Through encrypted emails with Peter Snyder at the State Department, Ali’s cover story was carefully crafted. The story was that Ali’s father had become despondent with the American response to Moslems after the bombing. Afraid that his son, Ali, would be the brunt of hate (Rashid had emails to prove it), he would pull him from school and send him back home to Pakistan. Ali was in an accelerated program and had completed the basic high school requirements, so it was easy for Rashid to demand a diploma.
Ali would be sent to his Uncle, Monsoor Farhid, a devout Sunni, in Islamabad. The fundamentalist Farhid allowed no computers in his home. The hardest thing for Ali was telling those on his buddy list that he would be cut off from the Internet. He left them his Yahoo address, but could not guarantee that he would be able to communicate with them. It was all part of the story. There was no Uncle Farhid in Islamabad. Anyone seeking information on him would find it, carefully planted by Snyder. Ali would craft emails to be sent at intervals from an Internet Café in Islamabad. The messages would taper off after a few months, and say nothing of any consequence. The State Department would keep the Yahoo account open so that Ali could use it later to send clandestine messages. Yahoo routinely closed inactive accounts. Under Homeland Security regulations, this and other accounts like it were never to be closed.
Like so many of his classmates enlisting in the war effort, Ali packed what he would take and pondered what he would leave behind. The instructions were specific. He would need few clothes. To keep up appearances, he packed for Pakistan. For himself, he packed for Fort Bragg. The Pakistan-bound stuff would be intercepted at the airport and returned, in the dark of night, to his father, who would store them in the attic. If any of his friends ever visited his room, it had to look like he’d left and took his most valued possessions with him. For Fort Bragg, it was the two allowed sets of street clothes, toiletries, and a few personal items like a copy of his favorite picture of his mother. His father mounted his high school diploma in a frame on the wall as a reminder of normalcy. Ali didn’t need it where he was going.
He didn’t tell Mrs. Johnson anything. It was time for him to leave her and Rob behind. Whatever she felt for him, he didn’t love her. He was grateful to her for taking his virginity. He’d have that to protect him from the guys at camp. He’d seen all the movies, like Biloxi Blues, but he wasn’t sure he knew what boot camp was about. It was just the first hurdle. He was mature for his age and sure that he would get through it. He snuck back to her house that last night anyway. He hoped that she didn’t sense that he was leaving. He kissed her for the last time just before dawn.
The morning of the 15th Ali and his father packed his things in his father’s car and they drove to San Francisco International. Rashid had booked a United Airlines flight to New York, and a Pakistan International Airlines flight from there to Islamabad. Ali checked the stuff that would return to his father and carried a small military duffel. Security was tough, but nothing like those I-80 checkpoints. His duffel sailed through with ease. They got to the gate with an hour to kill. They sat down and waited.
“There he is! There’s the going away guy--cool!”
Ali looked up and several of his friends were descending upon them. Kevin led the way, carrying a large cake. It had the words, Bon Voyage, Ali, in chocolate frosting, written on top.
“Hey! How did you guys get past security with that?” Ali was totally surprised.
“We didn’t. That’s how we got it cut! Had to bribe the guards.” Kevin said with a big smile. The cake was neatly cut so that nothing inside would escape the blade. Two large pieces were missing. Ali laughed. Kevin always got away with things like that.
Everyone was kissing and hugging him and wishing him well. He couldn’t believe the kiss Keisha gave him, full on the lips with a touch of tongue--nothing like Mrs. Johnson. He was stunned. He’d admired her beautiful black bod in the 400 on the track many times, but didn’t know she cared that much for him. Gloria, a platinum blonde cheerleader, gave him a hug that left him with a very good impression of her tanned boobs. Maybe he should leave like this more often? Only Akbar and Habib, friends since childhood, knew what it meant to go back to Pakistan. They stood quietly in the background, waiting their turn to shake his hand, somber looks on their faces.
“Don’t get sucked into all that fundamentalist bullshit, Ali. We’re rooting for you. When you get back we’ll hold one hellava beer party to get you back in the groove.” Akbar spoke sincerely.
“You know you’ll be in Stanford and Beeb at San Jose State by then. Everything’ll get back to normal and we’ll never get together like this again. A tear came to his eye. Akbar saw it and his face fell. He knew Ali was right.
The call to board came and everyone was hugging and kissing and taking pictures. Once more, he wrapped his arms around Keisha and pulled her in, feeling her taut muscle surge beneath, hard and soft in all the right places, her tongue flicking his open lips, and her eyelashes fluttering in front of his. He wanted to hold her like that forever. Then he saw his father looking sternly at him from the side. He eased from Keisha’s arms and approached him for the last time. The others backed off so that they could talk alone.
“Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll do well. I’ll write often.” He was shaking his father’s hand. Rashid’s face went from stern to sad. He gently patted his son’s arm.
“I know you will. It’s going to be so lonely without you here. I will pray for you often.” He was crying. Ali hadn’t seen him cry since his mother died.
