I’ve deployed a few times. I’ve made some trips to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. I’ve felt the emptiness of fear a few times–a hollowness that transforms me into an observer of events–one who waits for the next terrible thing–one who watches, but not yet one who sees. I’ve never lost someone in combat. Not someone I loved or someone I knew carefully, worked with daily, laughed with, shared with over a cigarette or an MRE. My friends have though. My bosses have lost. My coworkers have lost. My sisters- and brothers-in-arms have lost. Some of them are carrying a weight I cannot know. After nearly two decades of service, I hope I will not know, because I am selfish. I don’t want to know. I want to keep serving with that part of my knowledge undeveloped. But they know. And I stand with them everyday, but especially on Memorial Day.
Before I left for my last deployment, my dear friend Jen gave me a journal. I think she knew I fancied myself a writer, and she gave me this gift to give me something to distract myself during the year I would be away from my kids. I decided to write the journal with Jen as the audience, a civilian who knew little to nothing about military life or deployments. Writing to Jen became a touchstone for me. I’ve never given her the journal though. It seemed like a shitty way to repay her gift–just too much. Here is an excerpt from the journal I kept in Afghanistan, 2011-2012:
29 April 2011–Today we received word that a gunman has killed several people at a base up the road. There are often reports of bombings near the embassy, or at different government agencies in Kabul, but this is different. There were 8 service members and 1 civilian killed. All the service members were from the Air Force. One of them had a one year old at home and was set to leave in about 3 weeks. He had done his year.
They were training the Afghan Police Force. One of the officers in that police force was not mentally stable; he lost control and started shooting. Unfortunately, this is not something unfamiliar in war–or at home. Sometimes, the stress of life overwhelms people, and they turn to violence against others. He just happened to be an Afghan, but “insane” translates across geography. How could you stay sane in a place like this, where bombs are hidden in all the things, the people, the cars, the buildings? Everything is brown here; dying or dead. Everything. But not me; not yet.
I went to the ramp ceremony early on 30 April. The ramp ceremony consists of the formation of military members who line up alongside the flight line, stand at attention, and render salutes while 9 flag-draped coffins are carried onto the back of an aircraft for transport home to their families. Watching each coffin carried across the tarmac–it was difficult. The civilian contractors carried their coworker. They weren’t prepared for the weight or the distance. They nearly buckled beneath it. It was hard to stay at attention and not cry out for them, with them. It was hard to keep my military bearing. It was hard not to watch them intently, to see how they are able to continue, to know that they are still moving, still real, still living, when their coworker was not. It was hard to let the tears go without wiping them away, breaking the position of attention. Were they crying, too, as they walked with their friend in between them? They could sob openly, and it would be okay. But I can’t. I don’t know if I’ll attend any more of those. I don’t know if I can.
A few days ago, we traveled to Salerno for a memorial service for a young Captain who was killed walking out of the chow hall. A rocket fired from the border of Pakistan got lucky. Others were injured, but he was the only one killed. I don’t know that I’ll attend anymore memorials either. I can’t know yet. I wrestle with the need to honor those who gave their lives over here. Just because it brings me great…discomfort and a sorrow that is changing my brain–my DNA–doesn’t mean I should not pay my respects, right? I’m so selfish. How can I think of me and mine? How can I lose focus at a memorial service? How can I look for distractions? But I do. I notice the crisp blackness of the Calvary hat, the lackluster silver of the dog-tags hanging over the boots. He has the same dog-tag silencers around the edge of his tags that I wear. I wonder if those were his actual dog-tags or extra copies…how many copies did he have, just in case? Do I have enough? Will there still be some to send home? I can’t think about how he was younger than me. How he might have a family who’s home, trying to process this man’s death in a faraway place. How the men and women who served alongside him still have to go in and out of that chow hall to fucking eat eggs and toast next to where their brother was killed. I’m selfish. I don’t want to think about that.
I want to be whole for my children when I return. I don’t know if I can go to anymore of these. I think everything is in God’s hands. I must not doubt His plan for my life. I must not doubt His love for me. But surely He loved them, too? And yet…it’s too much for today. I’m sorry to give this to you, to share this with you. But I think I have to do it. I can’t keep it to myself.