The Strength of a Man’s Soul

Jeff Carnes - Middleton, Wisconsin
As heard on NPR.org, November 11, 2008
Jeff Carnes
Age Group: 18 - 30
Themes: courage, war

I believed that I was a strong man. Then I met Muhammad.

Serving in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division as an Arabic linguist in 2003, I met scores of Iraqis. Muhammad was the first Iraqi with whom I had more of a conversation than, “Halt! Go home!”

Muhammad despised Saddam Hussein’s despotic regime. He spoke too loudly, and after a Stalinist show trial, he was jailed for six years in the ‘90s. After the trial, Iraqi intelligence agents tied him to a chair and brought in his wife. He was forced to sit helpless as they raped her in front of him until she died of a heart attack. Muhammad was then subjected to countless tortures including being imprisoned in an isolation cell for 16 months while being fed only bread and water, whipped, chained, as well as other tortures too horrible for description.

I sat at a command post in southern Iraq with Muhammad as he told me all of the tortures he endured under the soon-to-be-deposed Iraqi regime. During this long conversation, Muhammad showed me the scars from his ankles to his wrists. He bared his soul, scarred by years of the anguish of losing everything he had—all because he spoke the truth.

What amazed me during our talk is the fact that Muhammad not only remained composed but stoic as he told me about his life. Almost any human soul would have faded away. Muhammad, however, was strong enough not only to survive but to approach a soldier from the most powerful army in the world just to tell his story.

And Muhammad did so as if telling an old war story — with a sense of detached reality. It was not until I asked him, “What do you want to do now that you are free,” that he finally showed some emotion.

He finally cracked and whimpered, “I want to go to Kuwait and have a family.”

That night we sat in a room, ate MREs (Meals Ready-to-Eat) and talked late into the night. He helped me with my Iraqi Arabic, and we talked about everything from the regime to soccer to life in the United States. Muhammad gave me the confidence to be able to speak with Iraqis with my Wisconsin-accented Arabic.

The next morning, Muhammad and I parted ways. I never saw him again after I waved goodbye. After all, as a soldier, you’re trained to look forward, not back. I am still amazed that Muhammad survived. And I am more amazed at the strength of his soul. That night in late March 2003, Muhammad not only gave me a crash course in Iraqi Arabic. He taught me that the human soul can endure and flourish under even the most trying circumstances.

It is the strength of Muhammad’s soul in which I believe.

Jeff Carnes served in the Army and Army Reserves for six years, and did tours of duty in Kosovo and Iraq. He is now completing his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin. Carnes hopes to go back to Iraq as part of his linguistic studies.