State Representative Stephen Webber (D-23), a Missouri Boys State alumni and staffer spoke to Boys State participants Tuesday night in Hendricks Hall on the campus of the University of Central Missouri.
Missouri State Representative Stephen Webber (D-23)
Representative Stephen Webber: …Boys State has been a part of my life the last nine years, not just in the weeks I’ve spent here on this campus, but really in the lessons that I’ve learned here. And I apply them each and every day.
I’m very, very honored and grateful to have an opportunity to address you today. It’s meaningful to me and I appreciate all that you, and all the members of the Boys State staff, and the Legionnaires, my fellow Legionnaires have done. I appreciate it. I’m grateful.
You all have an opportunity to hear from a tremendous variety of speakers. You just heard the Governor of the State of Missouri. You’re hearing other speakers this week who are of state and national prominence. And it can be difficult to try to figure out in this short period of time what I can say that would maybe leave some sort of mark. Or sort of inspire somebody in this room to something. So what I decided to do tonight is to tell you a story. It’s one story, it’s a hard story, but I think by the end of it you’ll understand why the principles that Boys State stands for means so much to me and why I’m committed to public service…
…The story takes place in two thousand four. I’m twenty years old, a few years older than any of you. I’m a United States Marine. I’ve been called in my junior year of college to go to Iraq for the first time. I’m an infantryman in the middle of the Sunni triangle, one of the most violent regions of, of Iraq. That, that summer, one thing you have to do if you’re in a hostile area is you have to constantly be watching, your back, watching your base. And so, one of the, one of the duties that, that fell to me as an Infantryman was to pull guard duty. To stand on the, on the north wall of our forward operating base just to observe, and make sure that nobody could attack us or, or make sure that my buddies that are inside could have a few minutes of peace and quiet.
When you stand guard duty every day you start to notice the patterns and, and things, there’s repetition, and sort of the flow of the city that you’re in. One of these patterns was that every day large numbers of Iraqi children would come to us begging for food, asking for candy, asking for money, which was a very normal thing. But one of these children came more often than the others. And he stayed longer than the others. The others would leave and he would stay. And slowly through my little Arabic and his bigger command of English we began talking. I found out that his name was Malik. That his, his father worked at a roadside stand selling trinkets – he had lost both of his legs in a war several years ago, one of Sadam’s wars.
Every time Malik came by he had sandals, but he’d bring his sister, his younger sister would always be barefoot. He didn’t go to school, he foraged for scraps of metal that he and his family could sell for food. He lived in pretty dire poverty. But he and I formed a friendship and we’d talk about hopes and dreams. He told me what he wanted to be when he grew up. He wanted to be a police officer. I’d tell him about my home back in Missouri, and missing my friends. If there was a big firefight or attack that day or that night, the next day he and I would talk about it. He’d laugh. He’d talk about how he ran to the basement and hid. And I’d talk about how we hid in the bunker or shooting at somebody and we could share and bond over our common experience of living in a world torn with war.
When I found out that that he, like most Iraqi children he loved soccer, but he didn’t have a soccer ball. So I wrote home to my mother and asked her to send me one and I gave him his first soccer ball to play with in his village.
But this is Iraq and it’s a war zone. And there are really no happy stories that come out of war zones. And so one day the children didn’t come by my post. About, late in the afternoon a car came up and out came a bag, a burlap sack. And the car drove away. And I looked through my rifle scope to try and figure out what was in the sack. And I saw the sack was moving. And then out of the sack crawled Malik.
He hadn’t been the only one watching my post. There were other people in the village, the town who saw a friendship between a young American Marine and a young Iraqi boy and they were threatened by it. They were scared because they thought that if maybe we got along through cross cultural dialogue and we became friends, maybe somehow that would change their world. And they refused to let that happen.
