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.
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?"