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What I saw in an Afghanistan abandoned pool changed my life

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Editor's note: The following is taken from Saving Aziz: How the Mission to Help One Became a Calling to Rescue Thousands from the Taliban by Chad Robichaux, David L. Thomas. Copyright © 2023 by Chad Robichaux, David L. Thomas. Used with permission from Nelson Books.

I was on my first deployment to Afghanistan as a Force Recon Marine serving on a Special Operations task force in Afghanistan when my interpreter, Aziz, caught me off guard with an invitation to visit his house. I had visited his family before, and grown rather fond of the traditional Afghan meal of rice pulao, usually with chicken, but what surprised me about his invitation was the reason: Aziz’s family was going to throw a party to watch the 2004 US presidential results come in.

As his large extended family hugged, danced, ate, laughed, and ate some more watching the results pour in that day, the depth of their passion made me curious. I peppered Aziz with questions about why the occupant of the Oval Office was so interesting to him, his family, and his countrymen.

"I’ll show you," he said.

A few days later, Aziz drove me to a crumbling four-story apartment building on the eastern side of Kabul. Aziz pointed out 7.62mm bullet holes on the exterior walls from the Taliban and missing chunks from rockets and explosions. The Taliban had ripped out electrical lines, disconnecting the residents from the Western "idols of technology" and cutting them off from hearing the truth from the outside.

Aziz explained how he had secretly taught English to students by hiding in the basement of that building. He told how the Taliban would storm apartments searching for possessions banned by Islamic law (Sharia). Incredibly, Sharia law permitted them to rape, beat, and kill young girls they caught violating the laws. Numerous girls fled to the rooftop where they jumped to their deaths rather than suffer at the hands of the Taliban. One was Aziz’s twelve-year-old cousin.

Next, Aziz drove me to Bibi Mahru Hill, with its breathtaking 360-degree view of the city. We hiked a steep five hundred yards to the top and saw a diving platform. It looked totally out of place. Aziz said that during the nine years of the Soviet-Afghan War, the Soviets had built an Olympic-sized swimming and diving pool there for its athletes to train at elevation.

As we neared the abandoned pool, I noticed a cable suspended from one of the diving platforms, about seven and a half meters above the pool. The cable, made of steel, ended in a slip-knot noose. After the Soviets left Afghanistan, the Taliban seized control and found a use for the empty pool.

"I’ve witnessed many public executions here," Aziz said. "Some were hanged, some were thrown off the towers like garbage and died on the concrete floor—and not always immediately."

We descended into the empty pool’s deep end. The pool wall was riddled with thousands of bullet holes head-high of a person on their knees. In the shallow end, the same pattern of bullet holes were the height of the head of a kneeling child.

I pulled my Leatherman tool from my pocket and removed two bullet jacket remains. Two symbols of unimaginable evil. I slid them into my pocket, vowing never to forget the anger I felt standing in that empty pool.

Aziz knew this place would show me why his family was so caught up in our presidential election. My home country was the land of the free. Theirs was now becoming one. They needed us to help bring that freedom to completion for them and for future generations of Afghans. 

I returned to the Killing Pool numerous times during my deployments. I would sit in the breeze and imagine the faces of the innocent people, the women and kids especially, killed there only because they tasted freedom and discovered a joy so rewarding that they didn’t want to go back to their old lives of oppression. They couldn’t go back, no matter the cost.

I had gone to Afghanistan fueled by a passion for retaliating against the 9/11 terrorists who killed three thousand of my fellow Americans, in the name of a political and religious doctrine that I could not comprehend. I was driven by a patriot’s convictions and the certainty that the sort of freedom represented by America and our Constitution must be defended both at home and abroad.

In my special operations unit, I was laser-focused on my specific mission. I had spent most of my life focused on my own worldview, rarely thinking of anyone else’s. I only barely recognized America’s impact globally, much less in Afghanistan. Like many others who served in the U.S. military post-9/11, I just wanted to hand-deliver retribution to terrorists.

The Killing Pool changed my perspective.

There, I discovered that America does make a difference in the world, that what we do outside our borders matters because other countries look to us for leadership. There are people much more like us than we realize. We might look different than one another, but we are all part of the human race, and, ultimately, we just want to live a good life, free of oppression. And those people rely on us to help—and sometimes entirely—protect their freedom.

The Killing Pool changed my purpose.

If I could prevent one teenage girl from choosing to jump from a rooftop rather than suffer rape and abuse at the hands of the Taliban, my time in Afghanistan, however long that might be, would be worthwhile. If I could prevent one family from being forced to watch their father shoved off the highest platform to his death in the empty swimming pool below, I would fight for every member of that family. If I could prevent one child from dropping to their knees inside that pool to be murdered by a monstrous coward, I would give my life for that child.

Before, retaliation had consumed me. Now, my heart broke with compassion for the Afghan people. I had to help. I had to fight for them.

The Killing Pool changed me.


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