When the helicopter door roared open in Gardez last month, I felt a dull, nauseating emptiness. The bleak mountain base camp* that greeted me served as a crushing reminder: There are several months left before this is over. Among soldiers returning from leave this sense of gloom is both common and severe, marking what is typically the lowest point in a deployment. It doesn’t matter how many months remain on your tour. They might as well be centuries.
The experience of my last two deployments has taught me to manage that feeling of emptiness as well as the winter tedium that still lies ahead. I’ll distract myself with books or writing. I’ll find small pleasures, however rare, in an otherwise dim daily grind. And believe it or not, there are pleasures to be found. Spontaneous snowball fights between Afghan workers on break. Sergeant Lawver’s cinnamon-spiked coffee in the tactical operations center. A stray cat we named Dog, who prowls around our barracks in the evening, seeking food and companionship.
These things, however, won’t make my missing the holidays any easier to bear. Thanksgiving was an especially depressing affair, marked by processed turkey, a lackluster attempt at decorating our mess tent and a palpable absence of patriotism among the troops. I celebrated Molly’s birthday a couple of days later by phone – the third time in as many years that I’ve missed her birthday. And here in Afghanistan, it’s most certainly NOT beginning to look a lot like Christmas. There are no Christmas trees or eggnog. No music or laughter. It seems sure to pass with little fanfare.
On Christmas day, I’ll line up with dozens of other soldiers at a phone bank to call my mom, dad and sister, Cara. They’ll be celebrating with my grandmother, cousins, aunts and uncles at the family farm in North Carolina. When I talk to my father, he’ll mutter something about the “goddamn war.” My mother will make her best effort not to cry. Cara will try to be uplifting. Then everyone else will get on the phone. “Come home soon, Matt,” some will say. Or, “We miss you this year. It’s just not the same without you.” I know this, because that is how I spent Christmas four years ago. By phone. From Iraq.
Yet Christmas this year won’t be all humbug. I have much to be grateful for.
Since June, when I first arrived in Afghanistan, scores of people –family, friends, colleagues and even people I’ve never met – have shown support, love and genuine concern for my well-being. My family has remained a constant source of strength for me, answering inconvenient calls in the middle of the night or offering just the right mix of advice and encouragement at moments when I feel I’m about to crack. Molly, too, has handled this separation brilliantly, complaining little and constantly reminding me that when all this finally ends, life will be as it once was – or better. I pity other soldiers here who don’t have a Molly in their lives.
Of course you’d expect, or at least hope, that my parents and sister and girlfriend would be my most committed supporters. And they are. But over the last few months, I’ve been surprised by a deluge of e-mails, letters and packages I’ve received from all over the United States. Many come from people I knew little before this year. Some of them are from outright strangers. I’ve reconnected with friends from my childhood and college, largely through this blog. And it’s ironic, but I’ve gotten to know Molly’s family better through this experience than I had in the two years we’d been dating when I deployed.
So despite the inconveniences and discomforts of another year at war, another Christmas away from home, I don’t consider this experience to be lost time. Christmas this week may not be the joyous celebration it has been in the past, nor will New Year’s or Valentine’s Day. But I can live with that. Because if this year, and the loving people who have endured it with me, have taught me anything, it’s that I am truly rich in life.
I look forward to the day when I will leave Gardez. I imagine it often. With a rucksack on my back and my rifle strapped to my side, I’ll file into a helicopter with a dozen other departing soldiers. The chopper’s beating blades will obscure my last view of this place in a cloud of swirling dust. Then we’ll swoop low over the barren Shahi-Kot Valley for the last time and head toward the miles of mountains that will lead us home.
*Just before my leave began, my unit was transferred to a different base in Gardez about a mile down the road.