Monthly Archives: November 2013

“Naked” #16

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Me and the children of Kabul. The day after OBL was killed.

Why did the tiny woman get out of the bulletproof vehicle on the streets of Kabul the day after Bin Laden was killed? Because she was not going to make her sisters in uniform look bad. I knew the men were just as afraid as I was of the possibility of never stepping foot back into the vehicles in one piece. The few locals wandering around the dirt sidewalks seemed just as shocked as I was to see the general and his security personnel walking around with bags of candy. The vehicle commander of our SUV opened my door, and I felt a rush of air, not fresh air, but warm, stale, manure-tainted air, in my face. Taking quick measure of my options, I looked at my fellow military members mingling with the few locals present. With the exception of the security detail, who were expected to throw themselves in the line of fire to protect the general, everyone else was naked: no Kevlar vest, no helmet. Then there was me, suited up in the back seat, unmoving. But I was the only female in the group. And I was the only Airman in the group. It was not an option to stay in the vehicle. But I could have kept my clothes on. No one would have thought any less of me if I had stayed shielded in vest and headdress. I don’t know why I took them off. I think there was a moment of dare to the danger that could await. I dared myself to be brave. I dared myself to trust in my Lord; He would not lead me here to die on the side of the road. He had not tamed the scariest parts of my mind that wanted me to harm myself only to let death touch me in this dirt. I felt a great peace settle over my mind and heart. My boys would not lose their mother on this day. With a weightlessness born of shedding thirty pounds of plastic, I stepped into the street.

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Like tiny moles sniffing the air for danger before fully uprooting from their holes, the children poked their heads out all along the storefronts. Candy was an unrelenting Siren. Soon, I was swarmed in a colony of tiny, dirtyhands buzzing around my face and hair. I handed out tootsie rolls, pencils, erasers, suckers and licorice. The children were not satisfied until they had everything, and just as quickly as I handed it out, it disappeared into their pockets:  magic.

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Afghan boy. Photo by SGT C Threat

There were so many tiny people surrounding me that I became very aware of the M-9, with a full clip, loaded and strapped to my hip. What if they grabbed at it? Not this day. I would not die the day after Bin Laden. I turned my attention back to the children, protecting my right hip with its precious cargo, but focused on their curiosity and smallness. They were serious, diminutive versions of their adult counterparts in their long dresses, same-colored pants, and dourexpressions. Some wore the traditional takiyah, a small, brimless hat decorated with elaborate embroidery, and some were bareheaded now that the Taliban was banished. I ruffled the hair on one little boy’s head, and my hand came away with such a skin-penetrating grittiness that it made me both smile and want to sanitize. I was not going to die amongst the children of Afghanistan, these boys who looked like my boys playing dress up back home. Not this day.

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Afghan boy and girl in Kabul.

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“The Day After” 15

Osama Bin Laden was killed on May 2, 2011. I had been in Afghanistan for nearly four months and was settling into my duties. It turned out, there was quite a bit more to my job than stocking the mini-fridge with sodas. Once the Chief trusted that I wasn’t incompetent even though I didn’t graduate from West Point, I was given the responsibility of his daily schedule, which put me directly in the way of anyone who wanted to talk to him. Everybody had to go through the red-haired Captain with a bit of an attitude in order to see the Chief. While some assistants let this sort of “power” go to their heads, in my mind, it was just one more thing that prevented me from going to the bathroom when I wanted. I was at my beck-and-call-position outside the Chief’s office when the Provost Marshall (something like the Chief of Police) came to inform the Chief that Bin Laden had been killed. The news was delivered to me like a gift slid across the table at a dimly lit restaurant. I was supposed to unwrap the dainty package of this so simple statement. Perhaps, I was to clap my hands excitedly when I realized what was inside. In fact, it was difficult to stop the initial curl of the corners of my lips, but just as soon as the instinct began it stopped. Although Bin Laden was an enemy of the United States, and his death brought celebration and relief to the Americans cheering on the television screen, we weren’t in the United States. We were in Afghanistan, and I didn’t hear any celebration in the streets.

