A year ago I wrote about Saffar, on the third anniversary of his death, intending to write more soon thereafter. Now it's a year later, and I've not been able to bring myself to pen anything further in the meantime.
Saffar was an NCO, RANGER, and RAKKASAN when he arrived at school for ROTC a decade ago. I was teaching biology to some of his fellow ROTC Cadets, and through them, my path crossed with Saffar's. We could not have been more different.
Though we had both been born in the U.S., Saffar was raised in Iran, and spoke very little English when he returned to the States as a seventeen-year-old in the hopes of joining the United States Army at the earliest possible occasion. As a consequence of all this, he learned to speak English *in* the Army, which meant that his vocabulary and diction were highly idiosyncratic and accented.
Many years ago, when I was the same age as he was when he joined the Army, putting on a uniform like that was the farthest thing from my mind; I was immensely relieved when my number was not reached in what turned out to be the last year of the Vietnam War draft.
When we met, Saffar's head was closely shaved, and I had rather long (but graying and thinning!) hair.
I had been a priest for almost a decade at that point, and he loathed, despised, hated, reviled, ridiculed, lambasted, condemned, and generally had nothing at all good to say about organized religion.
We could not have been more different.
But God has a weird sense of humor, and long before I became aware of it, Saffar was telling his family back in Iran that I was more of a father to him than his own Dad. I cannot imagine having a son of whom I'd be more proud, or whom I could love more. I think of him, and miss him, every day.
These photos of us were taken in April 2002; Saffar had badgered me into attending the annual ROTC Military Ball. I felt very intimidated and out-of-place there, except when I was with him and Kristen.
He found out in September 2002 that he had been walking around with a broken neck for the better part of two days, and that there was a tumor back there. The tumor proved to be a kind of cancer no one had ever seen in that part of the body; it eventually killed him.
I was not yet in the Army when Saffar died; I hadn't even yet begun the formal application process, though I'd finally been in touch with Chaplain recruiters. I can't print here what Saffar said to me in reply to my having told him just after Christmas 2005 that I was in the process of seeing whether I could get an Army commission at my advanced age.
On Wednesday, 25 JAN 06, a big box arrived at my home in California, with a "RANGER Joe's" return address. Inside were a Camelbak, lensatic compass, Leatherman multi-tool, 550 cord, "Chig-Away," map protractor, baby wipes, and foot powder (though on the phone that afternoon, he called the latter two items by much 'earthier' designations) Saffar had sent me, to help me get ready for the Army. "No matter where you go, especially out in the field, if you become a Soldier," he said, "you have to have [baby] wipes and [foot] powder, Fatha."
He died early in the morning of 28 JAN 06. I had just boarded a red-eye from California, in an attempt to see him alive one last time, and got the call just as the boarding door was being closed. It was a tough flight.
Here's a copy of the homily I wrote for his funeral, which was the second-hardest thing I've ever done, after my younger brother's funeral fifteen months earlier.
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (NRSV, 2 Tim 4:6-8)
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (NRSV, Mt 11:28-30)
The author of the 2nd Letter to Timothy is reputed to be St. Paul, though many scholars dispute that attribution. Paul, of course was known as Saul, before his spiritual awakening, and was appreciative of the stoning of Stephen, and later responsible for the persecution of early followers of Jesus. Saul was arrogant, self-assured, courageous, possessed of a brilliant mind, and proud of his way of life. He did not suffer fools gladly. He had no problem at all making his opinions known, because, since they were his opinions, they were correct! In short, he was pretty much a jerk, in a lot of ways. Who, then, could ever have imagined that God would call Saul to a faith in Jesus?
RLTW. Rangers Lead the Way. Saffar was a RANGER, through and through. I’ve come to see this more clearly in the past week, as I’ve gotten emails from the full-bird colonel who was his BN Commander at Ft. Campbell, the Officer who sent him to Airborne and RANGER Schools. I’ve heard from LTCs and a MAJ, from NCOs and his ROTC buddies. I’ve heard from folks from the Physics Departments at Xavier and UD. Saffar touched many people’s lives in profound ways. He led the way for many of us.
He lived his life since RANGER School by the RANGER Creed. He was more proud of his RANGER Tab and his affiliation with The RAKKASANS than anything else in his life, except for Kristen. The RANGER Creed was the foundation of his life. When I met him in 2000, he was proudly anti-religious, even militantly so. His RANGER Creed was all he needed. He was proud of his self-sufficiency, his RANGER courage, and his grit.
We clashed from the start, with Saffar calling me a “leftist hippie” and me calling him a “Godless Arab” – because I knew that would really, really annoy him, since he was NOT an Arab, but rather an Iranian. It did! I thought he was going to hit me!! Down the road, we began to refer to ourselves by those designations, when leaving messages on each other’s phones.
