What A Long Strange Trip It's Been
Buses arrived at 0330. We multicamed marauders were gathered in a very loose formation, a gaggle if you will. Soldiers smoked, dipped, fired back Monsters and Mountain Dews; others used assault packs as pillows and curled up on the asphalt parking lot to catch a little shut-eye while we waited to leave Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
Finally, after what seemed an interminably long time, we lined up, filed into and adjacent building and presented orders to waiting clerks who gave their blessing to carry on to the next station. I presented my ID to yet another clerk and dutifully stepped on a scale in front of me. I waited while her too-long-for-the-army fingernails fumbled at keystrokes. I rolled my eyes. I sighed audibly. I just want to get on the damn bus and sleep, my face told her. Her face said...what was it...oh, yeah, I don't give a shit, I'm up too. Touche, eagle-taloned Specialist, touche.
Assault pack loaded with laptop, charger, external drive, headphones, shaving kit, portfolio, handmade Christmas cards from my daughter's kindergarten class, snacks and a couple bottles of water. M4 across my body; M9 in a leg holster; NODs on my other hip. An Operation Enduring Freedom version of The Things They Carried. 267 pounds the clerk said...loudly. She didn't appreciate, let alone acknowledge, my "I'm still carrying a little holiday weight" comment and pointed me in the direction of the exit. I shook the chaplain's hand, accepted the USO care package he handed me and made my way to the bus. Sleep was but yards away.
Seated with my weapon between my legs, care package and assault pack on my lap, I was ready for the hour plus drive to Gulfport.
I was asleep before we left the parking lot.
How did I get here you might ask? It's not something I've talked about at length with anyone but my wife. As it should be. But the answer is astonishingly simple and not unexpected. Unemployment. Or as my friend Fordie calls it, Unenjoyment. It is teh suck, as I'm sure we all can agree. It wreaks havoc on those affected by it: the individual, their families. It can be debilitating. It can lead to depression; a sense of diminished self-worth. Interviews bring highs; rejections bring crushing lows. You question your own talents; your abilities. Are my successes frauds? Am I just not good enough? Will I ever work again?
Twelve months into this particular circle of hell, Mrs. Big Dubya and I put deployment on the table. A last resort sort of thing. God-willing it won't come to that, we said. But it had to be added nonetheless. It was virtually a guaranteed job, a risky one no doubt, a lonely one too, but a paycheck is a paycheck. Mrs. Big Dubya had been carrying us, week-to-week, month-to-month. It wasn't fair. It wasn't even in the same ballpark as fair. And it was taking its toll on our marriage. A serious, serious toll. We were short with each other. We were short with the kids. It was not pretty. To this day I appreciate everything she did to hold it all together, to hold us together, but I was far from vocal about it; nowhere near supportive enough. Husband #FAIL. And it almost cost me. I have sworn to make it up to her -- all that I put us through -- if it takes me the rest of my life. I owe her that even if it is a debt that can never be made good on.
But a deployment could be my way of making a start, at least a little bit, I said. It would allow me the opportunity to contribute, to work again, to ease some of the burden. Mrs. Big Dubya said it was such a high price for me to pay, that I would be away form the family...the kids...that I would be going to war. Don't worry about me, I said with the forced bravado of a soldier, I'll be fine. Taking care of the kids by yourself is a harder undertaking, but we'll cross that bridge when...if...we come to it.
A job didn't come, but the bridge did. It took me by surprise at first. I was overcome by something similar to vertigo and then (not so quickly) regained my composure. I texted Mrs. Big Dubya three words: I've been approved. And just like that, I felt some of the crushing weight of unemployment lifted from me. Some, not all, mind you. But new weights were added. The weight of leaving my family for a year. The weight of traveling to a country where someone, so steeped in hatred for my way of life, someone who considers me an infidel, someone who believes it's his religious duty, wants to kill me and my brothers and sisters in uniform; someone who would gladly do the same to my entire family if it came to that. Weights, indeed.
So, we began planning for a deployment. Checklists were made. Things were organized. Arrangements were made. I had a purpose and that was to make it as easy on my family as possible. For a year. Twelve months. You are assigned to active duty for no more than 400 days starting....
The buses arrived at the airport at Gulfport around 0615. 200+ bleary-eyed troops filed into a Mississippi National Guard drill shed and wearily ate over-glazed donuts and guzzled too-hot coffee. We milled about, idly chatting, waiting for the call to board the 747 that would take us to Frankfurt, Germany, on the way to Manas, Kyrgyzstan, where we would wait...as jetlagged transients...for briefings and flights to Afghanistan. Sleep came readily as we tried (with abject futility) to adjust our internal clocks; eating dinner at 0230 in the morning was not uncommon. Thank you 24/7 dining facility. You are forever in my heart as one of the best places in the world.
On January 10, At 0030 Kyrgyzstan time, we grabbed our bags and brought them to the load station. The duffel bag drag was on. My possessions were sorted by duffel bag, large ruck sack and medium ruck; palletized likewise; and shuttled off to a waiting plane. At 0730 we were released from "lockdown" and once again piled onto buses and drove the mile to the flight line. (Some of us "older" soldiers secretly longed for the spartan comfort of cattle cars and their "ease of use.") We were loaded on to a C-17 like, for lack of a better cliche, sardines, for the 90-minute flight to Bagram Air Field (BAF for short).
At 0945 we finished our taxi and exited the plane. Welcome to Afghanistan.