Friday, November 6, 2009

The Never Ending Story: Part II

It struck me on the way in, and it strikes me again now as I look out across Ali Al-Salem Air Base; Kuwait is a desolate place. The lack of vegetation, water, and outside of our perimeter fence, signs of life, all leave me oddly longing for Iraq’s familiar palm trees and canals, (or of course home), anything besides this gray, lifeless wasteland. I am standing by some concrete t-walls on a hill about 50 feet from my transitional home here in Kuwait, a tent with room for a dozen or so transient Airmen like myself, the same tent, or at least the tent next to the one I stayed in six months ago on my way to Iraq. This week has been full of déjà vu moments, sights and sounds that bring back the emotions, uncertainties, and fears I experienced when I first arrived here, rolling back to me as frequently yet unpredictably as the tumbleweeds that blow by at regular intervals through the desert.

Six months ago, we had had business to conduct while we were here. Prepping our bodies and minds, as well as our equipment for the endeavors ahead, we spent our days training under the “mild,” spring, desert sun. One morning we drove an hour out into the wilderness to test our guns. I took a video out the window of our tour bus during the trip and got footage of sand dunes passing by for 30 seconds. When we got There, There turned out to be one small overhead shelter and a line of targets in front of a dune. We were each given several clips and after we lined up we proceeded to have our war with the sands of Kuwait. Beyond those several dozen shots into the dunes and several more at a range in eastern Iraq I never fired my weapon again. Like some sort of overdressed tourists, as quickly as we had piled out of the bus, we had completed our gun training and were piled back on the bus.

We spent the rest of that afternoon reliving some of our experiences from Combat Skills Training, our month-long Army immersion in New Jersey on the front end of our tour. We practiced exiting a rolled Humvee out the side doors and top hatch. No matter how many times I experience that training (I hear they rightly now conduct the roll-over training in MRAP trainers instead of Humvees), I expect the disorientation that comes from unbuckling ones seat belt and falling from your seat, now upside down, to the ceiling, now floor, to remain. Loaded down with gear, fumbling for your M-16 in the darkness, trying to figure out which way is up and which way is down, it could almost be fun except that the fun hides the fact that the only reason you are doing this is because someday it might save your life. There is nothing fun about being in a real accident or attack that causes your vehicle to roll over. The injuries and deaths caused by these types of accidents are what prompted the commissioning of this training in the first place. Since the Department of Defense knows they are putting us in harms way I appreciate the fact that they are taking the time and the resources to continually advance our training, and shape its relevance around real life experiences, even if they seem to always be a year or two behind. Still it is sobering to consider that the better armor, vehicles, and training made available to us only came to be because others were injured and killed doing the same things I am just a few years ahead of me.

Now that I am in Kuwait, leaving Iraq forever, or at least for now, I find myself more easily reflecting on the near-death experience that was my past six months. True, I never came under direct fire. I never had a bomb explode beneath my truck, or my feet. But, I can say now what was taboo while we traveled around Iraq on a daily basis: every time I set foot outside of base, I could have died. Even at our home base at Joint Base Balad, any time the alarm went off announcing an incoming mortar (a bimonthly occurrence usually although there were a few times where there were three alarms in one night) it could have been my turn to go. This is different than the reality of life back home, the dangers of everyday life on the road and through the air. Where accidents can happen anywhere, and they do, rarely do people intentionally place themselves in situations where their lives are at risk, not from tackling nature or seeking cheap thrills, but from men and women who hate our presence there and if given the chance would take our lives. As we reflect on our time there, we laugh our way through stories, our good humor a cocktail of relief and the happiness of having survived to tell about it. We talk…

Remembering the time we found a suspicious package on the side of the road, halting our convoy for two hours and causing us to investigate it with our bomb-bots which backed up traffic for a mile until some kids on a donkey rode right over the backpack in question. It turned out to be filled with water bottles…

Remembering the many times during our pre-mission briefs that explosions or engagements on our travel routes were reported within the past 24 hours…

