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.