Berlin-born Jeffrey Jamaleldine wanted to do something about terrorism in the world and so he joined the US Army to fight in Iraq. Now he's back in Bavaria, his face nearly destroyed by a bullet -- but he's still convinced that it is his calling to fight for peace.
Long before Jeffrey Jamaleldine was hit in the face by a bullet during a nighttime ambush just outside the central Iraqi city of Ramadi, he was just another German kid, roaming through West Berlin and dreaming of becoming a professional soccer player.
He played on plenty of local teams, and he often won games for his side. He usually played in goal, but he was also good at scoring goals and passing balls. He had the eye, and he had the strength and discipline. Given his talents, life could have gone in a completely different direction for Jamaleldine.
"If I do something, I want to do it right," says Jamaleldine. It's his personal motto, one that often comes up in conversation, sometimes verbatim and sometimes expressed in other words. He says that he has always adhered to it. Whether he was installing wall-to-wall carpets for miserable wages, waiting tables at a local Persian restaurant or working as a car salesman, he always wanted to do things correctly.
To earn money for college in the United States, he worked as a day laborer stacking hay bales, appeared in a lion costume as a basketball team's mascot, handed out free ice cream samples in casinos and worked on an assembly line, sticking plastic caps onto cans of mosquito repellant. But no matter how demeaning or mundane the work was, he always took it seriously and did a good job.
When he talks, it is clear he is a native Berliner. He was born and raised in the city's Spandau neighborhood, went to elementary school in the Birkenhain neighborhood and later graduated from the Martin Buber High School. He looks like his German mother, Dagmar, but bears little resemblance to his father Bashir, who is originally from Gambia.
Jamaleldine doesn't even crack a smile when he talks about how, in 1991, he joined in anti-American protests on Berlin's Kurfürstendamm boulevard during Operation Desert Storm. "That was the way it was back then," he says. He was 15 and "America was simply the enemy."
It took a full 14 years before Jamaleldine finally -- and radically -- changed his views on the Americans. It was on June 6, 2005, in the middle of the Iraq war, when he showed up at the US Army recruiting office in Little Rock, Arkansas, to enlist. His father Bashir told him at the time: "Son, this won't be a picnic."
Bashir didn't feel comforted when his son told him that he would be stationed at a US military base in Germany -- perhaps in Schweinfurt, Grafenwöhr or Kaiserslautern -- not far away from home. The father would have preferred his son to be far away but safe. At the time, he had no idea of the danger his son was actually getting himself into.
The father still lives at Sandstrasse 64 in Spandau, in a faceless building near the Heerstrasse main road. It's a neighborhood dominated by high-rise apartment buildings. Down the street, the locals like to drink their first beer of the day in the morning at a bar called the "Sandkrug." There is an Italian restaurant called "La Perla" and a laundromat where Germans of all skin colors and mother tongues do their laundry. This was the neighborhood where Jeffrey, who prefers to be called Jeff, dreamed of a different and bigger life.
The Reality of War
The family sits around a table in the living room: Jeff and his younger brother James, and their younger half-brother Jermaine, from the father's second marriage. A picture of a black Madonna hangs on the wall, there is a velour couch with matching armchairs, and curtains hang in front of the windows. The furnishings suggest a comfortable, inconspicuous life. For the Jamaleldines, the Iraq war used to be something they watched on TV, nothing more than shaky images of violence on the evening news. It didn't have anything to do with their family.
It's a wintery Saturday, and Jeff is home visiting his father. His next operation is scheduled for Monday at the US Army's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, the central hospital where US soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan are treated. Once again, he'll be under the knife for six hours and will not be able to talk for a long time after the surgery. The surgeons will make an incision along his neck and fold open the left side of his face, so that they can gain access to his jawbone and his teeth, and once again expose the impact site of the bullet, which broke apart on contact.
The projectile slammed into his mouth. One piece of it sharply changed direction and exploded back out of his head through his left temple. A second piece remained in place in the lower right-hand side of his face, but not before tearing open the flesh of his cheek, severing muscles and blood vessels and shattering the left half of his teeth.
It is nothing short of astonishing that Specialist Jamaleldine, Scout Platoon, 19-Delta, part of the First Battalion of the 77th Tank Division based in the Bavarian city of Schweinfurt, survived. He owes his life to a dramatic, rule-breaking helicopter rescue. The fact that he is alive is already amazing -- the fact that he once again almost looks as if nothing had happened to him is a miracle.
