Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Home

By Molly


Matt is home. I picked him up from the Atlanta airport early on a Thursday morning, many weeks ago now.

I meant to write this post sooner. I meant to write it just after Matt arrived, during the week I stayed at a nondescript highway hotel while he went through the requisite “redeployment” paperwork at Fort Stewart.

I wanted to write about a specific moment, actually—the one where I stood among a group of military wives, girlfriends and mothers at the airport Arrivals gate. The moment that came after the long, early-morning drive from Savannah in the pouring rain. The one that included peering over heads and around ‘welcome home’ signs for hours filled with jittery excitement. The moment when I finally recognized Matt’s face atop a uniformed body. That, right there. That was a wonderful moment, one that I’ll always remember. Matt emerged from the top of the escalator wearing his fatigues, looking fatigued, and I shimmied under a dividing rope to attack him with a hug.

I’m so happy he’s home.

In the weeks since, however, I haven’t written a word. Well, that’s a lie. I’ve written a lot. The first draft of my book was due March 31, and until then I didn’t have a moment for anything else. I was buried in work. So buried that at times I hardly remembered to eat or sleep. So buried, in fact, that I couldn't join Matt for his first full week back with his family in New Orleans. Instead, I worked alone in New York.

This consequent, sudden separation came with mixed feelings on both sides. As a result, I’ve been struggling with a host of questions. Namely: How do I balance career with relationship? Where do I draw the line, and what does it mean when I do? They are big, complicated questions, ones to which I’m not sure I’ll ever have the answer.

In any case, I submitted the first draft of my book manuscript to my editor before the deadline and before Matt came back to New York. Then, as soon as he got here, we hopped on a plane and spent a week in the Caribbean with my mother and my brother and their respective significant others. In St. Barth’s, a small, ritzy French island near the Dutch Antilles, we swam in the cerulean-hued ocean, read on the beach and drank barrels of wine. We avoided the Internet, the phone, and our collision course with reality.

But one thing is very real: Matt is home. He is no longer a disembodied voice on the other end of the phone as I walk through Manhattan’s Union Square on weekday afternoons. He’s no longer little notes stuck into packages or e-mails sent in the middle of my night. He’s real, whole, here. It’s pretty fantastic. And kind of overwhelming.

Matt and I are now sharing my tiny studio in Brooklyn until we figure out what comes next. He takes up drawers in the dresser, and hangers in the closet. He talks in his sleep and hogs the left side of the bed. He eats chocolate crème drops and turkey sandwiches drenched in hot mustard. He smells like shaving cream and Gillette deodorant. Just like before.

I’ve been reading literature on the “readjustment” period after a deployment – the tenuous months when boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands and wives and children must get used to each other again. During this time, I’ve learned, some have to let go of the absence and fear of a deployment; others the responsibility of command. I remind myself often: We all have to reorganize our concept of normal. Matt’s return is strange and scary, sparkling and joyous all at once.

One night before we went on vacation – the first night that we were both in New York, together but without plans – I decided to cook. It was the first time I cooked a full meal in my kitchen in months. Living alone, it just never seemed worth the effort. But as the sun set over the pear tree just beginning to blossom in the back yard, I pulled out my sauté pan and cutting board. I roasted sweet potatoes and, later, asparagus with a touch of butter. I sautéed chicken breasts and reduced a sauce with mushrooms and marsala. The execution wasn’t flawless. I set off the fire alarm and spilled flour all over the room. I even slipped on the kitchen floor, landing with a resounding thump on my hip, which sported a bruise in a neon shade of blue for over a week. But the food on our plates tasted damn good. And it came punctuated with laughter.

We are here, now, together. I’m ready for this kind of change.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

On the Returning

By Matt


On Friday afternoon, I left Gardez, the city where I have spent the past nine months, for the last time.

The departure was routine and unceremonious. Few people came to see us off. I experienced no cathartic moment, no final revelation about all that my time here has meant. The mountains surrounding the base, whose contours I have memorized, never revealed their secrets.

We boarded a helicopter and flew away. That was it.

I had wanted it to be a Hollywood moment, one where all the memories of the last year came flooding back at once. One in which I would see the war and my small part in it in a new light. I wanted to be moved. All I got instead was a pair of earplugs and a broken seat.

Still, I can’t complain. My tour in Afghanistan is officially over. I am coming home.

I, and the handful of soldiers with whom I’m traveling, will spend the next few days base-hopping our way to Kyrgyzstan, the final debarkation point from the “theater of operations.” By mid-March I'll be back in the United States, where Molly will be waiting for me in Savannah. Before month’s end I’ll be a civilian again.

***

I find I’m more excited for the future than I’ve ever been, even if that sentiment has been a long time coming.

