Ayman Taha was close to earning his PhD in developmental economics because he was "interested in the world and in developing countries," said his father, Abdel-Rahman Taha, of Vienna. Three and a half years ago, he decided to put that interest into practice in a way that surprised his friends and family — he joined the Army Special Forces.
After serving for about a year in Iraq as a Special Forces engineer, Taha, 31, was killed on Dec. 30 when an enemy munitions cache he was preparing for demolition exploded, according to a Special Operations Command press release.
Those he left behind say they remember a young man with many interests, talents and friends.
"He combined the athletic, the intellectual and the literary," said his father. "So he was a very versatile person." He said his son played "almost every sport you can imagine," from basketball when he was young to baseball in high school to soccer, which he began coaching at the high school level while he was an undergraduate. He also trained in the martial arts, said his father.
"He was really into it for a while. He trained a lot," said Taha's friend Hisham Eissa, of his martial arts interest.
"He taught me everything I know about photography," he added. "Any interest I have in it came from him." Eissa said he had known Taha since such early childhood he could not remember meeting him.
Taha's father also mentioned that his son played the guitar and was "an avid reader of everything." He noted that while in Iraq, Taha managed to keep up with the U.S. newspapers.
HE ALSO SHOWED a keen interest in his religion of Islam. "The majority of Muslims may know a few of the verses and prayers," said his father, "but, like everything else he does, he studied [the Koran] in both English and Arabic, and he really learned it."
Taha spoke several languages, partly because he lived in many cultures.
Born in Sudan, he arrived in the area with his family as a child and attended Kent Garden Elementary School in McLean, said his father. His secondary school years were spent in Kuwait and Britain, and he majored in economics at the University of California at Berkeley and earned his Master's in the subject at the University of Massachusetts.
He enjoyed traveling, his father said. He lived with Brazilian roommates at Berkeley, with whom he traveled to Brazil and put to use the Portuguese he had learned while minoring in the language as an undergraduate. He also stayed in Italy with an Italian friend and picked up some Italian.
"He loved to travel and meet new friends and new people," his father said.
His father also recalled that since childhood he had shown an interest in the military, from military toys to books and movies about war to wearing fatigues. "Somehow, the military was in him," he said.
Nonetheless, friends and family had a hard time understanding his decision to throw himself into this particular interest, although they know he considered himself specially qualified for the war in Iraq because of his knowledge of the Arabic language and culture. Indeed, this was why he was accepted directly into the Special Forces.
To his wife, Geraldine January, who did not meet him until after he was enlisted, the question seemed simpler.
"He always said, 'I want to make a change. I want to be someone who does something about it,'" she said. "He was a very positive person, and he took world affairs seriously. He believed he could change things and be a part of history."
So throw himself in he did.
"I talked to some of his colleagues, and they all said he was a first-class soldier and he did everything to perfection," said his father, pointing out that Taha had reached the rank of staff sergeant after only three and a half years. "His colleagues tell me it is a remarkable achievement," he said.
"He always talked about how much he loved his job, how much he loved his team, how much he loved the guys he worked with," said January.
His death, said Eissa's sister Nada, "is a little easier for all of us to accept because he was doing what he wanted to do."
"HE WAS A REMARKABLE man," said his father. "Even when he was young, he was very rational and calm. He never got into any trouble." He also said his son could "instantly strike a friendship" with anyone he met.
"I'll remember him like a brother," said Hisham. "He was a loyal, intelligent, very caring person." He said Taha had affected many lives.
"He has friends in all different parts of the world of all ages, and he managed to touch people's lives in all different ways," said Nada.
Taha and January met in May of 2004, and, she said, she knew immediately that he was someone special. "He was a very unassuming guy, very down-to-earth. He had a very humble spirit," she said. "But most of all, he was very intelligent and articulate. And he did everything with honor."
By August they were married.
She said she remembers him having "this brilliance and exuberance about him that touched everybody in a very special way" and "a very sensitive heart toward people's problems."
"He is a hero," she said, "and he put his life on the line for something he believed in."
Ayman Taha is also survived by his mother Amal, his sisters Rabah and Lubna, and his 8-month-old daughter, Sommer.