The day after Bin Laden was killed, the General had a meeting somewhere in Kabul, outside of the safety of the compound, and the Chief went along with him. Wherever the Chief went, I was sure to follow. The streets were still in depression and very nearly empty, with the exception of a man or two riding a bicycle or crossing a street. But there were no children anywhere. Children were sentinels against danger, like canaries in a coalmine. If children were present on the streets, a planned attack was less likely. If children were not around, we shouldn’t be either. I sat still in the back of the SUV with my hands clenched in my lap, my senses overly stimulated. The Chief snored next to me, catching a catnap on the ride back to the compound. The general’s SUV was in front of us and began to slow, then stopped. Our driver followed suit. There we sat, plump, sluggish game sitting in the streets of Kabul where there were no children anywhere. Craning my neck to see around the front seats and out the windshield, my eyes widened and my jaw went slack as the general’s personal security detail exited the vehicle. They were covered in their Kevlar vests and helmets, weapons cradled in their arms and strapped to their legs. Then, still in disbelief that this was happening the day after Bin Laden was killed, I watched the General step from the back seat without any armor or weapons, his Marine aide right behind him. As I turned towards the Chief to detect the proper reaction to this current situation, he lifted his head to take it in. “Looks like we’re handing out candy. There should be some in the back,” he said. Then, our driver opened the door for my boss to exit, leaving me alone in the vehicle.

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“Bazaar” #14

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Bazaar. Photo by SGT C Threat

If the mission allowed, I didn’t have to come in until noon on Fridays and Sundays. Normally, the Chief’s schedule had him (and therefore me) working all day on Fridays because he was an important man with many obligations, and I stocked his Diet Pepsi. But on Sundays I could usually slip away from my desk for an hour and make good use of my half day off at the bazaar. The bazaar was like a farmer’s market but without fruits and veggies. Instead, there was a stall of beautifully crafted Middle Eastern rugs woven from rich rubies, royal blues and sunrise yellows, laid out along the ground to showcase the intricate patterns and designs of swirls and loops.  Some people spent entire paychecks on these works of art, investments, that would bring three times as much back in the States if you found a buyer. Placed on the edges of the market were bootlegged DVDs by the thousands. The latest television series (Dexter, Lost, The Big Bang Theory) were spread across tabletops alongside movies still playing in theaters back in the States. Back home, we saw commercials warning us not to patronize bootleggers because they support terrorists, and then, in the place where the Taliban grew their numbers, we were supplied a limitless supply of bootlegged items. We were also offered a twinkling supply of semi-precious and precious stones: tanzanite, lapis, emerald, amethyst, sapphire, tiger eye, pink spinel, tourmaline, garnet, black diamond, pink diamond, yellow diamond, and on and on. The star-shine lured customers in like hypnotists on a Vegas stage. I spent many an hour gazing, then holding and petting, and finally buying the tiny Easter egg colored beauties. The prices were too affordable and I liked to hold the pretty things in my hands while whispering, “my precious.” 

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Bazaar. Photo by SGT C Threat

And although I escaped the draw of the artful rugs, and I controlled myself with the gems (mostly), I was addicted to the brightly colored, hand-stitched blankets and tapestries with elephants, dancers, fish and swirls spiraling all over them. I loved the notion that some woman somewhere in Afghanistan (hopefully not Pakistan) was stitching threads together in her home; maybe her daughter, sister, cousin or mother was helping her to make the blankets. I loved the idea of the women working with their hands, their heads bowed in concentration, to create something in such a down-turned economy. I loved the hope that the hand-worked pieces represented. If these women hadn’t given up with all the odds against them, then I couldn’t either. Never mind that they may be under some sort of forced servitude. In my imagination, they were entrepreneurs. I must have purchased at least fifteen or twenty different pieces: bedspreads, bookmarks, pillow covers, table runners, and hanging tapestries. I even sent many back to the States for others to own a safe piece of the Afghan culture.

