The Transition Home

Lost Boys: Father’s Day Post

Explosions are a daily occurrence in the Zhari District. Most blasts are IEDs, some are RPGs or recoilless rifles. Generally, all are followed by machine gun fire or a secondary boom, if not both. The detonations reverberate throughout our combat outpost as we continue our daily grind. Whether I’m out on patrol or within the security of the wire, my eyes roll in exasperation, my pulse hastens, and I thrust my radio hand-mic to my ears, anticipating the call to respond to the emergency.

But every now and then, a ray of good fortune shines upon us, and the explosion we hear is not a planned enemy attack but a failed attempt at one. IED emplacement is a dangerous business. Thankfully for us, sometimes the enemy blows himself up, taking both another Talib and another IED off the streets.

Last week, three Pakistani men were planting an IED when such an explosion occurred, incidentally on a road I travel frequently. One died instantly, but the ANA rushed the remaining two to our front gates. I looked over the medics’ shoulders as they worked. Gaping holes in the enemies’ gum lines marked where the explosion knocked out teeth. Their skin was hacked into a chunky cocktail of shrapnel and blood. A putrid stench emanated from their loins, signaling involuntary defecation. I could not elicit any fulfillment from observing these Taliban so humiliated and mangled. I’ve seen a lot here in Zhari, but I manage to keep my humanity about me. Then again, if these Taliban had their way, I’d be the one on that stretcher, and I’m sure they’d feel pretty happy with themselves.

“Hey Sir,” my First Sergeant called, “One of these guys needs to get to the FOB for his treatment. I need your platoon to spin up and take him there.”

“We’re on it.” I assigned one of my team leaders authority over the injured detainee. I gave him my interpreter and my medic to help him. I made my way to the Company CP to sign as custodian of the detainee, and account for both his personal effects and all incriminating evidence. Wires, blasting caps, instruction manuals: these guys were the real deal.

I returned to the aid station just as my soldiers were preparing to pull the detainee away to our Stryker. At this point, both of the injured Pakistanis were yelling at each other in Pashtu. I asked my interpreter what they were saying. He replied, “they are each cursing their dead partner for getting them into this mess.”

I mounted my Stryker, donned my headset, and fell into my Platoon Leader “zone”: monitoring radios, grids, maps, directions, and maneuvering my vehicles through a packed Afghan Bazaar. As we picked up speed, the stagnant air in the vehicle churned and and the detainee’s awful stench finally rose to my nostrils. I looked down into the vehicle hull. The Talib was lying on a stretcher, his head next to my boots.

I squatted down from my commander’s hatch pretending to check our digital map and grid. Really, I just wanted a closer look at my new passenger. I reached for the detainee’s bio sheet. He was 5’10, about 190lbs; he was 24 years old. My eyes met his. We were the same age. Our skin was the same color; our heritage from the same branch of Aryan descent. Our births were so close together in the vast expanse of the human race. I couldn’t help but wonder how our paths diverged so far apart? How did he become him, and I become me? Tears streamed down the Talib’s cheeks as I looked him in the eye. They weren’t tears of pain. They were from emptiness of the soul, from regret, from hopelessness. They were the same tears I would have cried had I been caught with the wrong crowd, knowing there’d be no loving family to come save me.

As much as I hate my enemy and I hate what he’s done to my friends, when I saw that Talib cry, my heart sank. I realized my being an honorable American Platoon Leader, and him being a poor Talib, had so little to do with who we each were inside. We were both children of the same part of the world from the same generation. But we grew up as products of different environments. I stretched my hand to read the Talib’s name…Mohammed. I scoffed, “How original.”

Mohammed didn’t come to where he is completely of his own fault. He probably grew up in a big family, getting lost in a sea of brothers and sisters dividing his parents’ affection. He undoubtedly struggled with his identity, having no one but an extremist mullah to help him understand his faith. Mohammed may have had a father, but he clearly lacked a role model. Who was there to set the example for how an honest and honorable man contributes to his family and community?

