After nearly 40 years of war and terrorism, Americans feel like they’ve seen it all.
The Iranian hostage crisis and the first Gulf War. The bloody disaster of Mogadishu and the ongoing fight in Afghanistan. The hunt for mad bombers in New York, and the search for Osama Bin Laden in Tora Bora.
Changiz Lahidji really did see it all, up-close and personal.
The Iranian immigrant became the first Muslim Green Beret in 1979. He went on to spend two dozen years on active duty, notching more than 100 combat missions in Afghanistan alone.
When he retired as a master sergeant, he had served on Special Forces A-Teams longer than anyone in history.
And in “Full Battle Rattle,” written by Lahidji and Ralph Pezzullo, the heroic veteran remembers it all as he always has — as a privilege.
Lahidji was born for battle. He was always more interested in adventure than school. At 18, he left his mostly secular, middle-class family to enroll in the elite Iranian Special Forces.
He liked the camaraderie, but the missions weren’t what he imagined as a kid watching John Wayne movies. Many of his assignments felt wasteful — like security duty at one of the Shah of Iran’s parties, a desert feast celebrating 2,500 years of the Persian Empire.
“The massive tent accommodated 600 guests, who were feted with a lavish 51/2-hour banquet served on dinnerware created by Limoges and with wine and food provided by Maxim’s of Paris,” the soldier writes.
“Foreign dignitaries were shuttled back and forth to the airport in 250 identical red Mercedes-Benz limos.”
It was a long way from watching the Duke in “The Green Berets.” So when Lahidji finished his hitch, he immigrated to California. He worked at family gas stations in the pre-silicon Silicon Valley for a while.
In November 1978, he enlisted in the U.S. Army.
There were some preliminary skirmishes. Getting through Special Forces training was one battle. Weathering the abuse from his fellow soldiers was another.
“Raghead” was the nicest thing he was called.
When Lahidji calmly told them he was a Persian, not an Arab, they came up with cruder insults, including “camel f—er.” Fists flew.
By September 1979, though, he was a Green Beret, assigned to 5th Group Special Forces. By December, he was on his first mission.
After watching TV coverage of Iranian radicals seizing the American Embassy, Lahidji bypassed military bureaucracy to get himself assigned himself to the job.
He immediately wrote to President Jimmy Carter, explaining he was a Green Beret who knew the country and the language.
“Please give me permission to choose an A-Team and deploy to Iran to free the hostages,” he asked.
The Army eventually took him up on it.
Lahidji didn’t lead a team — but as the lone Green Beret with an Iranian passport, he was told to slip into the country and reconnoiter.
Dressed in casual clothes, he strolled around Tehran, taking mental notes. Later, he rented a bus for future transportation out of the city for the hostages and their rescuers once the embassy had been stormed.
It never happened. A deadly crash between a helicopter and a transport plane forced Carter to abort the mission.
With Iran now on full alert, Lahidji was forced to sneak out on a fishing boat. Forty dollars passed to a customs official returned him to Kuwait, where he caught a plane home.
The mission, though a failure, accomplished one thing: The rest of the Berets now saw Lahidji as a brother.
“You’ve proved you’re one of us,” they said.
It also proved, Lahidji realized, that politicians in Washington and soldiers on the battlefield were separated by a lot more than distance. Often what made perfect sense in an office was sheer insanity on the ground.
Lahidji saw it again after leaving the Army to work for private contractors. Based in Afghanistan, he sneaked into Tora Bora in 2003, eager to join the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
Dressed like a farmer, a Glock hidden in his robes, he drove in with three Afghan colleagues.
Spying two dozen men on a ridge 60 feet away, Lahidji and his friends stopped their jeep and watched. One of the strangers stood well over 6 feet tall, with a long beard and an AK-47 slung across his shoulder.
“The sheik,” one of the Afghans whispered.
It was Bin Laden.
Even the gung-ho Lahidji knew a few pistols were no match against two dozen assault weapons. He drove back to the American Embassy. Introducing himself to intel officers, he drew a map, describing what he’d seen.
“We’ll be in touch,” they said.
Lahidji never heard from them again.
“Maybe the guys running the show don’t want to catch him,” an Army buddy suggested later. “They’re so deeply invested in the war on terrorism. . . . If the President announced tomorrow that we’d killed Bin Laden, how is he going to justify staying in Afghanistan and Iraq?”
But it was hard to remain naive after surviving Mogadishu and the October 1993 “Black Hawk Down” disaster, when military snafus left 100 U.S. soldiers suddenly surrounded by 1,000 armed militiamen.
“While we ducked, moved, covered and fired, the Somalis kept coming in waves,” Lahidji writes. “Sometimes they used frightened-looking women as shields. The dust and cordite clogging the air made it hard to breathe.”
After it was over, the bodies of slain Americans were dragged through the streets. President Bill Clinton withdrew the remaining U.S. forces.
“It was hard enough to get over friends dying,” Lahidji says. “But how could the powerful United States let some savage warlord in a lawless country treat us like this and get away with it? Didn’t that send a negative message to the rest of the world?”
Lahidji knew the answer: His job was to follow orders, not to question them. Besides, he wasn’t fighting for those guys back in the States. He was fighting for the guys next to him.
It was the macho brotherhood Lahidji had always wanted, and there was plenty of time between dangerous missions to enjoy it.
Big bouts of drinking and freewheeling bull sessions. Red-light districts full of agreeable companions — like Anya, the Russian beauty who first took Lahidji up to her room, then invited his buddies.
Lahidji’s dark Middle Eastern looks and skill with languages got him other assignments, too.
He helped the FBI in Brooklyn, working undercover at mosques, where he reported back on Omar Abdel-Rahman. The blind, one-eyed sheik later masterminded the 1993 World Trade Center garage bombing.
In Spain, Lahidji helped the Drug Enforcement Administration break up a Middle Eastern drug ring.
But then, flying home from wherever his latest assignment was, Lahidji would get stopped at airports, questioned, insulted, detained. What made him an asset to one U.S. government agency made him a target for another.
Lahidji finally retired at age 62, settling down — at last — with a wife in a nice house in Monterey, Calif. And the conviction that only comes with more than 30 years on the battlefield.
“So far I’ve visited and worked in over 33 countries,” he writes. “I’ve observed that most people everywhere want peace.”