12″ x 24″ • Mosaics: stone, tile, mirror
The goal with this piece was to listen to the story that was being told, and create something that many veterans could see and relate to their own experiences. The main character of the story is the man made of cracked glass in the center. No one can experience the things those in the armed services do without it leaving marks, scars, or cracks. He has reached a peaceful place on the path he has walked, looking forward to what is ahead, not focusing on the difficulty that is behind. The path is made of mirrors, showing that the way is not restricted to one possibility, each person will look at their own path, and see a unique reflection of their own challenges. The side is lined with red, the blood and the hardships along the way. Surrounding the path are the mountains of the main character’s homeland, the familiar yet harsh backdrop to the story. The white background around everything else is my own message of hope for inner peace that I would like to convey with this work. Despite all the pain and obstacles that are faced, I hope more and more veterans will find a way to make their own journey and have that peace in their heart, and maybe even heal some of their scars as they find a path worth taking.
by Ruben Jager
It was a brisk night in the bay area, a few weeks into my first spring in a foreign land. All in all I’d been in the U.S. no more than three months, having arrived not long before a large ball dropped in Times Square, marking the end of 2012 as it fell. One of many cultural marvels which suddenly no longer constituted the exotic customs of a faraway place, but rather time-honored traditions of my new home. I was young then, though my young years had attempted to wear me down with a persistence more befitting of decades. I’d arrived in this new world little richer than penniless, but the promise of peace and prosperity would not go unfulfilled, I could not allow it to. And so I fell back on one of my own time-honored traditions: doing whatever it was that needed to be done in order to survive, and in order to provide for those I love.
My wife and I had come to the U.S. from our war-stricken homeland of Afghanistan after I had spent the previous seven years working for the U.S. military as an interpreter. We came in search of a new life, and had brought new life with us as we departed from our devastated motherland. But though we’d left behind death in that perpetual battlefield, death had yet followed us to these shores. On January 21st, 2013, my wife went into labor. Upon arrival, it had taken one and a half hours to get registered with the hospital and for the issue of Medicaid insurance to be taken care of. By the time we’d finally gone to the delivery room our baby showed a heartbeat for no longer than twenty seconds. Our first child was lost to us, having never drawn breath.
In moments of acute existential tenuousness such as these, in situations which revolve around the profane merger of life and death, the ground threatens to crumble beneath one’s feet as they are suspended before that gaping maw of powerlessness and despair. One might say this is inherent to grief, to devastating change; one might even say this is healthy. However, this state of being is also predicated on the luxury of having one’s basic needs met. The essentials of life form an anchor of banality, and though I mourned the tragedy that had befallen us I had a duty to my wife and myself to uphold. I could not allow the ground beneath me to give way. I marched on.
The banalities which anchored me came mostly in the form of financial struggles, and practicalities that were simple yet taxing. I had come to the U.S. with no more than $4500 to my name, and after the costs incurred at the hospital had been paid, what little money that was left was spent in order to give our child a proper burial. I remember feeling distinctly afloat between cultures, neither truly ‘here’ nor ‘there’, when I realized that I had to proceed with the burial of my child in a strange land and without the immediate support of my family. I sought the guidance of my father, who counseled me that our religion recognizes the distinction of first breath, and as the child had been stillborn I did not need to have a ceremony. All I had to do was give him a name. I struggled to find a grave that was affordable with my last bit of money. Death had taken my first child, and I was now without the means to support a life.
It was at this point that I was able to get a job with Domino’s, delivering pizzas. I had asked my family in Kabul to send me some money, and though they had to sell their car and other belongings, they were able to help me get back on my feet. I bought a car, and started working. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
It was my third or fourth week working for Domino’s. I was delivering a pizza to an apartment complex in Hayward, California. It was a large pizza, $18.25. Upon arrival I found out that the order was placed from within a gated community which I could not enter. I called the phone number on the order, wanting to ask for an apartment number or a gate code, but the guy told me he had just parked his car and that I could meet him by the parking entrance. And so I did. I went over to the parking entrance, and there were two guys standing there. I step out of my car, pizza in hand, baseball cap on my head. The guy asks me if I have change for a hundred dollar bill. I say I don’t. He asks me if I have change for a fifty. I say I don’t. We weren’t allowed to carry more than twenty bucks worth of change according to company policy, though in truth it had been an exceptionally good night and I had already made a couple hundred bucks from deliveries and tips. He says it’s okay, that he’s got some change, and he starts looking in his socks. At that point I suspected something was wrong, and I told the guy that it was okay if he wasn’t able to pay, that he could call the manager of the store and figure something out later. I took a few steps back. I never ended up seeing the third guy before I blacked out.