Today, I have the blankets stored away in the tops of my closets. It is a shame to keep these works of art folded up and tucked away, but on the few occasions that I have taken them down, spreading out their stories over my bed, I’m struck by a sense of such foreignness that I can’t bring myself to use them. Each time I pull them from their plastic covers, the musty mixture of Afghan dirt and unwashed skin along with the smell of Qorma and Naan (fried onions with meat and homemade Afghan bread) rises from the blankets and brings back feelings I’m not able to process yet. Their beauty is still there, but they don’t belong here at home with me. They don’t mesh with the rest of my life now. In the end, I feel like I’ve selfishly transplanted these pieces, and now they are dying under my care.

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“I felt like running–Forrest Gump” #13

Working for the Chief of Staff was overwhelming, in theory. He was a pretty important man in charge of all the United States forces in Afghanistan, about 60,000 of us at the time. He worked directly for the commander of the war in Afghanistan. In simplest terms, he was a big deal. I, on the far away other hand, made sure his mini-fridge was stocked with Diet Pepsi. He drank a lot of Diet Pepsi, so I was very busy in those first few days. The Chief of Staff was an Army Colonel and former big time West Point football player. He brought his highlight reels with him to Afghanistan and wasn’t shy about sharing them with anyone who showed an inclination to watch, which seemed to be most of the junior Army officers. He also stayed up too late, averaging about three to four hours of sleep each night. He had an uncanny knack for appearing to be asleep in meetings only to join right into an ongoing conversation around the boardroom table. The job suited me because I could quietly fall apart at my desk, and the Chief really didn’t notice.

I fell apart a lot in those early months. Being away from ISAF was better, but it didn’t cure all that ailed me. I talked to my children over the Skype software that connected us through the thousands of empty miles. Every other morning, I awoke at 0500, logged on to the Afghan’s temperamental Internet connection and talked to them at a convenient time for my stranger-husband. It was rejuvenating to talk to my boys, but it broke my heart to be ignored by the man I loved. We never spoke. In fact, I never saw his face on the computer screen, not once. I felt like I had no one who cared about me back in the States, which was ridiculous because I had plenty of family members who were anxious about my safety. All I could see was that my husband wasn’t one of those people. I was beginning to disconnect from reality again, but this time I didn’t have anyone to help ground me. Back home, my friend Kris and I would meet at least once a week for early morning therapy sessions of miles of running and talking. When we weren’t running together, I was running alone. Long, lung-burning runs that never took me away from my reality, but did let me feel pain in something other than my heart for a little bit. I was able to focus only on the strength needed to pick up my legs and put them down for miles and miles. I didn’t have to focus on my husband leaving me. Now in Afghanistan, the only thing I could think to do was run, but I was trapped inside concrete walls and bulletproof vests, behind gates and guards with weapons at the ready. I couldn’t simply take off outside of the compound and go for long, healing runs with Kris. Thankfully, she was far away from Kabul and everything it contained. I was not, and I still needed to figure out some way to make it through the remaining eleven months of my deployment. I started running around the compound.

It took me nine laps around to run six miles. I worked for the Chief from 0700 each morning until nearly 0100 the next day, and then I would run six miles every night, feeling like Forrest Gump. At first, I was very scared–but not terrified. Looking back, I would have welcomed death in those early days, if it had found me. I thought it would be a welcomed relief that I wasn’t getting anywhere else. And dying while running around the road of the compound would be more honorable than to choke on a grape in my kitchen, which was what I thought about now that I lived alone in the States. But I was still scared each time I set off on a run.

The blackness around the “track” was only broken up by the faint illumination of generator-powered lighting scattered around the perimeter of the compound. The only thing separating me from the outside was a concrete wall about twelve to fifteen feet high. It looked like my five-year old could have thrown something over the wall, so it was not much protection against a bomb being tossed over. On those first few runs, my brain was hyper-focused on every sound I heard, every pebble that fell in the distance. Each parked truck I ran past was a possible container for explosives just waiting for a target. But there wasn’t anything separating me from those on the inside of the wall. Most of the guards around the perimeter were Afghans, and their eyes were trained on me from the watchtowers as I ran in my military physical training shorts and t-shirt. I could feel them staring, and oftentimes, see their eyes through the wooden planks of the towers. I tried the friendly, non-threatening head nod if my eyes caught theirs, but it was never returned. Although they were our “allies,” I was still a woman, uncovered and American. With the way they stared, I was more concerned about being raped than being killed by someone or something from the outside. They weren’t lustful stares, more direct and unfriendly. I was not wanted there. I was grateful for the bump bump of the knife in my pocket, reassuring me with each step I ran.