A small, clear plastic bag containing Jeff's watch, spattered with blood that has since dried to a reddish brown, sits on the table between father and son. The watch was removed in the summer, shortly after Jeff was admitted to the US military hospital in Landstuhl. Jamaleldine's homecoming was everything but euphoric. Instead, he returned to Germany "wounded in action," unable to speak, his jaw hastily patched up, his face red and covered with sutures. He arrived at Ramstein Air Base, tied to a stretcher, flown in from Balad Air Base in Iraq in the belly of a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.
His bloody watch sits on the table, but there isn't much to say about it. The war is always there between the father and the son, sometimes in the form of silence and sometimes as an argument. They spend hours talking about the same questions over and over again, about why wars are necessary in the first place and why they never seem to end.
The father ends up saying: "I am in favor of peace." To which Jeff responds: "But someone has to achieve that peace." The father repeats: "I am in favor of peace."
This only upsets Jeff. Normally he tends to be quiet and calm. But now he raises his voice, his body tenses up and his words become deliberately hurtful: "And what are you doing so that we can have peace? How much longer do you think you'd be sitting around drinking coffee in fancy Berlin cafés if people like me didn't exist? If there was nobody to make sure you could live in peace? If there was nobody to fight terrorism?"
'We Can't Let These People Ruin our Lives'
When Bashir Jamaleldine arrived in Germany, he was a British subject. He had fled from the unrest in Sierra Leone, which eventually escalated into a protracted civil war. His life has taught him that war only generates more war, but never peace.
He settled in Frankfurt in 1970 and moved to Berlin two years later. At first he worked as a waiter in a restaurant called "International," then he landed a job as the head of the exotic fruits department at the city's upmarket KaDeWe department store. He called himself "Jimmy" at the time.
Globalization was responsible for scattering his family around the world long before most people had even heard of the term. His grandfather was Syrian, an adventurer with the looks of an English dandy, and his grandmother was from Ghana, which was still called the Gold Coast in those days. He was born in Gambia, in the 1940s, as the youngest of six children.
When asked about his ancestry and where he feels at home, Jeff Jamaleldine says that he has never liked being pigeonholed, especially after growing up being called an "Afro-Spandauer." He leads a life between countries and cultures, a life in the fast lane of global migration, a life that illustrates how ordinary people can turn into global citizens.
It was at Christmas 2006, when Jeff was already fighting for America, for his ideas of freedom and democracy, that he took advantage of his vacation to become a US citizen. It was a logical step, rather than some deeply felt desire. There is no country that he could call his own with real conviction. For Jeff Jamaleldine, it's as if he were working on a mosaic of his life and constantly having to deal with new pieces.
When he was 20, he applied, and was admitted, to Missouri Southern State College in Joplin, directly on Route 66, on a sports scholarship. He left Berlin in the summer of 1996 with two suitcases and the expectation that living in America would be like taking a spin in a Ferrari with Tom Selleck of "Magnum P.I." fame. Life in the United States had to be wilder and faster than life in Spandau.
But for Jamaleldine, life in America would mainly be hard work. He played soccer and went to school, first earning a bachelor's degree and later an MBA. He moved to Little Rock, where he worked at various jobs and eventually met his future wife, Zuhaira. Before long the couple had their first son. But life wasn't easy.
The events of Sep. 11, 2001 happened far away from his home, and yet they were very close to his life. Zuhaira, who grew up in the New York borough of Brooklyn, was working as a flight attendant on the day of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
At the time, Jamaleldine didn't feel the sense of outrage and personal assault that he would later experience. Like the rest of the world, Jamaleldine was horrified by the terrorist attacks and felt shock as he watched the images of the collapsing Twin Towers. But he managed to keep 9/11 separate from his own life -- a life of selling cars, waiting tables and helping to support a family.
But then terror struck again in April 2002, in Djerba, Tunisia. And in October of the same year, bombs ripped apart tourists on the Indonesian island of Bali. Attacks in Casablanca, Riyadh and Istanbul followed in 2003. And then, says Jamaleldine, came March 11, 2004, when 10 bombs blew up commuter trains in Madrid. In elections three days later, on March 14, the Spanish government was voted out of office, as if voters had allowed terror to control their decisions. That, at least, was the way Jamaleldine perceived it. "After all," he says, "it was Spain, not Togo or some other small country." That was the day his life took a new, dramatic turn.
