Working at a university offers an unexpected benefit: you meet students and faculty from all over the world. In our office we have a few student workers who are not American citizens. One of them is Vivek.
Vivek is from India. Smart, pleasant and absolutely gorgeous (oh, to have a head of curly hair like Vivek), Vivek is one of our help line guys. Another one of our student workers, Ahsan, is from Pakistan and with Vivek being from India it does lead to jokes about whether we’ve outsourced our help line, but they do know how to help faculty.
Today I learned something about Vivek that astonishes me.
He was in my office and noticed one of my old Air Force mementos. I used to work as a crew chief on A-10s. For those of you who do not know what an A-10 is, it’s the airplane called either a Thunderbolt, or a Warthog, or a tank killer. As a tank killer it has a huge, frigging gun. My memento is a plaque with one of the 30 mm shells that are loaded into the gun. It’s about the size of a beer bottle.
Vivek asks about the shell and I joke about working on planes. He’s impressed with me and the fact that I had been in the Air Force. He mentions that he was in the military. I don’t believe it because he just seems too young. Or maybe I’m just too old. Get this, he enlisted when he was 16.
I know enough about India to not be a total idiot, so I am aware that India has had problems with Pakistan (yeah, our two workers are from countries that are traditional enemies — Vivek and Ahsan have agreed not to talk about politics). Quizzing him, unsure if I’m going to sound really stupid, I ask if he ever saw any action as a soldier. He smiles, nods, and says, “Yes.” I must have had one of those stupid fish-mouth looks. All I could ask is “What? You did?”
He is alive today because he was one of the soldiers that had traveled to pick up food for his unit or camp. When he returned? He found his fellow soldiers dead and dying from an attack. God, what was that like?
Here in the States we respect the folks in our military, yet until Iraq and Afghanistan, young veterans of wars weren’t common in our communities. Viet Nam was the last time so many young men were involved in combat. Yes, there have been other wars since then, but the United States military force overpowered the enemy, usually with a concentration on air power.
So when I hear that Vivek dealt with battle and death I am astonished. Here is this young student finishing his degree and planning his future. We have many students doing the same. Yet Vivek has a past that surprises me.
I thank the universe that I do meet people who surprise me. It knocks my brain out of its rut of assumptions, especially assumptions about a smart, young student.