Ali headed through the gate onto the plane. It was only partially occupied. Nobody cared to fly much anymore. If it weren’t for the bailout, United wouldn’t have been flying anymore either. Ali found a seat and stretched out. Five hours later he took a shuttle bus to the Delta terminal and picked up his ticket to Georgia. By late evening, he was riding a cab through the gate to Fort Bragg. When he arrived at Reception Station. He was shown a bunk and told to assemble in the mess hall at 8am. A lot of young men and women were already there. More came in all night long. He didn’t get much sleep. Still, someone had to wake him at 7.
After introductions to the staff and breakfast, they were issued their military clothes, told how to care for them, and to put them on. And then they were given an introduction to the Armed Forces. The introduction was virtual tour of all the branches and their equipment. The special effects and sound were awesome. After simulations, they showed real bloody footage from Desert Storm and Somalia. Ali found it uncomfortable the way soldiers were poised to kill on command. No thought was given to whether targets were innocent or not once the order was given. Watching some of his fellow recruits, he saw that they were uncomfortable too—especially the women. Tears were welling up in the eyes of the thin blonde sitting next to him. He saw her wipe her eyes before the lights came up. There was no room in the military for sentimentality.
Everyone got physicals and immunizations. There were some sessions on what to expect from Basic. Sometimes the men and women were separated. They had separate restrooms and showers at Reception. During breaks they played games and hung out, but no one got to know anyone very well. Everyone knew that they would be separated soon.
Reveille shook him awake. It was 5am. The Sergeant said that they had fifteen minutes to assemble outside. Military trucks pulling cattle cars pulled up to Reception. When his name was called he lined up and joined the others in one of the cattle cars. A few minutes later, they arrived at the barracks that would serve as their home for seven weeks. They were ordered to line up at attention for review. The insults and harassment started. No one was spared. Ali’s basic training had begun.
Ali was one of the youngest recruits, but that was no obstacle for him. His dark good looks were. He was surrounded by fat guys, girls that looked like dykes, creeps with pierce holes still healing, yokels without a clue, and wise guys--all those young, disaffected societal leftovers that figured it was a good time to join the Army because everybody else was. From the stares he got that first night he sensed that some of his fellow trainees had joined up to kill guys who looked like him.
His Drill Sergeant, Eric Samuel, was on him from the first. “Yes Sir, No Sir” became his watchwords. He was in good shape, so the extra push-ups and running in place didn’t bother him. He just looked straight ahead and bore it. Eventually it would earn him respect. The screw-ups quickly drew attention. After that first march at the end of a long day, five dropped out. Ali kept an easy pace in the middle of the pack. He could have walked away from them. He didn’t. No need to attract attention. He had a long way to go. Smooth and easy. Gain respect.
But it visited that first night—crackers in his bunk. He didn’t know who did it, but expected more. At chow, he joined two yokels with promise, Tom Wycliff, a farm boy from Kansas, and James Earl Byrd, a West Virginian. With a ready smile and questions about where they were from, he began to win them over. He needed friends to watch his back. When he told them he was from California and about the kisses he got as a sendoff, they were all ears. Before long they were calling him, San Jose. It was a mark of distinction—the California dude—much better than the suspect, Ali the Moslem.
Tom was strong and healthy and possessed a natural ingenuity that life on the farm demanded. Ali pegged him as one of the first to be promoted through the ranks. All Ali had to do was get that naivety Tom had from growing up so isolated opened up a bit. He began that by telling him about the way they farmed in Pakistan. He didn’t know all that much about farming in Pakistan, but he opened Tom’s eyes with his talk of it.
James Earl, true to his heritage, was a natural marksman. His family had hunted the hills near his family farm since the Revolution. Ali had him pegged for the Sniper Corps. James Earl had a unique way of speaking that kept Ali and Tom in stitches, but they knew he was good as gold, loyal to the core. They enjoyed his tall tales of huntin’ everything from turkeys to possums to bar. Scarce little bear there was left to hunt.
Ali could see how this all worked. By depriving recruits of sleep and working them to exhaustion, the Drill Sergeants made sure there was precious little time for dissention. When resistance was broken down, the mind could be molded. Before long, even the screw-ups were falling in line or falling out. It was a time-tested method that built camaraderie. After Basic, all soldiers would buy into the mystique of the armed forces—never to question a command-–and be willing to die to save their buddies.
Ali learned to pack enough for a small army and carry it on his duffel and rucksack for miles. He learned how to run DR 8 reels and establish telephone communications in the field. The discipline of the grass was drilled into all: the t-bone ... a scissor-like kick with legs laying on his back--for about a half hour … the donkey kick ... standing in one spot kicking his own ass with his feet ... crunches ... push-ups ... arm rotations ... little circles to big circles with arms extended ... for what seemed to be several hours … running ... push-ups ... more running … rolling on the ground one direction then to another direction. After the coordination thing was worked out with the Sergeant and others, he learned Drill and Ceremony.