Categories: Military, Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: ,

“Ghosts” #12

The ISAF base was a European village filled with German, Italian, French, Canadian and American flavor. It was a poor man’s “It’s a Small World” for the alliances of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. And it was the same base where my husband had been deployed when he started an affair as a way to get out of our marriage. I walked past coffee shops and work sections that he described on his phone calls home during his deployment. He told me all about the movie room where people hung out after work and the recreation room where people played Ping-Pong and pool. From his phone calls, I recognized the women’s dorms where she surely stayed, right next to the men’s dorms where he would have stayed. When he returned home, he even told me stories about her, his friend who “they all” hung out with during their downtime. But as soon as I laid eyes on him again, my heart knew everything was wrong. The man who I loved for more than a decade, who I shared children with, and who I had woven the beginnings of a life with, was capable of disregarding me so completely. They would have been on these walkways together about a year before I arrived, laughing and talking on the same streets, at the same coffee shops, in the same rec rooms, in the same dorms. But in the past, I was not here, not physically, not in his memory, and not in his heart. I wasn’t here then, but I was here now with their ghosts. Being at ISAF was breaking me further down and my anger was wrapping itself around my heart and suffocating my newly discovered faith that God would perform miracles for me.

When I wasn’t haunted that every place I walked past held memories of the two of them together, I was learning my mission in the Joint Visitors Bureau. We were responsible for arranging all travel for very important persons (VIPs) throughout Afghanistan. War is great re-election fuel, and getting “boots on the ground” in a war zone was the thing to do. It wasn’t unusual to see a well-known senator, congressman, or even the occasional movie star’s name on a visitor request. The JVB, as it was known, was responsible for any visitor who was allowed to tour the battlegrounds, and only the most important politicians, civic leaders and military leaders fit the standards. I should have been excited to meet the Vice President, Secretary of State, Speaker of the House, Ben Affleck and Chuck Norris, but I was not. Instead, I was, once again, a half-person with a heartbeat, but no heart. Each passing day drew me deeper and deeper into a dark mental state. I hadn’t laughed in weeks, and I rushed to every church service offered so I could focus on the promise of something greater than the pain in my heart. I slept every chance I could get and focused doubly on my work.

After nearly three weeks in country, the Colonel who led the JVB asked me if I was interested in moving to New Kabul. My misery made me an impressive machine in the office, quickly picking up on my duties and soon being rewarded with the sole responsibility of a very impressive group of VIPs. I guess I handled that visit without a hitch, I don’t remember caring about it, but now there was a position opening up in the Chief of Staff’s office, and the Colonel thought I would be perfect for it. New Kabul Compound (NKC) was almost directly across the street from ISAF, but with the security measures, checkpoints and roundabout routes to avoid getting blown up, it took about 20 minutes to load up the vehicles and drive there. It was a much smaller compound in the center of the city, more exposed than ISAF, with only a concrete wall to protect those who lived there from those who wanted to kill them. But it wasn’t ISAF. It wasn’t filled with memories I didn’t make. There were no ghosts there. “Yes, sir. I’ll take it.” It was the day before my thirty-sixth birthday, and this was the best gift I would receive.

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“Welcome to Kabul” #11

By now, the odor of stale, unwashed sweat and wet animal fur coated my tongue, and I tasted it every time I opened my mouth, but I needed to confirm if the circumstances were really as dire as the young solider indicated. As I bent to hoist up my backpack again, I glanced around the room and saw two Colonels and a Major, all higher ranking than me, waiting together on a bench near the Military Information office. “Excuse me,” I began, “are you waiting for a ride?” One of the Colonels confirmed the unfortunate news. “Our ride won’t be able to get through the roads until they’re cleared. We’re staying here for a while.” If they weren’t going anywhere, I wasn’t going anywhere.

