The Transition Home

Twenty Somethings

Anyone who has even scarcely paid attention to the news in Afghanistan recently knows that it has been a rough week for us here in Kandahar and Helmand provinces. While soldiers may have varying degrees of relation to the tragic incidents over the past few weeks, it undoubtedly touches all of us; as a profession…as a family.

A couple days ago, in the silence and darkness of night, I found myself twisting and turning my cot. I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t anxiety or stress, nor was it fear or depression. I just couldn’t sleep. It’s not uncommon for a deployed soldier to experience some difficulty sleeping. After all, we interchange so frequently between day and night missions that our circadian rhythms flow more like jazz improv than a steady waltz. Whenever I have trouble sleeping, I find myself jumping out of bed and trying to find some activity that would make sleeping look like a more pleasant alternative for my body. As I still have a “fat kid” mentality from my more portly days in Roanoke, Virginia, that activity is usually running. There’s nothing like a solid run to make a fat kid want to go back to sleep.

The days in Kandahar province remain hot, but the nights now fall to the 60s as winter approaches. The sensation of cold sweat running down my spine didn’t really bother me as I ran…mostly because I was too focused on trying not to roll my ankle on the dirt and gravel roads around the FOB. I started pumping my arms to maintain speed. My eyes flexed in ten different directions trying to simultaneously avoid dozens of gravel obstacles while anticipating the next batch. And it was dark. No one was watching me run, and it occurred to me that if I were to fall and hurt myself, I’d probably be out here all alone. I brought my quick gallop down to a stroll and started walking off the shivers from the wind chill. As I lifted my head and broke my fixation on the trail in front of me, I saw only one light in the entire FOB still shining brightly. It was the FOB Chapel.

The Chapel has a small room called the “ChapEx”. It’s kind of like a PX (Post Exchange), but everything is free. All the items are donated from the USO. I had ran out of soap, and I was not going to go back to bed without a shower…so I sauntered up to the Chapel’s bright lights and entered the ChapEx, scavenging for toiletries.

“Hey there!” came an excited voice from behind. I was startled. I turned around to find Captain Barton, our Battalion’s Chaplain, standing behind me.

“Oh, hey Sir. How’s it going?” The Chaplain was still wearing his ACU uniform without the blouse. He was probably getting ready for bed, but in his position, he’s on call 24-hours a day just as I am.

“Not too badly, yourself?”

“I’ve been okay, just trying to grab some soap…stay outta trouble, you know the drill,” I smiled. Chaplain Barton and I have a unique relationship. He is a devout Protestant from Tennessee. He is older than most captains, and speaks with a charming southern draw. I am a Hindu. In fact, I’m the only practicing Hindu in the entire Brigade as of his count. But though we are two men coming from such different backgrounds, we both share a unique friendship as two men on separate trails towards the same spiritual end.

“You need any more…reading material?” He asked me. Captain Barton was kind enough to order me a copy of the Bhagavad Gita and Ramayana with his allotted budget. “That’s what the money’s there for!” he told me, “To meet your spiritual needs, whatever they may be!”

“Nah, I’m good for now, Sir. Thanks though.” I paused. I could sense Captain Barton was waiting, calmly and silently, for some sort of explanation for what I was doing in the ChapEx at such a late hour. “Well, if you don’t mind…I’d like to talk to you about…well, you know.”

“Absolutely, c’mon into my office.” He gave a soothing pat on my back as he escorted me out the door. The Chaplain’s office looks more like a storage room with an out of place desk and computer in the corner. The hum of a stainless steel refrigerator next to the door was sure to distort the hundreds of private conversations held in this room from those lingering outside. I grabbed a folding chair towards the end of the desk. We both sat down, leaning forward, elbows resting on our knees. The Chaplain sat patiently, waiting for me to begin.

“So…I guess I wanted to talk to you because…I’ve just been…confused.” I stuttered, trying to find the words. “The past couple days just sort of rocked me. And I’m having trouble understanding…how any sort of loving God could see this as—I just don’t understand—I—“

“You can’t understand how a loving and compassionate God could allow something like this to happen?” Chaplain Barton finished my sentence.

“Yeah…exactly.”

“Well, there are plenty of reasons. And keep in mind, I come at this from a different religious philosophy,” Chaplain Barton began with the confidence of someone who had conversed on this topic numerous times, “but think of God’s decisions in two categories: Divine will and Permissive will. Divine will implies that he actually wants something to happen, whereas Permissive will means that he simply allows it to happen.”

“Well, why on earth would he allow such evil to happen? I mean–“ And then it began.

I buried my eyes in the heels of my palms…and cried. I broke down. Tears flowed slowly, my lungs and chest pulsated as they purged three month’s worth of buried frustration and fear. “I mean we’re just a bunch of kids!” I pulled my head up from my hands. I could see the redness in my eyes in the reflection of the fridge in front of me. “We’re just a bunch of 20-somethings running around this country with guns and bombs and—I have 20 year old soldiers with kids and wives back home. I have guys who haven’t even had their first legal drink yet! I’ve met their daughters, their sons, their wives. And they’re all such good people…I mean they’re really good people.” I dropped my head back into my palms.

