When she took her three sons to her fallen captain’s grave, former Army Pfc. Vanessa Brenes-Ramirez did not even think to speak to them about his religion.
She did tell her boys how Capt. Humayun Khan had been the very soul of kindness and decency. How he had made her feel safe. How he had always said leaders lead from the front. How he understood that you have to know what it means to be at the bottom before you can rightly be at the top.
Her first encounter with that philosophy in action had been during a field training exercise in September of 2003, several months before her unit, the 201st Forward Support Battalion, deployed to Iraq. A sergeant had ordered her to dig a foxhole after she had been on guard duty all night. She was already exhausted, but she had set to digging when Khan happened past.
“What are you doing?” Khan asked by her recollection “You just did guard duty. Go sit down.”
“Sir?” a stunned Brenes-Ramirez asked.
“Go sit down,” Khan said. “That’s an order.”
The 19-year-old private found herself sitting and watching an officer work the shovel. The sergeant returned.
“What are you doing, sir?” the sergeant asked Khan.
“I’m helping,” Khan replied.
And helping was what Khan continued to do as he settled with the unit at a base in Iraq that was dubbed Warhorse. He was the 27-year-old force protection officer, in charge of base security, and he had a way of making everybody feel more secure. He had a keen strategic and tactical sense, seeming to know exactly what to do when. He was always attentive when his soldiers were on guard duty, making sure Brenes-Ramirez and the others had coffee when they wanted coffee and water when they needed water.
“I felt like he was my protector,” Brenes-Ramirez would say.
He was all in.
“There was no inbetween for him,” Brenes-Ramirez would recall.
She did not consider Khan’s religion.
“I didn’t even know he was a Muslim,” she would recall. “He was American. That’s what he was. All the colors we saw were green.”
Then came the morning of June 8, 2004. Khan had worked the overnight detail but wanted to see some security improvements a sergeant had been making to the front gate.
By one estimate, eight other Americans were in the vicinity of the gate when an orange vehicle approached. Khan’s first concern was that none of his soldiers get hurt, and he called for everybody to get down.
But Khan was also likely concerned about the two Iraqis who were in the front seat. He was no doubt mindful of earlier incidents in which an approaching vehicle had failed to stop when ordered and the guards had opened fire with unfortunate results.
He approached the taxi and held up his hand for it to stop. The Iraqis responded by detonating a 200-pound bomb.
One of those who came running was Sgt. Laci Walker, then 21. She had never heard Khan speak ill of anybody and knew him always to look for the best in people.
“All the soldiers loved him,” she would later say. “He was just so good, and everybody looked up to him.”
Walker could have stayed back in Germany when the unit deployed, but she insisted that Khan take her with him.
“I liked to be on guard duty when he was in charge,” Walker would recall. “I knew it would be safer. I knew he would be the one looking out for me.”
Walker would add, “I didn’t even know he was a Muslim.”
She was off duty when she heard the explosion, and she got on a handheld radio. She learned that a vehicle-borne device had exploded at the gate. She was initially told there had been no American casualties, but when she arrived a fellow sergeant told her there had been one.
“He asked, ‘How are you with body parts?’” Walker would recall. “I said, ‘No problem. Who is it?’ And he told me and I puked my brains out.”
Brenes-Ramirez was not by the gate at the time of the explosion. She would say that of the aftermath she remembered only the tears.
“All I can tell you is I’ve never seen so many people cry,” she would say. “Grown people. I mean hitting the floor crying.”
A sergeant who had been present at the blast told her that Khan had been a protector to the end.
“[Khan] told everybody, ‘Get down!’” she would say. “He sacrificed himself.”
She would also say, “He was our hero.”
And she would say, “We all would have done that. All of us. That’s how the Army is. You don’t look at what religion somebody is. Or where they are from.”
And she would say, “If Capt. Khan could pay the ultimate price, I could too.”
More tears came nearly a dozen years later, when she took her three boys to Arlington Cemetery this past January. She initially went to visit her brother’s grave. He had also been in the Army and had died in a car accident the October after Khan’s death.
Khan was buried nearby, and she took the boys to his grave as well. She told them of a leader like none other, a captain who had been her guardian angel. Her eyes began to well as if time had only magnified the loss.
Her 9-year-old, Nicholas, sought to comfort her.
“Mommy, he lives in your memories,” the boy said by her account.
Her husband is a soldier — he had deployed with her unit — and they had spoken to their boys about the importance of honor. The moment now came when all three boys, Nicholas and 7-year-old Dominick and 5-year-old Michael, stood before Khan’s headstone and saluted.
“It was quick little moment,” Brenes-Ramirez later said.
The month before, in December, Hillary Clinton had cited Khan and his heroism when she delivered a campaign speech in Detroit. Video from that appearance was played at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last week. Khan’s father then stood at the podium with Khan’s mother and delivered a heartfelt rebuke to Donald Trump for his bigotry and his denigration of the principles for which their son gave his life.
Among those who watched the remarkable seven minutes on television was retired Gen. Dana Pittard, who had been the brigade commander at Warhorse when Khan was killed. Pittard had been aware that Khan was Muslim, as was another captain in the unit and as were several other soldiers. Khan had proven helpful in relations with the Iraqis. But he had made his loyalties clear.
“He said, ‘I’m an American. I’m an American patriot.” Pittard would recall.
Pittard had been stunned by the sudden void when that car bomb robbed the world of the captain it had been so lucky to have.
“There was so much promise for the future,” Pittard said. “He was such a good person. It was so wasteful that he died.”
The Army had determined that the suicide bombers were from a cell of the Ansar al-Islam group in northern Iraq.
“We went after the cell,” Pittard would tell The Daily Beast. “We were pretty aggressive.”
Last week, Pittard was stunned to see Khan’s face appear on the TV screen as he watched the Democratic convention with his family. Pittard then saw Khan’s father and mother at the podium. Pittard remembered that after he had sent them a letter of condolence, he had received a letter from them.
“Mr. and Mrs. Khan wrote me back thanking me,” Pittard told The Daily Beast.
Pittard’s family has voted Republican since Herbert Hoover, and he has never been the kind of general to comment on political matters, but he felt he had to say something about Trump’s subsequent attack on Khan’s parents. He figures that at the very least Trump does not understand how deeply the military feels about its Gold Star families and how much all military families have given over these past 15 years of war.
“The Khan family is our family,” Pittard said.
A video of the parents at the convention reached Walker via Facebook.
“I did not know he was of Muslim heritage until I heard Hillary Clinton say it,” Walker told The Daily Beast. “He would not want to be remembered as ‘that Muslim solider.’ He would want to be known as the soldier who died for his country.”
Word also reached Brenes-Ramirez. She understood that Khan’s parents were compelled by more than politics.
“They were just standing up for him like he stood up for us,” Brenes-Ramirez reasoned.
Brenes-Ramirez said she had taken a photo of Khan’s grave when she and her boys visited Arlington and that she had afterward made a painting based on it. That quick moment when her boys saluted the tombstone had been too spontaneous for her to have taken a picture. But the image stays with her and should stay with all the rest of us whenever anybody speaks of this most American of soldiers who died for his country and leaves us with an example of a true leader.
“It was beautiful,” she told The Daily Beast.
And young Nicholas is right. Khan does live in the memories of mommy and so many others.