Being stuck in the terminal, forced to “find a cot” until the roads cleared wasn’t okay with me. I had been traveling for two and a half days, I smelled like I belonged in this dirty room along with the goats, there was a fuzz-like film on my teeth, and I was starting to get a pimple on my chin from oil buildup. I was exhausted and I felt a full-blown fit coming on, but before I threw myself on the floor in the middle of the terminal and started kicking and screaming, I decided to call my contact at the Joint Visitors Bureau and let her know I arrived in Kabul. I spoke with the Captain working where I was to be assigned, and I told her I arrived and would be staying with the Army until someone could come get me. The Captain replied, “Great! We’ll be there in twenty minutes.” I exhaled slowly and tried to hang on to what little patience I had left while I reminded this nitwit that the roads are restricted. Her too bright voice crackled over the phone line, “Not for us. We’ll be there in twenty minutes.” I almost fell to floor in a puddle of relief before another realization set in: I would be on the roads, where an attack just occurred, in about twenty minutes. I hung up the phone and made my way to the doors marked “ېزت.” Exit.

Driving through the streets of Kabul, all I could see through the rectangular bulletproof window was the color brown. The asphalt was brown, the bushes and trees were brown, the livestock was brown, even the tattered, peeling billboards were brown, coated with dust and dirt. There was nothing blooming anywhere. Our two black SUVs rushed through the streets, skirting around what little traffic there was, and not stopping at any signs or intersections. It was silent in the vehicle except for the occasional squeak of plastic and Kevlar rubbing together. I sat, sardined between a large sergeant on one side and the narrow window on the other. I was in the backseat with every neuron in my brain pinging, and every cell in my body clenched. Afghan National Police, distinguished by their blue uniforms, stood haphazardly in the streets, waving the SUVs along at each checkpoint through the city. There was a strange wildness to their movements; they were on edge because of the recent attack. As we neared the International Security Assistance Force base, or ISAF, the traffic grew more congested and we had to slow down or risk slamming our vehicle into civilians. We came to a complete stop, surrounded by donkey carts, miniature Isuzu trucks, and pedestrians.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man slowly move towards the SUV. He looked to be in his sixties with a gray beard and a serious, wrinkled face. He carried a bundle of something in his arms. My heart’s rhythm started a frenetic beat and I gripped my M-4 which was resting between my knees, pointed at the floorboard. The weapon would do me no good if he carried a bomb. It would do me no good inside this reinforced cage. The man moved closer to the side of the SUV and I started praying, then I saw a small brown hand hanging from the wad of blankets in his arms. Attached to the small brown hand was a thick reddish-brown rubber tube that looked like it belonged in a hospital room from the early 1900s. There was a scissor clamp closing off the end. The hand was the picture of fragility, dangling limp and lifeless as the man crossed in front of our vehicle and made his way through the other stalled cars to the policeman in the middle of the road. I watched them talk to each other as the man with the child gestured up the road. He was desperate in his pleading, and he kept thrusting the blankets towards the police officer.

“What does he want?” I finally broke the silence of the vehicle and asked the sergeant sitting next to me, calling his attention to the man with his blankets.

“He’s trying to get through the checkpoint,” he answered.

“Why?”

“He probably wants to get to the hospital up there,” he jerked his head in the direction of a sand-colored building a few blocks away, and then the traffic starting moving forward, leaving the man and his blankets behind.

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“Moving On” #10

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Long, cold flight to Kabul.

Training in Wyoming eventually came to an end, but the few days felt more like a full season of goodness. The A Team was good. P-Dawg was good. Being reminded that people are kind, generous, caring, funny, and trustworthy was also good. It would take a few more seasons of goodness before new growth would begin to poke through my battered ground, but it was a start. On the last morning of training, we piled on the busses to the local airport, excited to be heading somewhere where our eyelashes weren’t frozen shut with every blink, but we were also aware of the very real future dangers awaiting each of us. The A Team characters were all going in different directions, but Nurse P was going to be the closest to me in Bagram. Even though I wouldn’t see her in Afghanistan, it made me smile to think of having a friend close.