I spent a lot of time this year dwelling on all the things I was missing out on back home: friendships I might have cultivated, places I might have traveled and strides I might have made in my nascent journalism career. There were tough stretches last summer and fall when I felt downright sorry for myself. But I shouldn’t have.

I now recognize that this experience has proved fulfilling on all those counts and more.

First, several soldiers with whom I’ve served in Afghanistan have become close friends, people I hope I’ll keep in touch with for years to come. Other friends and colleagues back home have written to me extensively throughout my tour, giving me an insight into their lives – and mine – that, ironically, I might never have gained if I weren’t halfway around the world.

I’ve gotten to travel, too, even if it’s not the kind of travel I envisioned. This deployment has carried me across a breathtakingly beautiful yet utterly shattered country. In the devastated cities of eastern Afghanistan, I’ve been deeply affected by people whose faces reflect the trauma of perpetual war. In rural mountain villages, I’ve encountered extremes of poverty and piety that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Finally, my time in Afghanistan has rejuvenated my passion for writing, largely as a result of “Here and Far.” To be sure, composing this blog with Molly was the best decision we made this year, and it has immeasurably strengthened our bond. But as someone for whom writing had become more of a chore than a pastime in recent years, I have rediscovered its power to lift me up and to help make sense of my world.

***

My return home from Afghanistan means more than just the end of a deployment. It coincides with another major milestone in my life. This coming June, having completed my eight-year "military service obligation," I will resign my Army commission for good. My military career will be over, and I will never again be recalled to duty.

My resignation will be bittersweet. It will mark the end of a remarkable journey that began at West Point in 1998, when I was only 18. I showed up that year full of idealism, enamored of the academy’s timeless traditions and its promise of producing men of character and integrity. However, the romanticized expectations I held of the Army I would one day enter were dispelled by the realities of the coming decade.

For me, the national distress and tumult of the last 10 years – 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, Afghanistan – have been intensely personal. Because of the Army, I’ve spent the greater part of my twenties in and out of war zones. I was marooned in Iraq throughout the tortuous recovery of New Orleans, my hometown, in 2005 and 2006. And at the beginning of 2009, just as I was settling into a new life as a journalist in New York, I had to put it all on hold for one last duty. I regarded my recall as an ignominious way of concluding a commitment to my country that I once made so willingly.

And yet despite all that, there are aspects of my time in the service that I will always look back on with fondness and pride.

Thanks to the Army, I’ve spent most of my adult years living or traveling in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, places I probably never would have gotten to see. The Army has pushed me to my mental and physical limits, challenging me in a way that no other institution could. And I’ve made life-long friends whose loyalty I wouldn’t hesitate to stake my life on. Above all, the Army has been my family: providing shelter and protection, instilling discipline and fostering an unparalleled sense of belonging.

I can honestly say that my years as a soldier have been the best of my life. And I’ll be sad to have them end.

***

For now, I plan to spend the next few months getting my life back in order.

In April I’ll take some time off to decompress: a trip to St. Barth’s with Molly and her family, followed by a week in New Orleans during Jazz Fest with mine. I look forward to long runs with Molly through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and to watching dozens of movies at home with my dad. This summer I plan to cycle solo across America, a feat I’ve wanted to perform for years.

Beyond that, however, I’m unsure of what the future holds. In the coming years, I envision myself doing any number of things. I may return to journalism or go back to school or even become active in politics – maybe all of them. Time will tell.

I learned long ago that the experience of war has a way of wiping the slate clean and rearranging one’s priorities. My tour in Afghanistan has been no exception. It’s taught me that life is fragile, short and often spent at the mercy of forces beyond our control. It’s reminded me of dreams I once had for my life, dreams that were stifled by professional responsibilities, financial concerns or frivolous distractions.

And for all the turmoil this year in Afghanistan has brought into my life, it has, in the end, made up for it. I’ve been given the kind of chance a person rarely gets in life, especially at my age.

To start over.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Translation

By Molly


I called a member of the Family Readiness Group, or FRG, last Tuesday night before dinner. This group, based outside Atlanta near the headquarters of the National Guard battalion with which Matt has served this year, is made up primarily of military wives. Like thousands of similar organizations across the country, its purpose is to keep those here informed about those far away, or “downrange,” as Matt tells me to say.

I called because Matt is coming home soon and I plan to be there when he arrives. I wanted to make sure I am in the right place at the right time to welcome him back. But between the acronyms and Army speak, I had absolutely no idea how to make that happen.

It was the first time I’ve ever made a call to Georgia, actually. Physically, I’ve only been to the state once, when I traveled to Atlanta to report on a high school robotics competition. Then, I was ferried back and forth from a nondescript hotel to the Georgia Dome for three consecutive days. We ate at McDonalds and Starbucks. I don’t think it counts.

