggs. Just add water and you get that lovely egg slime you know and remember from overseas service. The Mozambicans were instantly skeptical of this white man sorcery. They know what eggs look like. They know what yellow dust looks like, and they noted the lack of similarity between the two. So, again SPC Fabio sat down with the Marine cooks and Mozambican cooks and provided a series of Brazilian Gordon Ramseyesque classes on military cooking in an industrial field kitchen.
In a matter of days, it became obvious to the Mozambicans that SPC Fabio was the real brains behind the entire American operation in Mozambique. The local officers would ignore Marine colonels and majors, brushing past them to talk to my lowly E4. More amusing to me, they thought I was the Fabio's assistant, and I did exactly nothing to dissuade them of that notion. It was a lot of fun, pretending to be Fabio’s valet. Carrying things for him, getting him drinks during meetings, taking notes for him. Ultimately, it was more efficient this way. Me trying to step in and assert authority or add a link in the chain of translation wouldn’t have helped anything.
After operations were established and SPC Fabio got us everything we needed (including roughly half of the buildings on camp) he and I departed to work with a mobile medical clinic that would travel the countryside near the training area, winning hearts and minds with modern medicine. Well, that’s what the doctors were doing. I was stimulating the local economy by purchasing soda, food, and souvenirs on behalf of the Marines, Airmen and Sailors who weren’t allowed beyond the barbed wire. When I found time, I helped organize and triage the patients, coordinated with local leaders to streamline the patient in processing, collected medical statistics, created language translation pamphlets, and planned operations for the next village we planned to visit.
Shortly before our departure from Mozambique, the mobile medical clinic returned to the main training camp. I collected my first non-MRE/non-local meal in weeks, my first shower, and my first non-solar powered electrical socket to recharge my phone and camera. As I walked around camp with SPC Fabio, we were repeatedly approached by Mozambican soldiers. They wanted to talk to us, strangers from strange lands in their native Portuguese. Fabio with his natural knack of friend making and storytelling regaled them with descriptions of life in America, the ultimate land of wine and honey. I like to think that hearing these stories from Fabio, an immigrant to America, carried a greater significance to those Africans. We sat and talked for hours with them, under a light pollution free starry sky. My friend pointed out the Milky Way and named for me all the constellations of the Southern Hemisphere that he grew up under in Rondônia.
On one of our last mornings at the camp, I was walking down the dirt road from the training classroom to my pup tent with Fabio. We saw a formation of Mozambican soldiers marching toward us with the glorious swagger and grandiose movements of a nation influenced by Soviet military traditions. Legs kicking high, arms swinging, necks rigid, and faces frozen in masks of solemn pride. Adhering to military custom Fabio and I stepped off the road and snapped to the position of Parade Rest as the formation passed.
The officer in charge of the formation saluted and shouted “Isto e Fabio, O Brasileiro! Olhos Direito!” (It’s Fabio! The Brazilian! Eyes Right). The entire formation in one solid movement snapped their necks 90 degrees to render honors and salute the humble Army Specialist from the deepest jungles of the Amazon. Another company of soldiers followed the first, and the cry and salutes was repeated. Fabio snapped to attention and saluted the officer of each passing company. His returned salutes became more and more grandiose causing some of the local soldiers began to cheer and whoop. “I think it’s their entire regiment” he said, with a smirk “Do they know?” he asked me. I stood a respectful half step behind and to the side of him, as a fake subordinate should. “Know what?” I replied.
“You know, my real rank, who I really am? That I’m not an American American ”
“Doesn’t matter to them bud. Look at them. If they do know, they don’t care.”
We watched the remainder of the formation pass, stamping off and leaving us in a blood red earth dust cloud of their own creation. I smiled at Fabio, and we both knew the charade was coming to an end. At home, he’d go back to being one of the most junior guys in the battalion, and not the celebrity he was in Mozambique. For a few weeks in our little fairy-tale land, he was more than a Specialist, he was THE King. We would deploy together 3 more times. Afghanistan and twice more to Africa. He proved his value on every deployment and is one of the best soldiers and men I know. Our country is blessed to have men like him. Americans are born all over the world, every day…. some of them just haven’t come home yet.
The other day I watched the mad scramble at Hamid Karzai International Airport, and the tragic and ignominious end of Americas longest war. I watched coverage of planeloads of Afghans fleeing the country, most of whom worked with NATO forces for the noble but Sisyphean goal of bringing the light of democracy, enlightenment, and equality to their blood-soaked land. I wept as I watched the dream of a democratic and free Afghanistan die on the dusty tarmac. I weep when I think of all that we lost, the lives shattered, forever changed, the loss of innocence of millions the world over who traveled to that nation and tried to do righteous deeds. Through all the painful coverage I watched, I received what I felt like were heartfelt, but ultimately empty, platitudes from senior military leaders and politicians, from my family and non-veteran friends. It all rang hollow as I sat on my couch weeping, unable to look away and feeling an indescribable feeling of loss.
But then yesterday I saw something. A picture of a little girl, wrapped in an Air Force uniform jacket, napping in the cargo hold of a C17. I blinked back my tears and realized something. While we lost Afghanistan, we gained her. She will be an American. She is too young to realize it, she isn’t leaving home, she is coming home. In the belly of that C17, I stopped seeing refugees. I started seeing Americans. Men and women who were born as Afghans, who strived and suffered with their blood, sweat and tears to grow a better nation, but failed. The tragic loss of Afghanistan is our gain, as their best and brightest follow the setting sun westward over the horizon. We are gaining men and women who will be the best Americans and they are coming home.
In in our nation, we strive so that a person’s worth isn’t measured by their tribe. Here we won’t care about their ethnicity, skin color, or religion. They are not the sum of their wealth, title, or property. In our land, a foreign stranger, a penniless immigrant seeking a new life in distant lands, an American by CHOICE, not by the luck of birth, can arise to become anything. Who knows what our newest Americans will become? They could follow in the footsteps of many selfless and brave immigrants and join the military of their new home. And maybe with just the right amount of luck, they could be just like my friend, who at the right place, in the right moment, for just a few weeks, was the King of Mozambique.
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