Specialist Justin Cliburn deployed to Iraq in 2005 with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. His job was to train the Iraqi police in Baghdad.
When he sat down for StoryCorps with his wife, Deanne, he told her about his friendship with a young Iraqi boy named Ali.
Click here for the transcript.
Deanne Cliburn (DC): As opposed to a lot of the other Iraqi kids that you encountered?
JC: Yes. He was very shy. And the second or third time that I met him, he brought his best friend Ahmed. And Ahmed was much more outgoing. And so, Ali really opened up. And, once I met these children, it made every day something I looked forward to.
We would play rock, paper, scissors. We would kick around a soccer ball. We were about as close as people that don't speak the same language can be. I had never been really good with children and this was the first time I felt like I loved someone who wasn't my family member.
But one day Ali showed up and I could tell something wasn't right. He kept saying, "Ahmed, Ahmed…Boom." We learned that Ahmed and his mother went to the gas station and a suicide bomber detonated. Ahmed's mother is dead -- she died instantly. And Ahmed is in a hospital somewhere.
And so other soldiers and I collected what cash we had and gave it to Ali and said, "Go take this to Ahmed's father." But later, I saw Ali walking up very slow and, uh…he sat down on the curb next to my humvee. He dug a hole in the ground with his fingers. He picked up a rock and put it in the hole and then he put the dirt back over it. And he just pointed to the ground and said, "Ahmed." And I knew that Ahmed was dead.
And so I sat on the curb with him -- Me in desert camouflage, carrying an M-4 rifle and him just a North Baghdad kid. Just sat there and cried.
I don't know what came of him. That's the nature of war I suppose. But whenever I see any footage from Baghdad, I'm always kind of looking around, wondering if he's in the frame.