After a hop, skip and a jump (and 35 unbelievable hours) I arrived in Kyrgyzstan.  Flying was exhausting. The depressing safety briefings from underwhelmed flight attendants, take offs, changes in altitude that eventually wore out my ears’ abilities to pop, then sitting in too small seats with nothing but time to imagine what awaits after the final landing—all these elements sapped whatever strength I regained from the intermittent layovers in European airports. And when we did stop to change planes or refuel, there was scrambling for rest rooms, for real food, for electrical outlets to recharge laptops, cell phones and iPods, and for a quiet place to stretch out from head to toe and be alone for twenty minutes before the call to board rippled through the crowds. Sanity was brief before the crazy boredom resumed and we were herded onto the plane again, sheep guided into a flying shearing pen. Deploying is not like traveling. Traveling is romantic and wonderful, conjuring up images of sunny beaches, visits to ancient architecture, pictures of exotic sights, sounds and people around every corner. Deploying is not romantic. It is work, duty, mission and poor hygiene.

With all the hours of flying, I was almost grateful to finally arrive in Kabul. Our C-130, packed full of Soldiers and me, flew directly into the civilian airport’s runway, and we disembarked to run across the open tarmac into the terminal. It was very typical to run to and from aircraft. They were, after all, terrific targets for destruction, and so was any “cargo” the plane carried. We were briefed from the Army Sergeant Major that the cargo needed to “haul ass” inside as soon as the back door was lowered on the aircraft. Never one to disobey my senior enlisted, I quickly shuffled, with my ten pound vest and thirty pound backpack, across the pavement and into the terminal. As soon as I entered the terminal I slammed into the gag-inducing smell of unwashed bodies, foreign food, and goats (I think). The thickness of the odor painted the inside of the waiting room and caused my eyes to water. I made my way to the front desk, which was a single lectern placed before the doors leading to the outside. The US Soldier behind the lectern barely looked up as I approached. He was busy filling out paperwork and listening to direction given over the radio. I heard code words I didn’t yet understand. “Hi,” I said. Nothing. I tried again during a break in the radio chatter, “I’m supposed to contact my ride to come pick me up. Is there a phone I can use?” I tried to maintain the positive outlook I carried through pre-deployment training.

“Sure. The phone’s over there,” he pointed over his shoulder to a red door with a sign that read, “Information for US Military.” As I bent down to grab my hefty backpack and move towards the red door, the Soldier continued, never looking up, “but I don’t think you’re going to get anybody to come get you today. The roads are under Black Condition right now.”

“Oh, really? What does that mean?” My positive outlook was taking a beating.

“That means no one is allowed out until the threat is lifted. We just had a convoy attacked up the road a few minutes ago. You might want to make yourself comfortable…ma’am,” he finally looked up from his paperwork to acknowledge me. “They’re not going to be able to get through the barricades for a couple days. You’re welcome to find a cot in one of the transient tents, if you can find an empty one. Welcome to Afghanistan.”

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“A-Team Plus One” #9

Although the fire teams were four-person crews, we had an honorary fifth man on the “A Team”: P Dawg. She was an Air Force nurse from Wisconsin and she had the cheese head wedge to prove it. She also had the innocent face and sweet smile of the girl next door, combined with the sharp wit and colorful language of the girl I wanted to sit next to at a party. To go along with her terrific ‘Sconsin accent, she also brought a renewed energy that made me, and everybody else she hung around, fall in love. We became fast friends sharing our stories of heartbreak and rejuvenation around the barracks room table as we sifted through the best military rations (Packaged Jalapeño cheese spread for your flattened, sponge-like crackers? Yes, please). Everybody needs a P Dawg on her deployment. I gravitated towards her because she was just full of good.

When I wasn’t hanging with Nurse P, I was learning field manuevers with the self-proclaimed, second-coming of the A Team. We didn’t have gold chains, a mohawk or a sweet van, but we did have helmets, kevlar vests and weapons. The basis of the training, according to our trainers, was to become “less of a liability.” With the bar set so low, we paid careful attention to the things we were told, but kept a fun outlook. Any pre-deployment training has the pall hanging over it of maybe not coming home again. We were not immune to the seriousness of where we were going in just a few days, but we inoculated through humor.

