This past Wednesday marked the third anniversary of the death of Army SGT Saffar Arjmandi, who was a very proud RANGER and a RAKKASAN. Much to the surprise of both of us, Saffar adopted me as his American dad, which made his illness and death all the more difficult for me. I've been aware of a lot of grief, still, this week.
Saffar and I met because he barged into my Biology Department office in Winter Semester 2000, unbidden, while his roommate and fellow Army ROTC Cadet (and my academic advisee) Mason was speaking with me. Moments after his entrance into my space he was calling me a "leftist hippie" in his thick Iranian accent (probably with good reason, given my long-ish hair at the time). Just to annoy him, I called him a "Godless Arab" -- precisely because I knew he was Iranian, and therefore Persian. They're *definitely* NOT Arabs!
Though he despised organized religion at the time (of any flavor), it was only the fact that I was a priest that kept him from beating the tar out of me, I'm convinced.
Not exactly an auspicious beginning, to be sure.
He was going "Green to Gold" in ROTC and wound up where I was teaching because "Uncle Pete," a RANGER Officer buddy of his from the RAKKASANS, was an alumnus of that ROTC program, and urged Saffar to apply. The other ROTC Cadets saw Saffar's RANGER tab and felt awe; I just felt intimidated by his large frame, larger intellect, and humongous ego.
I would kid him about "making Victory Parkway safe for Democracy" after seeing the ROTC Cadets training across the street from the Jesuit Community where I was living. He would respond by calling me by rather rude, disparaging, anatomical, and unprintable names. His syntax was idiosyncratic, which made the epithets all the more amusing.
Despite all that, he kept appearing in my office, just to give me a hard time, which I returned in kind. "Fatha. You a [insert one or more epithet(s)]." After September 2001, I began responding by calling him an "Arab terrorist." He'd scowl and mutter, but eventually began referring to himself by that designation when leaving rude phone messages on my work, home, and cell phones.
I'd show up at lunch or dinner in the Cafeteria when the Cadets were there, and eat with them. The "All For One" Battalion was aptly named: get to know one Cadet, and you got to know them all, it seemed. I got to know Mason, and then Saffar, and then Sam and Dan and Katie and Jason and Matthew and Lindsey and Patrick and Jason and Cale and Aaron and Jonathan and, well, hordes of them, actually.
I got the feeling that the older Cadets kept me around, mascot-like. I suspect they knew I felt intimidated by them, which they enjoyed immensely....
When Saffar got to school, he found even the Seniors to be in awe of his RANGER tab, which led him to believe he could get away with just about anything. Fortunately for everyone concerned, MSG Kimbrough was able to knock him down a few pegs to make him see that he really needed to "lead the way" for the other Cadets, who held him in such high esteem.
The biggest change in his behavior happened after he met Kristen, however. Up til then, he was less than virtuous in one particular aspect of his life. But immediately upon meeting Kristen the first time, Saffar left behind his former ways completely and irrevocably. I'd never seen such a huge, lasting, and dramatic transformation. I would not have thought it possible, to be quite honest.
I hadn't realized until much later that Saffar and Kristen met on 10 September 2001. Saffar at one point told me that he awoke to a wholly different world on 11 September 2001, but not for the reason the rest of us did: He knew that Kristen was "the one" for him, and that there could and would be no other.
He was true to his word, and true to her to the end.
Blessings and peace to one and all,
Fr. Tim, SJ