The Transition Home

Home Sweet Home

There are few moments more relaxing than the stroll from the motor pool back to the platoon tent after an all night mission. The sky glows in shades of purple and yellow as the sun begins to peek it’s brow over the desert. The base is calm, the streets are empty, soldiers are asleep, and the only sounds to be heard are power generators humming in the distance. My platoon walks slowly. We’re drenched in sweat, and the cool morning temperatures bring shivers to our skin.

My guys are hungry. They’re tired, they haven’t slept all night. But you wouldn’t know any of it from the smiles on our faces as we walk by. The soldiers share hilarious stories of their pre-deployment drunken and promiscuous ventures through downtown Seattle. They argue over what kind of Korean import sports car is going to overtake the Italians. They recount the college football highlights they’ve seen on random Sportscenter clips in the mess hall. Above all, they poke fun at each other. And being the LT makes me anything but off limits; I’m the prime target. “Dang, Sir! You’re a hairy motherfucker,” Specialist Brooks constantly jokes, “we could like shave off your back hair and sell it as wool!” But it’s okay because he’d always follow his quip with, “um…respectfully, Sir.” I’d smile, turn around, and pretend to punch him in the stomach with the rest of the platoon cheering and laughing along. Our platoon is a family. The way families in the Army show affection is not with hugs or kind words…rather, we berate each other to no end.

I walk towards the front of the group, not because my soldiers are following me per say, but because I’m in a hurry; I still have debriefs and paperwork to do. My section leaders and platoon sergeant walk on my flanks recounting all the maintenance issues and reconnaissance tips we collected. I tend to walk by quietly, absorbing the information, feeling the moment; coming to grips with understanding that this is my platoon, these are my soldiers…and we’re home safe. Relax.

Home at FOB Ramrod comes in the form of a mid-sized tent on a patch of gravel in the Attack Company area. The structure has a plywood floor and a few extension cords lining the edges of the tent. Fluorescent lights hang from the ceiling next to long fly catchers covered with dozens of insects. My cot is the first one on the left, allowing for easy Platoon Leader access for the random “Hey You!” tasks that may come down at random parts of the day. Sharp nails protrude the wooden studs in my corner. I use them to hang my weapons, a few uniforms, and a beanie cap. I have a makeshift wooden desk, leftover from the previous unit, where I keep a computer and my IPod speaker dock: a platoon essential for our pre-mission pump mix. The only sentimental trinket I keep on the desk is a midsized stone displayed in the far left atop a stack of topographic maps. It’s one of the two rocks that two disgruntled Afghan children hurled at me just a few weeks ago. I found it tangled inside my body armor shortly after the incident. I reflect on it endearingly, despite the concussion it inflicted on me…I guess the story it carries is just too valuable to let it go. Next to my desk is my cot, covered in a blue comforter I’ve had since I was twelve. The cot is green and taut. It’s no posture-pedic mattress, but after a long night outside the wire, I’ll settle for what I can get.

At the rear of the tent, the soldiers’ cots line the walls, with a table in the center covered in board game pieces, spades scorecards, and home baked cookies from a wife’s care package. There’s no telling what you’ll find back there on any given day. Sometimes, it will just be a few normal guys playing poker. On others, I’ll find Private Hoff standing naked with nothing but combat boots and dog tags, bending over in front of the other soldiers, demanding a “tick-check”.

On this particular morning, however, the antics ceased early. SGT Espy, a dismount team leader, was mixing himself a protein shake for his coming workout, “You comin’ out, Sir?”

“Dude, we just got back man! I’m gonna knock out for a little,” I whined.

“Pshh, sleep is a crutch!” He chided, “Haha, don’t worry about it, we’ll hit it hard tonight.”

“Sounds good man!” Espy had become my workout buddy early on in the tour. He is 21 years old, and stands about 5’6” with 160lbs of pure muscle. He’s a lifting nut and often leads the whole platoon in arduous midnight workouts. The only thing I hear Espy talk about more than fitness was his wife left back home in Lacey, Washington outside of Ft. Lewis. He was 19 when he got married. He had been with the same girl since he was 15 years old! I can barely keep a girl for 6 months; I don’t know how he did it for 6 years and counting.

Chili and Furley sat on their beds watching a movie, Brooks and White were focus on their video games, a stereo quietly jamming rap music in the background. The wallpaper on Brooks’ computer has a big American Flag with bombs dropping from the sky reading “We’re gonna free the shit outta you!” It makes me smile every time I read it. There’s something fulfilling about watching my soldiers’ individual personalities penetrate the Army’s blanket of uniformity.

“Yo Sir, Dance!” called Brooks as he turned up the stereo. I looked at him with a snarl, staring down his challenge.

“I’m sorry, what did you say?” I demanded.

“C’mon, let’s see what you got!”

I walked to him slowly, deliberately…he looked scared, had he crossed the line?

Before he could understand what was going on, my mouth opened with the biggest, cheesiest smile in Afghanistan, and I slid across the floor doing my world famous “Carlton Dance” from Fresh Prince. SGT Lays bent over cracking up.

I stopped. My smile faded back to my glare. I slowly turned around and walked back towards my cot…I could hear the boys still laughing in the background.

SGT Lay’s area is scattered with pictures of his wife and daughter whom I met just before deployment. Even after only two months in theater, his daughter has already changed so much. Luckily, SGT Lay brought his PlayStation 2 with him to Afghanistan to keep his mind off of what I’m sure is a difficult time for him away from his family. SGT Lay and I share a unique bond. Like me, SGT Lay is an immigrant. He was born in Mexico and came to this country at a very early age. He enlisted in the army at age 18. Now at 21, he is already married with a daughter, holds the rank of Sergeant, and works directly for the Platoon Sergeant as his gunner…not too bad at all.

