The terminal at Bangor, Maine airport changed little in the 360 days between my deployment and homecoming transit stops. We stepped off our charter jet after 16 hours of overseas travel from Kyrgyzstan via Bucharest, finally setting foot on U.S. soil. A line of Vietnam and Cold War era veterans stood waiting for us as we walked through the gate. They greeted us with a warm applause and extended their hands. “Welcome home, Lieutenant,” each said to me with bright, shining, grandfatherly smiles. My eyes were still half asleep from my failed attempt at a transatlantic slumber. I have yet to feel a deep sleep since I deployed, but my nervous system remained heightened, overloaded with the stimuli of a long awaited reunion with America.
My forearms tensed at the caress of the frigid and moist air conditioning. The calming hum of a distant vacuum cleaner and the terminal’s background jazz instrumental confused my aggressive sense of hearing. The bright mid-day light overwhelmed my eyes as it pounded from the building’s glass exterior. I’ve grown so used to my body reacting impulsively to stresses for an entire year that I found the absence thereof to provoke almost a greater feeling of insecurity.
I took a seat on a rigid leather bench facing the terminal glass, watching small Sesna aircraft and Air Force refueling jets take off one at a time. The majesty of Maine’s lush green forest under a clear blue sky seemed foreign to me. The runway was painted in bright white and yellow and paved smooth as silk, unlike the pot-holed Soviet runways of Kandahar. And perhaps most soothing of all…not a grain of sand to be seen, only fertile red soil and beautiful pine and oak as far as the eye can see. Wow, I thought to myself, This is actually happening…I’m home.
I looked at my watch to check how much day-dream time I could budget before my next boarding call, but took greater note of the date: it was July 15, 2010. My tour had lasted exactly 360 days. I considered how appropriate it was to reach 360; the tour no doubt challenged the full circumference of my personal and professional identity. I have changed so much in the past year, but my home did not change with me. How do I explain the dynamics of a full year of life spent at war? After the happy hour embraces of old friends, how do we pick up where we left off? As I sat in the terminal, I found myself struggling to relate to my old home, my old people. Though the greetings and affections would be warm, grandiose lengths of distance and time make common ground a limiting factor.
I didn’t allow myself to feel lonely, or feel sorry for myself. Being in America felt infinitely better than my scalding Stryker hatch under the Zhari sun. I didn’t need external sympathy; I needed internal closure. If I was to overcome the challenge of reconnecting with America, I needed to articulate the bedrock principles I fortified in my heart over the past year. I needed absolute statements; what were my lessons learned? What substance did I bring back from a year at war?
Well, for starters, I left for Afghanistan an ambitious workaholic. I thought nothing of working 17-hour days for the rest of my career in the interests of achieving professional success. I longed for golden handcuffs of the lucrative pay day and the power of social status. But now, I return home realizing the value of work-life balance. Whereas the question of happiness once seemed only a goal for the weak at heart, finding happiness has now become the most important guiding principle in my logic. Life is a beautiful and fragile blessing. Quantifiable superficialities like money, rank, or reputation pale in comparison to the qualitative majesty of love and fulfillment. I never want to spend a day serving a bottom line. My entire life’s efforts are guided with the sole purpose to love and to be loved.
Secondly, I left for Afghanistan with a vague conscience regarding the age old military conundrum: mission or men? Our military’s warrior ethos asserts “I will always place the mission first” but also “I will never leave a fallen comrade.” From the security of a West Point classroom, I could rationalize the loss of a soldier at the expense of strategic gain. Moreover, I naively assumed I’d never have to make the call between men and mission. But now, I know first-hand there are many occasions in combat when one’s mission and men are in conflict with each other. My previously vague conscience has now morphed to a solid conclusion: without a doubt in my mind, men always take priority over mission. No matter what strategic gains are on the line, there is nothing that can replace a human life. But more importantly, there is nothing that can replace a soldier’s trust in his leaders to do everything they can to protect him. That trust is what allows soldiers to perform brilliantly in the face of danger; they know they’re in good hands. The moment that trust is compromised in the interests of a military gain, the soldier will protect himself where he feels his leaders will not, and will not perform the mission to the best of his ability. A military ideologue may call him a poor excuse for an American soldier, but he’s not…he’s just human. The enemy may escape, he may hold his ground, he may even advance on key terrain. But the soldier who lives to fight another day fights stronger than the day before.
And at last…over the course of our tour, my platoon accumulated a few catchphrase responses to the typical drudgery of conventional military life. First, there was “It Is What It Is”, sighed in reluctant acceptance of an unrelenting workload. Then, there was “Sounds About Right,” uttered by soldiers in contempt of the military bureaucracy’s disconnect from the tactical execution of its policies. But towards the end of the deployment, we adopted a phrase that was far less cynical, and more reflective of a wisdom gained from an intense fight: “It could always be worse.” And it’s true. It could always be worse. I can’t count on one hand how many times I’ve sat in the desert feeling sorry for myself, right before things took a turn for the worse; as if my indulgence in self-pity provoked the enemy’s aggression, or even rain. Being thankful in moments of distress is much the acquired taste and something I still have yet to master. But next time I miss a flight, lose my cell phone, or get a thousand dollar fender bender…I’m going to remember just how bad it could be, and hopefully find some sensation of peace in being safe, sound, and having plenty of things to be thankful for.
“All 5th Brigade Personnel bound for Joint-Base Lewis-McChord, we’ll be boarding you at Gate 4 in five minutes,” announced an airline representative over the intercom. A smile broke across my face. I was heading home. I was almost done. This war was over for me, and I could wash my hands of it for at least a year or two. I jumped up from my seat, gave one last grin at the run way, knowing I’d be on it in just a few moments.
“Hey Raj,” called out my friend James, a West Point classmate in the brigade.
“What’s going on brother?! Ready to kick this pig?!” I slapped him enthusiastically on the back.
“Rajiv…something’s happened.” James voice became quiet, as did I. “It’s Chris…”
James informed me that my dear friend, Air Assault School battle-buddy, and West Point classmate Christopher Geoke was killed in Zabol province that morning. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief. Chris was the third member of USMA ’08 to die in combat in under a year. And just like that, the closure I had worked so hard to find dissipated into the coastal air. The truth is, this war is not over for me. I am coming home, but hundreds of my friends and brothers are still in harm’s way on the same battlefields I left behind. As much as I want to relax, and enjoy the conclusion of a hard year’s work, I’m embarrassed to feel happiness and relief at the expense of others; knowing I’ve only passed on the burden of warfare to other soldiers, even if only temporarily. This war is not over, not for me. I cannot wash my hands of it, not now…not ever. As long as there’s a breath in my body, my heart will always be with those who fight in my stead.
I want to thank my readers for all the love and support you’ve given over the past twelve months. I could not have done it without you…and I mean that. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.