11 August 2011

And We Will All Go Down Together

August 6th, 2011 was the deadliest day for American forces in Afghanistan in our 10 years of being stationed in this country. A Chinook carrying twenty-two U.S. Navy SEALs, three U.S. Air Force special operations ground controllers, five U.S. Army helicopter crew members, seven Afghan National Army commandos and a translator was shot out of the sky in a province not far south of where I live. And this may defy logic, but those of us living here on our forward operating base did not publicly acknowledge the loss of those brave soldiers.

It's not that we don't care. In fact, it's the complete opposite. It's that we care all too much, and if we spent our every moment (or really any moment, when you get right down to it) thinking about how dangerous our jobs are out here, we'd never be able to leave our rooms. We've all silently prayed for their families, hugged our friends, and been thankful that there are people in this world who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to perform a mission they believe in.

Just before I went to Fort Polk for training in April, I was lucky enough to be among the very few who have seen the extraordinary operation at the the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center located in Dover, Delaware. This past week has brought back a flood of emotions, memories and incredible moments from that experience which brought me some peace during an otherwise difficult week.

If you haven't watched the movie Taking Chance with Kevin Bacon and you really want to appreciate the unimaginable love and commitment our military provides for the fallen and families of the fallen, grab a huge box of Kleenex and watch away. The multiply the realism in the movie by about fifty percent, and that's the average day at Dover. As if there is anything average, normal or even comprehensible about the men and women who work there whose mission in life is to return America's heroes to their families with the dignity and honor they have so earned.

I spent two full days at Dover, watching every step of the arduous and incredibly important process of receiving flag draped transfer cases as they arrived from overseas to watching as a sea of Airmen raised a final salute to a fallen service member resting in an oak casket as the casket was loaded into a hearse. The escort, a young Army soldier dressed in his formal uniform, shielded his swollen eyes with a pair of Oakleys as he headed to Philadelphia International Airport to take his friend home for the last time.

I love details, because in my world, it's really a collection of the little things that make the biggest difference. The most vivid memory of Dover came near the end of my second day. A very young soldier had just lost his life as a result of a terrible improvised explosive device, causing unimaginable damage to his neck and head. I watched in solemn silence as the morticians prepared his body, and as they worked, I imagined myself as the mother or girlfriend of this young soldier who would say their final goodbyes to this young man in just a few days.

If I were either of those two ladies, the first thing I would have wanted to do is remove the crisp white gloves and hold his bare hands just once more. So I asked for a nail brush, held each of his hands, and scrubbed the war from under his fingernails. This is the final step before this young man and all of our fallen heroes are dressed in a perfectly pressed military uniform for the last time.

I can't say that those who died in Afghanistan this week are in a better place, because I know given the chance, every last one of them would jump at the opportunity to say one last "I love you" to someone special in their lives. But I can say that the unbelievable people who work at Dover spend every ounce of their being caring for America's fallen, and do so in a way that no movie (or blog) could ever adequately capture.

The bond between America's Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines in combat is a powerful thing. There is no such thing as a good time or a good way to take a final breath. But after being here for just five weeks, I know for certain that if I were to meet my match in Afghanistan, the guys on my team would be right there next to me. We do everything together. And I find solace in the fact that if one of us goes down, we will all go down together.

07 August 2011

Cause Freedom Don't Come Free

I ate a hog dog. I spent a substantial portion of the week wallowing in self pity. I set up filters in my inbox to prevent messages from ever reaching me. I stayed up well past midnight and skipped my morning runs.

It's been a week of acting, well, absolutely nothing like myself, and to be perfectly honest it's been downright terrifying. When I was preparing for this deployment, everyone seemed to say exactly the same thing...you're going to learn more about yourself being in Afghanistan than you would ever learn anywhere else. In fact, by everyone's estimation, I was about to embark on some momentous journey into self discovery.

Well as it turns out, that journey starts out great and then gets just a bit turbulent after about the forth week. By week four, it was very obvious that the most unsafe thing about being here is, well, my fellow Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines who sometimes (okay, often) forget that I'm not a piece of meat, but a fellow American serving her country during a time of war. As some type of frame of reference, this place is at least 90% male, so you can imagine the unwelcome raised eyebrows an actual girl gets around here.

Also by week four, the walls of my 8' x 10' cage started closing in on me. I found myself fixated to the computer, mesmerized by Gmail, and using all available willpower to try to cause someone I love to send me an email telling me they are thinking about me. Yes, I know. There are people thinking about me and all of the rest of us out here, but it's unbelievable what an emotional high any one of us gets when we receive an email. Or a letter. Or really just any gesture. And you'd also be surprised to hear how infrequently that happens. To any of us. Or how it feels to me to be far away from home supporting a war that I'm not sure I believe in and praying to someone that I'm also not sure I believe in to bring me home safely at the end.

Part of our adventure this week was my first helicopter ride to another base in Afghanistan to do some business. Looking at Kabul from above (even on a day that wasn't perfectly clear) was the beginning of regaining my perspective.

As we were leaving the other base, we were sitting on the ramp, a bus full of people awaiting our turn to board the C-130 that would fly us back to Kabul. All traffic on the ramp was suddenly halted as three vehicles containing the flag draped cases of fallen American Security Forces Airmen passed in front of our bus. On my left was an Air Force Major who had arrived in Afghanistan earlier that morning, with silent tears streaming down his cheeks. On my right was a Security Forces Airman from my team, who placed his right hand solemnly on his heart and watched as a line of his fellow Security Forces Airmen slowly gave a final salute to the three flag-draped cases as they drove past.

Yes, I am in a war zone. And some days that is both absurdly apparent and incredibly heartbreaking. And any morning that I get to wake up and start it all over again is one day closer to being home where it is significantly safer, and where I can fall asleep in the arms of a wonderful husband who loves me. Others will never be so lucky. That end goal right there is incentive enough to keep things in perspective on the days that seem insurmountable.

The Army summarizes our ability to fight in this, my all time favorite wartime quotation:

"Soldiers don't fight because they hate what's in front of them. They fight because they love what's behind them."

Yes, I understand that Americans support the troops in Afghanistan, even if they don't support the war itself. And if you fall into the category of supporting the men and women who wake up every morning to help shape the future for Afghanistan, take a few minutes to tell us how much you care. That small gesture alone means the world to us out here.

** if you would like to see more pictures from our aerial adventure, go to http://www.flickr.com/photos/roblisameehan/sets/72157627231620081/ **