He seems calm and extremely convincing when he tells his story. It's obvious that he means it when he says: "We can't let these people ruin our lives." More than just believing it, Jamaleldine made it his mission, a mission he never doubted then and still believes in today. He no longer wanted, as he says, "to be one of those people who make big speeches at their local bar, telling everyone what they would do if they were in charge, and then go home and turn on the TV." He wanted to stop being a spectator.
Jamaleldine turns 32 this April. When he was born, terrorism was synonymous with Carlos the Jackal, Palestinians hijacking airliners, Italy's Red Brigades and Germany's RAF. In the long run, these terrorists were defeated. In Jamaleldine's view, those terrorists were beaten because people were willing to stand up to them -- to act rather than just talk. "How can I say to my sons, stand up for something, fight for what you think is right, if I don't do anything myself?" he asks.
Making a Difference
His two sons, Aron and David, are two and eight. For the past two years, the family has been living in Opferbaum, a village in northern Bavaria between Schweinfurt and Würzburg, a place small enough that you can count the total number of houses during a short walk. There are two buses to the train station in Würzburg every morning and one returning to the village every evening.
In February 2006, the family moved to Opferbaum from the Ledward Barracks in Schweinfurt. Jeff had completed basic training and a special course at the army war college to become a cavalry scout. The code for his position in the US Army is 19-D, or 19-Delta, which represents one of the toughest jobs in the military: the job of working as a scout at the front and sometimes behind enemy lines.
Jamaleldine had deliberately signed up for the job without telling his father and without explaining to his wife, at least at first, exactly what he would be doing. He didn't want to be a driver, a logistics person or a mechanic. He wanted to be in the middle of the war, close to the enemy. He wanted, as he says, to be in a place "where I could make the biggest difference."
His apartment in Opferbaum is in a former parsonage next to the St. Lambertus Church on the village square. The plaque on an old war memorial in the middle of the square reads: "The Community of Opferbaum Honors Its Fallen Sons." Jamaleldine poses in front of the memorial in drizzling rain, wearing his "Class A" dress uniform: a cavalry Stetson on his head, golden spurs on his shoes and a jacket made of tough dark-green material.
A large red "1" on his left arm indicates that he is part of the First Infantry Division. The two stripes underneath the number mean that he has served two six-month tours of combat duty. Nine medals are pinned to his chest, just above his heart, the decorations of his military career so far. They show that he was wounded twice. The expert insignia indicates that he is also capable of wounding and killing others with cool precision. He is a "Marksman M-4," trained to hit anything, moving or stationary, at a distance of 300 meters (985 feet). Anything? "Anything," says Jamaleldine.
Deployed in Iraq
His first wound was little more than a serious hematoma. He was on patrol in Tamim, on the northeastern edge of Ramadi, a city 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of Baghdad. At the time, in the winter of 2006/2007, Ramadi was still a symbol of the miserable shortcomings of the American campaign in Iraq. There were 42 attacks against Americans on a single day in January 2007.
On Jan. 9, a bullet struck Jamaleldine in the chest. His bulletproof vest saved his life. But although the bullet didn't penetrate the vest, it hit his sternum and ribs with a powerful blow. Jamaleldine now keeps the bullet, a dented piece of metal, as a souvenir in a small bag on his dresser in Opferbaum.
His wife Zuhaira is cleaning up in the kitchen, partly listening to the conversation and partly trying to ignore it. A God-fearing woman with kind eyes, she became a Baptist two years ago. She says she has never been happier than she is now in Opferbaum. She serves tea and lemonade and sits down at the table with Jeff. Parts of his dress uniform lie between them. The war is always there between the soldier and his wife, sometimes in the form of silence and sometimes as an argument.
When he began talking about enlisting back then, in Arkansas, she thought he was out of his mind. She said to him: "You're not an American. It's not your war." She assumed that the US military wouldn't even accept a German, a foreigner, into its ranks. She later learned that all it takes to enlist is a Green Card.
Zuhaira Jamaleldine, who is 31, despises war and any form of violence. One of her brothers was murdered in a shooting in Brooklyn. Zuhaira always wanted to live a peaceful, ordinary life -- and Jeff seemed to be the right man for that.