Perhaps his real father died in war; perhaps he didn’t care. With the void of an honorable male figure in a child’s life, it becomes clear why so many young Afghan and Pakistani men find comfort–find family–in the ranks of the Taliban. It’s not just about the money, and it’s not just about Islam: it’s about the male camaraderie they never had.

They are all just lost boys. Mohammed never learned how to be a man. He is still nothing more than a child, trapped in a man’s body, fighting some stranger’s battles.

But from my side of the Hindu Kush, I never knew a day when my father wasn’t immediately accessible to me when I needed him, or wanted him. Dad and I aren’t all that much alike. He’s a math and science genius; I pained through academia. Dad is a modest and quiet man who leads from the middle; I am a gregarious people-person who leads from the front. Dad grew up knowing nothing but devotion to his family; I grew up in a life of privilege, free from the burdens of supporting my parents or siblings. But for all that distinguishes me from Dad, the most important traits which define me as a man I learned from watching him over the past 24 years.

My Dad’s sense of Duty is nothing short of heroic. His duty as a husband committed him to supporting my mother through numerous advanced degrees and ambitious career moves. His duty as a father brought him to the furthest reaches of Virginia’s backwoods at midnight after my car accident in high school. It brought him to tears when I left for Afghanistan and when I came home on leave. Quite frankly, the only thing my Dad hasn’t offered me are whatever genes that maintain his full head of hair in his middle age, while I’ve started balding at 24.

Dad fulfills his duty to God donating precious amounts of time and wealth to our temple. He fulfills his duty to his community forgiving debts for friendship paid in kind. He even fulfills a duty to music using his programming skills to spread the joy of Indian Carnatic concerts across the world. And though I beg him relentlessly to generate revenue from his music ventures, he refuses to profit from the art form he respects and worships so deeply.

Looking forward to my post-Army career, I’m continually drawn to industries that enslave their associates to corporate greed in return for fat paychecks. But dad reminds me that one’s life must be about far more than money. It’s about fulfillment and happiness. He advises, “You need to be able to rest your head at night and sleep peacefully, knowing you have not profited by hurting another man.”

Fatherhood is something I think most men take for granted. Society tells us to be headstrong, unemotional leaders. But the best fathers, like my own, have security in their paternal instincts and indulge in the emotional pull of their children. Dad may not always say it, but he shows it: he loves me more than anything in the world, and it really does keep me in line. It makes me want to be a better man: for him, for our family, for our community. There was no way for any such juvenile gang to lure me into a world of violence and dishonor. I could never be a Talib.

In Arabic, the word “Taliban” literally translates as “students. But it is further derived from the Arabic root “Ta-La-Ba” meaning “to search. This interpretation is far more descriptive of what these adolescent warriors are. They truly are Lost Boys in search of a purpose for their static lives. They are lost on their life paths, and not necessarily of their own fault. Even as the recipient of the lethal fire induced by such disillusion, I can accept that, had I not a strong father to show me the way…I could have been a lot like Mohammed. Any of us could.

We are all products of our environment, and on this Father’s Day, I ask you to thank your Dad, not only for being strong and caring, but for the contribution he makes to our country by giving direction to those of us who would otherwise be “Lost Boys”. Dad, thank you for making me a man. It’s a gift only you could have given me, and I’ll carry it forever. My soldiers who depend on me today, and the family I’ll raise tomorrow, both owe you so much. I love you, Dad!


13 responses

  1. Excellent post, Rajiv.
    Your Dad being there for you was generational. I’m going to be his parents were there for him. If not, your Dad just had an inner resolve to be different. I’m sure one day, you’ll do the same for your children. Already, you are showing a lot of the traits of the same leadership, tenacity and also reserve for your platoon. These things all go into being a great Dad.

    14 June 10 at 06:08

  2. Rajiv, you’ve written another beautiful post.

    As humans, we are all lost in one way or another. ….some are just lost to a greater degree.

