I met Jim in a hospital where I had to undergo two surgeries. I was uncomfortable and Jim was in pain, but we both liked to move around. We met and talked frequently, often in wheelchairs, occasionally to the annoyance of nurses.
I grew up middle-class in a poor country and Jim lived poor in a rich country. His father was a farmer in Fillmore county, Minnesota, struggling on the edge of insolvency. His mother was a homemaker, who tried to make a little money by preserving fruits and selling them to neighbors. Jim added to the meager family income by starting work while in school. He worked in the only grocery store in their little town, storing goods and delivering to customers. He knew he would not see college education; his parents couldn’t afford it. He signed up at the city recruiting center and joined the army.
The barrack meals some others poohpoohed he relished. He was accustomed to worse at home. He felt and acted modest and got on well with others. Jim took his training seriously, did well and drew attention for his meticulous performance. Well-regarded, he was one of the first to be selected for duty in Afghanistan.
“For a person who had never been outside the US – to be honest, outside of Minnesota countryside – it was a jolting experience to encounter rural Afghanistan,” said Jim. “I felt I was seeing true poverty for the first time. Unrelenting poverty, with no prospect of any relief, ever. I felt one with the people there.
“Yet some of them were the enemy. We were there to fight many of them. For some of my colleagues it seemed easier than for me. I wanted to know the local farmers, talk to them. Understand how they lived, struggled, survived. But my job was to shoot at them.
“We lived within safe perimeters and ventured out on missions hours or days at a time. We tried to be discriminating, but it wasn’t easy to separate enemies from friends. Nor was it practical to devote time to such separation, when the first priority was to save our skin. I shot and killed, and it would be foolish to wager that the ones I killed were real enemies.”
Jim and six others took a village one morning from which they had received enemy fire the night before and started interrogating the villagers. They separated the women and children as a humane gesture and questioned the able-bodied men. Probably that was a mistake, for the next moment a kid – he certainly looked that – took out a crude handgun and shot Jim. Two bullets went through his left thigh, crippling him for life. That was considered lucky, for the damage was serious enough and Jim’s mountainous location was inaccessible enough to create doubt about his survival.
Survive he did, after repeated and painful surgeries. The recovery took far more time. Jim had to learn to walk one step at a time. Even months later he walked slowly and cautiously, with a limp.
I was amazed how utterly lacking in bitterness was Jim. I looked at his placid face and wondered why.
“If you work in business, you cannot do justice to each of your clients or suppliers. You try but you can’t. You do the best you can. They would be silly to hold it against you. If you are a teacher, you do not always succeed in helping each student to learn a lesson. They too would be silly to hold it against you. You do the best you can, though not all will love you for it. The kid who shot me no doubt thought he was doing something right for his people; he was probably gunned down the next minute. He was possibly as patriotic as I ever was.”
I listened in wonder to Jim’s calm words of explanation. I had seen his agonized face as he, with others’ help, changed clothes or went to the restroom. He told me, in an explanation I can never forget, that he did not want to add to his pain by holding a painful grudge against an Afghan boy or the people he represented.
His heart belonged to the farmers of Fillmore county of Minnesota, of whom his father was one. And a part too belonged to the poor farmers he had met in Kandahar of Afghanistan. No matter that the little son of one of those farmers forever robbed him of a normal, painless life.