She clearly has difficulty accepting his personal war against terror and his newfound interest in protecting the world. "He went to university," she says. "He's smart. He could find a good job anywhere, but he has to join the army, of all things. He has to go to war."
A Perfect Score
During the Cold War, residents of West Berlin were exempt from serving in the German military, the Bundeswehr. But Jeff was young enough that he was eligible for military service once it had been reintroduced after German reunification. After graduating from high school, he passed the entrance examination with flying colors. He performed 10 months of compulsory military service with Infantry Battalion 581 in Berlin's Kladow district, finishing when he was just 19.
After that he went to America to attend college. When he enlisted in the US Army 10 years later, at 29, the recruiters were astonished by his scores. His "PULHES Factor," the Military Physical Profile Serial System which measures a recruit's physical capabilities, consisted of six ones -- a perfect score.
In the acronym PULHES, P stands for physical capacity or stamina, U for upper extremities, L for lower extremities, H for hearing and ears, E for eyes and P for psychiatric. Jamaleldine was the cream of the crop according to all six criteria.
In August 2006, he was sent to Kuwait, followed by Camp Buren and the Al Taqaddum airbase, before finally being posted to Ramadi. It was the worst possible time to arrive in Ramadi. Beginning that fall, and throughout the entire winter, the city and surrounding Anbar Province were on fire.
As a scout with the rank of specialist, Jamaleldine did what he had been trained to do. Together with his platoon of 30 men, he would scout the region for enemy troop movements. In the year that lay ahead, he and his fellow soldiers would take prisoners, kill and wound enemy troops. They would be ambushed and come under sniper fire, and they would be hit by rockets. Their modus operandi was to march through the hot desert, making a wide berth around the city so that they could slip into southern Ramadi neighborhoods unnoticed. There they would quickly and silently descend on houses, bind and gag the residents and hide out for 24 to 48 hours to observe activity in the area.
When asked what he considers his personal contribution to peace to be, Jamaleldine says that, first of all, he killed terrorists, thereby preventing them from setting any more bombs. How many terrorists? "A few." Second, he says, he and the other scouts applied so much pressure that, within a few months, the fee for setting bombs had jumped from $50 to $500 per bomb, making life more difficult for the enemy. Third, says Jamaleldine, they took weapons out of circulation that would otherwise have been used against the civilian population. Fourth, they captured some of the people behind the attacks, thereby weakening the network of terror. Finally, he adds, they managed to win over normal Iraqis, the peaceful ones, and convince them to cooperate.
In return for the hardship of deployment in a war zone, Jamaleldine received $1,700 in monthly pay, a $750 Iraq bonus, $250 in separation pay and a $400 contribution to his savings, making a total monthly income of $3,100, tax-free.
Jamaleldine thinks the pay is adequate. He donates 10 percent of his income to UNICEF every month, something he has been doing for a long time. It is almost as if his constant goal is to be a role model and a hero, even in ordinary life.
He was not one of those soldiers who make disparaging remarks about the Iraqis and call them "sand niggers." Instead, he felt in Ramadi that he was there to help the country and its people. In the streets of Ramadi, Iraqis called him by his middle name, Samir. He had a kind word for anyone who would listen. Beginning in the spring of 2007, more and more people began approaching him in a friendly manner every day, as the terror subsided and tribal leaders in the region began to cooperate with the Americans.
Compared with the preceding winter, in the months of March, April, May and June it felt like peace had broken out. The attacks became more infrequent, it was easier to plan operations and soon the troops were spending as much time on reconstruction projects as they were on combat operations. But the calm was deceptive -- extremely deceptive. It suddenly evaporated on the night of June 30, in the turmoil of the Battle of Donkey Island, which almost claimed Jamaleldine's life.
Combat by the Full Moon
Zuhaira, at home in Opferbaum, received the call at 4:30 p.m. on July 1. It was the moment she had feared since Jeff went to war. She was in fact entitled to a personal visit, which meant two soldiers in "Class A" uniforms showing up at her door and speaking in lowered voices. But when the two men from the Ledward Barracks in Schweinfurt arrived at her house she wasn't home. She was out shopping and had missed the news that she was now getting via telephone.
The voice at the other end said that Specialist Jamaleldine had been wounded. How? Zuhaira asked. "He was shot in the face." Where? "I can't tell you that." Is he conscious? she asked. "Unfortunately, I don't have any information about that either. But Ma'am, we do hope to be able to fly him out to Landstuhl within 48 hours."