    Hope you and your platoon are safely home some…
    Donna Dilley

    14 June 10 at 11:11

  3. William (Bill) Kinzie

    A thoughtful piece about similarities and differences in a war situation. Only you would be able to so clearly delineate them so clearly coming as you do from an Indian/Hindu background fighting in Afghanistan.

    I liked the way you perceptively moved over to a beautiful and moving tribute to your Father. Yes, he is a man among men. A man who knew who he was without apology. A strong, wise, and perceptive human male who knew not only how to live life but to be a role model for his family and friends.

    Thanks for such a kind bit of writing. May God bless you and keep you safe!

    14 June 10 at 17:27

  4. Irene Clark

    War is crazy…..people try to kill us and we give them medical care. Compassion, it’s the American way…..for a moment I think…why not just leave them to die, but still within my heart I’m glad that we tend to pick up the pieces even when it is the enemy who strikes. The main thing lacking is opportunity…..what if these countries had opportunities to learn, to grow, to have hope and a future…. Except, by The Grace of God there goes I… is something to be grateful for. America gives us opportunities…..America may not be all that it used to be; but how grateful I am to have been born in the land of the free. And how amazing it is that there are soldiers that weren’t born in America, but they are willing to face danger
    and to do the work of an American armed serviceman or woman. Why do they do that! I guess, because they too; have fallen in love with this place called America. I pray that none of them will regret serving our country. I pray for their safety….one and all. I thank God that soldier Brian is now back in the states, soldier Arnold was in church on Sunday…..soldiers are coming home, but how long will they be jumpy, will they ever have peace within.
    They’ve been asked to do and see more than anyone should have to see or do. I can’t reach them all; but I hug them tight within my heart. I pray for them daily and I hope that soon they can put war behind them. I pray that they will have fulfilling lives, but I know that the scars can run deep. Thank you soldier for doing your part….I’m sorry it has taken so long to bring you home. Stay steady, stay alert……Home Sweet Home awaits you and America is proud to call you her own. Love & Prayers.

    14 June 10 at 20:39

  5. Meredith

    Beautiful and moving post, Rajiv! We’re all so proud of the man you’ve become, thanks to your parents’ love and guidance. What a wonderful tribute this post is to your dad, a fabulous role model. The image of the lost boys is so stirring.

    Thanks for another inspiring post and I am very anxiously awaiting your return!

    14 June 10 at 21:26

  6. Pingback: I got my dad a hat. It was what he wanted! « Permissible Arms

  7. Cam Srpan

    Your Dad is awesome…quiet man and a gentleman or gentle man. I am proud to call both your mom and dad my friends. They raised you well. You are blessed!!

    15 June 10 at 01:05

  8. ektor3

    good one brother. : ))

    15 June 10 at 02:33

  9. Krish Ramachandran

    Keep your blog going. You bring such clarity, honesty in your feelings and compassion even for your vanquished enemy. These are qualities of a genuine leader. We very much share your feelings about Dad ( and about Mom earlier) and consider previleged to have known them for a while. Big hug to you from all of us. Be safe and may God bless you and all of your platoon.

    Krish and Gayathri

    15 June 10 at 03:09

  10. Mew

    I am grateful to your Dad too! The world is a better place for having you in it Rajiv.
    Thank you for another wonderful post to read and share.

    15 June 10 at 12:45

  11. Dear Rajeev, today I wrote about your blog in my Italian blog at

    16 June 10 at 05:14

  12. I like the post, however, excuses are just that. Any human being can tell right from wrong and not having a father doesn’t stop that.

    21 June 10 at 05:17

  13. Meredith

    Just wanted to pop in to say A. and I are thinking of you so fervently! I’m very happy that we’re approaching July and I cannot wait for you to be home! As always, I look forward to reading your next post. =) Love, M and A

    23 June 10 at 22:41

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