On April 1, 2014, I finished my career with Uncle Sam at Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California. I retired as a decorated soldier and began to think of how to combine my passion for people with the experience, expertise, and wisdom I had developed during my 26 years of military service to somehow lift the lives of others.
I am a person of faith and began to have vivid dreams in which I saw myself writing a book. After waking, I would get up and record the things I had watched myself writing in the dream. I discovered a God-given gift; ideas seemed to flow through me like a river. I published the book April 2017, exactly three years following my retirement.
I named the book “Life Is So Precious” because it is a collection of short inspiring narratives and essays drawing on the experiences I’ve had and from the lives of people, including family members, who are important to my personal story. Each short chapter illustrates how valuable our lives really are and how precious my own life has become as part of the matrix of love and miracles that bind us to each other and to our God.
We have big plans! A management team is setting up meetings with Good Morning America, The View, and Steve Harvey to market my book. They are hoping to shoot a movie based on a section of the book called “Paradise and Joy from a Sunday Love.” They want to see what Oprah says about the book and the movie idea. (I do, too.) The team has designed some marketing collateral including a backpack, coffee mugs, portable beverage cups, a baseball cap, women’s shirts, baby clothes, and a pet carrying base.
LIFE, DEATH, AND SONG
I was born and raised in Richmond. Our neighborhood in those days was friendly; kids could go outside and play with no fear of drugs, crime, or gang violence. I was raised in Richmond’s New Bethel Church of God in Christ. Ours was a strict society in which children were expected to fear God, obey their parents, and not be seen or heard when around adults. Mom taught us to believe that divorce was not acceptable. As we got older, we were not to have sex, or at least to not have any children, outside of marriage.
I am an African-American, but we lived in a rainbow neighborhood. Nobody cared what particular color your skin was. I graduated from El Cerrito High in the Class of 1985. I marched in the spring graduation ceremonies. However, because of my hard work and good grades, I had actually received my diploma the preceding January. My diligence and self-motivation resulted from my position as eldest child in a family with four siblings. I began to play the role of part-time man-of-the-house a long time before I was actually a man. By the end of high school, I was ready to do something else with my life. I enrolled in Oakland’s Merritt Junior College but an Army recruiter showed me the security and financial benefits of pursuing a military career, so I dropped out of school in 1987 to join the Army.
Mom and I always maintained a close relationship. She was strong woman, a community advocate, and the unofficial first lady of our church. When I got older, Mom and I would host community meet-up events. She loved and accepted everybody, no matter the color of their skin. She passed on to me her genuine compassion for others and I continue to help homeless and less fortunate people in whatever ways I can.
At the end, Mom became diabetic. Her health had been in decline for some time, but she didn’t share with us how ill she was until she could no longer keep it secret. She passed away October 5, 1995. It was on a Thursday evening. Dad, my sister Yevette, Aunt Catherine, and I were with her in her Kaiser Oakland hospital room at the end. I was standing aside from the others and looking out the window watching the traffic and listening to the sounds of nature. Suddenly, an interlude of peace seemed to occur. Noise from the Broadway traffic stopped, birds ceased singing outside the window, and everything apparently came to a halt as though in final preparation for Mom’s departure.
Shortly afterwards, as I entered her room for the last time, she called out my name. “I’m right here,” I said. Those were her final words. I later came to think that Mom was trying to tell me something. She realized that I would be the one to take over as head of the family because a few months after her passing, Dad married a woman from the church and left us. “I have a new family,” he told us. “You are grown. You don’t need me any more.” While he was still living, Dad had checked out of the family almost as completely as Mom when she died.
The loss of my parents drove me to self-examination. You only get one mom and her passing in particular drove me into a time of intense mourning. We grew up singing gospel songs in the church and a few weeks later while I was sleeping, I had a dream in which I was singing a song of praise. It was so vivid that when I awoke, I was able to get up and write down the lyrics verbatim. I felt that the song had come from God and that it was His way of bringing comfort to me. The song inspired me to enroll in an online recording arts music education program, taking classes as they were available and could fit into my busy schedule. I received my baccalaureate degree in 2004. I am now a composer with 20 original songs.
IN THE ARMY NOW
After joining the Army, I did Basic Training at Fort McClellan. This was the middle of the summer so we were doing exercises and drills while sweating in the hot Alabama sunshine. Unlike most of my fellow recruits, I found the experience to be rewarding and enjoyable. Plus, I knew that anything worth doing is worth doing well because achieving excellence in any area is rewarding. So I drew satisfaction from completing the obstacle course or marching seven miles in battle gear with a full 70-pound pack on my back.
