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Under Fire: An Afghan Odyssey : California Medical Technician and New Jersey Film Maker Give Their Lives Telling Story of Rebels

October 30, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

It was like the film "Top Gun," Jim Lindelof once told a reporter, "only we were the targets."

He was talking about Soviet-occupied Afghanistan in 1985 and the daily bombing raids by MIG jets that rocked the village where he was working undercover as a medic tending to the sick, the wounded and the dying.

He never forgot the sound, or the smell, or the simple fear that gripped his stomach during those three months. And right up until he departed in March for his second unauthorized excursion into Afghanistan, he told his friends, "I must be crazy to go back."

But he did anyway, this time as a sound man working on a film documentary funded by the anti-Communist Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

The quintessential California kid--Folsom native, 30-year-old Angeleno, a 6-foot-4 blue-eyed blond with a quiet manner and a smile like sunshine--once again darkened his hair, tanned his skin, put in brown contacts and grew his beard long so he could pass for just another Afghan peasant.

Ignored Own Advice

He once told a medical group that American doctors should not hesitate to go into Afghanistan to administer aid, providing they took the proper precautions. Travel only with established groups that can provide proper protection, he warned them; "You're never going to be completely safe."

And yet he seemed to ignore his own advice his second time out, desperate to publicize what he saw as Soviet genocide. He went with a film maker he hardly knew, doing a job he'd never trained for, under funding from a highly controversial church, and with a guide who turned back three days into the trip.

The result was simply tragic.

On Oct. 11, according to the anti-Soviet Afghan resistance, Jim Lindelof and New Jersey film maker Lee Shapiro were killed in Paghman, a snow-topped mountain area just west of the capital of Kabul. Word of their deaths took nearly two weeks to reach U.S. officials in Pakistan.

Some friends had tried to warn him. "I think you're making a mistake," Dr. Robert Simon, assistant UCLA professor of emergency medicine, had told him.

"His answer was he understood the danger," Simon recalls. "But he still wanted to go in."

It's never easy to pinpoint when an ordinary life suddenly becomes extraordinary. But in Jim Lindelof's case it was probably about the time he met Simon.

Lindelof had come out of a big family in Folsom to train in Los Angeles as an emergency medical technician. It seemed the perfect career choice, considering what friends describe as his "very kind, very caring" nature.

Just having him around made people feel good. "When he walked into a room he just lit it up. He was sunshine," says Nancy Aossey, who knew him for years.

He got a job at UCLA's prestigious Emergency Medical Center as a trauma tech assisting the nursing staff, halfway in status and responsibility between a paramedic and an orderly. There he met Robert Simon, who had been the first U.S. doctor to enter Afghanistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion. While studying atrocities in the Third World in 1983, Simon had discovered that there was a critical need for medical care inside Afghanistan, especially after the Soviets had ordered all international relief organizations out of the combat-wracked country.

Deciding he needed a firsthand look, Simon sneaked into Afghanistan in the spring of 1984 and emerged profoundly moved. He appealed to 52 international relief organizations to come to the Afghans' aid, but all turned him down on grounds they couldn't respond unless invited in by the host government.

Undaunted, Simon sold his Malibu house in September, 1984, to provide the seed money for the Westwood-based International Medical Corps, a nonprofit organization that would provide medical care "where no others dared to go."

In July 1985, IMC set up a training center in neighboring Pakistan. There U.S. doctors and nurses trained Afghans to return to their homeland as surgically capable medics.

Word of Simon's efforts got around UCLA's medical departments. "Bob didn't corner people or make a nuisance of himself or talk about it while on duty," notes Dr. Marshall Morgan, director of the emergency center. "But people who were interested could find out about it."

Lindelof, for one, was intrigued. "We would talk about it," Simon recalls. "He was extremely interested in hearing about my experiences."

The young medic volunteered to work for the IMC. "I knew that what I had to offer would be very helpful," he told friends.

But Lindelof wanted to go inside Afghanistan, and federal funding prevented IMC from sending Americans into the war zone. He found another way. Joining with Houston surgeon Ron Halbert, 30, and a medical team from the Swedish Aid Committee, Lindelhof left in July, 1985, on a three-month trip into Afghanistan funded by the American Aid for Afghans, a nonprofit humanitarian aid group based in Grand Farr, Ore.

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