As soon as Ali was issued an M16A3 he was told to treat it as his girlfriend—to lovingly take it apart, clean it, and put it back together—and never, ever let it out of his reach. Ali learned to sleep with it; its strap wrapped tightly around his arm. Woe to the recruit that lost a firearm.
He learned hand-to-hand combat, bayoneting, repelling. It was all old hat but he tried not to show it, slipping up once in a while so as not to look too good. With the M16 he learned BRM, basic rifle marksmanship. He enjoyed “passing” stations at pop up targets ranging from 50 to 300 yards. He was good, but purposely muffed a few shots here and there so that he wouldn’t upstage James Earl and be singled out. There was grenade throwing, rocket launching, and setting Claymores with trip wires. He paid close attention to mine identification and sweeping—knew that it would come in handy—along with hand-to-hand combat.
Ali learned to fire the 50-caliber machine gun and the SAW. The awesome firepower of these weapons gave him a deep respect for war. Not only would one round tear a man in half, these guns could tear down a wall a man might try to hide behind. On the SPOTS range, wearing his miles gear, Ali learned how easy it was to get hit. As hard as he tried, he still got ambushed and killed. It gave him a great respect for the fate of war: no matter how much you prepared or good you were, one slip up or dumb bad luck could lead to your death.
And then, on their first road march, they arrived at the gas chamber where Ali learned NBC and the horror of war--nerve agents, biological spore, and various lethal and non-lethal gases used during wartime. Ali lined up with others with his mop gear on, waiting to walk into the small chamber with the two DIs in charge and seven others. It was alphabetical, so he got to experience the fear on others faces as he waited for what seemed to be eternity to face his own true fear going in.
It was weird—the two DI's inside laughing with their masks on—two little pills burning over a fire—the yells and screams of those going before. Everyone had their instructions. When entering, wait for the Drill Sergeant to tell you to take off your mask. When they do, take your mask off and reseal it. When Ali did this, he felt a terrible burning sensation as the gas reached his skin and eyes. He felt like he was on fire. Putting the mask back on helped him breathe, but the burning continued. The suit was so confining. He wanted to tear it off—but not inside there. Choking, he waited it out wanting to get out.
On the way out, everyone was required to remove their masks and say their name and social security number before being allowed to go outside. When Ali complied, all he wanted to do was crash through to the door because the gas was tearing him up as he cried, “Ali Jaheed ... 487…85 …1224.” His eyes were being poked with red-hot needles. He couldn't see or breathe. He was nauseous to the point of vomiting. His skin was seared. And then he was finally outside holding his arms from his body and walking around to let the air dilute the gas. After this test, Ali felt he could handle anything except the real thing or torture. He learned the importance of mop gear and avoidance of deadly agents at all cost.
The obstacle course was San Jose’s best exercise. He easily mastered it. Ace and the bitches from New York couldn’t seem to. Ali suspected that it was Ace that put the crackers in his bed. With his buddies watching, Ali could go to the head in peace. Jill and Nellie, two New Yorkers who linked up right away and hung with Ace for protection, weren’t cut out to be military. Sgt. Samuel rode them mercilessly. They quit in unison on the first shagging. They might have lasted longer had they not talked each other into quitting. Ace, with no one left who would put up with his shit, gradually learned that his way was the hard way and fell into the program. Ali began talking to him once he straightened up.
With his new status as San Jose, Ali could talk to anyone in his squad. Aside from social banter and business when necessary, he did little to attract attention. He was learning to slip by--under the radar--by doing what he was told and not making waves. Still, to Sergeant Samuel, he stood out. At first the Sergeant had pushed him hard, even picked on him because of his name and look. But Ali’s quick and sure response to all commands, his superior physical condition, and his skill with equipment and military exercises won the battle-hardened old man over. Eric Samuel found himself silently cheering San Jose on and wishing he had served with him in Somalia and Lebanon. Ali really showed his ability in war games. Whether it was strategy or understanding the lay of the land, he stood out. Samuel had not seen recruits of this caliber before. He didn’t know it, but the reason he hadn’t was that the best had no reason to join up before. In time, he would see more, and they would improve the overall quality of the Basic ranks. He would never know why they were there, nor would their comrades, or what they would become. It was just too dangerous to let them know.
So, the ranks were thinned, the smart and strong survived, and Ali passed the first hurdle of many. At the awards ceremony he received his rainbow-colored basic training ribbon. There were congratulations all around. Tom and James Earl received assignments Ali had expected: Tom was sent to the 101st Airborne and James Earl joined the elite Army Sniper Corps for further training. Everyone wanted to know where San Jose was going. Ali’s orders were that he was to report to The Commandant at Fort Meyer for further assignment. They didn’t know what that meant. They did know that Fort Meyer was the hub of high command activity, a temporary replacement for the Pentagon at the edge of the Hot Zone. They wished him well and wished they were going with him. None of them were. Tom and James Earl hoped to see him again. They didn’t know they wouldn’t.