“So what’s the mission, Sir?” SGT Lay would ask me nearly every single time I walked through the door.

“Ha! Dude, we just got back from our last one.”

“I know, Sir. I was just curious if you knew what was next.”

“Nah, brother. I’ll let you know as soon as I do.” SGT Lay was fascinated with military tactics. Every time I put out a platoon mission, he’d have the most in depth and fascinating questions. I had countless talks with him over pen and paper drawing out the doctrinal maneuver of a tank platoon.

SFC Fix and SSG Koonts created their own little castle across from mine. Walls of firm plywood supported makeshift shelving around their cots, holding dozens of radio batteries, duct tape, and pictures of their wives and the four children they had between them. At the foot of their cots is a magnificent oak bookshelf that could sell as an antique in an American furniture store. They snagged it and stocked the shelves with a convenience store’s worth of potato chips, beef jerky, candy, and all the goodies sent from home. But the highlight of their corner is the old 13” television set which sits on the top shelf, connected to their own videogame console. The whole platoon rallies around their area for Madden 2009 tournaments. It was a rare occasion to walk through the tent with nobody on the controllers mastering the dime defense or the play action pass with their favorite teams. I was never much for videogames, but it’s something that brings the guys together in what little free time they have. Perhaps more importantly, it takes our minds off of the things we’re missing back home.

There’s a certain strength I find in my men as we dig in for the long haul here in Afghanistan. I am a single guy. I don’t have children or a wife; I don’t have anyone whose wellbeing depends on my nurturing or paycheck. But for the vast majority of my soldiers, the consequences of conflict reach far beyond their own lives, and they know it. They touch their children. They touch their wives who have dedicated themselves to their husbands’ service to the Army. With these emotional burdens tugging on their hearts, I’m absolutely amazed at how much focus they’re able to maintain on our missions…they’re stronger men than I am.

Calling this tent “home” still causes my stomach to turn upside down. “This isn’t home,” I’d tell my soldiers, “our job is to make sure every last one of us makes it back to our real homes…this is just a pit stop for us.” But I say that in vain, along with the other leadership catchphrases we all learn before donning our brass bars. My soldiers are here, and they call this tent home. They’ve isolated their professional focus from their sentimental draws. They’re here, not only because they’re told to, and not because of the pay, but because they feel some sense of purpose here. They bring new meaning to the phrase “home is where the heart is.” So if my platoon can come back from mission each day, walk into this rickety old tent, and call it “home sweet home”, then maybe I owe it to them to knock off the leadership ceremonials for just a few hours, pick up a game controller, and get my butt kicked in a game of Madden…all in a day’s work.

Don’t forget to wish my Dad a Happy Birthday this Wednesday!

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6 responses

  1. Jeff

    Rajiv, thanks for sharing, really interesting getting a perspective into what life is like over there. Stay safe brother.

    Jeff

    5 October 09 at 06:38

  2. Sabina

    Rajiv,
    Just so you know, I put my substance abuse class studying on hold to immerse myself in your blog. I thoroughly enjoy reading it, not only because it gives me a picture of what goes on, but because it makes me feel closer to you, buddy! It’s good to be in touch!!!
    The entry was very endearing; you write so well that I can picture many of the scenes… Oh and next time, break out some Shah Rukh Khan dancing for the soldiers, kay?
    Btw, why do you have a beanie hat, out of all things? And what songs are in your “pump mix”?
    Oh and my mom asked for the link for your blog so she’ll be keeping up with you too. 🙂
    Am looking forward to that letter finally reaching me! 🙂

    5 October 09 at 22:43

  3. Cam Srpan

    Thank you for giving us a look at life off the “battle field”
    I am so proud of the men who put their life on the line for America. My prayers are with all of you…be safe. I will email your mom and wish Srini a happy b’day!
    Cam S.

    6 October 09 at 02:12

  4. Meredith

    I loved this post Rajiv! What a poignant, affectionate, funny piece. I liked getting a sense of your soldiers’ personalities and your basis for rapport with different guys. It really seems you all have grown close like family. This struck such a cord with me: “They’re here, not only because they’re told to, and not because of the pay, but because they feel some sense of purpose here. They bring new meaning to the phrase “home is where the heart is.”’

    I can imagine how hard it is for all of you guys to be away from your families and the people who, to paraphrase e.e. cummings, carry your hearts in their hearts. Happy birthday to your dear dad!

    I’m with Sabina, inquiring minds want to know your pre-mission pump mix. LOVE your Carlton dance! You’re doing us so proud back home by working hard and taking such good care of your men. I think it’s only proper that you should keep that fateful stone…be thinking where along the Charles River you’d like to jettison it! =)

    I am so proud you. Thanks for another wonderful post.

    6 October 09 at 22:43

  5. Haily

    Today, I read two blocks together…both of them totally different in their own way and have unrelated feelings and sentiments….

    Each incident and moment of life is unique in its own way..

    You all have that quality to live that moment fully with lots of fun, dedication and sacrifice…

    It’s true picture of, How a soldier lives his life , his days and nights…

    15 October 09 at 02:30

  6. Wendy J Jones

    You handled that so well.

    Leave should be something much better than White experienced. Returning after such a disappointing leave must have felt like he had never had the break he so well deserved.

    You are so right in your comments. You are all so young and have achieved so much in that short time. White, as do all of you, has a great deal to be proud of. WE are proud of you and in your corner! Please tell him that.

    23 January 10 at 02:32

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