15. Lead me home

Note: Originally I had intended to write an afterward  that would offer more closure to the experience, but unintentionally this became the final piece. After months of working on the next one I let go of the project as it was clear I didn’t have anything useful to say. Even writing this piece was difficult to pull together, ultimately not happening until a 3 am flurry of writing after a few weeks of being back stateside. At the time it was very important that I capture a balance between disillusionment, a want to be reunited, and a fear that it couldn’t happen. Months after writing these I took all my posts down from the internet feeling if people truly wanted to know about my experience, they would ask me.

After republishing these pieces years later it is apparent much of the distress I thought was evident, was instead between the lines. In my attempt to create a comfortable bridge between civilians and war, I may have mistakenly painted too clean a picture of my deployment. In waiting to write that ‘final piece,’ like other significant life experiences, there isn’t ever a chance to return to square one. There’s only the careful building of a fence and bed for the self that lives with the past.

 

Christmas

Finally the day came when our replacements unpacked. They came into the OCAC where I worked both like Christmas presents and like Christmas guests: First Radio Battalion, and their massive number of analysts and linguists. We were on our best behavior for them, and yet they were our prize. They were our tickets out of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, best behavior is an understatement. For the last few weeks especially, our task had been to prepare proper training for our replacements, and for the next set of days, it would be our job to turn over everything we knew, one on one, to our replacements, effectively enough for them to pick up operations by the time we were ready to leave.

The first boost of a challenge came in the ratio: for me it was one on four. I was supposed to train four linguists. The upside was I don’t remember the days dragging on during this point in the deployment. The downside is I had to drink extra bottles of water for the first time (until now, a few bottles of water, and a classified number of cups of coffee was enough to provide me water), just to keep my throat from shredding apart.

My replacements were enviable. Three months ago, I came here to be the sole night linguist with Pashto training, and less than six months at that. Three of them had over a year of formal training, and the fourth in another language, whose sole job would be to manage the linguists. One week wasn’t enough time to teach them everything, but it was enough to get them going on their own.

Summertime
Christmas day finally came, and we, 3rd Radio Battalion, were formally relieved of our duties by 1st Radio Battalion. Roughly a week would pass before we had our ride off Camp Leatherneck, but that week was a vacation of its own.

Coworkers came to visit and socialize. Dave, Justin, and Joe came back from their respective forward operating bases. We spent hours at the chow hall, as if at restaurants, catching up; swapping stories. Joe got promoted to Sergeant. Everyone who had to bear it was weaned off the insufferable night shift. As the sun reintroduced itself, and we wandered purposeless to pass the final days, it felt as if a summer break was coming. Old friends, an ending experience, and an intangeable, unquantifiable pleasure and exodus lay before us. The only caveat to this was that those of us from Georgia had to hold our breath a little longer before we’d be home.

Nine of us from outside companies were deployed solely to support 3rd Radio Battalion. The majority of 3rd had been here since May. Their sights were set on the shores of the Hawaiian islands. We had to stand mandatory decompression training and bureaucracy before finally seeing the shores of Georgia. (Or maybe the peaches; I’m not sure what we proverbially could set our sights on.)

Staging before our mass exodus back to the states.
Staging before our mass exodus back to the states.

Unfortunately, we didn’t know the details of our return to the continental United States. Some wanted to be back as soon as possible. Davis had a wife and two boys waiting for the small Augusta plane to touch down, and Wilson and Justin, girlfriends. But for me the exodus was bittersweet, because I’d be leaving a great opportunity to see Hawaii, behind.

It looked like a small theater, with long rows of seat stripped from an airliner and affixed to the center of the body, and an inboard facing row lining the sides of the aircraft, with vast, impressive headroom. You think two hours early for a flight is ample time? Try four. With nothing to do.

After a long wait, we boarded the red-eye flight en-route to a staging base where we would launch back to the Western world from. Time passed strangely, as Marines who had spent the majority of 2009 here, Marines who will spend a lot of time readjusting to a Western, non-military, non-war environment, began to realize their departure.

Aboard an open cargo plane fitted with 747 seats.

Extended Exodus
At our east coast layover, Vietnam veterans had lined up inside the terminal to greet us. It was a warm pause to our 24 hours of traveling. I turned on my phone, rekindling habits on how to use it. Whereas the unfamiliar but reassuring European layovers had offered us refreshing familiarity, seeing an American airport, seeing an American environment at all, was like waking from a dream. I ordered crappy coffee. I stared at cliche artwork along the walls. I enjoyed that acute, indescribable awkwardness between American strangers that happens in the bathroom when waiting for a stall. I people watched. And I called my family, finally on American soil.