April 6th, 2008.
Today is the day. The day of the mission. Anticipation claws at the walls of composure that I’ve erected during my four years of employment with the U.S. military. The electrostatic hum of nerves and the crackle of synapses firing permeate me, an orchestra of neurochemistry which the clarity of focus can only push to the background, but not fully mute. A momentary sense of prescience washes over me; I’ve seen this day before. Its outcome feels rigid, as though locked in the crystalline structure of the past instead of unfolding in the smoke of the present. The image of a hanged man flashes before my eyes. He looks familiar.
The year is 1996 when things change. The year is 1996, and I’m just a boy. I’m nine, almost ten years old. I come home from school and see a man hanging from the traffic lights at the roundabout. When I ask father he tells me the hanged man is our president, Najibullah, and he weeps. My father was an officer in the Afghan Army, but not anymore. The Taliban is looking for him. They hanged our president from the traffic lights at the roundabout.
Day by day, things change at school. We’re not allowed to learn English or other foreign languages anymore and we have to wear certain uniforms. Girls are not allowed to go to school. Inspections are frequent and thorough. I undergo these changes and more with the malleability of a child, but I’m afraid. Father had retired from the army and decided to open a store in front of the gym. We sell such things as milk and boiled eggs to the people coming from the gym, and father teaches us how to run the place. Our days are filled by going to school and manning the store, the patches of day and night interwoven with a tenuous peace which the togetherness of family affords us. All the while, we hear whispers that the Northern Alliance is still offering resistance against complete Taliban control of the country, even as they’re gradually losing ground. The days blend into months, blend into years, until finally a new millennium dawns and, soon after, four commercial airliners are hijacked over U.S. airspace, on the other side of the world.
It’s 2001 and the streets are strewn with the leaves of a colder season. The U.S. government retaliates to the attacks on its soil and launches an invasion of my country, working together with The United Kingdom and the Northern Alliance. For a short while we hear the roaring of anti-aircraft batteries that are parked next to people’s houses, but within two months the Taliban has fled from our city of Kabul. I see the men shaving their beards and hear music echoing through the streets. I’m in high school, and the Taliban has fled. The Taliban has fled, and my life begins.
I have a good friend that I’ve known for most of my life, and I call him CK. We’re in the same high school but, a year before graduation, CK decides to quit. Money is short, and there’s prospects of work. A few years have passed since the new government had reestablished the Afghan National Army in 2001. Its training had initially been overseen by British Army personnel of the International Security Assistance Force but was soon taken over by U.S. forces, namely 1st Battalion, 3d Special Forces Group. Both training and joint missions require high-fidelity real-time translation between U.S. and ANA personnel and, being quite proficient in English, CK quickly finds employment providing it to them.
My parents insist that I finish my education, and while the last year of high school passes I continue to run my little store and take private courses in English. By the time I graduate, CK has already been working with Special Forces for some time as an interpreter. Knowing the precarious financial situation of my family, he offers to help me and our other friend AJ with getting a job as an interpreter as well. After all, what other work could I hope to find? The store has been our only means of survival, but we are barely scraping by. The country is in ruins after so many years of war, and while the snow leopard clings to the memory of pride, it yet lies broken and bloodied on the streets and plains of our once-beautiful land. There is no other work. There is no hope. The decision is made. I ask my father for permission, and AJ picks me up. It’s the year 2004 and I’m seventeen years old. We’re traveling to Mazar-i-Sharif, where CK is waiting for us.
April 6th, 2008.
I’ve been working with U.S. Special forces, Navy Seals, and other Special Operations teams as a combat interpreter and cultural advisor for nigh on four years now, but today is the day. The day of the mission.
