wish I could tell you a story. There would be a believer, a young man, a proud soldier unhindered by doubt, knowing in his heart that he is fighting, ultimately, for the greater good, and that in his lifetime he would see the fruits of his labors — that he could, with his blood, buy the freedom of a people, of a nation.
That is not my story.
My story begins in boredom. From boredom my Army career burst forth, a misguided Athena from the furrowed brow of a confused Zeus. I didn’t so much drop out of Southern Oregon University as I weaned myself off of it. The classes slowly slipped away, the earnest intellectual enthusiasm with which I had attacked my education slowly ebbing and finally dying the slow death that it sought.
Like many of my generation, I needed a direction, a purpose. I needed something, anything, to change. I needed a new horizon. Funny thing about horizons; you never catch one. I’ve followed mine steadily eastward, first to Fort Benning, Ga., School of the Infantry, then to Fort Drum, N.Y., and then Paktika Province, Afghanistan. I wish I could tell you a dramatic story of violence, war, glory and honor on the battlefield.
But that is not my story.
In my story we fight, certainly. We get in more regular TICs (Troops In Contact) than anywhere else in Afghanistan. We roll down a “road,” a rain-carved wadi in the midst of this insane terrain, before we are accosted by explosions. What starts as the whoosh of a rocket-propelled grenade soon becomes a cacophony, a wall of sound and lead that shakes your bones, fear that shakes your soul, panic that shakes your nerve, tempered by a will to strengthen your resolve.
And then silence sets in, and it is over. You are all left to rehash a common experience.
It becomes a biweekly occurrence, a common exception to our repetitive rule. Every day is like another, except when it isn’t, and even then the days will eventually flow together.
All our stories are the same. Perhaps repetition simply dulls the sense of adventure. Anything, through routine, can become mundane; if this realization is part of the progress toward maturity, I wish I could go backwards. Maybe we’ve dulled ourselves to what we’re doing here, the mounted missions through nearly impassable valleys on impossible roads, the inevitably alien character of our presence here, simply eroded by familiarity.
I would go to bed at night, like everyone else; I would wake up and do the same thing I did the day before. I would eat the same food, perform virtually the same tasks, sleep at virtually the same time. Wash, rinse, repeat.
This kind of monotony gives significance to very minor events. I can still clearly remember my frustration at the fact that my shoes had been moved by someone who had swept the floor. My shoes being in the wrong spot had thrown off my whole day. The repetition, though grating, facilitates the passage of time; days blur into weeks, weeks into months — months became nearly a year and a half.
Mountains, in geographical terms, are like muscles; over millennia, they flex and contort, bulge and stretch, and have made Afghanistan into a landscape that in ways has to be seen to be believed. I remember being told in one of my history classes that Cortez, upon returning to Spain after conquering Mexico, presented the king with a map of the colony, then forcefully crumpled it in his hand. Unfolding it, moving his hand over the first three-dimensional topographical map in history, he said to the king, “This is your new land.”
God must have done something similar when he was creating Afghanistan, and similarly described it to Adam, for truly there is no flat place in this country that was not made so by the hand of man. Afghans practice the same ancient type of terrace farming seen all over the world, carving fertile land from a forbidding landscape. The vibrant sunsets contrast with the drab monotone color of the land; it’s beautiful, in an austere way, like the American Southwest, without the color, Grand Canyon or general feeling of welcome.
Not to say that the Afghan people are themselves poor hosts; it’s probably best that I didn’t pursue a career in the intelligence field, because to me even the ones we’re suspicious of just seem like the nicest people. A local leader once brought us what must have been a feast for his family: chicken in broth, rice, potatoes and their delicious local bread, as we sat outside his village in wait for an enemy that never came.
A remarkable number of children, even in remote villages, have an impressive command of the English language, enough so that they are able to communicate their wants, usually pens, frequently and persistently. The incessant village chorus, usually a prepubescent alto, of “pen? pen?” is one that we were intimately, wearily, familiar with.
In the beginning we handed out rice and tea to grateful Afghans, who seemed ready and willing to provide us with any information we needed. By the end, we knew differently. We knew that the tribal leader who said he wanted peace wanted it at the expense of his neighbors, that the elder who promised us information instead told the Taliban everything it needed to know, that the farmer who swore allegiance to the Afghan government often kept the tools of insurgency close at hand.
The men we trusted most would betray us; the very soldiers we employed murdered each other over Taliban bounties. We began with good intent, creating goodwill by building schools and wells, but the demands of tribalism as well as the necessities of guerrilla warfare take their toll, and 16 months is a long time.