Greedy for more of the familiar however, we held out for the true arrival of home.

“Today’s in-flight meal choices are chicken or pasta,” and laughter breaks out along the cabin. This is our last of five flights from Kyrgyzstan. We’ve been on the same plane with a changing crew, and this is the third “chicken or pasta” meal we’ve been offered. We began the trip home 36 hours ago, and a negligible few hours remain.

Even after a day and a half of sporadic, light sleep at best, the cabin full of desert-uniformed Marines livens up on this final stretch. I’m settling into my seat, and surely Dave, Joe, and Justin are doing the same, because for us, the deployment is another week or two from finishing, and home another week after that.

Eric’s wife and son are waiting for him. Nick’s wife surely, too. They’ll be at the hangar where our plane comes in, along with a band and the rest of the Battalion to welcome home Marines, most of whom have been gone nearly ten months.

Debarking at Marine Corps Base, Hawaii.
Debarking at Marine Corps Base, Hawaii.

Flashbulbs of Homecoming
First, strange fingernails in the water below us. Soon they became crests, and full waves. Then, on the horizon, a gray mountainous island. Finally, an unreal, vividly green canopy and creamy beach passed under the airplane wing. We dipped and turned a sharp right, and within minutes we were on the runway at Marine Corps Base Hawaii. As much as I was trying to hold out for Georgia, or even Minnesota, I couldn’t help getting caught up in the moment. Everyone was full of energy.

Banners and the base band welcomed home the local unit: 3rd Radio Battalion, while the rest of us held out for our true homecoming.
Banners and the base band welcomed home the local unit, 3rd Radio Battalion, while the rest of us held out for our true homecoming.

Before anyone got off the plane, the Lieutenant Colonel came on to give us our liberty brief. And then before we could get off the plane, a Staff Sergeant came on the plane to give us instructions for turning in our weapons. And finally, before we got off the plane, First Sergeant told us how he wanted the final pages of the exodus to play out. Then we got off the plane.

Across the fifty yard stretch of runway to the hangar, stood a crowd of family, friends, and Marines, underneath banners, streamers, balloons, and a fanfare from a Marine Corps band. Hard faces couldn’t hide from the warm sun and powerful reception. Marines hid the worst of their memories and swallowed the bitterest tastes of a war tens of thousands of miles away. Friends and colleagues welcomed us. Families rejoined. War veterans were immediately engulfed, lost in homecoming, blinded by the recognition.

One nearly unbearable hour of rifle check-in, and luggage identifying later, on the air strip behind the hangar, 3rd Radio Battalion Afghanistan Detachment as a whole, stood in formation for the last time. There’s silence, but it’s restless. I suppose when the flair died down I realized the war was still a part of us, and home was harder to find.

For what is hopefully the last time, First Sergeant bellows at us, “Look, Marines. I want to get out of here, enjoy a cold one just as much as you do. My wife is over there waiting. But Sgt Jordan, Sgt Donne, and who else is missing a bag?”

No answer.

“You are going to unload EVERY bag from those trucks, and YOU are going to personally put your bags back on the trucks. If we don’t find everyone’s bags, then we’re going through the married Marines’ bags, and then the officers’ bags, until we find those missing bags.”

We were dismissed, to release our frustration while bags were unloaded. I jumped on the truck with a couple other Marines and exhausted myself throwing the hundreds of bags out until there were none left. Jordan and Donne’s missing bags were of some of the first bags we tossed out, and thankfully no new bags had gone missing since. Now we stood on the flight line with three bags to a person, while First Sergeant tried again. So much for the dramatic last formation.

“Now who’s missing a bag?” No answer. “Good. Now each of YOU will put your OWN, BAG, onto that truck.”

Trying to keep sight of the our freedom, we hurried back to the trucks with our bags. A few labor-intensive minutes later, we returned bagless to the airstrip.

“Barracks Marines, your bags are on the truck?”

“Yes, First Sergeant.”

“Ok. Now, where are all my MCSB Marines?”

“Here, First Sergeant.”

“You guys won’t be turning to the 96. We’re going to try to get you out of here by Wednesday to your parent commands. Report to Admin at 0800 tomorrow.”

“Aye, aye First Sergeant,” the small group of us responded. This was the concrete word of us going home. We were in Hawaii, but we would be back in Augusta sooner than expected. And surely after only a few restless weeks, home, finally, again. But the rest of the reintegration to our lives was for us to figure out.

First Sergeant finally dismissed us, ready or not, from our experience:

“Detachment, fall out!”

 

Previous: 14. Everyday

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