15 December 2011

You don't have to go out, but you can't stay here

There's a lot of stuff people don't tell you about coming home from a war. And a very smart person told me that I'm probably having a harder time than most because I've gone and done this tremendously dangerous thing for the first time when I was 32 and pensive, vice being 19 and invincible, as are many service members when they experience war for the first time. I was well aware of the risks we were taking out there, some voluntarily and others purely by the nature of our mission. And I am now, more than ever, well aware of just how lucky I am to have made it back home.

But what I didn't expect was how difficult the transition would be. I drove down the Autobahn for the first time yesterday, in my non-armored Volvo. I was driving significantly faster than I should have, and I was on the constant lookout for some other car to pull directly in front of me and detonate, so somehow in my mind, being one of the fastest cars on the road made me safer. Yes, I do understand that in reality that's not the case. Today on my drive back, I saw two tan Humvees driving in a small convoy on the opposite side of the road, and I couldn't help but wonder whether they'd been to Afghanistan like I had. I thought about how I'd feel much safer in one of those than in my tank of a civilian automobile.

Knowing that being home alone for a few months isn't a good thing right now, I asked two of my dear friends if I could come visit them on the Mosel River yesterday, about two hours from where I currently live in Germany. And by far the most interesting sequence of events was a conversation in German between me and their eight year old son.

"Lisa," he asked. "What did you do in Afghanistan?"

I didn't really have an answer better than "I was a teacher, like your mother." But the truth of the matter is that now that I'm back, I wonder what I did in Afghanistan and what I have to show for it. Yes, I worked with people and I changed a handful of lives...for now. But by all accounts, without a Western influence, those lives will slowly re-adapt to their own cultural norms and I'll be another faded foreign memory.

It's hard to walk back into my former life, pretending like nothing has changed in the past eight months. I want to talk to everyone about what I did in Afghanistan and why I think it was important. I'm consumed by it, in fact. And given that my predisposition to getting lost in those thoughts is annoying to me, I can only imagine how others must feel to listen to me. I want to think about other things...normal things...but I'm not there yet. I want to be able to stand in a crowded room of people and not be scanning everyone's hands to make sure they're not concealing a weapon or a bomb, jittering at the thought of how I would respond. I want to stop brushing my hand across my right hip, not feeling my M9 sitting there, and wondering where it went.

I want to be normal again. And if the first few days are any indication, normal will take time and patience.

14 December 2011

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

As it turns out, this deployment ended in much the same fashion that it began...chaos, followed by a lull in activity, followed by more chaos, which ultimately delivered me back to Reichenbach-Steegen, Germany, the safest of any location in which I've been in the past 8 or so months.

I was bound and determined to be patient at one of the military's largest transient bases. And I did well. For about 72 hours. I laid in bed endlessly, watching movies, chatting with friends, making travel plans. But on Monday I absolutely cracked. Why on Earth should I hang out in Wrong-a-stan when I could be hanging out in my own house with a nice glass of wine surrounded by friends?

Both Rob and my friend Bryan offered to look up the military flight schedule, find me the name of an aircraft commander, and provide advice on how to find my way out of this transient situation. I picked up the phone at about 2am on Tuesday morning, calling blind to someone I'd never met, and somehow I convinced this extremely friendly pilot to take me home to Germany...at least 72 hours before the Air Force planned to let me do so.

It was gently snowing in Wrong-a-stan, and upon hearing that my chariot awaited, I dashed to my tent, heated to 90 degrees and brimming over with more than 40 girls, grabbed my bookbag and sleeping bag (the only pieces of luggage I brought back from Afghanistan), clipped on my pink reflective belt, and bolted to meet the crew. It took another at least three hours to negotiate all of the details, but by about 5:30am I was sitting somewhat comfortably on the back of a C-17, in complete awe that my master plan panned out, and listening to the de-icing machines clear the snow from the fuselage of the airplane.

There was something unbelievably special about this particular mission between Wrong-a-stan and Germany. This pilot was flying the remains of three American military members who had lost their lives fighting the war from which I was returning. Prior to my deployment, my job was to take care of these fallen heroes at Ramstein, where all of the American fallen transit en route to Dover Air Force Base so that my team can open their flag-draped transfer cases, re-ice the remains, re-seal the cases, and send them on their way.

What a sobering end of my incredible journey to spend almost nine hours gazing at these three flag-draped cases and truly appreciating just how lucky I am to be returning home to see my friends and family. Somewhere in the world, the friends and family of these three fallen heroes are in a state of shock and mourning, a huge contrast to  my own reunion emotions. It's a substantial flight between Wrong-a-stan and Germany, and about 30 minutes into the flight I managed to put down Water for Elephants, crawl into my sleeping bag and fade off to sleep.

I picked my sleeping location deliberately. The three flag-draped cases were tied down in a U-shape near the front of the aircraft, their heads all facing in the direction of home. I curled into my sleeping bag, nestled carefully inside of the U, my head facing toward home, surrounded by these great Americans, and imagining how they would have felt to be on the exciting journey home that I was then experiencing.

Those were, perhaps, my best eight hours of sleep since I began this journey more than eight months ago, and as I awoke, we were beginning our initial descent into Ramstein. As I stepped off of the airplane and onto the bus that led me to my first un-monitored step in a very long time, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of freedom...the same freedom those three fallen heroes had given their lives preserving.

I chose breakfast for dinner my first night home...buttermilk waffles and eggs scrambled with cream. And I drank a glass of champagne to celebrate not only my return from Afghanistan, but also to celebrate the lives of the 1,836 American service members who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan. May their lives inspire the next generation of American men and women to chose service as a way of life, and to help share our good fortune with those who were born into less fortunate circumstances.