I remember arriving in Kabul just about a year ago. It was night, and we did a short convoy from the airport to Camp Phoenix. Today we left Phoenix for the last time and moved to another location from which we will leave the country.
Last year, there was nobody out and about as we rolled through the streets in the back of a five ton truck with a bench seat down the middle of the bed so that we faced outwards. All of the smells of Kabul were there in the night air; the strange not-quite-woodsmoke smell that I would smell thousands of times over the course of the past year, the occasional whiff of sewage, the smell of dust and exhaust and poverty.
The woody smoke smell would turn out to be a combination of wood and animal manure, shaped into round patties. Afghans make great use of animal manure as fuel.
We caught glimpses of a strange, ancient world blended with the 21st century; mud brick walls connected at times by electrical wires and the odd satellite dish. Dirt roads that felt the hooves of animals daily with Toyota Corolla's parked in alleyways.
Over the course of the year, I would spend hundreds of hours on the worst roads imaginable, out in the middle of nowhere, humvee working hard, and here would come the ubiquitous (and I am not using that term lightly; I mean ubiquitous) Toyota Corolla headed in the opposite direction, often crammed to the gills with Afghans. Sometimes it would be just one guy. I have never seen a woman operate ANY piece of equipment in Afghanistan.
Unless you count goats as equipment. I was thinking motorized transport or farm equipment.
Today we moved by armored bus, which is a step up from an up-armored humvee comfort-wise. We had armed exscort... in UAH's... but we were just like tourists on our way to a tour of the local cheese factory.
As we rolled through the streets, I took in the sights that no longer surprise me, but I noticed one thing that I never ever ever got used to.
Children sorting through a pile of garbage. I don't know if they were doing it out of hunger or out of curiosity or looking for stuff that could be sold, but that sight just screams in my brain. It may be that they are just industrious little capitalists, but to me it is a spear of bone-crushing poverty being lanced into my visual cortex.
It is visually painful. It is emotionally painful. It is heart-wrenching the way that the Christian Children's Fund commercials intentionally try to be.
Try seeing that for real; barefoot kids in the middle of a pile of trash, picking through it looking for God knows what.
Okay, so I saw that today... possibly, probably, hopefully for the last time.
There were a lot of other sights that I said goodbye to easily; the mud brick Afghan construction, burqa-clad women moving like blue trick-or-treaters down the side of the street, haphazard electrical wires strung on flimsy poles running between houses like a drunken spider web. I won't miss the general shabbiness, the vague feeling of quiet desperation, the feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems; the destruction.
I am glad to be an American. We don't know what we've really got; we take it for granted. Overseas, our flag is a symbol of so much. It stands for things that citizens of other countries resent us for in a lot of ways, but they envy us, too.
Sometimes we are proud of the wrong things; we don't even know the preciousness of what we have. We are so lost in ourselves that we misidentify our real strengths; but they are there.
One thing that we take for granted is the intactness of our seemingly fractal society. Our infrastructure, which we sometimes become exasperated with, is so intact. Infrastructure; roads, bridges, electricity, water, sewage, garbage collection... it's so fragile. It's the stuff that takes years to build and lots of time to maintain, and it's the first thing to get blown to pieces when significant groups of people fight with each other over control of a society.
Our political system is robust; our wars are mud-slinging contests replete with slick graphics and such childish buffoonery as portraying opposing political candidates as having red palms, being puppets, and assailing their characters on all levels. There is no shooting. There are no battle lines. There are no ad hoc checkpoints where any evidence of support for the opposing candidate draws immediate execution.
Not only do we have the liberty to live our lives, for the most part, as we see fit, but we have the established Republic that gives us the freedom from internecine war and allows our work to stand.
This, of course, is what drives American anarchists completely insane, for they cannot possibly recruit enough nutcases to tear it all down. It takes work to destroy a country so thoroughly as Afghanistan has been destroyed.
Then it takes work and a long long time to build back up what has been torn asunder.
We live in a country where the work of our fathers and mothers still stands. We live in a world where destruction is a scheduled event to make space for new construction. We have throngs flocking to have good seats for the explosive-powered implosions of major structures, instead of throngs fleeing cities because of them.
We don't have so many tiny little graves. Afghanistan is full of tiny graves. I will not miss seeing them. I will not miss that javelin to the visual cortex that cleaves the heart.
I will not miss the incessant dust and dirt. I will not miss the constant question; does this guy want to kill me?
I will not miss being held in a Hesco prison.
God only knows what the future holds. I am not a youngster, and it is possible that I may not be called upon, or permitted, to do my part for my country again in such a way. I know that my children would like that. I promised a Colonel that I would not retire upon my return, and I will hold true to my word; but the fact remains that I may not be given another opportunity to perform such a service for my country, my family, my friends.
In short; it is quite possible that all of those scenes have been seen by me for the last time ever in person.
I am a volunteer; I had to struggle to get here, and it has been my great privilege and honor to have been here to do what I have done, see what I have seen, and hopefully make what contribution one man can make in one tour; to have served. Now the Afghan portion is over, and I have survived. I'm still in Afghanistan, but I'm in a safe enclave just scant yards from where the wheels of the Freedom Bird will leave Afghan soil for my last time. My days of conops and operational mentoring are over. Just a little more to endure before I can once again hold my children in my arms again and feel their warmth.
I hope that I never lose this sense of reality; that we are incredibly lucky to have such a place as America, that I have four healthy children who will have the luxury of taking it all for granted. I will try to tell them what I have learned of the preciousness of all that they have and all that we are, but how do you convey that to anyone?