After the phone call, she says, she sat down and did nothing at all. She didn't have any pictures of her husband, something that brought her emotions into turmoil. It was not until much later that she would discover what had really happened.
The incident that would change both their lives occurred on the evening of June 30, a Saturday. Jamaleldine was traveling south on a dusty main road, past industrial wastelands, bullet-riddled houses and destroyed apartment buildings.
As a "gunner," he was standing at the machine gun in the turret of a Humvee, with Specialist Dixon -- whose grandparents came from the northern German city of Bremen -- at the wheel below him. Staff Sergeant Brian Nethery was sitting in the passenger seat, operating the radio. They were driving in a convoy with other scouts, with two Humvees traveling in front and one behind them. Although they didn't feel entirely safe, after months of relative calm they also didn't feel tense. They were talking about dinner.
At a location known as Checkpoint 2, they heard fierce gunfire coming from the east. After 10 months of combat duty, they had developed the ability to identify the source of any loud noises. What they were hearing now was the sound of American guns, perhaps two or more kilometers away. It was almost exactly 9:15 p.m. There was a full moon that night.
The first radio messages were confusing. A routine patrol from the 77th Tank Regiment, consisting of three Humvees, had apparently had enemy contact at the Nasr canal southwest of Ramadi. There was talk of "elements," or trucks, and, in contradictory messages, of a group of 10 or 20 armed combatants.
None of the scouts at Checkpoint 2 sensed the potential danger. Captain Jim Spannagel, the scouts' commander, divided up the convoy, sending two Humvees, including the one with Jamaleldine in the turret, to the area where the shooting was coming from. The others kept on driving.
As they drove eastward, Jamaleldine repeatedly heard brief, compressed bursts of gunfire. The closer his Humvee came to the scene, bumping along over uneven terrain, the more obvious it was that the patrol ahead of them had been ambushed, and that it had in fact stumbled upon an entire enemy company. By this time, the radio operators were talking about grenades, machine-gun fire and men in the white ankle-length robes known as dishdashas.
What it was, in fact, was the beginning of the Battle of Donkey Island, which would claim the lives of two Americans and severely injure at least nine, perhaps as many as 11.
The Americans would later learn that when the patrol arrived at the Nasr canal at 9:15 p.m. on June 30, they had unknowingly wandered into the middle of a group of roughly 70 enemy combatants apparently on the verge of launching a new wave of terror in Ramadi. The US soldiers that held back the enemy that night, in skirmishes lasting well into the next day, prevented the war from returning to Ramadi. In the end, they won a decisive battle, killing 27, perhaps 32 enemy combatants, each of them a jihadist.
The 70 men flitted through the night, making their way through coarse shrubs along the bank of the canal and up through bushes into the surrounding hills. The Americans had hardly arrived on the scene before the enemy combatants scattered and regrouped to form small units in which to wage their version of desert warfare. The shots would come from all directions, followed by minutes of silence in the ghostly moonlight, a silence that meant that the enemy was still lurking in the bushes and hills.
Jamaleldine's Humvee arrived at the Nasr canal well south of the actual fighting. Staff Sergeant Nethery had the "truck," as they call the vehicle, travel slowly northward along the bank of the canal.
Large Molotov cocktails occasionally landed in front of their radiator, plastic bottles filled with gasoline and nails, launched from the darkness. To their right, 200 or 300 meters away, they saw two trucks, one of them a large Mercedes semi-trailer truck, both belonging to the enemy. To their left, they soon saw the tip of Donkey Island, named after the wild donkeys that live there, against the dark water. It was difficult to tell whether this was the right place to take up a position.
The enemy muzzle flashes made things seem even more confusing, sometimes appearing on one side, sometimes on another, and sometimes even suggesting that the enemy might be on the other side of the canal.
It was then that the soldiers lost their sense of time, when everything became a hysterically compressed present and instinct took over. This is why no one knows when exactly Jamaleldine and his team arrived at the canal; it was probably around midnight or shortly thereafter.
Apache combat helicopters had been in the air for two hours, flying in circles to intimidate the enemy -- "creating a lot of drama," as soldiers put it. The choppers fired rockets at Donkey Island and rattled off 600 to 1,000 rounds a minute with their 30-mm guns.
