Why Don't You Get a Job? - The Offspring 7:53 PM


I only coughed 5 times today...

I only coughed 5 times today... That's down from my normal 20 or so, since I stepped foot in Afghanistan.

The cough started almost immediately and has been a reminder ever since that my trip was real!  Every night, I get off of the air, and sit in my office, trying to figure out how to get what is in my head... out. How to describe to the people back home, what it is like for our guys over there. That was my mission after all wasn't it? I'm just having a hard time putting the emotions that I feel into words. Maybe I should have paid better attention in college!

The night before I left for Afghanistan, I had a terrible dream. I dreamt that I died over there. On the Friday before my flight, I questioned whether I should go at all, wondering if I was the 'moth to the flame'. Then I questioned my fate, and maybe if I canceled the trip, I would die in a car accident on 495 or something. I tried to write 'the letter' that most soldiers write and leave for their loved one's just in case... I couldn't do it. I couldn't decide what my last words should be. I didn't know how to put my feelings into words, kinda like now! So, I did what I do best. I sat in a recording studio, and recorded a message for my family. I cried the entire way through.

Of course I was running late when my airport ride arrived to pick me up. I was frazzled, and still hadn't finished packing. I said my goodbyes quickly, and was filled with anxious and excited feelings. The anticipation on the flights kept me from napping, and I couldn't wait to get there.

When I arrived, it was a assault on my senses. The frenzy in the airport, and the inability to communicate with anyone when my luggage didn't arrive. The smell in the air, the sights in the streets, and cramped feeling in the M-ATV on the way to the base, told me right away that this trip was going to be unbelievable.

You can't imagine the ping pong of emotions that I was feeling, going from smiling and taking pictures, to attending briefings, and discussing worst case scenarios. Every minute has the option of going from good to bad and vice versa. There is a lot of waiting around in Afghanistan too. Waiting for something to happen, and then rushing around in a choreographed frenzy when it does. Going from a Spades game, to gunfire in minutes. I was enjoying a hot shower, at 6am one morning, and reacting to air raid sirens the next.

It's sensory overload in Afghanistan. And our guys have to put blinders on, and only pay attention to the mission in front of them. Now imagine that those blinders must block out abuse, starvation, suffering, anger, violence, and pure hate. They must ignore physical abuse happening on the sidewalk while they drive by. They are too busy looking for terrorists who may be trying to bomb them. They must ignore begging children, and search for IED's. Just complete the mission, and get back on base. Live to fight another day! We all talk about living each day as if it were our last... Well, these guys actually do it.

People always ask me what they need... Well, they don't need much. They have many of the comforts of home. The PX is filled with stuff that they can buy. They have free laundry services, and the Chow Hall is open 24/7. They need distractions, like we all do. Movies, Music, and video games are great for that. The Internet however, makes it tough to download those things over there. Many of the guys send external hard drives home, so they can be filled with stuff and sent back. The number of songs in your iPod is like a badge of honor, and it's not all what you would think.

One of my fondest memories with the guys, was on the road in the truck and we were arguing over what to listen to in the headsets. We let the shuffle feature decide and we spent 4 minutes in a convoy singing 'Call Me Al' by Paul Simon, complete with the Chevy Chase horn solo! Please press play and listen to the song while you read the rest of this...

This song, combined with the terrible surroundings is quite the definition of contradiction!

