In the days of trebuchets
I was sitting on the runway back in March in a C-130 when The Cars' You're All I've Got Tonight started playing through my earbuds. I had hoped the steady beat of the tom-tom and bass would lull me to sleep for the 45-minute flight from Salerno to Bagram. Instead, my mind started wandering and I could see my 14-year-old self fiddling with the stereo in my bedroom at my parents' house. The plastic dustcover protecting the turntable (that's for LPs kids) had a 94.5 WCOZ sticker plastered to it and there were four or five LPs on the spindle. There might have even been The Who's The Kids Are All Right 8-track in the player. Anyway, all I could think as this tableau played through my mind was, "Where the hell has the time gone?" Thirty years, give or take. Most of the guys I'm serving with right now weren't even born when 14-year-old me was fiddling around with my stereo. Hell, odds are, their parents probably weren't even dating. Even worse, their parents might not even have been 14 yet. Crap.
I turned 45 at the beginning of May. In army years that's retiree age. AARP level. Geriatric even. I look around at the guys in my squad and I try and remember what it was like to be their age. I was in the army then too, but we weren't in a war. Work was work and we spent our off time drinking and traveling and hanging out with girls. Not scurrying for a bunker every time the Big Voice in the Sky said "Incoming! Incoming!" or looking at every local national like he could be the next Bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or maybe he was the guy launching mortars from the back of a donkey. No, it was simpler then.
I'm an old man in this group - not the oldest mind you, that honor belongs to my friend Tim. He turns 52 in a couple of weeks and this is his third and final deployment. After me, my platoon sergeant checks in at a relatively youthful 43. Following him, however, it's a precipitous drop as the next guy has barely seen 30. Then we tick off through the 20s until we reach our youngest who turned 20 in March. 20! Born the same year I left active duty. Yikes.
I forget sometimes that they are just kids. When they get mopey after they've been corrected for something relatively stupid and mundane - not earth-shattering stuff that can get people hurt or killed; minor bullshit that in the big scheme of things doesn't even matter - I have to remind myself that is probably the way he responded to being grounded at home (yes, by parents who are younger than me). I've learned the phrase "I know a lot about music..." means the sum total of that knowledge is everything produced by, included in or performed by Li'l Wayne, Young Jeezy, Nicki Minaj and/or some emo band that would make me feel worse if I weren't already in Afghanistan. When I ask them if they know where a particular sample comes from (vacant stare) and I tell them it's The Clash (vacant stare) I just shake my head and walk away. And then I tell them to get off my lawn.
I'm not a man of the world by any stretch (nor am I all that interesting), but for many of these guys, other than basic training and schooling, this is their longest time away from home. Hell, for some of them, this is the first time they've left their town let alone the country. And here they are, halfway around the world, in the equivalent of a Depression-era Oklahoma dustbowl (but now with mountains!) while people who would gladly see them dead frolic in those very same mountains. Best field trip, evah! But I admire them for being here. It takes a lot of balls to enlist at 18, 19, 20 and know full well you'll end up in Afcrapistan.
Music, pop culture, education, travel and many other things aside, I love them all dearly and do my damnedest to make sure they come home in one piece - they same way they left.
And I still have to remind myself that they're just kids.
Some of the guys (my apologies for the Hollywood call signs/nicknames - things I have to tolerate I guess):
Awesome, The Standard aka Sven, Bandit, Batman, Tim, Little Stevie (now at J-Bad - miss ya brotha) and of course, The Young LT.
mr. big dubya, RC-East Afghanistan. Halfway home.