Arab Spring Break
Credit: Courtesy Chris Jeon
The next day, Mansur gave him a Russian-made shotgun. He was no longer just an observer. He was becoming part of the katiba, the Libyan word for brigade. He still didn't speak much Arabic, but that didn't seem to matter. There was a cheap Casio keyboard in the town house and when they weren't on patrol, Jeon taught a skinny 17-year-old named Akram how to play Beethoven. In exchange, Akram showed him how to assemble and break down an AK-47. After two days, the Casio was covered in gun grease, but Akram could play "F ür Elise" and Jeon could field-strip the gun in less than 90 seconds.

Akram spoke English and wanted to know everything about Jeon's life back in California. Jeon showed him photos of Ladera Ranch on his cellphone. Akram couldn't believe how beautiful it was and wondered why Jeon would ever want to leave such a place. Akram explained that Libya under Qaddafi was hell. A few months earlier, his cousin had spoken out against the dictator and was executed.

"I am fighting for my cousin, for my family, for my country," Akram said. "I have no fear because death would be better than living the old way."

Few of the rebels seemed to care why Jeon was fighting, only that he was willing. On Jeon's fourth day with the brigade, Commander Absalam told him that the mission they were going on was too dangerous. "You're not ready to be a martyr," he told him and dropped Jeon at a rebel staging area in the desert.

Two American reporters, Bradley Hope and Kristen Chick, had just arrived. "We were way, way out there," Hope says. "And then we saw this college kid with a shotgun and a Lakers jersey. It was mind-boggling."

Jeon explained that he was on summer vacation and "thought it would be cool to join the rebels." He added that his parents didn't know he was in Libya and pleaded with the reporters not to mention him, but both wrote articles about the encounter ("At first glance, Mr. Jeon looked like someone who took a wrong turn on their way to the beach or the Santa Monica Pier," wrote Hope in a Dubai paper, The National). Jeon's parents learned he was in Libya when people sent them articles online. They frantically started emailing and phoning news organizations in the region.

"Nobody wants their child to be in a war," Dr. Jeon said. "Plus, school was starting soon."

An Al Jazeera news crew spotted Jeon at the refinery where he was staying with his katiba. A network correspondent took out her satellite phone and handed it to Jeon. Within a minute, his parents were on the line.

"You have to come home, Chris," his dad shouted. "You don't know what you're doing."

"I know exactly what I'm doing," Jeon snapped.

His mother got on the phone. She was crying. She sounded terrible. She begged him to come home. Jeon told her he'd think about it. He hung up and rejoined his brigade.

A couple of days later, the katiba drove into the desert and fired cannons at loyalist positions. Jeon helped load the ammunition. "My lips were cracked and bleeding, I hadn't brushed my teeth in days, and my face was peeling, but it didn't matter," Jeon says. "I was totally happy – happier than I'd ever been."

He was standing beside a truck, watching his friends fire the cannons, when he heard the whine of an incoming shell. Everybody dove for cover, and the ground shook. Sand rained down, and somebody screamed. When he finally stood, he saw a mangled, charred body lying near the blast. It was Akram.

He stared at the body. Just a few nights before, Akram had played "F ür Elise," jumping up and down when he did it without a mistake. He was only 17. "Those fuckers," Jeon kept saying. Somebody told him to get in a truck, and they retreated.

That afternoon, Commander Absalam sent Jeon with five others to relieve a checkpoint in the desert. Nobody talked on the drive out. When they arrived, they chain-smoked and sat wordlessly under a tarp. It was 110 degrees. Jeon saw three trucks appear out of the heat shimmering off the road in the west. They were moving fast, inbound from Qaddafi-held territory. The rebels around him picked up their weapons, cigarettes dangling from their mouths.