The mission in Shok Valley was planned and subsequently canceled a few times before, even as we’d already been on route in the Chinooks. I’ve been here before, in this cramped carriage of metal and suspense. The smell of burning oil and jet fuel penetrates my nostrils. Today’s goal is the same as before, to capture or kill a certain leader of the HIG militia, a man by the name of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. We’re here with a platoon of soldiers from the ANA, commandos from the first battalion. Both CK and I are amongst the interpreters on this mission, as well as Booyah, another friend and colleague of ours. My childhood friend is sitting next to me as our photo is taken. We are the tongues between these fighters. I’ve been assigned to the first assault team, the first to land and make our way up to the hilltop town which we now fast approach. CK and Booyah are with the second assault team, they’ll be right on our tails. The brains behind this venture had counted on an element of surprise to be on our side, but as our pilot searches in vain for a suitable landing spot in the valley, the men start to doubt the assumed unreadiness of our enemies. The rocky terrain unfolds beneath us as we descend and jump down from the hovering aircraft, landing in the river which bisects the austerity of this barren landscape.
As we start climbing the mountain we see women and children leaving the village, and our suspicions are confirmed. They know the area well enough to make a quick departure, while we labor up the terraced hills with bated breath, second assault team following just behind. The third assault team has just landed by the river, along with right block position, left block position, and rear security. A dusting of snow covers the scene, we’re soaked to the bone and laden with equipment. Progress is slow, and I see us becoming separated from the other assault teams. As we near the top of the mountain, the sky erupts in an omnidirectional thundering of gunfire. While we attempt to return fire to the invisible enemy which surrounds us, we receive message over the radio that someone in the second assault team is wounded, that it’s CK.
Hours upon hours pass, blending into a maelstrom of incoherent fragments which no longer obey the laws of time, a stretch of distorted life punctuated by the sickly cadence of gunfire and explosions. All the while, we’re trying to make our way back down the mountain towards the rendezvous point. Five hours have passed since the fire started, and we’ve finally managed to scramble a ways down the rocks and cliffs. Distance between us and the enemy is now great enough that air support can come in without the certainty of causing friendly casualties. Under the cover of bombing runs, we meet up with the second assault team. I see CK laying there. He got shot in the mouth, his hand and leg are weeping scarlet. Life has fled him, but the moment denies me shock or grief. Booyah is helping with the treatment of the wounded. Despite the air support, bullets continue to rain down upon us. We resort to using CK’s body as a shield, adding a few inches of cover to hide behind. The team sergeant is hit in the chest, knocked back but protected by his body armor. A spray of blood hits me standing beside him as another bullet finds and obliterates his hand.
Some of the Afghan commandos, many who are wounded, make their way to our position as we hold tight and do a headcount in our struggle to retain some sense of control. We’re told that their commander has hid in one of the barn-like structures nearby, and though Booyah manages to make the dangerous climb down to his position he refuses to move from his location. Booyah returns and we hunker down behind the slight cover provided to us by a large boulder. Our backs against the rock, we face a 10-foot drop which stands between us and the casualty collection point. One of us has their leg almost completely blown off, he’s sucking on a lollipop spiked with painkillers. Dangling as it is by a mere patch of skin and sinew, he folds the leg into his lap and ties it up before we help him down the cliff. Some of the members of the third assault team, with our fellow interpreters AJ and Max amongst them, aid us in moving the wounded. The pilot of the first medivac had been shot upon landing, but another now arrives. One by one, we manage to take everyone down the cliff and towards the medivac until only CK is left. The captain talks to me about our options, about whether to leave CK’s body or to retrieve him. At that point we are told to take cover, since another bombing run is inbound. A cascade of rocks flies down the mountain as an explosion shakes the earth. I squeeze myself against a small tree, but it’s not enough. I wake up on the ground and my leg is shattered, I’m unable to put weight on it. Booyah’s foot is crushed, but we persist in retrieving CK’s body. Adrenaline animating our broken bodies, we manage to climb up a ways to where AJ, Max, and one of the Afghan commandos are attempting to move CK’s body down the cliff. I give them my scarf, which they tie around his cuffed hands, and they lower him down to where Booyah and I are waiting. With the help of AJ and the Afghan commando, we make our way to the last medivac and depart.
