He was 52 then, and the war against Iraq was in its infancy. Aman was working under a government contract to drive material and supplies from Kuwait to various military bases in Iraq.
The job was sensitive enough that today, a decade later, he doesn’t want to mention the name of the company that hired him.
“I was working in Beeville, buying and selling cattle,” he says, “so I had a commercial drivers license.”
One day, a friend called and said “You’re more than qualified. I can get you over there if you want.”
“For Thom,” his wife, Mary, says, “it was his chance for an adventure.”
“It was in the middle of a war,” Thom says. “That’s what made it exciting.”
Aman sold his truck in a day and reported to the company in Houston.
Wartime logistics meant the government didn’t have enough planes to fly everyone who was hired.
“I live only three hours away,” he told them. “You call me, and I’ll be there.”
Five days later, they did, and he was.
“It took the better part of two days to get to Kuwait,” Aman remembers. They flew from Houston to Rome to Frankfurt until finally, Aman and 282 others landed in Kuwait.
“Talk about a culture shock,” he says.
The military set some ground rules. Never, it said, give up your passports.
As soon as he entered the terminal, a Kuwaiti official demanded the group members surrender their passports.
“Everyone else got their passport back, except me,” he remembers.
“Finally, a high-ranking officer came to me, clicked his heels and handed me my passport as if I were a VIP.”
Aman decided it must be his name. People there would see his name, pat him on the chest and say, “Oh, sir, you have a very good name.”
“I’m not sure how my family got the name,” he admits. “I think it was Indian; I believe it means ‘Peace and Security.’”
In the subsequent year he spent in Iraq, he rarely had either.
The U.S. military had a logistical contract with the company. Driving an 18-wheeler, Thom hauled supplies from Kuwait to numerous bases in Iraq, working seven days a week, 12-hour days.
“For the first three months, I hauled gasoline, 8,000 gallons per load,” he says. “That was hanging out there.”
During the drives north from Kuwait, over the flat Iraqi desert, Aman and his colleagues would notice a structure looming on the horizon.
“We ought to go see that,” the drivers agreed.
What in other circumstances would be a simple drive to an archaeological site was, by regulation, impossible.
“When we first arrived in Kuwait, the military told us never to drive at night and never to go anywhere without an armed escort,” he says.
In fewer than three weeks, Aman says, he was doing both.
And each trip to Ali, there was that structure, waiting.
On Thanksgiving Day, 2003, the lure was too much. Thom and a companion decided to drive to the structure, which was less than two miles northeast of the base.
“We had our ID badges,” Thom says. “The guys at the gate would see trucks come and go all the time. We just showed our badges and drove on. They didn’t care.”
The “structure” was the Ziggurat of Ur, believed to have been built in the 21st century BC. It also is the predominant edifice in the ancient city-state of Ur in Mesopotamia.
Among the ruins is the traditional home of Abraham and Sarah — honored both by Christendom and Islam.
“It was a cloudy, dreary day,” Aman remembers. “As soon as we started walking toward the ziggurat, we were met by a man who called himself the curator of the ruins. We paid him $3 each to give us a tour.
“I was in awe to be seeing it,” Aman says, “because very few Americans have ever seen it or can ever see it.”
Thanksgiving night came early. It was getting dark. Being alone at the site was one thing; being alone at night was quite another.
“It was dangerous; a journalist had been kidnapped there not long before.”
Returning to the relative safety of the air base, he joined Army soldiers, U.S. Marines, Navy Seals and Italian troops getting ready to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner.
“We had ice sculptures decorating the place and enjoyed lobster, shrimp, steak, turkey and dressing.”
He’s pretty sure that some of the fare comprised part of his cargo he had carried to Ali that morning.
But before dinner, sitting in the privacy of his camp, he and his colleagues enjoyed cocktails of smuggled Jordanian whiskey.
“We were notorious whiskey smugglers,” he admits.
Early the next morning, Aman and his colleagues prepared to head south to Kuwait.
“The same minister who blessed the Thanksgiving dinner offered travel mercies,” Aman says. “It was very emotional, because of the danger. I saw huge, burly guys holding hands, heads bowed, bent down on one knee. Some distance away, I heard one guy throwing up because of the fear.”
When his year’s contract was up, Aman decided he had had enough.
He returned to Beeville.
But Baghdad was never far away.
He made another trip in 2006 but didn’t stay as long.
Aman in no way resembles a soldier of fortune.
“You have to understand the kind of person who takes a job like that, alone, away from his family, putting his life on the line every time he leaves the base. He’s not the type of guy who pays attention to a lot of regulations.”
So tomorrow, maybe between the second helping of dressing, Aman’s thoughts will drift, if only for a moment, back to a minister delivering a blessing before a Thanksgiving dinner on the dusty, sandy desert of Iraq, where every Friday night after prayers “here would come the mortars,” and where, one Thanksgiving afternoon, he stood among the ruins of one of the world’s oldest cities, as the wind blew down and around the stairs of the ziggurat with a wail not unlike the mullah’s call to prayer.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.