Lost in the Desert

It's like 'dessert,' but with one 's,' because it sucks.

six foot skinny

six foot skinny
St. Paul, Minnesota, USA
December 31
Dad in Chief
The Man
Six Foot Skinny is a veteran of the war in Iraq who now lives in St. Paul with The Dane and The Dude.


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Editor’s Pick
DECEMBER 28, 2009 12:57PM

The kid in the blue-striped shirt.

Rate: 28 Flag

She is sitting on a step that leads to a door in a wall.  Surrounded by Iraqi kids.  Her rifle, magazine in - no doubt locked and loaded - in one hand, muzzle skyward, butt on the ground.  The Vietnam-era flak jacket (yeah, we had those) riding up a little, kevlar helmet askew due to the small boy leaning on her head.  And there, sitting next to her and clowning with a younger boy, is a kid in a blue-striped shirt.


the little man himself


The kid in the striped shirt is Saef.  He was eight years old when that photo was taken.  If he survives this war, he will run Iraq someday.  If he is alive he is fourteen.  When we were first consciously aware of him, his English was limited to “HEY!  Jou-need-any-ting?  I get Pepsee, Coke-a-cola, cheeken…”  A huge voice booming from this impossibly little man.  When we moved into the city, to a former Baath Party headquarters-turned Provincial Government Center, he was our lifeline.  He brought cigarettes, foam mattresses, kabobs, falafels, and anything else.  Once he brought us a couch.

Saef was hyperactive and wild and sweet and hilarious.  He became our crazy little brother, an Iraqi Tazmanian Devil, and we loved him and he us.  He was a constant ball of energy and good spirits.  We never got to meet his family, never saw his house.  Judging by his clothing, they were poor.  Very poor.  His vocabulary grew and he picked up our nuance and sarcasm and curses and greetings.  By the time we left, he was bargaining forcefully with my platoon sergeant – a man thirty years his elder and easily four times his size.  Saef on his tiptoes, JC leaning over at the waist, red in the face, lip quivering.  Trading expletives waggling fingers at each other.  I think Saef won that one.

The day the photo was taken, we were guarding/facilitating/witnessing the dispersal of severance pay to former Iraqi Soldiers.  It was a mess.  It was hot.  It was dangerous in a way that we half-joked about then, and that amazes me now.  There were twenty of us, tops.  There were 1,500-2,000 of them.  The first day, when we took over from some American Military Police, all the former Soldiers were crowded around the teller windows on the outside of the bank, banging on the windows and hollering for their money.  It was a mob-scene.  Literally.  Saef brought us Cokes and falafel sandwiches.  No, not for free.  Kid had to make a living, and he did it well.  He figured out how to inflate his prices enough to make a profit AND keep our business, ensuring future profits.  Brilliant.  I am fairly certain he supported his family throughout our tour. 

When it was time to leave our little outpost and return to the big Forward Operating Base outside town, we told Saef to come that morning and say goodbye.  The vagaries of military timelines had us rolling out the gate as Saef and his posse arrived.  He immediately broke down in tears, and that was the last time I ever saw him, from the window of my truck as we drove away.  We were crying too.  That was the second time I ever saw Saef cry.  The day B was killed, Saef showed up shortly after the chaplain and first sergeant had left.  “Where’s B?”  He asked.  He saw the answer in the tear-tracks on our dirty faces.  This little man, a tough little street guy and hustler to the bone, dissolved into an eight-year-old pile of tears.  He cried as if he had lost a brother.  

There are rumors that Saef was killed in the violence of 2004 and 2005.  The town where we were posted, one corner of the Sunni triangle, was an ethnic mix of Sunni and Shi’a and it dissolved into sectarian killings shortly after we left.  I choose not to listen to those rumors and I choose not to believe them.  When I got home from that tour, I looked at my youngest brother, the same age as Saef, and tried to picture him doing what Saef did.  I couldn’t.  I hope he’s all right.  I hope he has a crush on a beautiful little Iraqi girl, and that he’s going to school.  I hope that he has dreams about a peaceful Iraq where he can raise his children and tell them stories about the guys from Minnesota that he was friends with one year.  And tell them about B.  Mostly though, I just hope he’s OK. 

Author tags:

iraqi kids, hope, safe, milblog, iraq

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Beautiful. I fell in love with Saef just now.
Oh skinny, why can't all the kids be ok/safe, and happy? I am glad that you and your friends remember him with respect and love. It is hard but it keeps you human. Your little brother is a better person because he has you to look up to.
SFS, some day, inshallah, this war will be over, Iraq will be safe, and you'll return to the desert (though not in a flack jacket) and find Saef, a happy adult. Perhaps he'll be 18, perhaps 25 years old. Perhaps he'll serve you sweet tea and offer you a taste of his family's nargila waterpipe. Inshallah. Thanks for writing.
"When I got home from that tour, I looked at my youngest brother, the same age as Saef, and tried to picture him doing what Saef did. I couldn’t. I hope he’s all right."

I know that feeling. Thanks.
This is just damned good. So was your post on B's death.

That kid... . I don't believe the rumours either.
Sad, touching, and beautifully written.
Thanks for the walk in someone elses' shoes.
Thanks all. I love looking at pictures from that first tour and seeing how often he is in them even before we knew who he was.

JW, Insha'Allah indeed brother.

Rob, if that feeling is related to a specific kid, I hope he/she's ok too.

Hey six-foot. Not sure if you're back home by this point or not, but I watched a movie recently with a character that sounds like Saef (not quite, but sort of). Turtles Can Fly.

I'm so glad you're writing these stories. It's very important for Americans to know this kind of stuff.
I also hope and pray he's ok and that you also will be ok. God, how I hate war. It's just too damn heart breaking...
I hope all of those things too. Thank you for writing this. We all need to read more work of this ilk.
It was never my intent to be the guy telling the story that wasn't being told, mostly because I never expected any kind of wide readership. Happy to be shedding a little light though, and sharing some stories. Cat, it's too easy, these stories don't get told because they're difficult. You can't put this blurb in a sound bite. That being said, two books for those who are curious: The Forever War by Dexter Filkins and War Journal by Richard Engel.
Blessings to you, and Saef. Thank you for telling this story.
I love your story-telling and I'm so glad you're sharing these experiences. Being able to attach names and faces to children and others who live in war zones and the soldiers who try to protect people brings it all home in a way that the headlines don't. I hope Saef is well.
Another great personal glimpse of life in a war zone. Thanks for sharing this touching piece and for caring enough to write about it. You write well too. Wishing you a peaceful new year.
I could read stories like this all day long.
Saef sounds like an incredible kid, Skinny. Let's hope he's still around when this mess is fixed.
Man, I hope so too. And not so incidentally, Saef was lucky to know you, and to have you to tell his story.
thank you
what story will you write for 1/1/2011?
it's good to look back in order to see ahead
pax tecum
OK, I'm turning the comments off now because I'm just getting ads for Uggs and stuff. Bleh.
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