One of us is lying wounded on the floor of the Blackhawk, the stretcher preventing the doors of the medivac from closing. CK’s body is draped over the seats next to us, and Booyah and I are cramped in ours. As I look over at Booyah I see him starting to slump forward and sideways, towards the open door. I shake him, trying to wake him up, and pull him back sharply when he threatens to fall out of the helicopter. Awareness returns to his eyes as I hold him, and tears start streaming from them. “We’ve lost CK,” he says. Some six hours of time suddenly catches up with the present in one visceral instant. Everything that happened comes flooding back into my mind, a violent tidal wave which crashes down and swallows the small being that Shok Valley left of me. It drowns me in an ocean of mortal grief. I’ve lost my lifelong friend.
Half a year after being robbed on that one night of delivering pizzas, I got a job with a security company and started working at a Ross department store. This period of relative calm that was gradually coming over my life also saw the advent of my PTSD. I started having nightmares, and it wasn’t long before nearly all my teeth were partially fractured due to me grinding them in my sleep. The doctors told me that my mind was stuck in the war, that my body was still in a constant state of alertness. They told me that there was medication which could be prescribed, but that it came at the risk of side effects and addiction. The alternative would be to face this illness without chemical aid, in which case they advised me to refrain from revisiting my memories as much as I could. I chose the latter, but I did find some slight succor in the chemical aid provided to me by alcohol. In my own eyes I was by no means an alcoholic, but the fact of the matter was that sleep would come to me more easily after having pounded a few beers in my car late at night. I was careful never to allow this habit to impair my daily functioning, however, and was quickly building a rapport with my new place of employment. The job came with a tremendous increase in salary, and over the course of four years I was able to truly build a new life for my wife, myself, and our growing family. Our first daughter, the solace of my heart, was born in 2014. Three years later we were blessed with a son. Our children brought me hope and strength, and despite the fact that I was still suffering from the effects of PTSD, I became a much happier man.
After four years of working for them, the security company which employed me lost its contract with the Ross store, at which point Ross offered me a job working for them directly. I was given the position of senior officer, and my work entailed doing offside supervision. During this time our third child was born, another daughter, and our family thrived. It was also during this period that I started to more critically reflect on my journey here, and on the process of integration in this country. It had taken four years to receive my Special Immigrant Visa, having applied in 2008 and finally having been granted it in 2012. I reflected on the lack of guidance that I was able to find and access when it came to navigating the systems of healthcare, insurance, employment and the other essentials of life, not to mention the more abstract written and unwritten rules of a foreign society. These reflections were shared by my friend Booyah, who had also built a new life here in the U.S. Our communications culminated in the idea for a foundation which could supply the aid that we felt we could have greatly benefited from ourselves. With our experience and knowledge of both sides of the fence, we would be able to offer help to all Afghan interpreters, their allies, and their families, in integrating in U.S. society. Thus, in 2018, Interpreting Freedom Foundation was born. In both 2018 and 2019 we were present at the White House, attending two separate ceremonies during which the Medal of Honor was awarded to Former-Staff Sgt. Ronald Shurer II and Master Sgt. Matthew Williams respectively for their deeds during the battle of Shok Valley. These moments signified recognition and honor for everyone who partook in the battle, including Booyah and myself. I was at first hesitant to appear publicly at such an event, as there was a perpetual risk involved for my family back in Afghanistan. We both decided that the risk had to be suffered, both in order to cement the righteousness of our deeds for the generations to come, as well as to further the cause of our newly founded non-profit organization. Since then, we have helped hundreds of people in their unique journeys of finding and building a new life here, a life of peace and stability as an integral part of the U.S community.
In September of 2021, Bahroz Mohmand, callsign “Blade”, moved away from California with his wife and their three children to live in Charlotte, NC, where Booyah and his family also reside. To this day and for many days to come, they continue to direct their efforts at expanding the positive influence of Interpreting Freedom Foundation, and have already changed many lives through the aid and guidance which they are able to provide.
“Strong people stand up for themselves, but the strongest people stand up for others.”
– Bahroz Mohmand