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 breathe faster and deeper as your heartbeat quickens. The tightness in your chest becomes the nature of your fate, as you realize almost in the same thought that you have no control over whatever that fate may be.
At some point, as all soldiers come to understand, you realize that to worry about it is useless. For many new to the military, especially duty in the Middle East these days, it may take awhile for them to realize that any control of their fate will revolve around the balance of worrying too much about dying, and not enough; for it is in the extremes of either, that define a loss of focus, and in the end; baring acts of God, your loss of life.
Our arrival in Afghanistan; 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.
The only time I had ever been to Maine, was in the virtual world of my own mind, while reading the horror novels of Stephen King. You always know that such things are the thoughts of a phenomenal imagination; but I realized that the 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 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 there 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 themselves. 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.
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 that moment in time, 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.
In the military, especially during a time of war or exposure to one form of violence or another, your senses take a crash course or assault into the nature of your beliefs and the essence of what you believe or in many cases what you don’t.
Your experiences become the crucible by which you are changed and by which you grow, or by which you fail. It sometimes brings to you a life time of grace, or a life time of guilt; but more often than not, it just brings chaos to your life.
You find yourself looking to others for what is important, what is moral, what is good or bad behavior. It becomes the nature of a wondering soul to want solace with anyone who can give them a clear path to a finite and controllable world.
This brings to a person a new perception of his or herself and when mentored well with caring and ethical leaders, it gives back to society a strong and moral leader; but when mentored badly or used by those who follow the lower road in life, it gives back to the world anger and frustration and at times something even worse. You see this in the enemy we face, and sometimes in the mirror of our own lives.
Moral support, friendship and loyalty is all that we ask, and many times it is all that keeps us going when the world shifts and we find ourselves in the midst of a maelstrom of chaos.
As we continued to work our way to Afghanistan, it was refreshing to know that there are people out there, the citizens of Bangor Maine and others we met along the way, who understand the nature of what being in the military means to most of us, who give of us there respect and warmth and to know that even if they do not always agree with what sends us to distant parts of the globe, that they always worry for our safe return.