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Exploring the meaning of the Muslim holiday Ramadan

For many of us who have returned from battle, there are times, days or moments that stay with us forever. Those moments redefine who we are, change our basic beliefs, and in some ways recreate our souls. I had one of those moments in 2005 when I was in Mosul, Iraq. It was a moment that centered on Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of renewal.

My thoughts turn to those moments in Mosul whenever Ramadan comes around and Ramadan is again upon us. The first day of Ramadan begins or around Aug. 11 this year. Ramadan is a month where Muslims fast, abstaining from food and drink, from before sunrise to after sunset.

It is a month of introspection, renewal, and hope for a better world. Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists have fasted as a means to purify the spirit and body in order to return to the path of love, faith, and service to others. In many ways, this is very similar to the upcoming Jewish Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), Oct. 17-18, where a 26-hour fast is observed.

One day during Ramadan in 2005, mass casualties arrived at the Combat Support Hospital in Mosul. Earlier that day a terrorist Tal Afar killed some Iraqi citizens in order to discourage them from voting in an upcoming election.

These terrorists called themselves Muslims and claimed what they did was for Allah. But their connection to Islam is about as true and strong as Timothy McVeigh’s, the Oklahoma City bomber, connection to Christianity. What they did was so contrary to the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed that to say their name in the same breath with Islam is sacrilege.

I was at CSH when the call came: Terrorists had hit, no American casualties, 22 Iraqis wounded, five of whom were children under the age of 12. I stood on the tarmac watching as the MEDEVAC choppers came in one at a time to deliver the wounded. I noticed the children, two in particular who had severe head trauma. I followed them into the emergency room and watched our physicians struggle to stabilize them.

After the physicians did what they could, the children were taken to the intensive care unit. I helped carry their stretchers into the ICU and stood by to see if I could help. I had a serious conversation with G-d and pleaded with him to take care of these kids — kids who should be playing soccer, or doing their homework for school the next day, or helping their parents get ready for supper.

Two of these children had their skulls badly shattered and I watched nurses and medics give them pint after pint of blood while their head bandages turned from white to red. I held the youngest one’s hands, reassuring him the best way I could. He was about 6 years old.

As they were giving the youngest his third pint of blood, I heard the nurse say that they were running low on blood and that he would need more. I asked what blood type he was, and it turned out he was B Positive, my own blood type. I asked if I could donate blood and they quickly hooked me up and took a pint. After giving blood, I went back to see him and he already had blood my surging in his veins.

I held his hand and watched as the monitors told the story. His heart was in trouble owing to the brain trauma. I watched as he fought for life, fighting to breathe, but he was dying and there was nothing I could do. This innocent Muslim child, who had been observing Ramadan the way a child does, was now dying despite the fact that my blood was moving though his veins, despite the fact that I pleaded with G-d for his life. I didn’t want this boy to die hearing the strange sounds of the CSH. I wanted him to be comforted by the last sounds he heard, by words that were close to his heart, words that spoke of home and faith. I started to recite Surahs the Holy Qu’ran to him, words I learned from an Army Imam. As I chanted, I heard the monitor flat-line. I held his hand, as my blood moved through his tiny pure heart that could no longer bear the evil of this world.

I cried for a boy whose name I didn’t know, for an innocent Muslim child who gave his life for his G-d, Allah, for his country. This 6-year-old child was the true face of Muslim martyrdom. With tears streaming down my face, I looked down and noticed blood on my uniform. His blood, my blood, our blood had dripped from his open head wound onto my uniform.

An hour or so later I walked into the waiting area as they prepared his body for transport. There I met Chaplain Mark Greschel, a Catholic priest. He looked at me and knew that I was in trouble.

He sat with me, somehow knowing the pain I felt was best not mixed with words. He quietly put his arms around me, and we both sat there in silence. I thought to myself, isn’t this the kind of world we are fighting for — a world where an imam teaches a rabbi words from the Holy Qu’ran to comfort a young Muslim boy, and that rabbi himself is comforted by a Christian, a Catholic priest.

So I ask: What is Ramadan all about? For those of us who choose not to carry hatred and prejudice in our hearts, the answer is simple. For the Islamic community, Ramadan is a time of introspection, of hope, of belief that if we all work together, we can truly build a better world for all our children, even those whose names we don’t know.

There is so much that we can learn about faith and G-d through other religions; there is so much that our fellow Muslim Soldiers and families can teach us about our creator, about personal sacrifice and selfless service. But if we consider their faith only with mistrust, hatred, and indifference, then this little angel with his faith in G-d means nothing. Then we have diminished our own faith in G-d.

If we objectify the Muslims or those who don’t share our exact views on religion or G-d, if we see them as less than our brothers and sisters, then we as a nation, as a human race are lost. Let us join hands with our Muslim families at Fort Benning and Columbus and let us wish them a “Ramadan Mubarak,” a blessed Ramadan. Let the message of “love thy neighbor as thyself” be the message of Ramadan that we carry in our hearts.

Even though I didn’t give birth to him, I lost a son on that fast day of Ramadan. For him, I choose not to hate, I choose to follow the path that the great Sheik Ibn Arabi followed when he said, “Love is my faith and my religion and wherever its caravans take me, that is where I shall go, for love is my religion and faith.” G-d has a new Muslim angel in Paradise. I hope to tell you his name one day when I meet him again.