Hope on the Horizon/Onward Christian soldier

Pasadena City College student Jimmy Li, an evangelical Marine, reconciles his duty to country with his religious beliefs during a five-month stint in Iraq

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 5/26/2005

Pasadena City College political science student Jimmy Li has seen firsthand the most devastating effects of international diplomatic and political breakdowns: war.

In his life as Lance Cpl. Li, the 21-year-old San Gabriel Valley native served from April to September 2003 as a field radio operator in the Marines 3rd Infantry Battalion.

A devout evangelical Christian, he faced not only physical danger but a test of his faith and beliefs: Thou shalt not kill.

"I'm just glad all I had to shoot were pictures," said Li, who took about 600 photos during his tour, most of that time spent stationed at the American Blair Field airbase in the Southern Iraq town of Al Kut.

Those images, shared publicly for the first time in this story, cover a scope of experience from the mundane day-to-day routine of military life to finding friendship across enemy lines to the awe of standing in the latest ruins made by coalition forces of the ancient city of Babylon to constant explosions of all too real violence.

Though some American soldiers have come home from this experience to question if war is all worth it, Li said he felt the war was justified.

"I hope there will be a greater good that comes out of it," said Li.

His hope for a positive outcome to the war persists despite the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that no connection was ever made between Iraq, Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In the end, it could be worth it, he feels, despite more than 1,800 coalition forces casualties, according to the Pentagon, and more than 100,000 civilian deaths, including women and children, according to an October study by members of the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

At a time of crisis for the Social Security system, the war in Iraq will have cost taxpayers more than $207 billion by the end of next month, according to a study of congressional appropriations by the nonprofit National Priorities Project. Dividing up those costs, the group estimates Pasadena's share of that burden to be approximately $82 million.

"The fact that we had to shoot at people didn't disturb anyone's conscience, but we didn't brag about it either. I never had to pull the trigger, but if I did, I don't think it would have conflicted with my religion. I believe it was philosophically justifiable. I realized before signing up that it was part of the job," said Li. But, he added, "I'm not a crusader. I don't think God tells me to pull the trigger and kill someone."

Li is a member of a small group of soldiers on and off the battlefield called Marines for Christ (http://teampages.tripod.com). As an active member in Iraq, Li helped the group to distribute 250 pamphlets containing information about his Christian faith written in Arabic.

"I went to Iraq to see how much I really loved God away from home and everything I knew. Iraq definitely strengthened my faith," he said.

Also during his time at war, Li befriended a young Iraqi boy named Sajad Ibraheem who tried to sell kabobs to US troops in the Shitte-dominated southern Iraq town of Al Hayy.

Li took instant notice of Ibraheem because he spoke English surprisingly well, although he only studied it three months. He asked many questions about America that Li found himself answering eagerly.

"I felt there was a bond, and some of the other soldiers did too. He was different from the other Iraqi kids because he learned English so fast and the questions he asked about life and America," said Li.

Speaking of life, Li came close to death not from enemy fire, but during an early morning Humvee crash.

On June 14, 2003, Li and three other soldiers were heading to their division headquarters three hours away. Traveling at about 60 mph, the vehicle braked suddenly, veered off the road, hit a dirt mound, went airborne and flipped over four times.

During the accident three of the four passengers, including Li, were violently thrown from the vehicle. Li's helmet, weapon and glasses flew off and he blacked out as he hit the ground, though in the end he suffered only minor injuries.

"It was a miracle of God," Li said. "I mean, how close can one brush with death and literally walk away laughing hysterically, to realize the frailty of man and how, as humans, we don't control everything going on even if we have the hottest weapons and the craziest mentality?"

Li has three years left of his six-year commitment to the Marines and could be called back to war at any time. "Though it might be uncomfortable," Li said he will go where duty calls.