Remembering what it feels like to watch crowds of young men on the sides of the roads watch us drive by knowing that without warning, one of them could throw a bottle-bomb at our truck as it passed…

Knowing that at any moment during any of our thousands of miles of convoying through Iraq’s urban and rural landscape we could have found a bomb on the road, or perhaps a bomb could have found us, hidden for days cleverly in a pile of rocks or a soda pop can awaiting our passing, or hastily placed and remotely detonated by a trigger man somewhere out of sight, the killings completely random, the dead quickly forgotten by the assailants, but not so quickly by the units, friends and family of the deceased back home…

Figures, charts and graphs, numbers and words so familiar now in American culture that they are a part of everyday life, like the rising and falling of the stock market: “Two Americans died in separate attacks by insurgents in Afghanistan today.” Somehow knowing that I could just have easily been one of those unnamed Americans killed in combat (the names have yet to be released) makes this realization come rushing back every time I see it.

Reflections on life and death are normal for those going to and returning home from war. Still, we try to have some fun in Kuwait while we wait to go home, playing shuffleboard, going to the gym, watching GI JOE in the base theater, hitting the pool and having lunch at the middle-eastern restaurant aptly named “Ali’s Arabic Food.” There is something just a bit forced to this fun. Having time off after six months in Iraq is nice, but none of us wants to remain here for longer than we need to. Although we are not scheduled to leave for a week, on day three we go again to bother the people in charge of arranging flights to see if we can’t get out early.

On Wednesday, the 14th, we are told that we have no shot of leaving until the 18th, and even that is not for certain. Then, just two hours later three spots drop and suddenly we’re leaving that night. Travel thus far has been far from easy, and we take the news with many grains of salt, hesitant to get our hopes up, but when the truck arrives at 12:30 a.m. the next morning, and we tag our bags and load them onto a couple of large semi trucks it become clear that we will, indeed, be heading home soon.

I will spare a full description of the next 41 hours. Suffice to say my Senior NCO and I did the math and roughly 14 of the first 18 hours “en-route” were spent waiting for something to happen so we slept on in off in large tents and hardened structures in very uncomfortable chairs. We were a big group, probably about 300 airmen and soldiers and we were herded from one room to another, every time given instructions and then told to wait for further instructions. The waiting before and after we cleared customs was especially painful. We sat in large warehouses with the air conditioning turned up just high enough to make sleeping impossible. Still, it may not have been quite as painful as customs itself. There, each of my now-remaining four bags, meticulously repacked and thoroughly stuffed were opened and emptied onto large wooden counters where men and women from the United States Navy leafed through the contents wearing latex gloves. While I am exceedingly grateful to the Navy for making sure no one had secretly slipped contraband in with my underwear, it is baffling to me that we go to such lengths to interrogate our troops coming home yet allow tourists and businessmen back into the countries with a lot less heartache.

Of the entire group, I was the last one to finish repacking my bags. It probably took me an hour. No worries though, after three more hours in a couple more tents now on the “cleared” side of customs, we still hadn’t left for the airport.

Six months earlier we’d landed in Kuwait International Airport at about 11 pm. Completely exhausted from the travel, but with adrenaline pumping we’d boarded the “tour” buses which were now a familiarity about two hours later and told to remain awake for the duration of our ride to Ali Al-Salem, maintaining vigilance and situational awareness, what I at the time had assumed to be the military’s way of telling me I could get attacked during the trip. I struggled, but I stayed awake. Our curtains were kept drawn on the bus windows, but every time I caught a glimpse of a car passing us or of a large bolder or pile of rubble on the side of the road through one of the cracks in the curtains, I held my breath. Maybe it was the fact that I had ridden through the streets of Bacqubah, one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities, a dozen times, or that I was just so dang tired, now awake for almost a day and a half since we were first told we were leaving; our buses pulled out of the customs parking lot and before we had left the gates of the base I was asleep.