On Tuesday, while a pot of tomato sauce simmered on my stove, I threw my questions at an almost uncomfortably friendly Army wife, who spoke with a lilting southern accent. She spouted esoteric Armyisms that have become moderately familiar thanks to Matt, terms like HHC and ADVON, yellow ribbons and redeployment and IRR. I tried to follow along, though Army is ultimately a language I do not speak. I smiled when she called me ma’am.

On the phone, we covered a range of unintelligible details: The timetables and phone trees, abbreviations and organization of the days to come. She told me told me about the FRG’s use of Twitter and Facebook to get messages to members of the group. I wrote some things down, though remained relatively confused.

But not everything we talked about was unfamiliar. Some things made total sense: The macaroni and cheese at Paula Deen’s restaurant in Savannah, for one—a dish, she said with a charming giggle, that is so creamy that strings of melted cheddar can be pulled from plate to mouth a mile long. She told me about her husband, and about the hordes of women and children who would be waiting outside the gates of the base, raring with excitement, when their soldiers arrived home.

I eventually ran out of questions to ask. But I didn’t want to hang up.

I’ve felt very isolated this year, something I’ve written about here many times before. I didn’t anticipate the loneliness of loving someone deployed, of having a long-distance relationship to Afghanistan until it became a defining feature of my day-to-day life. Here, family and friends have surrounded me with unflagging support. But there is hardly anyone I know who has experience with this war. How could they understand?

As the days of Matt’s deployment dwindle, however, I have begun to realize the good that has come out of something so difficult. Knowing Matt has widened the aperture of my worldview, and that of every member of my family. The newspaper headlines, the ones that have always been disturbing but never tingling with fear, no longer exist on a different plane. The disparity between here and far, them and us, together and apart has taken on a greater significance.

But none of that has made me fluent in military-speak. It hasn’t made the logistics of being at an Army base in rural Georgia at an unknown hour on an undetermined day any less daunting. It was refreshing to have a cheerful woman from the FRG kindly try to explain what has been so incomprehensible this year. It was surprising to be understood, even if it wasn’t mutual. After all, as an Army wife, she is living it, too.

“So how long have y’all been together?” she asked before we hung up.

“About two and a half years.”

“Wow,” she said. “And he’s been gone for almost a whole one of those…”

“Yeah.”

I sighed.

“I’ll bet you’re ready for him to come home.”

“You have no idea.”

“Oh,” she said. “But I do.”

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Winter End

By Matt


Her skin was cold. As cold as the snow I later used to scrub her blood from my trembling hands.

She was a teenager and pretty. She wore a blue-gold dress and earrings that dangled with little pink peppers. Hours earlier, she’d been celebrating the birth of a neighborhood boy with scores of other villagers.

Now, she was a corpse. She lay on the floor of a storage room along a muddy road outside of town.

I’d been up since dawn, jarred awake by a soldier rapping on my door. “Sir, they found some bodies,” he said without emotion. He might just as well have announced that breakfast was getting cold. “Better get up. Don’t forget your camera.”

We’d shouldered our way through hundreds of scowling men surrounding the compound. Somewhere far off, I could hear women wailing.

The details of what occurred were unclear. What is certain is that this girl died some time during the night. She died in a hail of bullets that pierced her belly and tore through her larynx.

Four other bullet-riddled bodies splayed out on the concrete floor beside the girl – two men and two women, presumably family – were covered by blood-soaked wool blankets. But she wasn’t. Her death shroud was a burka. A blue one.

Peeling back the heavy fabric from her head and shoulders, I began to snap away. I only had a few minutes before the mob of mourners outside would carry her off. By sunset she would be in the ground.

Her eyes were empty. Lifeless. Her silky black hair fell lightly across her face. A plastic tiara lay crushed nearby.

I noticed a piece of ripped cloth, tied in a bow, which bound her big toes together. Her jaw was clenched shut by a rag fastened around her little head and beneath her chin – like Jacob Marley in “A Christmas Carol.” “That’s a funeral ritual,” someone said. “I saw it when I was here in ‘02.”

2002, I thought. Eight years. This war consumed half the girl’s life. Now she was its latest victim.

I tiptoed from corpse to corpse. The room was cramped, demanding all of my concentration not to step on hands or to smear the blood that was splattered on the wall. As I lifted back the blanket from each body, I covered my mouth and nose to stifle the sweet, sickly smell of death.

I never asked their names. I didn’t want to know them.

Forget them, I urged myself. The world already has.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

An Improbable Notion

By Matt


27 January 2010
Patrol near Shinki Village, Paktika Province, Afghanistan
(20 minutes south of Gardez by helicopter)


I lifted my rifle to the ready position and moved forward slowly. Already I was gasping for air.

Halfway now.

