The voyage which I was born to make
In the end, and to which my desire has
Driven me, is towards a place in which
Everything we have known is forgotten,
Except those things which, as we knew
Them, reminded us of an original joy.
The Habour in the North
(Hilaire Belloc 1870-1957 )
There is a dichotomy of thought when you first arrive at any military base, where you wonder if your existence is more temporary than normal. Your breathing catches somewhat in your throat, you breath faster and deeper as your heartbeat quickens. The tightness in your chest becomes the nature of your fate, as you realize almost within the same thought that you have no control over whatever that fate may be.
For many soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines new to the military, especially in the Middle East these days, it takes a while to realize that any control of your fate, will revolve around the balance of thinking too much about dying, and not enough, thinking too much about home and not enough.
Our arrival in Afghanistan, or as we say, “boots-on-the-ground,” happened for us on the last day in August in two-thousand and eight. Fairly uneventful after two days of travel from the Southern United States via Bangor Maine, Shannon Ireland, Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan, and then onto Bagram Air Force Base (AFB). All along the way at every airport, the majority of people smiled, waved, wished us good luck, but no one more than the citizens of Bangor Maine.
This was my first visit to Maine no matter how transitory it was to be and although I’ve never been to Maine physically, but you could say I’ve been there many times in spirit. Many a night I’ve sat reading a new Stephen King novel finding myself transported to Maine on some lonely road, an empty house or a haunted mansion. You know in the back of your mind that the many places you visit are not the surreal nightmarish landscapes depicted in the books you read, but yet you find yourself doubting, second guessing the world of light for the one you’ve lived through in your mind.
You always know that such things are the thoughts of a phenomenal imagination, but the realized taciturn type personalities, and dark halo’s of insidious evil that some of us joked about, when we found out we would be passing through Bangor Maine, were pleasantly absent. Instead we found culture, honesty, support, and something even more valuable, tears of well-wishers from other Veterans, flyers and wing support for the many who died in WWII having passed through that very city. I could not have been more impressed or touched, had it been my own family seeing us off.
Grandmother and Grandfather type’s sending us off with cookies and milk, a packaged meal for the plane ride, coins, medals, salutes from old war horses of bygone years, each with a steady stream of tears. Tears for us to be safe, but also tears of remembrance of their own battles now only talked about in history books. Memories of seeing husbands, sons, daughters, and wife’s off to other dangers, and other troubles around the world. Each one playing their part in the guilt of surviving those that they each remember, and wondering as they talked with us; will this young man or women be a memory on another wall, or a smile on the part of their families when they come back through here again on their way home.
It is the nature of one’s memory to look back upon a long life, and forget the intensity of horror’s faced, paths not taken, or friends long gone and now remembered once again; but it is also true, that certain memories never leave the poignancy of one’s mind, when faced with the sights and sounds of others off to discover those same truths. They saw the mirror image of who they once had been, and now cried for these children to find their way home safe and sound.
This was the send off that I remember most as we sat in our plane, waiting in our own thoughts, young men and women, laughing and smiling to take away the edge of their nervousness at so many new emotions, and new possibilities of how little they controlled their own lives. The older of us remembering quietly, watching, or smiling with the comradery that comes as if forced into our minds, when shared dangers lurk beyond the ability of our senses to perceive.
There is a commonality between all who choose to face danger for the success of something greater than their selves. It transcends generations, color, religion and all of the false thoughts of being different, that so many people choose to use to validate their egos. Ego’s created in the chaos of the narcissists need to be better than someone else.
For me being in the military is a grounding experience, a way of finding the truth of reality in everyday things. When you live in your head so much of the time as I do, you tend to lose yourself to the virtual world of how you think, and not necessarily to the nature of how the world is at times.
We see it every day, that distance that continues to broaden as the intellectuals of the world push us further and further away from the practical truths of life, and the control they have in driving there truth into the hearts and minds of those who choose to swim in the shallow end of the intellectual pool.
Those without experience, those who are young and passionate about the world without the wisdom to see the consequences of what they do, and those who grow old reliving the myopic rightness of their youth until the nature of what they believe blinds them to what they have created in the world around them.
In the military there is a unique focus on the starkness of reality; for any other view can and will cost lives in the nature of its everyday life. Such thoughts ranged widely as we worked our way from one airport to another toward our final destination. Leaving Bangor Maine and heading out over the Atlantic is when you start to realize that things are getting real. At least that is the case for many of the younger soldiers, especially for those who were here with us on their first deployment.
There is a wide range of attitudes throughout the plane. The stewards and stewardesses as well as the pilots are exceedingly free with their smiles and attention. The pilots a lot of the time are military, or having been in the military. They like to walk the isles, talk, and exchange war stories, many true, and others barroom tales exaggerated for affect.
There is the normal grab-ass among the soldiers, passes at the stewardesses who take it with a smile, knowing it is all in fun. Many sleep their way across the Atlantic, while others mesmerize themselves with movies, music or that long book they’ve been intending to read.
