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.