And then we were there, once again standing around next to the port-o-johns outside of our buses at the Kuwaiti airport, drinking our last bottles of purified Persian Gulf water. The nightmare through customs having softened a bit in our minds, I told my friends that the customs officials had nearly confiscated some contraband from my bag. The object in question? Why, the coconut my family had mailed to me from Hawaii 5 months back. When the supervisor had been called over to inspect the “seed,” he had let it pass. It was dried out and lacquered so it was okay. There’s probably a lesson in here somehow about how to pass vegetation illegally through US Customs but I’d rather not travel down that path (hint: dried, painted, and lacquered).

If you ever have to travel across multiple time zones or for any period of time longer than 6 hours, I recommend sleeping pills. One of the last to board our chartered jet home I was forced to sit in one of the rear rows between two Airmen, neither of whom were huge, but both of whom had apparently not heard the instructions to fill the plane from back to front “leaving no empty seats.” Middle seats pocked the back of the plane by the time I boarded, leaving me with few options other than the one I settled on. No problem though. I had my pills and my neck pillow and I slept blissfully nearly the entire first flight. At one point I remember waking as the stewardess offered snacks. I think I took a cookie, but I never ate it. By the time the cobwebs had cleared I was de-boarding in Shannon, Ireland.

We had our first alcoholic drink in over 6 months at the airport bar. The line for the bar stretched around the corner but no one else was there to be bothered by that except for all of us. The lingering effects of the gel caps and the alcohol were staved off somewhat by the ham and raspberry chutney sandwich I bought in the gift shop along with a few postcards and a bar of chocolate for my mom. There was something strange about the line of drinkers in the airport that I still can’t quite wrap myself around. I don’t know if it is a happy memory to cherish or one to make me sad. The distant look in some of the drowsy eyes of the young airmen and soldiers who walked by me, a pint in each hand, hinted that some drank just to drink, old habits soon to begin again. It was the same look I’ve seen in passers by in clubs and college parties back home, the look that says if this is it, then I’m not sure its worth it.

I felt it too at times during my deployment, probably more often than I’d like to admit—the overwhelming dread that comes from doubt, angst quickly blossoming into fear and culminating in the oft-generalized, but now seemingly so much more relevant question—why am I here? And along with the cosmic question of here on earth or here, alive in this universe, the at times even more obvious question of here, today, in Iraq. Does anyone at home even care that I’m here? Sometimes it doesn't seem like they do… When two Americans dying in Iraq or Afghanistan is just a footnote buried in the newspaper, then that question becomes even more pointed, digging deep into the psyche and grabbing hold, threatening to break me. To be loved and needed is great, but knowing that I, and what I was doing was appreciated tended to hold so much more weight, at least more than I expected, when I was in the heat of war.

The servicemen of these two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, return shaken, not just by the closeness of combat they’ve experienced in this war—although for all our advanced weaponry we seem to have found a foe who could care less about that and instead forces us to fight on their terms, where, and when they want, often in close quarters that make our precision, laser-guided bomb an irrelevant weapon, bottle-bombs and rifles are much more effective—they are shaken because their welcome back parades, if there are any, seem forced, hiding (not so well) a theme: okay, we’re glad you’re back safe, now can we get on with our lives? or worse yet, comments from some questioning their patriotism because they served. Because of this disconnect, some can no longer find total solace at home with their families and friends, people whom they love but who, even though they may try, can no longer seem to relate them. Expecting to have back the sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, they had before they left, people they may eventually become again, those at home got warriors instead. So, in a way, the warriors become homeless.

Home is where your heart is, and so some never can come all the way home having left a part of themselves in the desert. To find some comfort they may turn to each other, reliving those stories they may be able to tell to others, but can only truly share together, having been there and lived them and through them together—remembering the war together is not some sort of unhealthy activity. They really have to do it, if for no other reason but to keep that time relevant, to make some sense of their losses (their lost time at home with loved ones, missed birthdays, holidays, barbecues, family reunions, Saturday afternoon football games and Sunday morning services, or of ones they learned to love from their units who were lost), and know that together they were a part of something that is bigger than themselves, and now that thing is a part of them, and will always be. This was, and is, and will always be their war... my war.

Now let me tell you a story…