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.
“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.