Back on base, the guys and I had to decide if we have the 'energy' to call home and get caught up on the days events. Family and work drama like who's mad at who, and what didn't get done today, can really add mental stress that you can't handle when you haven't slept in 2 days, it's 100*, and you were just getting shot at. I wonder what is worse for our soldiers... to live through letters like they did in WWII, when you waited for them at the mailbox every month, or Skyping home to watch your daughter on the potty, and read her a story before bed, only to have her scream and cry when you try to say goodbye. My work emails, and instructions on the broadcast became background noise and it was nice to be able to say... "I'm sorry the Internet isn't working, you're going to have to handle it without me." Sure, it puts a burden on the people back home, but with everything else going on in your head, there just isn't room. You have to put your feelings in a box here, and lock them away. Emotions are too dangerous to have on a day to day basis. The guys were surprised at how I reacted to certain things, because I was still thinking like I was at home. I hadn't developed the callous of war that is required to survive a year long deployment, and I never would. I only had 2 weeks to cram as much experience as I could into it. The smells they said would go away in a few days, and they were right. You get used to the smell of burning poop in a few days, but you pay the price of not being able to smell anything. They've been there for 5 months already and the callouses were already there. They need them to survive the next 7 months. They can't focus on the birthdays, anniversaries, football games, bachelor parties, and quiet dinners with their soul mates that they will miss. They need to shut off their humanity, and just survive. Sometimes I think that I was a branch to that humanity, when I was one on one with them. They would let their guard down, and talk about their wives and kids. The guilt that they felt missing out on the small things. They talked about their mom's and the cards they would get, and how they would never be able to repay the sacrifices they are making at home, to help with the grand kids and the mortgages. They would talk about near death experiences, and fellow troops that didn't come home from the last deployment. I tried not to show too much emotion, and just sit quietly and listen to what they had to say. I would reach out with a hand on the shoulder, or a pat on the back, knowing that human contact over there is pretty uncommon. I knew some stuff already because of my Iraq trip, and thanks to my husband and his deployment experiences I've learned a little more. Sometimes it's easier to talk, when you aren't asked anything. The other person just has to be willing to listen, and not judge. The standards of conduct are different when you are at war, and they don't want to be judged on their actions. The blinders of war are necessary for survival. I know that none of those guys would drive by the things they have seen back in Massachusetts, but they are required to in Afghanistan. They are not eager to shoot people back home, but are ready, willing, and able to do it on a moments notice there. Even the definition of 'clean' is not the same there, I learned that myself. If you want to send them something, send them cleaning supplies. It's oppressive to feel dirty and disgusting all of the time. It's impossible to keep anything clean, especially your electronics. Being able to control something small like a clean room, makes you feel somewhat human.

The roller coaster of emotions that I rode for 2 weeks, is a tough ride to get off of. Fun one minute, fear the next. It's like I slammed on the brakes and I'm sitting in the middle of the road, unsure of what just happened, and what to do next. I went through a similar experience 5 years ago when I returned home from Iraq, but this time it's WAY worse. I spent more time with one group of guys, and I had WAY more interaction with the locals. In talking with the guys, they are all expecting to bond over this shared experience together, but are very aware that they will scatter with the wind when they return. Some of them plan on leaving the military, some are already talking about marriages and kids, and some plan on heading back overseas as a private contractor, so that they can make some 'real money'. Whatever they decide, those plans are going to take a little while to get going. They are all going to need time to downshift.

When I got home Sunday night, my family was waiting at my house, cooking a big dinner, and waiting to hear all about the trip. I just wanted to come home, take a shower, and sit alone in the peace and quiet. Of course I couldn't say that to them. The bevy of questions was too much for me. Where to sit, what to drink, what I felt like eating... these are not tough questions, but for me at that moment, they were. It was too much for me. I ate my dinner, unpacked my gross, dirty clothes and took a long and much needed shower. I found the disc that I left for my husband, and broke it. Thankfully he'll never have to hear what was on it. I fell asleep on the couch for a bit, but when it was time to go to bed, I couldn't sleep. Isn't that always the way? After a night of pacing around the house, it was time to go to work. I probably should have taken a few days off, but there was too much to do! I've been clinging to Skype, my email, and facebook waiting for updates from Kabul. The guys have been asking how we are doing, and sending us messages that they miss us. One guy told me that he "missed my face". He said I was a welcome distraction at the end of a tough day, and that he looked forward to our card games and ball busting. I'm sorry if these blogs seem melodramatic to some, or if people don't believe that you can develop this kind of love and respect for strangers in such a short time, but it's how I feel.  I worry about the families of these men, who may not understand why they are the way they are when they return. These loved one's who haven't experienced these soldiers, in the way that I have. I don't know them at home, in their jobs, with their kids... I only know them in their dirty uniforms, planning missions and playing Madden. Just a small part of who they really are, but a part that the rest of the people in their lives don't get to see. How lucky am I, that I got that chance?

I fear that as the days go by, and the more my cough fades away, the memories of my trip will fade along with them. The feelings that were so strong, will slowly slip into distant memories. I don't want to forget one moment, I want to feel every emotion just as strongly as the first time. With the invention of  'Social Networking' and the 'friend counter' that we all have on our facebook pages it's not easy to make REAL friends. I think that this trip has given me some lifelong friends, and I look forward to seeing them at home, surrounded by the one's that they love. I just hope that the callouses will fade away, and the blinders will eventually come off. That day can't come soon enough, and the date is circled on my calendar. Until then, I hope that I don't stop coughing!