Our greatest struggle was in simply filling the hours. A mission may be eight hours long, but there are another eight waking hours in a day. We all develop our methods: Eric sleeps, Brandon draws, Tim watches movies. We read old magazines for the thousandth time, try to keep in touch with our loved ones and stay abreast of the events at home.
Home — a place that all at once seems so close and so far. Advances in communications allow us to have nearly constant contact, but in the end you can’t hug a computer or kiss a phone. At least, it won’t kiss you back.
For all that, we are not alone, or lonely. The dead horse that is the “Band of Brothers” speech has been so thoroughly flogged that it’s almost intellectually offensive to bring it up again, but we really do become that close. There are things about each other that only we will know.
I would talk about manly weeping, the sighs of relief and the sense of a man tested and survived, but there isn’t any of that. I’ve yet to see nearly anything but high spirits and semi-jocular shock. We don’t dwell on events, in fact most of the time aren’t even disturbed by them; they are something that happened an hour ago, yesterday, last week, something to be recalled with wonder or humor.
Humor is the outlet through which we seem to see most of the world. Our circumstances, no matter how dire, are always funny to someone, and therefore bearable. We wear bulletproof armor, ride around in up-armored vehicles, but our laughter is our sturdiest armor.
We took comfort in it when, on the way home, 12 hours from being back in the States, yearning for tearful reunions with loved ones, we were told we were going back to Afghanistan. I didn’t believe it. I rolled over in my sleeping bag. Very funny, L-T. The next day, our sagging faces, our shuffling steps, our shoulders, already burdened by a year of more consistent combat than anywhere else in Afghanistan, bore the crushing weight of disappointment.
After a year, a year that saw our friends wounded and maimed, a year with more close calls than anyone would care to admit, we were going back. We all knew: We had been given too many chances, too many narrow escapes. Someone was going to die.
When it happened, I had already had my closest call. My truck had run over an improvised explosive device, an anti-tank mine. Our 10-ton, armed and armored Humvee, bearing five soldiers, was hurled into the air and had come down a flaming, twisted mess. I remember floating. I remember slamming into the ground. I remember the screaming.
By the time the fire was out, everyone had been pulled out. We all kept our limbs, though our driver’s leg was broken in four places. We were taken by helicopter to a base called Orgun-E, and I was still there, enjoying the minor celebrity that comes out of surviving a situation that you should by no means have made it through.
I was walking from the cafeteria back to my room, checking to see if I could get back to my forward operating base, when I was told. Two men were being flown in from my unit. It didn’t look like either was going to make it. Our time had run out. We had used up all our chances. We had to pay war’s terrible cost, with the blood of a friend.
Thankfully, our medical team’s skill was able to save one. The other. ... I wish I could say I knew him better. He wasn’t in my platoon, we didn’t have any of the same friends. He was just another man, another cog in the machine of the company. I volunteered to carry his casket from the morgue to the helicopter during a ceremony. When I lifted his casket, I wondered if I weighed as much. What else did we share? We had been the same places. Run the same risks. A hair’s breadth separated my circumstances from his.
He was not a burden. I was glad to carry him. At times, I carry him still. We had four weeks left. One more month, and we were gone. He would’ve been safe. We all would be safe.
The night before we were finally, truly due to leave, my platoon was sent into the longest and fiercest firefight of our entire tour. Two of my friends, hours from safety, were severely wounded. Afghanistan had the final word, a nearly fatal goodbye: “You have done nothing. We are still here.”
I’m home now. I’ve been out of the Army for four months. I have my problems, as we all do; my knees ache, my head hurts. I have post-traumatic stress syndrome. I cry sometimes. I don’t cry because I’m afraid, or because of the things I remember. I cry because of that last day. I cry because of all those narrow escapes, all of those terrible almosts, all those times that could’ve robbed me of my wife, of my future children, of everything that is on my horizon, for an ambiguous outcome.
My family’s military history goes back to the Revolution. This is what we do. And now I have something in common with my uncles: the empty feeling of a soldier, having sacrificed his time and well-being while risking his future, leaving a war unwon.
I wish I could tell you a story. The just war won, the heroes victorious, the sacrifices justified, the soldiers resettled, and everything happily ever after.
But that is not my story. My story is of a war that doesn’t have a front line, doesn’t have a victor. It has an aggressively maintained status quo, a political quagmire that hamstrings the very people who may actually win it through the skillful application of both military force and diplomacy. My story is about soldiers who leave proud, fight bravely, and come home broken, for no result.
My story has no happy ending. But it is my story.
I will tell it.