I was trudging up a rocky hill, desperately trying to keep up with an Afghan soldier ahead of me. The light-footed enlisted man peered back every now and again to make sure I hadn’t slipped and slid back down into the valley. Clutching a rocket propelled grenade launcher in one hand and two more rockets under his armpits, he seemed amused that this ascent was kicking my ass.

You’re not wearing 50 pounds of armor and ammo, I wanted to say – and might have if I weren’t wheezing.

Moments earlier, I’d stopped briefly to try and catch my breath. My chest heaved as my lungs drew in what oxygen was available in the thin mountain air. Damn, I thought, why is this so hard for me? I’m in good shape. I turned my head back to see how far we’d climbed. I searched the dry river bed below, trying to spot our massive armored vehicles. When I did, they looked tiny. Bad place to sprain an ankle, I thought.

My gaze was drawn to a moving figure on the side of a hill across the valley from mine. Another American soldier. He, too, struggled up an equally steep rise. A hundred feet above him, at the crest of the hill, the Afghan squad with whom he’d been tasked to provide overwatch for the mission had already settled in and started a fire. Jesus, I said to myself, wearing a ton of gear or not, these people are hardy.

By the time I finally reached the top of my hill, the Afghan soldier I was following had already made it down the other side and was now dashing up another. I soon saw why. At the top of the next rise an Afghan man was slowly descending the hill while frantically gripping the handles of a wheelbarrow full of small trees and brush. Though young and seemingly agile, the man was fighting gravity, and gravity was winning. Just as the wheelbarrow appeared ready to break free and tumble down out of control, the soldier leapt in front and deftly guided it the rest of the way down.

I finally caught up to the two just as they reached level ground. When I approached them, still panting, I was struck by the fearsome intensity of the young man. He had feral green eyes, a goatee, and shoulder-length, curly black hair that poured from beneath a Qandahari colla, a bejeweled hat popular among Pashtun men. His hands, which remained gloveless in the icy wind, looked rough and his fingernails were painted orange, another regional male tradition. All that protected the man against the cold was a faded blue Police jacket with missing buttons and a filthy white scarf cinched around his waist.

While I trembled in the frigid morning air, stamping my feet to keep my toes from going numb, the man stood there grinning, unmindful of the weather. More than anything, he seemed touched by the generosity of this unfamiliar soldier, who had just saved him the loss of a morning’s worth of collected firewood. As the two laughed and chatted in Pashto, I couldn’t help but smile. It was the kind of exchange I have rarely witnessed in an otherwise dark and inhospitable country. And I considered an improbable notion.

Maybe there is hope.

***

In the week since my return from Shinki Village, I’ve been rereading my previous blog posts from this year. The negative tenor of my feelings regarding my circumstances and surroundings in Afghanistan did not surprise me. After all, my natural tendency toward the morose has been coupled with resentment at having been recalled to duty. Still, reading the posts gave me pause.

And I want to set the record straight.

Deployments are not all doom and gloom. Sure, they are challenging: living conditions are unpleasant, hours drag out like days and danger is ever present. Yet amid bouts of fear and long stretches of intense boredom, my three years at war have been punctuated by unanticipated moments of discovery. Indeed, it is in these moments that I’ve summoned the will to carry on.

I believe this sentiment to be true for any American soldier in a modern combat zone. Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan find themselves in exotic regions of the world most Westerners will never see. In Iraq, it’s easy to take for granted the country’s profound historical significance, to overlook its justifiable claim as the “cradle of civilization.” In Afghanistan, rural villages and urban centers alike offer a captivating glimpse into the lives of the colorful characters who embroider this fractured land.

I was a 23-year-old lieutenant when the U.S. invaded Iraq. I was naïve, untraveled, and untested in war or the world. 2003 was the year I grew up. Today, seven years on, I find that my memories of that time are shaded by a restrained nostalgia.

For instance, I will never forget what it felt like to happen upon a mural of Saddam Hussein for the first time. The image of the hand-waving, sunglasses-wearing tyrant, somewhere on an empty desert highway southwest of Baghdad, was so arresting that I felt as if I’d come face to face with the dictator himself. Throughout my teens I’d been conditioned to hate this man, who lorded over his people with a particularly diabolical brand of despotism. For me, this crude, isolated portrait of Saddam reinforced for me the suffering of the Iraqi people. It reminded me that their torment was real.

In June of that year, after months of continuous operations in central and western Iraq, my company set up camp along the Euphrates River to rest and refit. We found a secure location atop Anbar Province’s awe-inspiring Haditha Dam, a commanding yet elegant 190-foot structure with a Soviet design. On a map, this section of the river, and the man-made lake formed by the dam, resembled a python that had just swallowed a pig: skinny on two ends and bulging in the middle. In the afternoon heat, we soldiers plunged like children into the warm water of the Fertile Crescent’s ancient lifeline. In the evenings, we washed our soiled clothes and wrestled each other down under the water while magnificent sunsets painted the lake gold.

