The holidays are difficult to handle, as a rule, for everyone when deployed. It is never ideal to be away from friends and family. I hated missing out on my boys’ lives for long periods of time, but it had a special hurt when it was a national holiday and I knew they would be celebrating without me, making memories without me. Luckily, the pace of my job kept my mind focused on something else. Unlike carrying out our everyday mission in the States, the end-of-year holiday season didn’t come with a lull and a yawn in Afghanistan. In fact, the opposite happened in the Command Section where I worked. Top leadership had many responsibilities when leading troops, and one of the most important responsibilities was to keep morale from plummeting too low. The holiday season posed a direct adversary to that goal, so many leaders (like the general and the Chief) made sure to get “eyes on” their men and women in the field. This required time spent traveling in Army and Marine Corps helicopters to remote locations and checking on their people. I loaded up my backpack with schedules, a notebook, recognition coins, hand sanitizer, sunblock and a toothbrush and prepared to roll.
When the general was going on a trip, an Army helicopter, or he-lo, would descend into the landing zone by our compound and we would race out to meet it through a small metal door hidden in the perimeter wall. It was important to be on time, watch your step over the chunky rocks in the landing zone, keep your head low (not really a problem for me), and haul yourself up into the jump seat with a quickness born of near panic before the pilot skedaddled back to the safety of the skies. In theory, it was all very exciting and badass. In practice, I hated loading and unloading the he-lo. For everyone else, the ingress seemed to go smoothly as they athletically swung into the bed of the helicopter, hopped to their feet with barely a hesitation under the weight of their gear, and settled into the cot-like jump seats. It did not go that well for me the first few times I tried to get into the bird.
For starters, the lip of the he-lo floor came up almost to my armpits, as I stood next to her. I needed a running start, which wasn’t going to happen with giant boulders posing as a walkway. The engineer who designed this whirling contraption before the Korean War did not think to include a lift-step to assist the vertically challenged (everybody must have been giant then, or at least not female). To top it off, I had slacked off on my Arnold Schwarzenegger-time in the gym by sitting at a desk for 16 hours a day, and I had difficulty lifting my weight plus the additional 30 pounds of gear (which now felt completely unnecessary) high into the bird.
Noticing my plight before I had to draw attention to it, the Chief, after his gazelle-like leap into the he-lo, turned to offer me a hand. Someone else grabbed the back of my Kevlar vest, and a third person grabbed my other arm. Clearly under-estimating their combined strength, the three of them hurtled me into the helicopter like a half-empty sack of potatoes and sent me skimming across the metal-plated floor of our ride. Regaining my bearings, but not my dignity, I maneuvered my legs back underneath my body and dragged myself into an open jump seat. It wasn’t magisterial, to be certain, but I was in and the bird was lifting away.