At first, I believe he only tolerated me, probably against his better judgment. We found each other insufferable, but we couldn’t seem not to interact with each other. Eventually we reached the tacit agreement that we wouldn’t talk about things political or economic (unless one of us wanted to annoy the other). Détente is a many-splendid thing.
Then came the shock of his broken neck, and his surgeries, the chemo, and radiation, and his involuntary separation from the Army. I flew from California to Cincinnati one weekend so I could take him to the clinic for his chemotherapy, because Kristen was unable to do it that one time. Afterward, as we got into the car, he looked at me and said, “I’ve got about four hours before I get sick. Let’s go to Chipotle while I still can!” He loved Chipotle.
As we were eating I said to him, “Saffar, I’m only going to say this once; I will never bring it up again. Your RANGER Creed is great, as far as it goes, but it’s not enough. What you’re going through is too much for your RANGER Creed alone. You need to find something more. I don’t care whether it’s Islam [he scowled] or Judaism [the look he gave was indescribable] or Christianity [he rolled his eyes] or Zoroastrianism [he chuckled]. But you need something else, and I pray you find it. However, I will never bring this subject up again.”
I won’t repeat here what he said to me in return; it was what he always said to me, and I know it was his way of expressing his affection for me, but it’s simply not repeatable in this venue.
Last May, when I was here in Dayton for his birthday, and he’d just found out the cancer was back, inoperable, and would prove fatal in probably 30 days, he looked me in the eye as we were out walking Masie, their beloved pug, and said, “You know, Fatha, I’m not afraid to die, if that’s what this really means, because I know God loves me.” Three weeks ago tomorrow, as I was getting ready to return home from visiting him after his release to home hospice, he told me, “Fatha, I’m ready to go, and I’m not scared, because I know Jesus loves me.”
I thought of the passage from Second Timothy we heard today: “I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” Saffar was being poured out as a libation, and the crown of righteousness, prepared just for him, was waiting.
It ripped my heart out to say good-bye, and that I’d be back this weekend. Little did I know….
RANGER Saffar has led the way for all of us. RANGER Saffar who was so opposed to anything religious! If Saffar could come to a faith that brings salvation and peace, then it’s possible for anyone, and certainly for all of us!
Against all odds, given his history, Saffar Arjmandi let go of old prejudices and fears and embraced a relationship which had been waiting for him, and which waits for all of us, if we would only embrace it, too.
He prided himself on his strength and stamina and fearlessness in the face of the enemy. And yet in the midst of all that, he found he needed more strength and stamina and fearlessness – and that, as good as it is, his RANGER Creed just wasn’t enough to supply it. My humble opinion is that Kristen’s selfless and self-sacrificing love for Saffar prepared him to recognize the selfless and self-sacrificing love of Christ in his life.
I could hardly believe it myself that here in this very church, just 13 weeks ago tomorrow, we baptized Saffar and Kristen. How far he had come since that day in January 2000 when he first appeared in my office at school: defiantly, arrogantly, combatively, proudly and self-righteously atheist.
Saffar the RANGER has led the way, from the front, which is what RANGERs do (or so he would incessantly tell me, either before or after saying something rather rude and anatomical about me). He heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto me and rest,” and he has found in him a resting place.
Throughout his military life – for I believe he remained a RANGER and RAKKASAN to the end, despite what the Department of Defense might have had to say about the matter – Saffar lived the Army Values listed on a card he carried in his wallet. He conducted himself, ultimately, with Personal Courage beyond anything I could ever have imagined. He lived and died as a credit to the United States Army.
If Saffar, the Warrior, could come to a faith that gave meaning to his life and terrible suffering, he can lead the way for the rest of us, should we choose to follow his example. The same Christ who beckoned Saffar to “take my yoke upon you” is beckoning each of us, should we choose to hear that call.
Saffar was a lot like Saul, who would become the Apostle Paul, as I mentioned earlier: “arrogant, self-assured, courageous, possessed of a brilliant mind, and proud of his way of life. He did not suffer fools gladly. He had no problem at all making his opinions known, because, since they were his opinions, they were correct! In short, he was pretty much a jerk, in a lot of ways.” As unlikely, then, as it was that God should call Saul to faith in Christ, so it was at least as unlikely that God should call Saffar.
If it could work for Saul and Saffar, it can work for us, too, if only we’ll follow their lead.
RLTW, Saffar. Thank you, Son.
May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.
And may God bless Kristen and her new husband Brian with the richest of blessings! I was in Iraq when they married. It's so good to see her happy again.
Blessings and peace to one and all,
Fr. Tim, SJ