“And I love my guys, I love them so much,” I dug deep into my heart to find a degree of composure. I wiped away the tears and mucous streaming down my face.

The Chaplain sat there serenely. He was strong. As I regained control over my emotions, he slowly and quietly began to whisper his piece.

“I hear you, Raj. It’s a tough one. But, let’s think of it from a barebones and simple point of view. True, you’re all young…but really? What is an appropriate age to die? Not everyone can live to be 100. The world couldn’t sustain itself. Death is a part of life, and we tend to fear it tremendously because it’s unknown and appears lonely. But it’s a very important part of life, and it’s important for sustaining life. Of course, if some people have to die, we don’t want anyone we love to be in the mix. We say ‘it’s okay to pick that guy, but none of my friends or family’. But it doesn’t work like that.”

“I guess that’s understandable…but—I don’t know…I have to go out on patrol tomorrow. I have to get up there in front of my soldiers and brief a plan that makes them feel safe and comfortable. I have to put them at ease that their Platoon Leader knows what he’s doing…but I don’t know. I just don’t know if I’d be able to handle it if the worst were to ever happen to one of my guys.”

“That’s completely normal,” Chaplain Barton smiled. “You know, there’s something a friend of mine told me right when I joined the Army. He said, ‘Soldiers do not give their lives when they are killed in war. They already gave up their lives when they joined the Army. It just happens, on that particular day, their life was required in service to their country.’ See, you and your soldiers already gave your lives. You all joined knowing that this was a dangerous job.”

Chaplain Barton could tell I was just getting more and more confused. “So maybe you can help me. You’re a smart guy. What is your spiritual philosophy on death? Why did you join the Army?”

“Well,” I searched for my own history in the back of my mind, “I guess I joined the Academy cause I liked the camaraderie I saw between the cadets. I wanted to be in the Army because this country gave me so much that I am sure I wouldn’t have had my family remained in India.”

“Okay, that’s good! Now how does that incorporate into your faith?”

I paused for a moment. “The story I use is that of Arjuna. He’s sitting there on the precipice of battle, looks over the field and does not see his enemy. He sees his family. He decides that he cannot go to war against his own blood. But then Lord Krishna, who is his chariot driver, begins a conversation with him on the purpose of his life and the necessity to stand up for what you believe no matter what the challenge or consequence.”

“See!” Chaplain Barton interrupted with the excitement of striking gold, “you just have to remember that, in every tragedy we see here, we’re all soldiers standing up for what we believe in. That’s an honorable strive, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess it is…” I paused, “it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking though,” I continued sadly.

“True, this has been a traumatic week, and you’re scarred; not physically, but emotionally. And the only cure is time…and discussion…it won’t always be this painful.”

“I see that. I guess the Army just has this aura of machismo where no one dares talk this sort of stuff. We go on acting like nothing is bothering us.”

“Absolutely, but believe it or not, you’re ahead of the game. The fact that you realized something was bothering you and found someone to talk to…you’re going to be just fine, Raj. When you go out tomorrow, just remember that your guys all volunteered. They are here because they believe in America and will do whatever is needed to be done to protect it. I think you’ll be just fine.”

“Hey, Thanks Sir.” I began to stand up. I could smell my own body odor stinking up the office. I needed to shower and rest, “This helped a lot.” I stuck out my hand waiting for a reciprocating shake. Rather, the Captain opened his arms and gave me a warm embrace. A hug. I let out a childish and comforted sigh. It dawned on me that it was the first time I had been hugged since my parents dropped me off at formation on the night of my deployment. Even more impressive, he did so even though I smelled like a garbage bag.

I stepped out of the Chapel, soap in hand, and started walking towards my tent. My head was held up a bit higher and I felt a bit better. I didn’t feel good, but I guess the fat kid inside of me finally had enough…it was time to get some sleep. Thankfully, the walk back to the tent just wasn’t as dark as before.

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14 responses

  1. First, it’s really good to read a post from you… this has been a tough week in Afghanistan, and my thoughts turn to you and your guys every time I hear the news.

    Second, you are an incredibly talented writer, and I have tears in my eyes.

    Third, I think President Obama should be reading your blog.

    Fourth, I’m praying for you… to whatever Unitarian Universalist agnostic version of a God that I’m not sure I believe in but hope he exists. 🙂

    Miss you…

    31 October 09 at 20:09

  2. Tauseef

    Thanks for putting this up bhai. You are always in my thoughts. Your service to this country gives me so much inspiration and guidance. I sincerely hope that things get better. Stay strong, stay safe!

    1 November 09 at 08:53

  3. Sabina

    Rajiv!
    As always, it’s great reading your posts– this one was heavier than I am used to, but as I have mentioned in my letters, I am glad that you got in touch with your emotions and let it all out– it was needed and I’m sure you feel great relief.
    Stay safe and healthy; here’s a virtual *hug* since you’ve been missing out on those.

