Khizr Khan is a lawyer by training and demeanor, an articulate man, a careful and methodical thinker who is trying at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday to make sense of the fact that his 27-year-old son is gone forever.
It’s a workday, so he finds someplace quiet, an empty conference room on the 13th floor of the office building where he works near the White House. He shuts the door, sits at a big empty table, picks up a pen.
He and his wife would talk often to their three boys about why they decided to come to the United States, he began. It was the 1970s, and Pakistan was under military rule. They came to Silver Spring to have more freedom and opportunity.
“It sounds cliche,” said Khan, 54, “but that is the story.”
His son was always reading books about Thomas Jefferson; that part of his passion was certainly his father’s doing. When the boys were small, Khan would take them to the Jefferson Memorial. He’d have them stand there and read the chiseled, curving words about swearing hostility against tyrannies over the minds of men.
But Humayun had a serious-minded disposition all his own, even as a little boy. He was the middle one, the comforter, the one the cousins would run to when they were being picked on. He gave swimming lessons to disabled children in high school. He had a sense of responsibility that his father cannot quite account for, other than to say that’s just the way he was.
“We always depended on his balanced approach to things,” Khan said, fidgeting with the pen.
It was not exactly surprising, he continued, that Humayun quoted Jefferson in his admissions essay for the University of Virginia, a line about freedom requiring vigilance. It was a bit surprising, though, when he signed up for ROTC and told his dad that after graduation in 2000, he wanted to join the Army.
They had dinner conversations about it, Khan said, looking down at the wooden conference table. He told Humayun that he wouldn’t have control over his life, but his son insisted, and that was that.
“He said that it seems only fair and logical to join the Army,” Khan said. “Because he wanted to complete the journey — he felt that ROTC had completed him as a person, and he wanted to give back. That’s what he wanted to do.”
It was logical, Khan said, and how was a lawyer going to argue with logic?
Humayun finished his four years of service and was preparing for law school when the Army called him back to duty. As he was moving into Iraq last year, Khan called him and they spoke briefly, a conversation he has turned over in his mind a million times since.
His son said, “Remember I wrote that article for admission to U-Va.?” Khan said, pausing, taking the pen cap off and putting it on again, his voice steady. “He said, ‘I meant it.’ He said that. He wasn’t going there through some thoughtless process, or thoughtlessly following orders. He thought he was serving a purpose.”
On June 9, four months after his arrival in Iraq, Humayun was killed by a car bomber.
Over time, his colonel and his fellow soldiers told Khan how his son died, and that, too, had some sort of horrible logic to it. Humayun’s job at the base in Baqubah was to inspect the soldiers at the gates, where crowds of Iraqis would sometimes gather. Humayun went early that morning, which was just like him. He saw a taxi speeding toward the gates, too fast, he thought. He yelled for everyone to hit the dirt. Then, as was his nature, he went running toward it, they said.
“Ten or 15 steps with his hand outstretched,” his father said, stretching his own arm out in front of him almost a year later, telling some ghost taxi to stop in a downtown conference room.
The explosives detonated before the car could ram the gates or the mess hall nearby, where several hundred soldiers were eating breakfast.
Since his death, Khizr Khan said, he has learned so much more about his son — how he mentored a young man while he was at U-Va.; how he was an unofficial counselor for mentally troubled soldiers; how he started a program to hire local Iraqis for jobs on the base as a way of trying to improve relations between the soldiers and the town.
“They did not call him Captain Khan,” his father said. “They called him ‘our captain.’ ”
All of it has in a way made his son more mysterious to him, not less. Humayun was so much more like his mother, so generous and kind, the father said. He’s not sure what his son got from him.
“We wonder how we got so lucky,” Khizr Khan said.
The Khans moved to Charlottesville on the advice of a therapist, who thought being closer to their other two sons at U-Va. would help them. They have started a foundation in Humayun’s name to continue the work he wanted to do counseling soldiers. When they can, they go to funerals of other soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. “Somehow it reminds us that that’s what he would do, perhaps,” Khan said.
On long drives back home, between phone calls and meetings at work, he tries to remember how purposeful Humayun was, how deliberately he chose his path. Khan is certain that his son did not die for nothing, and having that certainty helps.
There is just one thing, Khizr Khan said at the end of a long afternoon, one thing that all the logic and purpose in the world can’t help him with.
“I just can’t seem to get my arms around the loss,” he said, lifting his arms and embracing the air, as people out in the hallway talked about lunch.