By Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Marlon Goodchild
Defense Information School
Pakistan Army Maj. Qaisar Khan and Maj. Muhammad Ali, students in the Basic Public Affairs Specialist Course at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Md., stand in front of the school on Oct. 6, 2015. Khan completed BPASC 070-15 on Oct. 7, and Ali is scheduled to graduate from BPASC 080-15 on Nov. 16.
Pakistan Army Maj. Muhammad Ali, a student in the Basic Public Affairs Specialist Course at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Md., works on a feature story for the course on Oct. 5, 2015. Ali has been taking courses at DINFOS since March, and this trip is his first to the United States.
Pakistan Army Maj. Qaisar Khan, a student in the Basic Public Affairs Specialist Course at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Md., talks with Katie Walsh, his journalism instructor, on Oct. 5, 2015. Kahn went to Walsh for advice on the use of "Miss," "Ms." and "Mrs." in formal introductions in the United States.
Muhammad Ali was briefing his troops before they began their push up a mountainside to destroy a Taliban stronghold.
It was 4 a.m. on Aug. 22, 2004, when Ali, then a lieutenant and a platoon commander in the 31 Baloch, an infantry battalion in the Pakistani army, led a progression of soldiers up a dark mountainside in the Sangtoi Valley of Pakistan.
“I’ve conducted many operations before,” Ali said. “This was routine. My commanding officer had confidence in us and told me to have tea with him at 11 a.m.”
By then, the senior officer expected the operation to be over.
By September 2004, Qaisar Khan, also a lieutenant and a company commander in the Pakistani army, was conducting his own operations to dismantle Taliban positions. His troops in the 69th Baloch completed several missions and in October set their sights on a group of Taliban fighters hiding in the mountains.
“Artillery fire wouldn’t work here because they were dug in,” Khan said. “They would hear the artillery rounds coming, and they would just go back in their caves to hide. We had to go and get them.”
Ali and Khan, who knew of each other in 2004, were wounded in battle that year and later became good friends in a hospital in Pakistan. More recently, they spent two months together at the Defense Information School on Fort Meade, Maryland, as students.
Khan, now a major, arrived in April. After completing the Basic Multimedia Illustrator Course, he enrolled in the Basic Public Affairs Specialist Course, which he completed Oct. 7. He said he was happy to have had the experience of visiting and studying in the United States.
“I liked being here,” he said. “I felt like I was back in Pakistan. I felt free to travel around and be accepted.
“People are all the same no matter where we are from,” he said. “We love our country; we love our children.”
As Ali led 25 men from the 31 Baloch – with no helicopter or artillery support – on a surprise attack toward their objective, he received a call from his forward observers warning of enemy fighters nearby. He told the observers to keep watching the fighters and, if they got too close, to engage them with sniper fire.
“I said this thing and handed over the radio,” he recalled. “I took four steps, and there was a small wire going through that trail. I didn’t see it. I stepped on it, and there was a huge blast, and I was in the air.”
From that moment, he said, “I was unconscious.”
As he started to regain consciousness, everything was white.
“The first person I saw was my deceased father,” Ali said. “The next person I saw was my mother, and I just thought that this was the end because when you see dead people it means that you are very close to your own death.”
He heard shouting and gunfire, and tried to join in the fight.
“The magazine of my AK-47 was completely destroyed,” Ali said. “I removed the damaged magazine and reloaded my weapon and fired a burst of shots. One of my men came to me and reported that the commanding officer was contacted and wanted me to be evacuated immediately.”
The commanding officer radioed the unit again, this time speaking to Ali directly. He told him he knew he had severe blood loss and needed to be evacuated immediately. Ali refused and continued to fight, saying, “This is the mission that I must complete.”
Ali told his men to switch the radio off.
Next, he said to them: “If you guys want me to be happy, then let’s finish this mission and go raise our flag on the enemy’s post. I don’t care if I make it or not. After we do that, then you can evacuate me, and, if I don’t make it, then you can bury me right here. That’s my final decision and my order.”
The vicious firefight continued for about an hour.
“Finally, the soldier who stayed with me said, ‘There is the flag,’” Ali said.
Barely conscious, he opened his eyes and saw the Pakistani flag flying over what had been the enemy position. Only then did he allow himself to be evacuated.
In late September 2004, Khan, with 50 members of the 69th Baloch, was ordered to relieve 300 soldiers from another unit who had been conducting combat operations.
The difference in the units’ sizes concerned him, he said. Yet, he said, “I didn’t want anyone to think my men and I were afraid and were trying to get out of going on the mission, so I didn’t argue it.”