Later that summer, while on a mission south of Baghdad, our company took a detour to the ruins of ancient Babylon outside the modern city of Al Hillah. Babylon’s crumbling city walls enclosed a 3,000-year-old statue of a lion mauling a man as well as the room where Alexander the Great is thought to have died from typhus. I tried to envision what the great Mesopotamian city might have looked like in its heyday – the Ishtar Gate, Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, the Hanging Gardens. It was here, in one of the greatest cities of antiquity, that generations of architects, intellectuals and great military minds converged. I believe there are few places in the world where a person can feel so connected to the wisdom and accomplishments of our forebears. Babylon is certainly such a place.

And then there’s Afghanistan, a country so shattered by decades of brutal war, it’s as if it has no history at all. The acute hatred, ignorance, and raw survival that characterize Afghanistan’s rural areas place its civilization as close to a state of nature as anywhere I have ever seen. But therein lies its morbid appeal. It’s nothing at all like Iraq, yet for a curious mind Afghanistan holds thought-provoking treasures of its own.

What strikes the foreigner most in this “country of 40,000 villages” are the peculiar anachronisms present in everyday life. Here in Paktya Province, less than a hundred miles from the raucous capital of Kabul, donkeys trot along dirt roads outside of brightly colored cell phone shops. Shiny new motorcycles buzz through bazaars in villages with no electricity and raw sewage running in the streets. And poor villagers with rotten teeth and plastic sandals are greeted by government officials wearing turtlenecks, blazers and gold watches. Traveling through Afghanistan can be as disorienting as a room full of funhouse mirrors.

In his book, “The Forever War,” journalist Dexter Filkins poignantly illustrates this indelible aspect of Afghanistan by recounting an execution he witnessed at a sports stadium in Kabul in 1998. In his chilling account, Taliban leaders prod the brother of a man killed in an irrigation dispute to shoot an 18-year-old condemned for the crime named Atiqullah. Filkins writes:

“Just then a jumbo jet appeared in the sky above, rumbling, forcing a pause in the ceremony. The brother stood holding his Kalashnikov. I looked up. I wondered how a jet airliner could happen by such a place, over a city such as this, wondered where it might be going. I considered for a second the momentary collision of the centuries.”

Similarly today, the introduction of modern machines of war into what is – by most measures – a medieval society may be Afghanistan’s most enduring feature.

Nothing is more dramatic than the sight of our helicopters, which have become a permanent fixture of the landscape. Without a coherent road system connecting the country’s important regional centers, helicopters are an essential part of travel for U.S. Forces here. (Last fall I traveled by ground to Gardez’s closest city, Zormat, some 15 miles away. On a bomb-scarred dirt path, the trip took three and a half hours.) Not an hour passes when one cannot see a Blackhawk or Chinook swooping low against the backdrop of baked-mud, mountainside hovels. Sometimes helicopters fly near villages so isolated that their residents believe the Soviets have returned.

Traveling Afghanistan by air has been one of the most stirring experiences for me this year. On repeated trips to Paktya’s mountainous neighboring provinces of Paktika, Ghazni and Khowst, I am always mesmerized by the raw physical beauty of the countryside. In some places, the mountains – often resembling giant mounds of dirt – rise sharply out of vast expanses of desert, as if they were atolls jutting up from a sea of sand. In others, jagged brown peaks stretch clear to the horizon. Scanning the draws of roadless canyons, I discover clusters of qalats that point to a brutish and unforgiving existence. When the helicopters skirt hazardously close to sheer, vertical cliffs, I can occasionally make out the blue or red or gold dresses of women moving along goat trails.

On one memorable trip in August, I was flying back to Gardez from a U.S. outpost in Khowst. An Afghan Army sergeant hitching a ride sat two seats over from me on an otherwise empty flight. At one point, over the treacherous Khowst-Gardez Pass, the sergeant tapped my shoulder and pointed to a jumble of buildings below.

He said something, but I couldn’t hear him over the helicopter’s roaring engines. I just shrugged my shoulders and smiled dumbly. When he said it again, my hands went up.

“I don’t understand!” I hollered, shaking my head.

He drew a pen out of his chest pocket and scribbled something in his palm. Then he reached over the seat that separated us and put his hand directly in front of my face.

“mayAngL,” it read.

That must be the name of the village, I thought. So what?

“Mayangl?!” I yelled.

He nodded vigorously.

“Taliban!” he said with a toothy smile. Then he ran his finger across his throat.

***

Once the man with the wheelbarrow headed home at last, our patrol took us into Shinki Village, which was known to be “friendly” to U.S. Forces. We greeted and solicited grievances from village elders whose replies were typical: the mosque needed repair, the well’s pump was broken, the closest school was miles away.