Of course, it helped that I am naturally strong, played athletics in high school, and actually played in a pickup game with the great Magic Johnson. At the end of basic training, we were required to pass the PT, which was shorthand for the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT). We were scored on our performance during two minutes of push-ups, two minutes of sit-ups, and a timed 2-mile run. You could earn 100 points in each exercise and had to have at least 180 total points to graduate. Out of the 300 possible points, I always scored 270 and above. However, high PT scores were relatively unimportant to me. I’m a people person, so I reached out to my fellow recruits with the result that during those six weeks I became good friends with some incredible human beings.
A few years later I moved up the military ladder. Back in Alabama, I graduated from Warrant Officer Candidate School in Fort Rucker and that August I was deployed to Iraq. The country is the site of the fabled Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which was called Mesopotamia, “The Land between the Rivers.” Most profoundly for me, Iraq is the sight of Biblical Babylonia and Persia. My strict Christian environment included intensive Biblical teaching, so during my tour of duty, I was impressed to be driving my Humvee through places that I remembered from the Scriptures — places where the Tower of Babel had been built, where Daniel faced down the lions and the three Hebrew children faced down the fire, where Jonah, the prophets Amos, Ezekiel, and later the disciple Peter preached to the people.
It was the land of exile to which the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar carried the Jews captive and where Belshazzar, the King of Babylon, saw the “writing on the wall,” and where Esther saved her people, and was the land from which the wise men came to seek out Jesus “who was born king of the Jews.”
During my tour of duty in Iraq, I spent 16 months performing liaison for the colonel, a woman named Susan Walker, who turned out to be one of the best people I met during my 26 years in the military. Colonel Walker was an exceptional officer — strong, sturdy, and fair. My duties were to handle the logistics for her, for the members of her staff, and for any supporting units that we were assigned to. Nothing was easy, but I attacked the challenges and was usually able to make things work out.
We were stationed at a forward operating base (FOB), which was a secured military position tasked with supporting tactical operations. Things were tough and for six months, temperatures soared regularly to 129 degrees. Our vehicles had AC units or they would have become solar stoves and cooked us to death. One day the sky turned orange with blowing sand. We had to cover our weapons. Visibility was so bad you could see your hand in front of your face but nothing past that. The storm lasted for almost 24 hours.
Worse than the weather was the fact that the base came under attack once or twice a week. Incoming rounds made whooshing sounds that reminded me of an 18-wheeler releasing brake pressure. Some of them landed on the road I regularly travelled, but fortunately always before I arrived at the spot or afterwards. We could occasionally hear IEDs blowing up outside the camp’s parameter with a concussion so powerful it would shake the whole area.
Even though we were in harm’s way every moment of every day, I maintained a spirit of confidence, resisting any temptation to be fearful. Dangerous or stressful times are occasions in which members of a community develop a shared spirit either of fear or confidence. Some of my comrades had come to depend upon me for strength and would be disheartened if I ever showed fear. I maintained my confidence as King David did, by praying day and night to God. “Though I pass through the valley of death,” David wrote, “I will fear no evil.” Right! It was like that.
I depended upon more than God for my safety. I was given the use of an XM1114 Up-Armored High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle, or simply Humvee. The vehicle had been given added protection through aluminum, composite, and steel armor that had been welded to the frame. The armor could stop a 30-caliber bullet. The interior was given fragmentation-defeating armor if enemy fire actually entered the cabin. The bottom of the vehicle beneath the passenger area could withstand a blast from a 12-lb mine. The armor itself could be dangerous. For example, if you shut the reinforced door on your hand you would leave fingertips on the ground outside.
QUIET SERVICE TO GOD
Life is good! Perhaps Mom raised me to regard marriage with unreasonably high standards. I am single, healthy, economically and financially secure, an author, and a homeowner. But the right woman still hasn’t shown up. I often wonder if the women I encounter are intimidated by how straight I am. Perhaps, they imagine it would be boring to live in a manner of quiet service to others and to God, which is what my life is about these days.
However, life is far from boring. I’m on a quest to be great in my living. I’m on a mission to make a difference in helping others be great in their living, as well. This is how I make my way to the reality that “Life Is So Precious” indeed!
Photos By Muhammad Saadiq