AAF to Afghanistan 1 year later.
Labor Day Weekend 2012, I'll be spending it with friends and family, BBQing, skydiving, riding my motorcycle, and enjoying the last weekend of summer. A far cry from last year!
Labor Day Weekend 2011, I was leaving Logan airport early Saturday morning, heading to London, then Bahrain, and finally to Kabul, Afghanistan. It was my second trip overseas (Iraq 2006), and the first for my producer Mike. We spent months planning, training, passing medical tests, gathering gear, preparing our electronics, writing our wills, and mentally getting ready for the trip of a lifetime. We were headed in Kabul, through the commercial airport as 2 civilians, anxious to meet our military escorts, members of Hammer company 1-182 Infantry, Massachusetts Army National Guard.
When we landed, my luggage was missing, including my body armor. It was held up in London's strict baggage inspection. My first convoy was going to be free of any safety equipment, or so I thought. Within 2 minutes of meeting the guys that we would spend the next 2 weeks with, these strangers were all offering to give me their vests, and helmets so that I would be safe. I'm sure their families would have been proud and frightened at the gesture. I spent 45 minutes in the M-ATV hoping that we didn't get attacked because one of "my guys" was wearing no safety gear, and while it was their job to protect me, I could not have something like that on my conscience.
Our days were filled with a mixture of jokes, picture taking, ball busting, sweating, preparing for missions, going on missions, taking tours of facilities, more sweating, blogging, packing, unpacking, eating, sweating, and trying to do a radio show in 120* heat thousands of miles away from home.
Our nights were filled with much of the same. It was an emotional rollercoaster from the time you woke up, until the time you went to bed. BTW, with our schedule we were going to sleep at 0400 and waking up at 0600. No rest for the wicked!
Just like my trip to Iraq in 2006, my favorite times were spent hanging around with the guys. Sitting at the chow hall table, enjoying the US militaries fabulous food (my favorite was the red jello), or smoking cigars at a picnic table learning how to play cards. I made a few close friends in Baghdad on my first trip, so I knew that I would leave Afghanistan with a new group of brothers... I just had no idea how many!
During the trip, I was exhausted, sick with a terrible cough from the dry and badly polluted air, sore from the heavy gear and cramped quarters, scared, emotionally raw, slaphappy, overwhelmed, and strangely, I couldn't get enough of it. I loved every minute! I tired my best to sit down every day and blog about what life was like for me, and more importantly for our local heroes who were halfway through their year long deployment.
The 2 weeks went by in a blink, and before we knew it, it was time to come home. Once again, we had a very scary time at the airport. People always ask me what the scariest part of the trip was... That answer is easy. Any time that I wasn't surrounded by the military. In other words, Kabul International Airport, and in my private room to sleep. Troops weren't allowed inside the airport at all, and my room was a metal box, with no windows and only one door. Not a place to be during an explosion. I didn't sleep very well in there. I preferred the chair in the QRF shack (and so did Mike), surrounded by the noise of my guys! I would rather be on a convoy, at night with them, rather than in a quiet bed alone, sounds stupid I know. But, they made me feel safe and I knew that I was.
I cried the entire day getting ready to leave Afghanistan (I was told that I'm the only person that ever has), I cried during the convoy to the airport, and the entire flight from Kabul to Bahrain. Once in Bahrain, I drowned my sorrows in a long drink list courtesy of my new found brothers, and they watched me and Mike plow through it on Skype. It's amazing how drunk 2 Bostonians can get in an Irish pub, in the Bahrainian airport with a 3 page drink list from the Infantry! We sobered up halfway to London. Ouch!
Before we knew it, we were at Logan again. It was Sunday night in Boston, and we still smelled like Kabul. We missed our guys something awful, and spent the next the next 5 months packing care packages for them, chatting online with them, and making plans for their return. They were 5 long months, and we made a LOT of plans.
It seemed like forever, but early one morning, 5 months ago, I watched "My Guys" (as they had become known), walk off a plane, and smell the 'fresh' air of Boston for the first time in a year. I cried again.
The last 5 months have been spent getting to know them in a different way, out of their uniforms, calling them by their first names, meeting their families, attending their weddings, riding their motorcycles, playing with their kids, and watching them struggle to get back to "normal". I've talked them through divorces, and layoffs, buying and in some cases losing homes, drinking to celebrate, and drinking to forget. Crying from laughter, and from sadness and guilt. It took me a few weeks to get back to 'normal' after only being there for 2 weeks, but I am changed forever by the experience. Now imagine how it is for them? 5 months later, and they still have large pieces of themselves overseas. They look the same from the outside, but their insides are changed forever.
They have been bound together by a year at war, and even though I knew them for a short time during their deployment, I am bound to them forever as well. They are the best people I know. They are generous, selfless, brave, funny, loyal, truthful, blunt, crass, sensitive, and loving. I put my life in the hands of strangers, and it was returned to me in the hands of friends. I have been forever changed because I met them, and knowing that they are out there, protecting all of us, helps me sleep at night.
Happy Anniversary guys, I love you all more than you will ever know. Thank you for your service, your sacrifices, and your gift of friendship and love. I only hope that someday I can repay what you have given me.