Jamaleldine began firing brief salvos at the enemy, alternating between two directions, 12 o'clock and 9 o'clock. He stood on a steel box containing 1,400 rounds of ammunition, manning a machine gun on a mount, an M240 Bravo capable of firing up to 600 projectiles a minute and, with the ammunition belts in the barrel, weighing in at a hefty 30 to 35 kilograms (66 to 77 lbs.). Jamaleldine would soon need to lift the gun.
'One Man Down!'
Jamaleldine suddenly saw movement close by, on the canal bank. Then two or three figures emerged out of the darkness and began running directly toward him, toward his Humvee and toward Dixon and Nethery, who were firing from the vehicle's left and right windows.
Jamaleldine tried to fire at the attackers with the machine gun on its mount, but it was no use. The Humvee was on the embankment above the men, and the attackers were able to run up the slope while remaining outside the angle of fire, as the edge of the turret was in the way of the machine gun barrel. The enemy kept on running toward them, toward Dixon, toward Nethery.
In an attempt to stop them, Jamaleldine ripped the heavy gun from its mount, and, with bullets flying around him, finally got the attackers in his sights. But he doesn't remember whether he ever managed to pull the trigger.
That was when he felt the impact, felt his head being jerked backward by the force of the bullet as it hit him in the face, just to the left of the corner of his mouth. Suddenly he collapsed, falling down in the truck with a torn cheek, a hole in his temple and a piece of metal in his jaw. Dixon screamed: "Jamaleldine! Jamaleldine! We've got somebody wounded here! One man down!"
Three Humvees back, the Americans had set up an improvised first-aid station, where medics knelt over the wounded, hoping to prolong the "golden first hour," provide first aid and do whatever they could to prepare the casualties for transport and get them away from the battlefield as quickly as possible.
Jamaleldine doesn't remember how he got there. Someone -- Sergeant Garcia, or Nethery -- dragged and pulled him to the first-aid station. He was losing a lot of blood, in pulsing surges, and he remembers looking up at the sky and seeing the tracers from the rockets that were being fired from the Apaches. He also remembers the ear-splitting roar of the enemy semi-trailer truck exploding after it was fired on by the Americans. When the semi-trailer's load detonated, it sent a 400-meter (1300-foot) flame shooting into the sky.
It was time for a "9 Line MEDEVAC," an emergency call from the battlefield, which consists of a clear sequence of instructions radioed to helicopters in the area. According to military regulations, the call must include specifics on the location, the radio frequency, the number of wounded, the severity of their wounds, the equipment needed, the situation in the field, identifying characteristics of the landing site and the nationality of the wounded. None of this information was provided that night.
Instead, Sergeant Vicente Nicola, a 28-year-old armored infantryman in one of the Humvees whose parents are from Puerto Rico, radioed the following message: "Whoever can hear me out there: We have Jamaleldine here, and it's not looking good. He won't make it unless we get some help right away."
Nicola, who had never even met Jamaleldine, made it his mission to save his life. He too had been hit by a bullet only minutes earlier. The projectile had gone underneath his scalp, traveled halfway around his skull and then reemerged on the other side. The sergeant's face was covered in blood. He repeated his call for help whenever the shouting and noise on the radio subsided for a moment. But all responses were negative. At one point he was told that the nearest helicopter was 40 minutes away. "That's too much," Nicola said. "We need it now. Right now!"
Chief Warrant Officers Kevin Purtee and his co-pilot Allen Crist, members of the Bravo Company of the First Battalion of the 149th Air Regiment, were flying one of the Apache helicopters above the scene. For the two men, who had been in combat duty for the past 11 months, the night at Donkey Island was their longest work shift in Iraq.
Purtee and Crist were listening in on the radio communications coming from the ground troops, and they heard Sergeant Nicola's call for help. It wasn't the first time that a man lay bleeding to death on the ground while they flew their pirouettes in the sky. But this time they had had enough. They began discussing the situation. Purtee, 46, has been a helicopter pilot for 25 years. He served in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 as well as in Bosnia. He comes from Kansas City, wears glasses and talks and thinks like a cowboy.
Using his radio he said to Crist, who was sitting in front of him and more than a meter lower down in the Apache's double-seated cockpit: "What do you think? We could get him out "
Crist, 26, is a man of few words. "Yes, sir," he said.
Purtee replied: "But then you'd have to get out. You'd have to hang on outside, do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," said Crist.
Purtee changed his radio frequency and called Nicola. He said: "Give us a place to land and we'll get your man out of there."
