Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Omnia mors perimit et nulli miseretur

Four years ago yesterday my good friend Saffar -- E-5 Sergeant, RANGER, RAKKASAN, Forward Observer -- (who'd adopted me as his dad) found out that his cancer was inoperable, and that he had a month to live. It was the day before his 28th birthday.

I arrived in Dayton the evening of his birthday, not knowing what had happened, but just having felt for some reason that I needed to be there to celebrate that occasion with him and Kristen. They were planning on being married the following October, and expected me to do the wedding.

How we were going to work that out was not yet clear, seeing as neither was baptized, let alone a Catholic. But that sort of thing never stopped Saffar.

The next morning, Saturday, Saffar and I went for a long walk with the dog, and he finally got around to telling me that he and Kristen had been to the oncologist on Thursday, and that he'd been given a death sentence, essentially.

I knew his cancer had come back after an almost two-year-long remission, but wasn't prepared for the finality of the diagnosis and prognosis. And on his 28th birthday.

Much to my surprise, as we stood there on the street somewhere in Oakwood, surrounded by manicured lawns and spring flowers in carefully-tended front yards, Saffar told me, "I'm not afraid, because I know God loves me."

Five years earlier, when Saffar and I met, there's no way he would ever have said those words, or even wanted to. It was breathtaking, and an answer to silent prayers.

Some months after his initial diagnosis and after I'd flown from California to Ohio to take him to his chemotherapy appointment one Friday (everybody else who'd been doing it was unavailable), I told him flat-out that his RANGER Creed was great as far as it went, but it wasn't enough in the face of what almost certain lay ahead for him.

After telling him what's (who's!) helped me during times of difficulty, I encouraged him to develop a relationship with a Higher Power, however that played itself out. I told him I'd continue to love and support him no matter what, and that I'd never bring up the topic again. I'd resolved not to hector him about things spiritual, given who we both were.

I kept my promise.

And without my badgering or thumping or fire-and-brimstoning, he came to a spiritual place that eventually even brought him into a community of believers through baptism. Go figure.

In typical "RANGER Saffar" fashion, having been given a month to live, he lived eight months and two days. He was a Forward Observer to the end, showing the rest of us the way through danger to safety.

I miss him.

While here in Iraq I've carried around an E-5 Sergeant's pin-on rank, to remind me of Saffar. (That's the rank he came to ROTC with as he was attempting to go 'green-to-gold' in moving from Enlisted to Officer.) It's pretty beat-up, but that's not surprising for an NCO who leads from the front.

One of my young friends here recently went before the Promotion Board in his effort to move from Corporal to Sergeant. He's a wonderful young man, with two combat deployments already (and who's only seen his four-year-old daughter for a small fraction of her life, and barely knows his almost year-old son).

He works the night shift, and I find myself staying late in the office so that I leave after midnight, which enables me to see him and his small crew as I'm leaving. They're all great young Soldiers, and much too often I'll wind up chatting and laughing with them for an hour or more (when I ought to be in my CHU sleeping).

I got up early one morning recently (after having been late in the office and then later talking with those guys), so I could show up at the place the Promotion Board was meeting, in support of the young Corporal. It's gotten very hot here again, and though it was early, it was already uncomfortably warm.

I was just in my Army Combat Uniform (ACUs), but he also had his full battle-rattle on, including the body armor, Kevlar helmet, DAPs (deltoid arm protectors -- think Kevlar hockey shoulder pads), a Camelbak filled with water, his weapon, and a combat load of ammunition.

I don't know how these Soldiers do it, day after day.

I found out the next night that he'd passed his board, and will be promoted, probably on 01JUL09. Bummer for me, because I'd wanted to see him get promoted, but I'll miss that by about a week.

After this deployment, he wants to go to RANGER school, and has already managed to get himself set up to make that happen upon his redeployment at the end of this combat tour.

Two nights ago, as I was leaving the office, I gave him the Sergeant's insignia I'd had with me to remind me of Saffar.

Happy 32nd Birthday, Saffar!

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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