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Amidst War, U.S. Soldier Forges Unexpected Bond

StoryCorps is launching a new effort, the "Military Voices Initiative." The project will collect stories from members of the U.S. Armed Forces, with a special focus on those who served in post-Sept. 11 conflicts. Every month for the next year, Weekend Edition Saturday will have highlights from that initiative.

Spc. Justin Cliburn, 30, was deployed to Iraq in 2005 with the Oklahoma Army National Guard. His job was to train the Iraqi police in Baghdad. During his time there, he got to know a boy in his early teens named Ali, who walked through their compound one day.

"He was very shy. And the second or third time that I met him, he brought his best friend, Ahmed," Cliburn tells his wife, Deanne. "And Ahmed was much more outgoing. And so, Ali really opened up. And, once I met these children, it made every day something I looked forward to."

They would play "rock, paper, scissors" and soccer.

"We were about as close as people that don't speak the same language can be," he says. "I had never been really good with children, and this was the first time I felt like I loved someone who wasn't my family member."

But then one day something was wrong. Ali kept saying, "Ahmed, Ahmed, boom." Cliburn says they found out Ahmed and his mother had been killed by a suicide bomber at a gas station. Though his mother had died instantly, Ahmed was at a hospital.

Cliburn and the other soldiers pooled money for Ali to take to Ahmed's father.

"But later, I saw Ali walking up very slow and he sat down on the curb next to my humvee," he says. "He dug a hole in the ground with his fingers. He picked up a rock and put it in the hole and then he put the dirt back over it. And he just pointed to the ground and said, 'Ahmed.' And I knew that Ahmed was dead."

Sitting on the curb — "me in desert camouflage, carrying an M-4 rifle and him just a North Baghdad kid" — they cried together.

"I don't know what came of him. That's the nature of war I suppose," Cliburn says. "But whenever I see any footage from Baghdad, I'm always kinda lookin' around, wondering if he's in the frame."

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