It may seem callous, but I was uninterested in listening to the usual gripes. This was likely to be my last patrol in Afghanistan – in less than a month, I’ll be back on U.S. soil – and I wanted to savor it. So as our mission commander continued to engage the growing mass of men and children, I slipped away quietly to survey my surroundings.

A light snow began to fall as I walked among the simple, mud-walled dwellings that have become so familiar to me this year. I marveled at the spectacular mountains encircling the town. I found the village well in a courtyard and pumped the handle a few times to see if it was really broken. It was.

Four adolescent girls squatting along a wall giggled at me. When I glanced up at them, they coyly ran away. Other children darted about barefoot in the freezing cold. And a teenager approached me to try out his English.

“How arrre you?” he said.

“Verrry good,” he replied, before I could respond.

Three days later, I boarded a helicopter bound for Gardez. We swept past the familiar towering mountains, which were now, for the first time this year, cloaked in a fresh blanket of snow that evoked the Alps or the Rockies. It seemed impossible that the same mountains that provided sanctuary to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and generations of hardened Pashtun fighters before them, could appear so peaceful.

As the peaks turned from lacy white to soft pink in the sinking afternoon sun, I wondered how I would ever be able to explain such a place to people back home. I imagined telling tales of my experiences to my grandchildren one day and wondered if they would grasp what it was like to come of age in such heady times. I wondered whether I could ever attenuate the dread and uncertainty my parents have endured this decade by reassuring them that my time at war has made me a better man.

Most of all, I wondered whether I would ever be able to revisit this place, in another life, many years from now. Will it one day be possible for me to bring my own family to Gardez – or Haditha, or Babylon – the way thousands of World War II and Vietnam veterans have returned to the battlefields of their youths?

I wondered all that. And I hoped.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Hurt Locker

By Molly


Last Wednesday evening I went to a movie. I saw The Hurt Locker on a tiny screen at Quad Cinema, an unassuming theater on 14th Street. I walked there from a pub a few blocks east, where I'd just eaten a dish of shrimp and grits and drank a dark mug of rye beer, which was sharp and bitter, like the sudden burst of cold air outside.

The Hurt Locker, the film by Kathryn Bigelow that is gaining momentum this awards season, is an intense and fabulous film about an American bomb squad in the middle years of the Iraq War.

War movies have never been my thing, so I'm not sure why I decided to see this particular film. But I went to the movies because I was in desperate need of a break. I've been working nonstop since Christmas, scrunched over my computer trying to write, grasping at sentences that burrow far into my brain like worms.

My anxiety, always my companion in one way or another, has been overwhelming of late. It's spiked as a result of my approaching book deadline, coupled with news of the escalating violence in Afghanistan. It makes it hard to sleep, hard to eat, hard to function like normal. Just yesterday I had a minor panic attack on the fourth floor of the Museum of Modern Art, where I went with friends to relax on a rainy afternoon. Standing there amid hipsters wearing funky clothing and the found-object art of Gabriel Orozco, I felt wild and mentally unkempt. I soon went home to work.

Matt's time in Gardez is quickly coming to an end -- an event I've been dreaming about for the last year, one that I plan for, can't wait for -- but even that brings with it the stress of change, of displaced normalcy. And of a singular question: What comes next?

Anyway. The Hurt Locker, while breathtaking in its raw delivery, didn't exactly qualify as a break. It did nothing to help repeal my anxiety. If anything, the movie made it worse. I woke up the next morning sore from two and a half hours spent holding my body in a permanent state of physical tension.

The film follows the story of three soldiers who make up an explosive ordnance disposal team in Iraq. Their job is to diffuse "improvised explosive devices," or IEDs, the signature threat against American troops, on Baghdad's streets, in its schools and in rural desert towns. Throughout the film unruly bravado is on display in the face of confusion and impending death.

The characters are strikingly real: Flawed, tortured and emotionally complicated but ultimately driven by the shared desire to save lives. Every day the men wrestle with the murky ethical boundaries between protecting and killing, honor and recklessness, courage and fear. Adrenaline soaks the screen.

When the closing credits rolled, I felt like I'd learned a little more about Matt, who spent two year-long tours in Iraq as a combat engineer officer. For the first time, I could visualize the places he's been and the things he's seen. "I fucking hate this place," says Sanborn, one of the bomb techs. It's a line I hear from Matt almost every day.

I e-mailed Matt about the movie as I walked to a subway station in the West Village, passing bundled groups of college students and a lone gray-haired man walking his dog near Washington Square Park. I typed on my iPhone with numb fingers, trying to get out my thoughts, trying not to trip. "Terrifying," I wrote. "Good. Superbly directed." I knew that he'd watched it on his laptop in Gardez just the day before. "How realistic is it?" I asked.