If you’ve ever flown any distance in a commercial aircraft, you know that time is broken up by sleep, meals, and the predictable snacks. Flying has its own cadence, but a cadence outside your control, something like a ride at Disney World, where once you’re on it, for better or worse, you have nowhere else to go.
Arriving at Shannon Ireland was rather anticlimactic. A two hour layover inside a small terminal, looking almost normal until you go to pay for something, watch TV, or use the tiny European toilets that are suppose to save water. In actuality; as a sidebar, they end up using more water, for the multiple flushes that were required to ungracefully say goodbye to the last American food we would see for a year or more; or so we thought at the time.
It seems a minor point, but the major problems of the world all start out as minor problems, so inconsequential, so beneath our ego’s or busy lives to realize until it is too late for someone and eventually ourselves.
There is a certain amount of irony associated with it, but of course that is the normal run of things throughout the world. Soldiers have to deal with a multitude of the world’s problems for the same short sightedness that causes most problems in our everyday life. It seems to be a basic corollary that the habit of short-sightedness we use in our everyday life, translates collectively into the shortsightedness of the choices our government makes, while speaking loudly of how often the military is called up to compensate for our social stupidity.
It was late evening, or early morning, I’m not sure which. After multiple time zones and too little sleep, all I knew was that it was dark and I couldn’t see even a little of the green rolling hills of my ancestors home. Walking through the terminal, soldiers wondering everywhere, sleepy and tired, but not wanting to sit down, there was a need to burn off unquenched energy as we would soon once again be packed into our seats, breathing dry air, mesmerized by the unending white noise of the plane’s engines.
When traveling en masse as a military unit, whether on the ground, in the air, or anywhere in the world, there is a functional need to make sure everyone is accounted for. Partially it is a need to continue to imprint the functional process that enhances the cohesiveness of a military unit, the other is just the practical aspect of dealing with the logistical requirements of moving a large group of people half way around the world.
When we offloaded from the plane, we were given a strip of plastic coded paper colored red on one end with a number in white imprinted on it. When we reloaded back onto the plane, we would turn these numbered tickets back in to verify all personnel were safely back aboard.
The terminal attendants; a very beautiful blond, slender with a face reminiscent of a woman with the hair style, lipstick and rouge of a 1950’s high school prom queen, with her male counterpart both greeted us warmly with the stereotypical Irish brogue that was expected, but yet still surprising.
Maybe it’s just me, a beautiful woman with an Irish or Scotch accent does something to my heart; gives it that twist or palpitation that you feel throughout every inch of your body. I remember watching my housecat once look at a bird outside the window. She had never been outside, never caught a bird; but her need to chase was so obvious and palatable in every move, that you knew if the window was not there she would jump out, even three stories up.
It must be some innate drive or desire; that some women have on a man, or for that matter a man for a women at times, that just clicks and you find yourself driven to go beyond your normal limits to chase after; even to your own embarrassment, that one you are lucky enough to find.
For me, the 1950’s looking prom queen; Lillian, did that to me. She was working the night shift a few nights a week while she went to school. It turned out that her partner was also her brother. They certainly looked like brother and sister; but what made her look like a Prom Queen, made him appear effeminate. So much so that as we went past, more than one of our soldiers did a double take to verify his gender.
Slender to the point of androgenic traits, it gave him the look of a young woman in a pastel colored pants suit. Blonde ringlets framing his face, a pierced left ear, and at five feet seven inches tall, Lionel was only an inch taller than his sister.
As we milled around, you could see in the younger and even some of the older male soldiers, how attracted they were to both; but then backpedalling quickly into the manner and language of most males who start to question their manhood and feel a need to spray a flood of testosterone driven misbehavior into the mix for those around them to see.
Only a few comments were made; but other than a slight blush and a hard smile, they took it pretty well. After talking with them for awhile, you came to realize that they were a little more world wise than their ages would suppose. He was twenty-two, she was nineteen, both of their parents had been killed in an accident several years before, and they had pretty much been on there own.
They talked of how much they enjoyed American culture, and always looked forward to us arriving even if it was only for a few hours. I apologized for the innuendoes, but Lionel waved it off, saying that in Ireland, the comments were much ruder, as well as much more open.
As we talked we continued to move around the terminal, exchanging pleasantries as well as phone numbers and email. Exchanged some dollars for Euro’s to buy some imported chocolate that would have been cheaper in the States, some post cards for family and friends and a small lunch to take back onto the plane. Sharing the chocolate we followed the drifting white clouds of cigarette smoke passing by the terminal exit doors.
Large groups of soldiers, workers and other civilians were out taking a smoke break. Clouds of smoke, and clouds of hot vapor from everyone’s breathe could be seen in the cool night air; images reminiscent of herds of bison on the discovery channel grouped and huddled together, waiting and sniffing the air for life to bring something new into their world.
The three of us laughed at the imagery and slowly walked back into the terminal as we heard the loudspeaker announcing that our flight was to resume and all soldiers were to report back to the lounge to wait processing back onto our plane.