When his company reached its new location, Khan requested that his unit’s 106mm recoilless rifle be sent to him to deter enemy forces. The rifle was big, with a barrel 12 feet long. It took six days for it to arrive, carried by foot soldiers over rough terrain.
The ammunition for the rifle was so heavy that a soldier could carry only one round of it a time. The back blast was so strong that a soldiers couldn’t fire the rifle while remaining under cover.
So, Khan decided to fire it himself – two rounds at a spot where a Taliban sniper had been hiding and three rounds at a spot from which his company had been getting rocket attacks.
“At that time, I had this feeling that something bad was going to happen,” he said. “I knew that I would be injured. I wasn’t going to die, but I would be injured severely.”
Khan, who typically stayed up at night to chat with and check on his soldiers, was injured a few hours later.
At 1 a.m. on Oct. 4, the first rocket hit the 3-foot wall that surrounded his outpost. After that, more rockets rained down to pin the Pakistani soldiers in place while the enemy fighters advanced on their position.
Half an hour into the fight, Khan learned that one of his soldiers, a noncommissioned officer, had been shot. Soon after, he heard the crying of an injured enemy fighter. He ordered his men to keep firing in that direction to keep the other enemy fighters at bay.
A grenade fell at Khan’s feet. The only direction he could move in to avoid the grenade was toward the fighter who had thrown it.
“I saw a burst – flashes of fire from his weapon,” Khan said. Those shots missed.
Then, as Khan was looking over a wall for the enemy fighter, he received another burst of fire. Those shots hit him, something he didn’t realize until after he fell and got on his feet again.
“I thought that my arm was disconnected from my body,” Khan said. “I felt a burning in my chest, and when I put my hands on my chest to feel what it was, four of my fingers entered into my body. I had been shot once in the chest and twice in the arm.”
The battle continued until all of the enemy fighters were killed or had retreated. Among the fighters who were killed was the one who had fired at Khan.
It took several hours for Khan to reach the evacuation convoy. For part of the trip, he walked. For other parts, he was carried on a stretcher.
He had lost a lot of blood and was very weak, he said.
AT THE HOSPITAL
Khan was bandaged on the roadside by a doctor from the evacuation convoy. He was treated initially at a field hospital and then flown to the Combined Military Hospital in Rawalpindi.
“I was operated on right away,” Khan said. “Everything was ready. They knew I was coming.”
He spent 10 months rehabilitating in the hospital, where – on the same floor – Ali lay in bed.
Ali had been evacuated from the battlefield unconscious and taken by pickup truck to a field hospital in Wana.
A message was sent to his commanding officer saying that he was clinically dead, but that the doctors would try to save him.
After his condition stabilized, he was flown to Rawalpindi, where he went through several surgeries, including facial reconstruction and the amputation of his right leg below the knee.
“Losing a limb is like a mother losing a child,” Ali said. “It’s the same pain. My mind wasn’t accepting that.”
After his initial surgeries, Ali was visited by a general officer who had lost a leg in 1971 during a military operation. The officer had moved up the ranks from captain on his prosthetic limb.
“If he can do it, then so can I,” Ali told himself. “It was very painful, but I kept on pushing.”
His rehabilitation lasted for three years.
Every day, he walked for 3, 4 or 5 kilometers. After some walks, his leg would be swollen. After others, it was bleeding.
Ali and Khan formed a bond, often taking tea together, at the hospital.
In March 2005, they traveled to Islamabad, where the president of Pakistan conferred the Pakistani army’s Sitara-e-Basalat medal, equivalent to U.S. military’s Silver Star, on each of them in a ceremony.
Each also wears the Golden Wound Strip, similar to the Purple Heart, on his uniform.
Khan was discharged from the hospital in Rawalpindi in June 2005. He returned to his unit but was no longer fit for infantry duty, so the army sent him to earn a degree in software engineering.
After being discharged in December 2006, Ali went on to earn master’s degrees in human resources and mass communication. He also attended an international press officers course in Germany.
Four months after Khan arrived at DINFOS, Ali – who by then was also a major – joined him there.
Ali had modest expectations, based on his experiences with American news reporters who sometimes showed up late for interviews, but the students and faculty members at DINFOS made an overwhelmingly positive impression.
“It’s completely different from the few Americans I met back in Pakistan,” Ali said. “I’ve had a very good time here, and I’ve developed very good friendships with my DINFOS classmates and also my instructors. It was a very memorable stay here.”