One of the quirkier things I miss about home is seeing my own face. Mirrors are few and far between on our joint COP with the ANA. In the United States, every bathroom, every vehicle, and most bedrooms all provide ample opportunities throughout the day to check one’s appearance. I suppose in a way its good. In a world set on professional appearances, we are able to refine our first impressions with the constant ability to appraise our hair and skin. I guess in the same token, it’s unfortunate that continuous exposure to what other people see of us makes the mind self-conscious and perhaps insecure about minor blemishes that are actually quite normal.
On our joint COP with the ANA, I see my own face perhaps once every couple days; and even then, it’s usually on accident. There are no mirrors in our port-a-johns. The mirrors on my Stryker are oriented at the driver, and are usually covered in sand anyways. It’s no big deal, there’s no beauty pageant going on in Zhari District (to my knowledge at least) so I don’t really have anyone to impress. But on the few occasions when I get to walk into a furnished bathroom or next to a vehicle with proper mirrors, I try to grab a glimpse of myself while I can.
Today is April 1, 2010…it’s my 24th Birthday. And of course, the first thing I saw before I went to bed yesterday was my own face and body. I saw them in a mirror in the new shower trailer they’re installing on our COP. Had it been any other day, I don’t think I would have cared. But it’s my birthday. I’m one year older, and most of that year was spent in Afghanistan. I stared at my own face like a ghost. I rubbed my hands on my coarse skin, darkened from months in the desert sun. My forehead wrinkled into a thousand valleys each time I raised my eye brows. I gently stroked the hundreds of scars on my arms, feet, hands, and face left behind from dozens of random bumps, burns, and cuts. My hands themselves felt like crude leather upon my skin, covered in harsh red blisters. My body looked demoralizing. Somehow, my figure had magically become both thinner and flabbier at the same time; I’m sure a feat only a few dainty men in the human race have managed to accomplish. I’m somehow smaller, but less defined.
Let there be no doubt, the worst feeling in the world, and I mean the most heart wrenching sight of all: my receding hairline. My mother’s father is bald, which in the genetic calculus means that I will probably go bald at some point in my life. Before leaving for Afghanistan, I had a full head of hair. Now, I can draw a straight line from where my hairline stops above my temples down to my sideburns. On top, my hair is thinning to the point where I can see the surface of my scalp through the mess of black tangles. I need to invest in Rogaine soon. As I stood there analyzing my body, the joy of my birthday evaded me. I wasn’t excited. I was depressed. I felt old.
When I attended Hindu Temple camp back in 2001 (yeah, no joke) my Swami Ji had a quote that always stuck with me. He said, “Aging is adding years to your life; growing is adding life to your years.” As I turned away from the mirror, I reflected on the Swami’s words. I have spent the better part of my 24 years trying to “out-live” myself. I went far out of my way to accomplish goals that were certainly not on my life’s path of least resistance. I picked up scuba diving, sky diving, surfing, I’ve run marathons, triathlons, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, endured through a service academy, and traveled the world. When I rattle off this list to people, it sounds impressive if not arrogant; as if I’m making a list of my own accomplishments.
But now, as I find myself in the midst of the ultimate adventure, war, that list appears more as an insecure attempt to compensate for the things I know I could never be; to make myself feel like more of a man than I really am.
“I could ask you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every artist in the world…” says Robin Williams in the movie Good Will Hunting. “…But you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.” If there was ever a quote that inspired me to shun academia and pursue living a life of adventure, that did it for me. But not out of inspiration. I think I did it out of fear. I feared not being able to smell the world before I died. At age 24, I think I can say with some certainty that I’ve “smelt” a lot of things in my life. But has it been cause for fulfillment? Is it cause for celebration or praise? How much of the world do I have to become intimate with in order to feel like I’ve added enough life to my years?
What if I don’t like the smells I find? Hell, Kandahar smells terrible! There’s feces on the streets. There’s no plumbing system, so all the used water just flows where the children play. I hate the smell of charred skin and hair. I hate the smell of a dead body. I hate having to smell out corrupt ANA officers and tribal elders on my every decision. I hate the smells of this war. If this is what is meant by adding “life to my years”, if this here is “growing”…then maybe I need to give aging a try!
…But I have grown…a lot. My body has aged tremendously over the tour as well, but I’d be a fool not to consider the transformation in my value system over the past nine months. I came to this war a believer in hegemonic power; I will leave understanding that no amount of charity can stop a person from acting in self-interest, and our enemies make it in the Afghan people’s self-interest to hurt us. I came to this war thinking I eventually wanted to make truckloads of money in the private sector no matter the 17-hour days. I will leave valuing my work-life balance; I’m a better servant and professional when I have the opportunity to detox. I came to Afghanistan unconvinced that I wanted to settle down one day. I will leave this war with a passionate love and appreciation of loyalty; the kind that can only be found amongst family. I don’t want to go the rest of my life without having the support and camaraderie that I share with my platoon today. They make this tour worthwhile; having a loving family will make my life worthwhile.
Indeed I think I have done some growing over the past nine months. Maybe all those foul smells have been worth it.
There will be no birthday cake or midnight rendezvous in the city for me this year. I’ll probably go out on patrol as usual; maybe go to a mission planning meeting or so. But at the end of the day, I’ll smile knowing that 24 years has come and gone with a lot of fun, pain, and confusion but I’m happy with the man I’ve grown into, and I don’t regret a single decision I’ve ever made. Whether my next adventure is a trip to an exotic country or learning to find peace in the comfort of my own home, I know adding life to my years doesn’t always mean finding an adrenaline rush. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the past 24 years: the most fulfilling adventures in the world are in fact the ones in which you can take the slowest and deepest breaths.