Saturday, November 8, 2008

Wheels up

Pack your bags. Decide they are good enough. Stare at them for five minutes. Dump them all over the floor and start over. Make a mental checklist. When this fails you, make a written one.Keys, wallet (don’t need the Sam’s Club or Blockbuster cards anymore), stabil in the fuel tank (like your car is going to start right up in 12 months anyway), check your watch, check it again. Go drop off your car. You’re officially locked down.

Get accountability. The army loves accountability. You will continue getting accountability every three seconds for the rest of the year. This is the civilian equivalent for keeping an adventurous child within eye sight at WalMart.

Once you have your accountability, you need to get ready for the movement. Better check your carry on to make sure it will fit. The army was kind enough to build a bread box that is supposed to approximate the size of the carry on compartment. If your bag fits in the bread box, you can go to Afghanistan. If it doesn’t, you need to rip your carefully packed crap apart and start over. Unfortunately, this carry on gauge doesn’t appear to be life size so you feel like an ass when you’re easily sliding your bag into the planes carry on compartment. Guess you had plenty of room for those Danielle Steel novels after all.

Before you get on the plane, you have to MANIFEST. Manifesting is a process of getting accountability. The two go hand in hand. Manifesting is the Superbowl of accountability. We had some saints from what I believe was the VFW’s lady trooper society with us. The baked a couple of pecan pies, enough cookies for a small army (which is what they had), and gallons and gallons of coffee. As we were munching down on these goodies waiting for our transportation, we were called to order. Apparently, there was one last inspiring speech we were to hear before leaving.This final inspiring speech was actually to be the first inspiring speech, but this was no time to be technical. I knew it was going to be good. You see, we (The Combat Advisors) are the military’s main effort. We are simultaneously the exit strategy and the victory strategy. How could this speech miss? Just when our anticipation was piqued, a junior major came to the microphone to address the 200 some TTs on their way. Really? A major? Imagine a trombone squeezing out a WAA-WAAAA. Not that we needed the pep talk, but he was outranked by 1/3 or the audience. Oh that’s right, it was a 4-day weekend. Veterans day.

20 hour plane rides are a good time. You get to find ouy who has overactive sweat glands and who hates other people, and who thinks What Happens in Vegas starring Ashton Kutcher is a really really funny movie. Shocking. Other than the deep lingering disappointment that was everyone’s when a 30 something steward with a lisp took the place of the imagined comforting wife/mother figure stewardess we were hoping for, the flight was wonderful. They tell me that the seven movies that were played were all dubbed and lame. Apparently the lines aren’t as effective when the hero is called a “Son of a biscuit” by the villain. Of course, I slept the whole way, so I can’t really comment.

Next stop: somewhere...


When you graduate the Fort Riley Training Mission and are granted the non-existent but still impressive title of “Combat Advisor,” you are rewarded with a final bit of leave home prior to heading out. For us, this was short, too short, but this is always the case.

The pre-deployment leave is a desperate, uncomfortable type of leave. With the impending separation looming large the entire period is spent in a hushed anxiety with stifled emotion. The elephant in the room puts everyone on edge. You try and assuage the fears, and this is most easily accomplished by trying to change the subject. Confrontation is avoided as much as possible with all those around you. In this setting, one assumes that no frustration is worth a fight so more often than not, everyone agrees with everyone. Using that as a template, perhaps we should deploy both houses of Congress to Afghanistan in the hopes that they all shake hands smile, hug, kiss, and agree on everything before departing.

Such a conciliatory attitude makes the pre-deployment conversations difficult at times. When people tell me what we should be doing, my instinct is to politely ask them to “shut the f*#! up, and sit there for two hours while I explain what I know of Afghanistan.” What an obscure country with an even more obscure mission. This is why veterans don’t discuss their experiences with their families. It’s not that he will have a Born on the Fourth of July style meltdown, pee his pants, and start screaming at the heavens. Instead, the problem is just that no one knows enough to even buy-in to your conversation. The ante is too great. No one knows what FOB, ETT, PMT, PRT, DoS, M1151, RG33, DFAC, MWR, HMFIC or any of the three million acronyms and jargon we use mean. Beyond the language, the reference just isn’t there. To have a topical free and easy conversation about this, I need to have someone who actually KNOWS Afghanistan. It’s a world away, and maybe I’m not the best at communicating it. If you’re reading this blog though, keep heart, and as the tour rolls on, I hope to at least partially educate (used loosely).

There are too many responsibilities on your final leave. Too many people to see, too many hands to shake, and too memories to create. You want to spend quality time with every individual that you care about, but the calendar simply won’t cooperate. The time is spread a little to thinly. Really, you miss out on the depth with that one individual of whom you’re thinking about the most. You realize though that even if you had more time, the looming deployment would keep the conversations much the same. More difficult than the amount of people, is the tone of each encounter. The urgency of each meeting is palpable and you try to turn each moment into a golden one. More often than not, they turn out to be very bronze and sometimes aluminum.

Eventually, the visit comes to a head right around the last day, and nearly all the pretense of normalcy is dropped. Very few people I know or have ever met have a screenwriter who lives in their head that relays to their mouth killer lines to deliver at the perfect moment. Instead, people say exactly what is necessary with as little window dressing as possible. Here’s an example of a final goodbye:

“I love you so much.”

“I love you too. Don’t worry, I’ll email or call as soon as I can.”

“Be safe.”

“Don’t forget to take care of yourself.”