The next morning, I woke up to his response:

yes it is like that in iraq. the production sets were so real (it was all filmed in jordan near the iraq border) that i felt like i was back there again. the scenes where there would be gawking iraqi civilians who would disappear all at once brought back memories. it's just like the animals who flock away from the site of an impending natural disaster. either they have a sixth sense or they've been tipped off. even today at some points, when we stand around the vehicles for hours on guard, every car that passes, every puffy jacket you see, every guy riding by slowly on a bicycle could be a bomber and the last thing you ever see. it's disturbing to think about, but you put it out of your mind. still, you don't forget that any moment could be your last

i have rarely seen an iraq movie (or any war movie) that gets every single little detail of the military right. this movie did it perfectly. from the uniforms to the language to the sets to the ambiguous morals of the story's protagonists (the way most soldiers -- and people -- really are).

I continue to think about one of the final scenes in the film. In it, the main character, just home from Iraq, is grocery shopping in a massive supermarket somewhere in the United States. At one point, he stands next to his shopping cart, contemplating the rows of bright cereal boxes, which appear to extend for miles. It's a stark contrast to the sand and the sun and the life-and-death minutes he packed and passed in Iraq. And as I watched it, I pitied him, and still I wondered: What comes next?

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Day in the Life

By Matt


On Dec. 15, one month to the day after I returned to Afghanistan from leave, a bomb exploded in downtown Gardez. The device, which ripped through the metal shipping container that was hiding it, had been smuggled into the guarded compound of an NGO for development. Five civilians were blown to pieces in the blast; seven others were seriously wounded.

The next morning, I walked through the courtyard filled with twisted metal, splintered wood and large pools of dark standing blood. Broken glass crunched beneath my boots, and I stifled an urge to gag at the stench of exposed, pulverized flesh. Nearby, two Toyota Land Cruisers were splattered with dried blood and tiny brown chunks of skin and hair, the little details that weren’t yet swept up in the Red Cross’ recovery of the larger remains that morning.

I didn’t realize it that day, but the explosion had set off the beginning to a very eventful winter.

A week later, heavily armed Taliban insurgents assaulted the Gardez police station where our soldiers mentor the Paktya provincial police force. That one didn’t turn out so well for the assailants, who ran to a hotel across the street to hide after their attack was repelled. Our troops immediately began firing a relentless barrage of rifle grenades and machine guns into the building’s façade.

I watched a live video feed of the action from our tactical operations center on base. I was surrounded by 20 or so other officers and NCOs, who cheered as each volley of lead slammed into the building, producing balls of fire and sparks. It was as if we were watching the last tense minutes of a close Super Bowl. When the shooting finally stopped, two bearded, Kalashnikov-wielding insurgents lay crumpled in a single room, their heads half gone, their pants soiled.

On Dec. 30, our base in Gardez went on high alert following reports that a jihadist had blown himself up at another base’s gym in neighboring Khost Province. That night we learned that seven CIA agents had been killed by a Jordanian informant they’d invited over for a debriefing on Al Qaeda leaders.

And just last week, yet another suicide bomber detonated his vest of explosives packed with ball bearings in front of a Gardez bank. In all, three militiamen, one policeman and six ordinary Afghans lost their lives – among them were four children. All that was left of the bomber were his legs, the news reported the next day. I guess one nearby roof went unchecked. Because that evening, one of our interpreters who witnessed the slaughter proudly displayed to me a photo he snapped on his cell phone. There it was: the bomber’s fat, severed head. His tongue was sticking out.

This winter was supposed to be quiet; it’s been anything but. The heavy snowfall in the mountain passes, it was assumed, would halt the enemy’s ability to conduct operations. And to be sure, the frequency of attacks has petered out since last summer. Yet each one has become more deadly. And the ceaseless drumbeat of carnage has become disturbingly routine.

It is said that one should know his enemy. I’ve tried hard to identify with him, to put myself in his shoes. I have even forced myself through a macabre intellectual exercise in which I attempt to rationalize the deliberate mass murder of innocent civilians to achieve a political end. But this is Afghanistan, a place where reason does not exist and probably never has. I’m increasingly resigned to the notion that all of this – the emboldened enemy, the brash killings, the inexorable spiral into madness – is completely beyond our control.

I just don’t understand this war.

So I try to push it out of my mind. I “dissociate,” as Molly puts it. To do this, to stay sane, I concentrate on what I can control. I’ve built a routine. I’ve ordered my daily schedule around a familiar rhythm of events that makes each day seem almost identical to the last. Here on base, I pretty much know what to expect during every hour of every day. This scheme has a dual benefit: It distracts me from the dreadful bloodshed all around us, at least a bit. And it makes the time pass.

So, not counting the times I am “outside the wire” or traveling to various other bases, the following is a summary of a typical day in my deployment to Afghanistan.