Malik stumbled away from the highway up to my post. He was bloody. While my buddy watched I ran down to, to grab him, to see him, to see what had happened. His face was already bruised and swelling. He had been beaten. They had taken a knife and they had cut this nine year old boy’s hands through his fingers, through his toes, and scarred his face. And I tried to bandage him up through the fence using my own first aid kit that was supposed to be meant for me. He didn’t cry, he just stared quietly at me while I worked and tried to tell him in English I’m sure he didn’t understand that everything would be okay.
Once I got him bandaged up my buddy and I covered him with our rifles as he ran back across the street, back into the village, and hopefully the safety of his home. And I assumed that would be the last time I would ever see Malik. I was wrong though. The next day, still bandaged up, Malik came back. And I ran down the steps of my post and to the fence to talk to him. And I tried to ask…why? Why did he come back? He’d just been tortured. He could be killed. Why was he talking to me? And he didn’t understand what I was saying. And I kept trying to find the words to ask what, what made him come back to me.
And finally, this look of understanding came across his face. And he looked at me and he said one thing. He looked at me dead in the eye. And he said, “I love you.” And I didn’t know what to take that. I couldn’t protect this Iraqi child. In a way I felt like I was his older brother, I loved him, too. But I knew when nightfall came I couldn’t, I couldn’t watch out for him. I knew that there was people in the village that were gonna hurt him and I knew that in a month I was going home to my life in America, I was going back to college. And I felt sort of a sense of betrayal that I was leaving him behind. That he would come and have such faith in me and I couldn’t deliver. And I struggled with that for a while.
But then I’ve come, I finally came to understand something. What I understand now that I didn’t understand then. Is that when Malik talked to me he wasn’t just speaking for himself. He wasn’t just speaking for the children of Iraq or the children of the world. Malik was speaking for everyone that struggled. Everyone that suffers from poverty, that is a victim of crime. His life was wracked by violence, he doesn’t have an education, he doesn’t always feel like they have a chance in this world. And when he told me that he loved me he wasn’t necessarily talking just about me. He was talking about anyone who does have an education, anyone who’s fortunate enough to be in a position to make a difference. And what he was saying was even as bad things happen to me, even though I know he knew that I was leaving, that I couldn’t stay with him, he still had faith in humanity. He still had faith in the goodness of people. He still had faith that I would find a way, maybe not now, but in some way, s
ome capacity, to help him or help others like him.
Now look across this room tonight. Everyone here is incredibly blessed. When you were born you became a citizen of the United States of America, one of the great countries on Earth. Not because our military might or financial power, but because the reputation we have for being a nation of rights and laws and the opportunity for social mobility. To, to make a change in your life.
Every single one of you is going into your senior year of high school. You’ve already been given an opportunity in education that many in this world only dream of having. And you’ve been tapped for Boys State. You’ve been brought here because folks in your community see something in you. And they believe that you can come back home to, to your community, where you’re from, and you can make a difference. They believe there’s something about you that makes you a difference maker.
And so what I’m asking you tonight is to use that, use that power for good. Now I have no doubt that every single person here if they choose to can go back and be wildly successful when they grow up, through college, getting a good job, making money. But what I’m asking you is to take a piece of that and just use that to help your fellow man. You don’t have to be a monk. You can have fun, life’s, life’s to be enjoyed. You go to college, enjoy it. When you get your first job have fun with your friends. But make sure you leave a piece of yourself that can be devoted and dedicated to helping others.
Find something here this week. Look around you, you see staff members, some of my greatest friends, who give up a week of their life, away from their families, they use vacation time, and they do it because they fundamentally believe in the power of giving back. And they fundamentally believe in the power you have to shape this world.
If there’s one thing I’ve seen, walking around either Jefferson City, or my home district in Columbia, or patrolling the streets of Fallujah is that this world needs leaders. You have the capacity to be those leaders. And I’m asking you to step up to the challenge and do that. Your community needs you, your state needs you, your country needs you, and this entire world needs you…
…Thank you very much [applause]