Lillian and I hugged, and Lionel shook my hand as they went back to their duties and I back to mine. Of special note over the last couple of years, Lillian will finish college this year and has been accepted to a medical school in California. Lionel is married, about to have his first child, and is now working as a steward on a Norwegian airline.
The refreshing thing about meeting the twins; as I started to call them, was their lack of forming any negative opinions and there outright gregariousness in the way they went about their jobs. Something I wished so many others in our own country would at least try to do.
This attitude is especially true of many people when it comes to interacting with Police, Military or other authority figures. One of the things you quickly recognize when a large group of soldiers are around is the way civilians treat us. Most are friendly, even the ones who strongly disagree with what our existence represents. There is deference to us, not in the sense of equality, but more the treatment one sees for a bumbling misguided younger brother, uncle, or a likeable next door neighbor who’s a little off in the head, or even slow.
There is a compulsive need to be nice or friendly, or in some cases a sort of fear creating a worry of saying the wrong thing and pissing one of us off. If what they thought of us were true, there would be a lot less civilians making complaints, but of course it’s not and most of us just laugh a little at their ignorance and terminal self-involvement.
It is the stereotypical attitudes of teachers for jocks, lawyers for mechanics, and doctors for nurses, workers who bring the dreams of others into the realities of the world we enjoy. This attitude is common throughout all aspects of society, the only thing that changes are the players. It’s one of several elements in the poison well that we all drink from that defines the nature of those traits in us, which continues to drive us all like lemmings over the cliff to our destruction.
Those of us who go into the military are part of that group in society who have the need to be in command of our lives. We are individuals breed to command either by an unconscious choice of our path in life or in a conscious choice of education that allows us to leap into a command position. Leaders are of course created both by the nature of their birth as well as the unknown mentoring that occurs in those few we call leaders, but don’t always understand what that process is.
A leader gives us a purpose in an uncertain world. They make us believe by their acts or words that we will succeed if we give of ourselves that which we have to offer. They don’t push us to give, but inspire us to want to be a part of their world and what we can accomplish together.
A manager is a person who pushes, prods, and organizes the nature of his authority upon the group he or she is charged with. This person is the bean counter, the accountant, the individual who brings order out of the chaos of the minutiae of our daily lives.
It is why, even in today’s politically correct (PC) world, that civilian companies still look for military personnel to come in and lead them to some level of success they would otherwise not have. No lasting success has ever occurred by using a committee to oversee the solutions to a person, or an organization’s problems. For it is not just our leadership skills, but the balance of discipline, moral and ethical standards that are so vacuously present in the civilian corporate world.
It is this unselfish love and friendship that I found in Maine. Feelings that we soldiers hold onto when the world shifts, and we find at times, in those moments of stress, that we are tempted to react, instead of act along the moral path that winds its way through the chaos of our life.
These thoughts and others were debated and argued over as we tried to pass the time leaving Ireland toward Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan. On and on we flew, dozing, eating and still the long night did not end.
At Manas we left our comfortable; in comparison, civilian aircraft for the Army’s work horse of aviation, the C130 Hercules. You’ve all seen them at one time or another, a dark putrid green smudge in the sky, four turboprop engines, but after four decades it continues to be one of the most reliable aircraft that has ever been put into production.
Its range includes resupply operations to the north, and south poles, duty as a flying hospital, maritime patrols for the Coast Guard to the major support in Afghanistan and Iraq these last ten years.
I said it was the Army’s work horse, but no work horse, either on the farm or in the air is built for the comfort of the person riding. A hundred plus soldiers squeezed into seats built for the average person flew in the dark cold skies this night. Of course average was different in the 1960’s when the C130 was designed and built. Average then was five feet eight inches tall, weight maybe one-hundred and eighty pounds,more the rule than the exception. Today the opposite is more likely true.
That is certainly not me and when you add our carry on gear, the body armor we are required to wear with headgear, you basically had a can full of sardines that for the most part had to be helped up out of their seats after just a few hours of travel time to Bagram.
We’ve lost a number of aircraft in the process of landing in Afghanistan. Local farmers turned hired snipers, their homes adjacent to the base, shooting when they can at the fuel tanks of the many aircraft taking off and landing twenty-four hours a day.
For this reason we land and take off in tactical mode. For the pilots it meant having fun with their aircraft, as I heard one put it. Battle lights are the only lights allowed, yellow or red, they land in the dark coming in to the steepest glide path they can maintain without falling out of the sky.
We the passengers are strapped into our tight coffin like seats as we feel the plane drop away from us suddenly, a steep plunge toward the ground, our stomachs in our throat; the newbies sometimes puke at this time, a nerveless journey to the ground and just as you think you are going to crash, the glow of the base reflects just enough to see the high mountains passing you by, and then gravity hits again, driving your stomach toward your feet as the pilots pull up just in time to land, quickly slamming on the brakes and jerking our stomachs from the floor to our spines.
Suddenly we were in Afghanistan, the first few moments of our lives for the next year. Already the copper like taste of adrenalin in our mouths, and exhaustion were just starting to take hold.