0830
I stumble into my uniform and boots and head across camp to my office in a mud-walled compound. (The qalat, which is privately owned by a local Afghan family, has been “leased” by the U.S. military for the last few years and now houses the unit’s offices and a few living quarters.) Plopping down into my chair next to two other officers with whom I share a working space, I check my e-mail as I devour two pre-packaged bowls of Special K.

0930
I attend a briefing with the battalion’s other staff officers in the tactical operations center, a vast room full of glowing computer monitors, mission maps and squawking radios. We take turns briefing the commander on the significant events of the previous 24 hours and what work we’ll be focusing on for the next 24.

1030
I’m back in my office sipping black coffee –a vaguely coffee-flavored sludge, rather – from a tall Styrofoam cup. The office at that hour is always buzzing with activity, and I tackle what little work I can before lunch time rolls around.

1130
The office empties and everyone heads across the base on foot to his mid-day meal. Everyone, that is, but me. I walk briskly back to my room, tear off my uniform and put on my ARMY-emblazoned PT uniform, a gray shirt and black shorts. It’s time for the gym, the best part of my day.

My exercise strategy is simple and synchs well with my obsessive routine.
Day 1: Chest and back
Day 2: Abs and cardio
Day 3. Biceps and triceps
Day 4. Abs and cardio
Day 5: Shoulders and legs
Day 6: Abs and cardio
(Repeat)

More than any other activity, my workouts offer the best time to detach, to escape this place, if only for a couple of hours. On run days, I listen to hour-long segments of On the Media, This American Life, or 60 Minutes on my iPod. In the weight room, it’s shorter pieces: Talk of the Nation or BBC documentaries. These programs, particularly those from NPR take me home. They remind me of cold winter mornings with Molly at our East Village apartment in New York, when the friendly voices of WNYC – Brian Lehrer and Soterios Johnson – caught us up on the news of the day.

But I digress.

1300
I take a shower in a nasty little trailer with fickle plumbing. Sometimes the drains get clogged, causing foamy water to slosh about my ankles. At the stainless steel sinks, an occasional placard posted next to rusting mirrors cautions that the water is not “potable.” It’s only to be used for personal hygiene, we’re warned. This always confounds me: does that mean I can brush my teeth with it or no? Then I remind myself of a recent rumor that toxic traces of arsenic had been found in the water supply. Pass. A water bottle always does the trick.

1330
I’m back in the office answering phone calls, sending e-mails and preparing for an afternoon of planning meetings.

1400-1700
Miscellaneous meetings. (Stuff I’m not supposed to talk about.)

1700
I head to dinner with a fellow captain and friend from Milledgeville, Georgia, named Paul. A hopeless dreamer, Paul is good conversation, talkative but interesting. He’s among the more worldly people I’ve met on my deployment with the Georgia Army National Guard. During cold, dark walks to supper, Paul tells me about his Russian wife back home, about his annual trips to visit her family in a provincial town in the Urals, about his prized sail boat and about his plans to become pilot one day.

1730
We sit down to dinner in a vinyl tent that shudders violently from a continuous blast of heat passing through a low-hanging inflatable duct just above our heads. Television screens in the corner deliver the incessant drone of football or Fox News. The processed food we eat – the menu rotates every seven days – is served on cardboard trays along with wrapped plasticware. Friday night is Surf’n’Turf – dry steak and fried shrimp – the best night of the week.

1830
We head out into the now frigid night, back to the qalat. On most days, we’re trailed by stray dogs who are no doubt attracted by dinner’s odor clinging to our clothes.

1900
I’m in yet another meeting, this time conducted by teleconference with our units spread across Paktya.

2030
I’m free for the night, but I spend two hours or so wrapping up what work is left to be done.

2230
Now, all alone in the office, I settle down at my desk. A pair of bulky, noise-canceling headphones feeds me Chopin and Mozart and Tchaikovsky while I write or read well into the night.

0000
I take a break to call Molly in New York, who also uses the time to take a momentary pause from writing her book. I prop my feet up on the desk in my office and lean back in my chair. Molly walks north on Broadway toward Union Square and the Farmers Market. Sometimes, the harsh sound of honking horns, police car sirens or a brusque winter wind will briefly muffle Molly’s voice. On cold, snowy days, she ducks into a Whole Foods Market, where jabbering customers and ringing registers virtually drown her out. The sounds of the city, which I, as a transplant to New York, have often found so disagreeable, remind me of how much I miss it there.

0030
We hang up and Molly returns to her book, I to my thoughts.

0200
It’s time for bed. With a flashlight in hand, I walk back to my plywood-walled room in a “B-hut” about 200 meters away. As quietly as I can, I yank off my boots, hang my uniform on a crooked nail in a two-by-four next to my bed and set my alarm for morning.

Then I tick off another day in the worst place on earth.