It’s hard to think about celebrating the end of Ramadan when the anguish just doesn’t let up. The murder of four marines tonight is crushing. Todd Shea, once in the Marine Corps himself, captured the sentiment of many on his Facebook page tonight. He said he’s too emotionally and physically weak to celebrate anything right now — after seeing the tremendous suffering in Pakistan, from sectarian violence to millions displaced to schoolchildren being killed; and the senseless killings in the U.S., from Chapel Hill to Charleston to Chattanooga. He writes a moving Eid prayer, which I’ve excerpted in part: “May all Humanity somehow find a way to work harder and love more, free from any quest for personal gain, to end the menace of violent extremism; may the indifference to all Human suffering, which allows greed and conflict to metastasize as a cancer in the hearts and minds in every corner of the earth, somehow be countered with love, intellect and positive action; may Humankind come up with a dramatically different strategy in this world to turns things around, otherwise these dark times will only get darker and darker.” But he also reminds us that, “as long as there are beautiful, pure, precious and hopeful children living on this Earth who deserve better, we must accept our reality as a test, never ever giving up trying to transform the World into a place where every child everywhere has a fair chance at success and happiness, a belly full of nutritious food every day and the uplifting education from books instead of the soul killing destruction of bombs.”
On nights like this, when our hearts are burdened and our hopes exhausted, it’s people like Todd who allow us to dare dream that a better world is possible for our children.
Todd is the founder and executive director of Comprehensive Disaster Response Services (CDRS), an organization that provides medical and humanitarian relief in disaster-affected areas, focusing now primarily in Pakistan. At five-eleven and 315 pounds, with a beard and red hair, jeans and a Pink Floyd t-shirt, and a guitar in tow, Todd doesn’t quite fit the profile of health care administrator. But since the Kashmir earthquake in 2005, he has worked to provide healthcare in some of Pakistan’s most remote and disaster affected areas. In the past 12 months, CDRS, in partnership with the Imran Khan Foundation, has treated over 115,000 patients in Bannu, where one million people displaced from North Waziristan are seeking refuge; worked in five flood affected regions in the Punjab, treating over 50,000 patients; maintained a mother and child health center in Swat; galvanized CDRS youth volunteers, who are providing help during the current heat crisis; and initiated a women’s empowerment and social entrepreneurship program. “It’s been one of our most successful years in terms of programs,” Todd told me yesterday. But he’s never satisfied. “I’d like to run 50 mother child health centers throughout Pakistan, if I had the funds.”
“Before going to Pakistan, I remember people would tell me you’re nuts for going over there; you’re going into the belly of the beast.” Todd told me. “If every American could spend one week in Pakistan, they would never have a problem with Pakistan.” Todd learned a great deal about Islam from his staff and from reading the Quran. Stories about the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) made a particular impact on him, such as the story of how the Prophet cared for a woman who repeatedly threw trash at him, and the one about the prostitute whose sins were forgiven because she gave water to a thirsty dog. “These are the kinds of messages that have touched me. To me, this religion, and the holy Prophet, is about humanity.” He converted to Islam in 2009.
Todd’s journey to Pakistan began in Maryland, where he grew up. When he was 12, his mother took an overdose of Valium and ended up in the hospital, where she died from complications. Devastated, Todd started getting into fights, skipping school, taking drugs and getting arrested. His guitar brought him solace. He taught himself to play, strumming Van Halen and AC/DC songs until he figured out the notes. “Music saved me from depression and suicide,” Todd says. At 16, about to fail ninth grade for the third time, he was sent to an alternative boarding school. But when he returned home a year later, he started doing drugs again and hanging out with the wrong crowd. By the time he was 18, he was addicted to crack cocaine. Todd joined the Marine Corps to clean up his act, but was kicked out six weeks later when the results of his urine test showed drugs. Back in Maryland, he joined a band, and spent the next several years playing at clubs and bars around the country. He was scheduled to play at the famous CBGB’s Gallery in Manhattan, on Sept. 12, 2001. On September 11, from his hotel window, he saw the towers fall. The next day, Todd was at Ground Zero, packing his band’s van with Gatorade, water and fruit to deliver to firefighters and police officers throughout lower Manhattan, and distributing dust masks and medicines donated by area pharmacies and stores. This marked his turning point. “I don’t have any business going into collapsed or burning buildings,” Todd says. “I don’t know how to save lives. I can’t even treat a hangnail. But what I do know is how to make arrangements and get supplies to people so they can focus on saving lives.”
Todd’s story was one of the most incredible I’d heard; I knew I had to visit him in Pakistan to see him in action. In 2009, I traveled to Kashmir and stayed at the CDRS headquarters, in Chikar at the time, nestled in the mountains at about 6,000 feet. The day I arrived, it was Eid al-Adha, and the government health facility was closed; patients streamed into CDRS for the next several days – a baby with high fever, a woman recovering from a heart attack, a young man who severed his hand. Todd was in constant motion, trying to procure medicines, scolding unreliable doctors, managing in inhospitable conditions. (If you’d like to learn more, please read my feature on Todd in the Washingtonian below.) One thing I knew for sure, with Todd, what you see is what you get: a strong-willed, fearless, passionate, blunt, larger-than-life individual who can’t bear to hear a baby cry or a kitten whimper.
To learn more about CDRS and to support their work, please visit, www.cdrspakistan.org
My article on Todd Shea in the Washingtonian:
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