I'm at Bagram now, and there have been a number of remarkable reunions since I've gotten back from Qatar. Sam, the combat terp, he of The Valley Operation back in August, was the first.
When you get to know an Afghan, it all starts with a handshake. The single handed handshake of American business associates is the standard, although many Afghans don't have a lot of grip to it. However, to Afghans, handshakes are mandatory. To not offer a hand; or to not accept a proffered hand, is practically hostile.
Stage two of a developing friendship is signified by the two-handed handshake, or the handshake with the forearm clasp. Stage three is the handshake with chest bump type hug over the clasped hands. Stage four is the full hug... either a handshake going into a two-armed hug or just straight to the hug.
Stage five is the full hug with touching cheeks. Stage six is the full hug, touching cheeks, and a kissing noise. Stages five and six are very uncomfortable for Americans. It requires conscious acceptance.
Stage seven is holding hands.
An Afghan may skip stages and go straight to stage seven. Stage seven is the most challenging of all for an American. It is just plain uncomfortable to hold hands with another man; but it doesn't mean the same thing here as it does in the United States, obviously. It is the highest compliment that an Afghan can pay you. It is an act of friendship and trust that surpasses all others.
Then there is the full on bear hug. It is universal, transcending all languages. It says, like nothing else, "man, it's really good to see you!"
The terps know that Americans aren't really comfortable with some of the customs, and so most of them won't hold your hand. Some will. Right before I went on pass, I said my final goodbyes to another terp who had gotten a new job. He held my hand as I talked with him about his future and about some of our adventures together. He was with me in The Valley That Time Forgot. He is one of the hopes of Afghanistan.
Sam is one, too. The terps are some of the most amazing young men that you could ever meet. I will write more about them another time, but for now it will suffice to say that they are living symbols of hope for Afghanistan; patriots, heroes. Nearly every one I've talked to has a vision of what Afghanistan can be, what they are willing to put their lives on the line for it to be.
When I saw Sam the other morning as the sun rose, he gave me a full on back-cracking bear hug.
"I have missed you, sir."
"I've missed you too, Sam."
I've met some real characters in Afghanistan, and I've met some of the finest men I've ever met in my life. The bonds of shared dangers and privations are powerful. (Boy, doesn't that sound dramatic?) I really like these guys, anyway.
Later that morning, I was reunited with Rick Dyne, the DynCorp contractor who I worked with for months in the province. He's a great guy who is doing his part to win this war by making the ANP the best that they can be. His sense of humor is one of the things that made working with him a real pleasure.
Another bear hug. I hadn't expected him to come back because I thought that he was just plain sick and tired of The Game.
Here at Bagram, I've run into a number of people that I haven't seen in some time. Some for a couple of months, some for nearly a year. Many are simply acquaintances, but after a time in theater, seeing another person unharmed and nearing the end of their tour is a small joy.
As people near the end of their tours, they become "short" (short-timers.)
"How short are you?" It's a common question.
I'm so short I can't see over my shoe laces. I'm also ready to go home. I'm tired of The Game, too. It's not Afghanistan, it's not the Afghans. It's not the prospect of getting shot at or blown up; it's The Game.
But more than that, it's needing to see my kids. It's more than a want, it's a need. And they need me, too. They never asked to make this sacrifice, and the time of their giving up their dad for their country is nearly over. Sixteen months without their dad is long enough.
The light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter and brighter. The idea of holding my children again is becoming so real. It gets harder as it gets closer... the constant dull ache punctuated by sharp stabs of pain gets more intense.
I really miss my kids. I miss what I've missed with my kids. The missed birthdays, the events, the holidays, the moments of hilarity, the moments of wonder, the moments of growth.
They told us before we came here that it's a marathon and not a sprint. The hardest part of a long run is the end, when you can see the finish line. This has that same feeling, except it's not physical. It's mental and emotional.
Sometimes it's hard to believe that we are so close to be heading back to the States. I could not imagine the things that this whole experience would bring, and to look back and realize that I am almost there; almost done... it's actually startling.