My last few days before leaving went by much as I expected. I didn’t talk to my husband again before I left, not even when he came to pick up the boys from our house the night before my plane left, and I guess I didn’t really expect to—even now, I don’t understand his ability to erase me, erase us, and move on so totally, but he did. My therapist said that my husband’s seeming lack of attachment was not “normal.” I liked her diagnosis better than my own–that I was unlovable–so, I readily accepted it.
When the time came, saying goodbye to my sons was gut wrenching. I learned the human body can produce endless amounts of tears. During the days and nights leading up to my departure, there was more crying, mostly after the boys went to bed and my mind raced with all the things I would miss while I was away for so long. I gave the boys so many hugs and kisses that they were entirely ready for me to leave. When the doorbell rang and their dad was there to pick them up, I reminded them that they would be staying with daddy for a little bit, but I would be back soon. To young children, a year and a week are the same. No sense in trying to explain it by reiterating how long it was. I didn’t need that either. Earlier in the evening, when I was packing the last of my supplies in my duffle bag and suitcases, my oldest son grabbed onto my neck and cried, his little body shaking and his warm tears running over my skin where he had tucked his sweet face. I didn’t break in that moment. I had compartmentalized my motherhood too much by the time I had to leave. My emotions were anesthetized, and I just held him tightly, shushing him and rocking back and forth until he, at last, pulled away. As they grabbed their coats and favorite toys to take to their dad’s, my oldest hugged me again, adding a wet, unpracticed kiss to my cheek. Then, he walked through the threshold, grabbing onto his dad’s hand and disappearing into the darkness of the front yard.
It is hard to explain to people who have never experienced deployments before that this, being called away, was my mission. I was peaceful about serving my nation in Afghanistan because, if I were to die there, I would die doing something honorable and respectable. My sons would have a war hero for a mother, and I could leave them a legacy. At least those are the things I tried to convince myself were important as I finally boarded the plane.
Pre-deployment training took place in Northern Wyoming. Wyoming in January is the stuff that old westerns are written about: a wind chill in the negative double digits, tumbleweeds impersonating grass, and cold–bitter, skin-cutting cold–slicing through layers and layers of clothing. It was the sort of cold that made the tiny hairs inside your nose snap to violent attention. The Army loved it, and they loved training the Air Force in it—sometimes too much. We low-crawled through the bramble, practiced walking in field formation around the frozen ground outside, and conducted land navigation skills through freezing ponds that cracked the skin from your bones. Once, I sank into snow up to my waist and received an abrupt, hefty shove from one of my teammates so I could make it up the damn hill. Instead, I made it about two feet forward, face first in the snow. I loved every minute of it, largely due to the people I met. At this point in my travels, I had made up my mind that positivity was the key to survival, regardless of how much I wanted to be back home with my boys. Afghanistan was my assignment for the next year; time to put on my big girl panties—a confusing term used to mean grow up and stop whining—and get the job done. But even more important than any positive intention was my openness to others around me, an unexpected gift from my heart being broken. I know that some people respond to heartache with bitterness and self-containment, but it wasn’t in the plan for me to die slowly that way. My impending divorce left gaping holes all over everything, and, if I shut people out and let ugliness invade every cell in my body, reek out of my pores and pollute everyone around me, I would never see those holes filled again. For whatever reason, I didn’t entertain that sort of darkness. As my reward, I met P-Dawg and the A Team.