The stories of heroes are rarely leisurely, quiet journeys. They are more often saturated with hardship, obstacles, struggle, and eventual triumph. Lieutenant Commander Ali Ghaffari of the Navy is no outlier. From a difficult childhood in a broken family, a mother who struggled with drug abuse, and an existential crisis involving atheism, Ali eventually found success through education, a career in the Navy as the fighter pilot of an F/A-18 Hornet, and an introduction into the Catholic Church.
Guest host Brooke Taylor welcomed Lt. Commander Ghaffari to Trending with Timmerie to talk about his journey from a life of friction to a life of family and faith.
Ghaffari’s mother became pregnant with him when she was just 15 years old. Her mother and other family members encouraged her to get an abortion, but she refused, insistent on raising Ali. Ali’s father married her, moved in, and tried to make things work. After Ali’s little brother was born, they moved around a lot for about three years until his parents’ marriage fell apart. He said his first memory was hearing his parents fighting in the other room. After their split, Ali’s mom took him and his brother to Vermont.
They moved every year for the next four years. Ali’s mom worked as a bartender at night, and without anybody to watch him and his brother, they spent their nights in the bar with her. They would hang out, play video games, watch people play pool. But before long, Ali’s mom got into drugs, alcohol, and mixed up with plenty of “unsavory characters.” There was a constant rotation of different roommates and a bevy of sketchy people around Ali and his brother constantly. “It was just…unstable is probably the best way to put it,” said Ali.
Eventually, though, things began to level out for Ali and his family. His mom eventually did go to rehab for about a year, and when she got out, she met a local mechanic named Dan. Ali recalls disliking him as soon as he saw him, but he proved to be a good influence and he soon won Ali’s affection. Dan married Ali’s mother shortly after and really took to the fatherly role. “But Dan, my stepdad, was really strict and he pushed me to excel academically. He saw that I had promise and he expected all A’s.” And it worked. Ali became an excellent student.
Dan ended up encouraging Ali to attend an elite prep school, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Although he did not fit the typical demographic of the students at Phillips, Ali was accepted and granted a generous scholarship package so that he could attend. He said he remembers still feeling out of place. In his dorm, there was an Indian prince, a Turkish prince, and the heir to the Goodyear fortune. He even played hockey with the brother of an NHL player. Not only that, but the academic workload was significantly heavier, ensuring that Ali was working all day, every day. However, he credits the struggles at Andover with his future success, saying that it trained him very well.
Ali graduated from Andover thinking that he was smarter than 90% of the people on the planet. He wanted to study pre-med and become a doctor. All of his professors had been atheists, so he embraced atheism as well, assuming it would validate the type of life that he wanted to live. But Ali met two people that changed his perspective. The first was Stephen Brady, a former Navy Seal who had become a doctor and dispelled the idea in Ali’s head that Christians were idiots. The second was his neighbor Paul, a man who had barely graduated high school. He asked Ali at a party one night if he believed in God. Ali replied that there was no evidence for God, so no. Paul said there’s evidence all around us, you just have to have the eyes to see it.
Between Stephen and Paul, Ali realized that he had no idea what he was doing with his life. He was very well-read, and he had memorized a lot of information, but he had failed to discover who he was. It was an unsettling and uncomfortable time for Ali. In response to this shocking discovery, he decided he was going to try to prove Paul wrong about Catholicism. Even if God did exist, he was going to show that Catholicism didn’t have the whole truth. For the next year or so, he battled with Paul about the Catholic Faith. After months of infuriating emails, Ali gave up and realized he couldn’t disprove Catholicism, so he asked Paul to teach him.
For most of his academic career, Ali had been indoctrinated with relativism. He had become convinced that truth didn’t exist in society. Now, after finally being brought to the light of Christ, he was so relieved. “To find it was such a relief for me. It was this pearl of great price that I will never, I will never let go of, because the life before, I was so unhappy. And the life with Christ, and truth, and this hope is so beautiful.”
Ali abandoned his plans for medical school and based on the influence of Stephen Brady, embarked on a path to Navy flight school. While he studied Catholicism, he trained to become an expert dogfighter. Lt. Commander Ghaffari went on to fly over 20 missions in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. He is now married, has three daughters, and in 2018, founded the Divine Mercy Academy in Severna Park.
Listen to the full interview below:
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