    1 November 09 at 17:15

  4. Meredith

    Rajiv I was moved to tears by your post and I have been thinking of you and your men as the reports of all the casualties kept coming in last week. I wish I could give you a huge hug…I wish all of us back home could form a protective huddle around you and keep you safe and warm.

    I imagine how difficult these cold nights in Kandahar are as you grieve the lives lost in October. I really struggle to answer for myself the question you posed of the chaplain. Under a permissive will theory, I long to know how and under what circumstances God can intervene on our behalf…what distinguishes a disaster from a disaster averted? Thank goodness for parents, friends, loved ones, and soldiers who abide with us and protect us where they can.

    It is so good that you’ve recently been able to talk about some of the emotions that had been bottled up since you’ve been in Afghanistan. It’s important that you try to talk about the pain. The heartache of war coexists with these actions that we admire so much (standing up for what you believe in, defending the U.S., protecting civilians, and so forth).

    I know it’s not the same, but a few years ago I was away for a study abroad program. I think it was when a fellow student spontaneously hugged me that I realized it had been six weeks since my last hug!

    Miss you, wish I could send you an electronic bear hug! Please write more soon….

    2 November 09 at 03:42

  5. Cam Srpan

    Thank you for letting know that you are safe. This is a tough one. I am glad the chaplain was there for you.
    It is difficult to watch the news these days and wonder if you and your men are ok. My heart and prayers go out to the families who lost their children.
    I can’t understand why either…no answers…just prayers and tributes to such brave men and women…like you.
    Hang in there..hugs!!!
    Cam S.

    3 November 09 at 00:49

  6. Haily..

    Hey….It was really a very different and emotional peace of writing….

    but it is so normal and could possible with anyone who thinks a lot about peace, harmony and non violence….and who get confused sometimes between different play he is playing in life…

    it is coming directly form “DIL SE” of An American Soldier and Indian Son, who love everyone …being in Army it is sooooo difficult to control emotions…But I am happy that you got “JAADU KI JHAPPI” from your captain….I can feel the feeling which you had when he gave you his loving Hug…

    and I really like his friend’s saying that “Soldiers gave up their lives when they joined the Army and Death is Truth of a Life”

    but you know..to cry…. I think it is a way to remove pain due to heavy heart and frustration…and you’ll feel calm and relax…..

    I hope you are better now and wish you all are safe …

    take good care of yourself…

    4 November 09 at 03:54

  7. Haily

    This is different, a very touchy and emotional peace of writing…

    and coming right from “DIL SE” of American Soldier and Indian Son..who is confused with the different role he has to play in his life….what he was and where he is now…. who is very emotional but strong too, who loves everyone but have differences on certain things…

    It happens Rajiv and it’s normal too… but I appreciate the way you and your guys carry yourself among all this difficulties…and I like your Captain the way he calm you down in Indian style by giving you “JHAADOO KI JHAPPY”..
    It really works naaa…yeah….it’s cool….
    He gave you perfect advise that “Soldiers gave up their Life when they join Army and Death is Truth of Life”

    I wish you all be safe…and take good care of yourself…

    5 November 09 at 18:25

  8. Thanks to all that is good that a wonderful person like Chaplain Barton is with all of you in Afghanistan. His belief of respect and support for all religions is what the world needs.

    7 November 09 at 00:34

  9. Meredith

    Thinking of you tonight my friend and saying prayers for the military in the aftermath of Ft. Hood. Hope you are safe and warm tonight!

    9 November 09 at 04:21

  10. Dear Rajiv, another excellent post.

    I am thankful for your chaplain and bet you are too! (I am thankful, too that you can go & find soap whenever you need it!

    Peace be with you.
    Donna Dilley

    11 November 09 at 20:20

  11. Zak Tanjeloff

    Hey Raj,

    Just wanted to let you know that I read your blog and love getting updated through it. I don’t know too many soldiers over there, so your writing really gives me a personal connection to what is going on over there… its very important and keeps all your hard work on all of our minds here back home.. keep up the good work, ill be reading.

    get home soon and safe,

    Zak
    your coke scholar pal

    15 November 09 at 22:12

  12. I truly admire what you have done here. It is charming to see you verbalize from the heart and your lucidity on this crucial subject can be easily ascertained. Extraordinary post and will look forward to your next update.

    24 November 09 at 06:42

  13. You truly make it seem so fabulous with your presentation, but I find this matter to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your following post; I will try to get the flow of it.

    24 November 09 at 19:42

  14. Tony Nadal

    IF you can maintain contact with your soldiers for the rest of your life (as I have with my soldiers from the battles in the IaDrang valley) you will come to cherish the relationships and to remember the sweet moments. The mind does not like to dwell on the terrible in most cases. That’s why there are so many soldier reunions.
    The brotherhood of battle, when nourished, is among the strongest ties that men can experience. The relationship that exists among those of us who fought at LZ XRay is one of the most significant and joyful aspects of my life.
    Hopefully the same will be true for you.
    Tony

    6 July 10 at 17:02

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