Jamaleldine was lying in the dust, next to thorny bushes, his life slipping away as he lost large quantities of blood. The men lifted him into a Humvee and slowly drove away, cross-country, until they were a good distance south of the battlefield, where there was no enemy fire. They shouted at Jamaleldine not to fall asleep. They drove up and down hills, their headlights switched off, for at least a kilometer. Then they got out, lit flares in the sand for the helicopter and stepped back from the makeshift landing site.
There are no official rules on landing an Apache helicopter outside a secured US airbase, and landing one in the desert at night is a dangerous proposition. Setting it down on the edge of a battlefield is sheer lunacy. At that moment, it wasn't clear to Purtee and Crist whether they would be fired or congratulated. No general would risk a $16-million helicopter for a single man, but that was exactly what Purtee and Crist had decided to do.
During the landing, the helicopter disappeared in a cloud of sand and dust, completely obscuring the ground below. Purtee would later say that he flew "by smell." The slightest mistake would have been enough to destroy the Apache and kill its crew. But he managed to land the chopper safely.
Crist climbed out of the cockpit to make room for Jamaleldine. When Nicola and a soldier named Brijil brought him to the helicopter, "he wasn't exactly looking great," Crist recalls. In fact, he had the waxy and glassy-eyed look of a dying man.
Crist wrapped a wide strip of nylon around his body, a ridiculous excuse for a safety belt, and hooked it to a handle on the helicopter using a carabiner. Crouched on the AH-64's narrow left stub wing, he rocked his body back and forth to check his stability, and then he gave Purtee, in the roar of the turning rotors, the signal to take off.
It was a short flight, but it saved Jamaleldine's life. For the next 15 or 20 minutes, as Purtee flew the Apache slowly and at a low altitude over the desert, the wind whipped at Crist's body and his hands cramped up from the exertion of holding on. Jamaleldine remembers how he felt himself losing consciousness and how he kept biting into his own flesh to stay awake. He fell asleep nonetheless.
When he woke up, he was lying in a hospital bed at Balad, the large US airbase north of Baghdad. His jaw was wired shut and his external wounds sutured.
A photo that was taken when Kevin Purtee and Allen Crist visited him at Balad Air Base shows the two men standing next to his bed, clearly beaming with the feeling of having done the right thing. Jamaleldine, who couldn't speak, wrote on a piece of paper: "Sorry for messing up your chopper." He had been told that Purtee and Crist had flown back into the battle after dropping him off, and that Crist sat in Jamaleldine's blood for three hours. In the end, Crist wasn't fired as he had feared. Instead, he was awarded a medal.
In the beginning, during the first few months after Donkey Island, Jamaleldine couldn't sleep. He couldn't help thinking about his work schedule. He'd lie in his bed, thinking: "Now it's dinnertime in Ramadi," or "Now I'd be standing guard on the roof." He had to wear scissors around his neck so that he could cut open the wires holding his jaw shut in case he had to vomit.
But all of that will soon be over, he says now. Another two or three operations and then, by 2009, "I'll be the same old guy again."
He sits at the dining table in the apartment in Opferbaum, his wife Zuhaira next to him. There is an unspoken question in the room. What happens next? Zuhaira wants him to leave the battlefield for good, to find a desk job, be it in the army or in the civilian world.
But Jamaleldine isn't sure what he wants to do next. He almost lost his life twice, and yet he says he can imagine going back into combat. The enemy hasn't been defeated yet, he adds. The freedom to live and travel in the currents of globalization is still under attack. Men like him are still needed, and there is still plenty of work to be done.
Jamaleldine, on sick leave until further notice, is interested in going to Afghanistan as a sniper. But perhaps he will keep his promise after all and apply for a desk job. He doesn't know. He doesn't know what the right thing to do is. He says, almost in passing: "Damn it, I actually wanted to be a soccer player." But this Jeff, the young boy who once lived in Spandau, no longer exists, and he knows it.
The war is always there between him and that other life. It often takes the form of an argument: with his father, his wife, his friends. At other times, it manifests itself as silence, as he sits there, his jaw wired shut, in silent disagreement with Zuhaira.
He has built a house in Opferbaum, not far from the village square, just around the corner from the war memorial. They'll be moving in soon, Zuhaira, Jeff and their children. Perhaps he'll find calm there. Perhaps he'll find his way back to a more peaceful life.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH