Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Back In The USA

Coming home is an adventure all its own.

The final flight out of Afghanistan, for us, was on a C-130. The C-130, a four-engine turboprop whale, is a slow and torturous ride to go the distance from Kabul to Qatar, where we boarded a C-17 for the short hop to Kuwait, from where we embarked on a civilian charter that took us through Germany and then to New Jersey and finally Kansas.

In Kansas the whirlwind of out processing started in earnest. There were briefings followed by a welcome home ceremony in a gymnasium attended by a few officers and NCO's who had been responsible for training us to go to Afghanistan and the few families who had been able to make the trip to Ft Riley. The days that followed brought a myriad of out processing tasks; medical, dental, turning in equipment, turning in our personal weapons, briefings about everything from our reemployment rights to dealing with post traumatic stress and the difficulties of reunions and readjustment to the family.

And, spending the last few days that we would ever spend with a group of men with whom we had shared a lot over the course of the past fifteen months.

There was a lot of joking around, a bit of celebrating, some evenings were spent together. Some of the men's families had made the trip to Kansas to greet their warriors and welcome them home. Most of us had to wait to see our families, but it was only a few days. The good people at Ft Riley did all they could to speed us through our out processing and move us on to our final destinations.

But we were still in our little enclave. While we were mentally breaking our ties with this ad-hoc organization, we were still just our little group. We were each looking towards our own reunions, still looking towards returning to our individual lives. We were from many states, and each of us would go our separate ways, beginning to live what had been normal to us.

I don't know about the rest of the guys, but it will never be quite the same again for me.

Everyone flew home via Kansas City. When I arrived at the airport, I had very little time to get checked in and get to the gate. Kansas City is a small airport, and it's a short trip from the ticket counter to the gates. The good people from Homeland Security carefully scrutinized my military ID and I moved towards the metal detector. Mind you I was wearing my newly donned Combat Infantry Badge and I forgot the foil on the tobacco in the lower leg pocket, but I tripped the machine twice and was slowly and carefully subjected to The Drill, a maneuver which many travelers have performed.

My uniform and accompanying bona fides had no affect on the defenders of our homeland. I was clearly up to no good, and my heinous plot had to be foiled.

I doffed my combat boots, had my feet carefully wanded, and then the full body wanding was artfully performed. This was followed by an equally artful full body pat-down, whereupon I was informed that I was cleared to proceed home. At just this moment my name was called over the intercom to report to the gate immediately for final boarding.

I was lacing my boots as quickly as I could when one of the HSA employees, an underutilized astrophysicist on loan from NASA, decided that my carry on bag had to be hand-screened. I was carefully maintaining my cool, but I was just about to lose my mind.

"Are you insane?" I asked the young Herbert Dingle reincarnate. "See my name tag? They just called me to the gate, and this guy just cleared me."

"This will only take a moment. They won't leave without you," he asserted.

"Yes, they will. They have no idea that I'm here. I have four children waiting for me in Cincinnati," I pled.

He was carefully examining my doxycycline, mentally evaluating the explosive potential as he slowly rotated the bottle at eye level.

"Those are my anti-malarial pills," I said, careful not to raise my voice or appear hostile.

The supervisor arrived and casually leaned on one of the posts. "We really appreciate your service, sir."

"Really?" I asked, restraining myself from having a post-Afghan meltdown, "Cause you're not acting like it. I just spent a year fighting actual terrorists, and you're treating me like I'm one of them."

One of the junior astrophysicists ran off to inform the gate personnel that I was being detained and would be there shortly. She was the only one of them who really seemed interested in whether or not the appreciation of my service included actually being permitted to make my flight.

I finally boarded the plane and they immediately shut the door behind me after cordially greeting me. I found my way to my seat and was relieved to see that the plane was perhaps a third full. I had the two seats to myself. Very pleasant.

The flight attendant was very solicitous and took very good care of me on the flight to Cincinnati. The flight was uneventful. Again, as the decent to Cincinnati began, the flight attendant made the normal announcement and then mentioned that I was coming home. The passengers applauded.

We landed and taxied to the island terminal. From this terminal you must board a shuttle bus to go the main terminal and make your way to the baggage claim. I was in a huge hurry to see my children, to be home.

As I made my way towards the shuttle boarding area, there was an airport employee who was providing assistance to people who needed to make connecting flights. I needed no such assistance, so as I made my way around this woman, she stepped out.

"Excuse me," she said.

I changed direction and tried to go on my way.

"Excuse me," she said again, stepping in front of me.

Knowing that no one had any reason to stop me, but not wanting to be unkind, I stopped, exasperated.

"I cannot allow you to pass..." (I'm about to revert to my basic infantry training) "without shaking your hand and thanking you for your service."

"You're welcome," I said, shaking her hand.

Puff of smoke. I was on my way as quickly as I could.

The long walk from the outer terminal to the baggage claim area was the last obstacle. I traversed it as quickly as possible, and as I neared the end, I could see a little girl hopping kangaroo-like. It was my five year old daughter, who was very excited. My total focus was riveted on her.

At that moment, I was passing an airline pilot who was walking in the same direction. He reached over and grabbed my shoulder and said, "Welcome home. Thanks for your service."

I was so totally focused on my daughter, I'm not sure that I even acknowledged him.

My thirteen year old son was beaming. My two year old son appeared excited, too; but I'm not sure if he really understood what was happening or was simply under the influence of the excitement of the others. I ran the last few steps, shedding my laptop bag and backpack, and knelt to hug my daughter and son, oblivious to the rest of the passengers passing through the terminal. My eyes stung.


It was now real. It was over. The Afghan journey was over, and I was back in the arms of my children.

Readjustment is a difficult thing. The time change has really struck me since I got back home. The kids are just starting to get used to having me around. I've got projects to take care of as well. There is a lot to do.

It's weird, too.

Just a few weeks ago, I was in the hinterlands of Afghanistan, aware of the local happenings and the changes that were happening. I was aware of the reports of this Taliban leader and that village swinging one way or another, of what our next step was with the local ANP. Now I'm back in Ohio, and nobody cares about any of that.

It's weird.

I took my children to the mall the week after I arrived back home. I've repeated many times the quote, "America isn't at war. The military is at war. America is at the mall." As I drove towards the mall with my little ones in the their car seats, it occurred to me that I was on my way to the mall now, too. How odd. I laughed to myself.

But I am not one of them. They cannot see it, but I'm not one of them. I have been at war, and part of me is still there. Perhaps that's what we're actually purchasing with our time spent over there; the peace of mind to go to the mall and not think of Afghanistan or Iraq unless they see a report on the news.

I got an email this morning from Jacques Pulvier, who is still in Afghanistan and should be leaving in the next couple of weeks, telling of one of the teams that replaced our old team in the Tag Ab Valley, sometimes called the Tagab Valley. They had gotten into a fight there yesterday, and I could picture exactly where that ambush had happened; one of the places where they like to ambush us there in the valley.

Part of me will always be able to picture that area, that valley, the people, the khalats, the riverbed, the fingers that pointed from the mountain at the villages along the newly paved road. The Ala Sai District center that you can see from the town of Tag Ab; it would take nearly a half an hour to get there and as many as three ambushes to get back from there.

There are still people who I know working in that valley. There is more work to do there. It is the changing of the guard, though. There are new people, new teams, a new division.

Jacques has run his last mission into that valley, thank God. He's about to return from our forgotten war, another single victory; a live American soldier who has been there, done his best, and returned.
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