By the time my plane touched down at Bagram Air Field, I’d barely slept in 48 hours. My knees shook from fatigue. Sweat streaked down my dust-covered neck and forearms. I shuffled off the C-17’s back ramp, bracing for a blast of hot desert air. But unlike Kuwait, where I’d just spent three days dragging bags across the desert floor in 120-degree heat, Afghanistan greeted me with a cool summer breeze and a sight I could never have imagined. Majestic snow-capped mountains towered over the tarmac, and a fleeting calm swept over me.
I had to remind myself that I was indeed in Afghanistan, heading back to war. My destination was Gardez, a city south of Kabul in Afghanistan’s rugged eastern mountains near the border with Pakistan. There I’d join the effort to train the Afghan military and police. It would take six more days, two convoys, and another short flight to make it there.
In the meantime, Bagram gave me time to rest. That night, as I waited for a flight to Kabul, I tried to get some sleep on the concrete floor of a makeshift passenger terminal. What does the next year hold for me? I wondered, as I lay there. What treasures does this unfortunate little country hold for me to discover? And how would I ever be able to explain such a place to Molly? Eventually, I didn’t even notice the soldiers stepping over my bootless feet or the contorted position of my neck against my ruck sack as I dozed off to sleep.
At some point during the night, I was drawn back into consciousness by an episode of MTV’s The Real World blaring on a flatscreen TV bolted to the wall. “The Real World,” I thought to myself, as my eyes readjusted to the terminal’s fluorescent lighting. Jesus. A bunch of self-absorbed, drama-hungry twenty-somethings let loose on New York. I closed my eyes again and imagined what Molly might be doing at that very moment in her little Brooklyn apartment. It was hard to think of her there by herself, without me. We’ve been inseparable for most of the last two years. And here I was, filthy, sore and very much alone, beginning my third combat deployment in less than six years.
After five years in uniform and two combat tours in Iraq, I left the Army in 2007 to pursue my dream of becoming a reporter. A year in graduate school and another year working as a journalist – in Paris, Moscow and Newark – had set me comfortably on that path. Then this winter an unexpected letter from the Army arrived in the mail. It ordered me back to duty. Just like that.
I broke the news to Molly that cold February night on the sidewalk in front of our East Village apartment. She didn’t say a word. She just dropped the groceries she was carrying, sank onto the steps and cried. “Do you have to go?” she said after a while. “I just don’t understand. Why you? Of all people.” It was a question I couldn’t answer. So we sat there a long time together, shivering against the wind, lost in our thoughts. The New Yorkers walking along E. 12th St. that night will never know how much I envied them.
Molly wasn’t supposed to end up with a guy like me. She’s sophisticated, cosmopolitan, educated in the Ivy League. I guess she never envisioned herself dating a soldier, let alone being left behind during a deployment. I feel partly guilty that our lives have been put on hold. But Molly has taken it all with grace and understanding – long stretches of silence, fear of the unknown, a heightened awareness of bad news from Afghanistan.
Even for me, this experience so far has been an eye-opener, and in a way I’m ashamed. I let the freedom and comforts of my life in New York shroud me from the violence and death this war continues to produce. In less than a year, I’ll come home to Molly; I know we’ll both be better and stronger for it. For now, though, it’s time I got accustomed to once again living in the real world.