In the arctic tundra that is Wyoming in January, we practiced land navigation skills and found lots of barbed wire fences where there weren’t supposed to be any, frozen lakes that almost made the perfect shortcut until we fell into them, stiffened snow that looked sturdy and solid until it had the weight of me and my Kevlar vest on top of it, and plenty of unfriendly cacti. When we were training indoors, we re-enacted scenes from a Youtube sensation video, vocalizing “LEEEEEEROY JENKINS,” as we practiced kicking in doors, seeing around corners without sticking our necks out to be shot off, and clearing plywood rooms of imaginary Taliban. We even learned how to exit a rolled over armored carrier vehicle, yelling “Roll over, roll over, roll over,” (as if that would be my reaction in real life) before becoming completely disoriented and trying to figure out where the door was—it was like pin the tail on the donkey where you’re blindfolded, spun around until you almost vomit and then told to grab your M-4 carbine weapon and get out. Being in that chassis was tantamount to being flipped around like Bingo balls in a shuffle cage.

I have a forever memory of that day because Nurse P thought to take a picture of the four of us after we finally figured out where the door was to exit the rolled over armored carrier vehicle. It’s one of my all-time favorite photos from any deployment. Both my bulletproof vest and my teammates dwarfed me, and I had a black eye from the kick back of my M-4 against my cheek at the shooting range the day before. Brandon, Knotts and Brinkley looked strong, solid, confident and healthy. They looked like they could take care of themselves if the enemy struck. They looked like their legs were mighty strongholds, not likely to be swept out from underneath them by the unexpected. They looked badass. And so did I.

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“Training” #8

On the first day of training, we were placed in four-person fire teams. In preparation for leaving, I packed my uniforms, my government issued bug spray and fire-retardant underwear (by the time the fire gets to my underwear, isn’t it too late?), and a year’s supply of styling mousse for my hair (trust me, no one wanted to see me without it), but I failed to really think about leading people during the deployment. I’m embarrassed to admit, my mindset was focused on my emotional and mental survival. I didn’t think about being responsible for anyone’s actual safety. I assumed there would be plenty of officers who were much higher ranking than me, and who would be placed in charge. It wasn’t until the trainers began calling the names of the fire team leads, and I heard my own, that reality began to solidify.

The trainer called roll: “Captain Clemens, Lieutenant Brinkley, Tech Sergeant Brandon and Airman Knotts. Fire Team Alpha.” Upon hearing my name called first, I slowly stood up from the metal bleachers that had been arranged in a U-shape around the warehouse and made my way toward the non-commissioned officer who bellowed. I wasn’t confident about anything, but I hoped I wasn’t letting it show. It had been nearly six years since I last deployed. I was much younger then, enlisted, happily married, complete and self-assured; not like now. Now, someone I trusted tore me down, pretty handily. He used fears, which I had armed him with in the confidence of marriage, as the very reasons he didn’t want to be with me anymore. I was a shell, like those locust casings my cousins and I used to find clinging to the trees back home in Indiana. I appeared to be real, but there was nothing inside; if too much pressure were given to my outsides, I would crumble. I was in no place to lead anyone to anywhere, let alone into a firefight, real or not.

Before even laying eyes on them, I assumed this team, all men, felt like they were stuck with me. There was only one other team led by a female, and she was one of the highest-ranking officers attending the training, a Lieutenant Colonel. No one was going to complain about her, but I thought they would feel cheated by being with me. We met up around the Sergeant in charge, and made our introductions. I choked down the urge to blurt apologies for being their fire team lead, for being a woman, and for being such a mess. I had never felt any of those doubts before in life, but I was like an abused puppy waiting to be kicked. I felt DYSFUNCTIONAL.

Just when I thought my positive attitude wasn’t going to survive the training beyond Day One, one of the other men said, “I have no idea how to do this Army stuff. I hope one of you know how to do this.” I exhaled and smiled. These weren’t rough and ready soldiers trying to prove their toughness by making others feel smaller. These were confident guys who would let you stand on their shoulders to see over the next ridge, or, as I would soon learn, pick you up out of a snow bank by the back of your pants and toss you forward. Right then and there, I decided I loved every one of them.

Categories: Military, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: ,

“Wyoming: Pre-deployment Training” #7

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.

Categories: Military, Motherhood, Moving On, Personal Story | Tags: , ,

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