When this sad war is over, we will all return to our homes, and feel that we can ask no higher honor than the proud consciousness that we belonged to the Army of the Potomac —General George McClellan
December 1, 2009
By late fall, the Afghan days were cool enough that the hefty weight of our body armor provided a welcome layer of warmth as we trekked along the dirt roads and canals of Nawa. Mornings were brisk, and if we were patrolling before the sun rose, we could follow the steps that a Marine in front of us left in the frost that settled on the ground during the subfreezing night. We could watch our breath float through the frigid air, a vivid contrast to the stifling heat and humidity we labored under in the summer months, when we fought the elements as much as we fought the Taliban. Nawa’scornfields had recently been harvested and were littered with dried stalks and husks that would be plowed into the soil when the next crop of wheat (or for some risk-taking farmers, poppy) was planted. The leaves on the trees lining the district’s vast network of canals had turned various hues of red, yellow, orange, and brown, exuding the familiar colors and smells of fall.
Most of the battalion’s Marines had one preferred uniform they wore nearly every day of our seven months on the ground. As we neared our final days in country, those uniforms were sweat bleached, frayed, torn, and splotched with the oil we used to clean our weapons and the grease we wiped off our hands after a meal of goat and rice with our Afghan friends. Our boots were weathered and scuffed, their soles worn from miles of patrols across the sand, dirt, and rocks of our district.
For the past two weeks, sorties of helicopters had been regularly landing in the open field outside Patrol Base Jaker. They were delivering the battalion of Marines that would assume responsibility for the district as part of the regular rotation of units through the Afghan war. The helicopters hovered above the field before easing onto the ground, then let their engines idle while their passengers sauntered out the exit ramps, lugging the gear they would need to get through the next six or seven months. It was different in every way from my frantically rushed night insertion into Patrol Base Jaker months earlier.
On my final morning in Nawa, I stood outside, sipping too-strong coffee from an aluminum canteen cup. My gear was packed, and I had transferred my duties to the Civil Affairs team that had arrived a week earlier. My team members had flown to Camp Leatherneck the day before, so there was little for me to do other than enjoy the relative calm and temporary reprieve from the responsibilities I’d shouldered over the past months. Even in the late morning, the air was cool, and the warm coffee was comforting. There was a buoyancy to my mood as I chatted with the Marines I had lived with for the past seven months and reflected on the changes we had helped bring about. I had much to be proud of, but I also had much to look forward to. I was going home.
At about 11:00 a.m., Captain Jason Condon, one of the battalion’s FACs, finished a conversation on his handheld radio and told me, “Your bird’s inbound in ten minutes, Jagran Gus.”
I wrestled with competing emotions. I was eager to go home to my family, but at the same time I was already feeling nostalgic for the friends I was about to leave and the hardships we had shared. They were like a family to me too, and I was reluctant to part ways.
The thump of a helicopter’s rotors echoing in the distance told me it was time to go. An entourage of well-wishers joined me at the gate of Patrol Base Jaker. They included Ishmael, his brother, and some of their friends. Governor Haji Abdul Manaf was there to hold my hand as well (literally; hand-holding among men in Afghanistan is a sign of friendship and respect) as I made my way to the helicopter. Our civilian advisors Scott Dempsey and Sir Ian Purvis, a recently knighted British citizen, joined the crowd to see me off. Lieutenant Colonel Bill McCollough and Sergeant Major Tom Sowers helped me lug my heavy bags into the waiting helicopter.
I was the only passenger boarding the aircraft. After I strapped down my bags and clipped into a seat belt, we took off and climbed steadily into the sky. I suspected Lieutenant Colonel McCollough had asked the pilots to give me an aerial tour of Nawa before heading to Camp Leatherneck, and I was grateful for the extra time in the air. I stared out the helicopter’s open back ramp, seeing the sights of the district from above for the first time in the daylight, feeling hopeful for the country below and the people living there. As I watched Nawa pass below me, my right hand rested instinctively on the grip of my rifle. My left hand made its way into the pouch on my flak jacket and took out the small child’s shoe I had carried with me since leaving the US in the spring. It belonged to my oldest son, and in a few weeks I would put it on his two-month-old brother after meeting him for the first time.
An hour after I was picked up at Patrol Base Jaker, I was dropped off at Camp Leatherneck’s airfield, where I was greeted by my fellow CAG team leaders. We hadn’t been together since mid-May and had a laugh at each other’s expense about our thinner, sunburned appearances and ragged uniforms. Camp Leatherneck had grown exponentially since I’d been there months before, so large now that some called it “Marine-istan.” Despite its massive growth, the base still throbbed and growled with the sounds of round-the-clock construction to make it even bigger and more permanent.
The literal buzz of construction echoing around Camp Leatherneck was matched with the buzz of anticipation about the speech President Obama was scheduled to give in front of West Point’s corps of cadets that same night. I was interested in what the president had to say but more interested in decompressing for a few days while waiting for our flight out of Afghanistan.
After months on the ground, where even routine patrols had an underlying anxious tension, in a place that remained dangerous despite the incredible gains we saw while there—and where the welfare of fellow Marines depended on doing our job right every time—a few days of outright boredom would be just fine. The other CAG team leaders and I spent our final days in Afghanistan wandering around Camp Leatherneck. We occasionally attended an operations brief, but we usually just sat in one of its air-conditioned chow halls watching people load up on gushy soft-serve ice cream or picking at rubbery steaks and overboiled lobster tails served on “surf-n-turf” night, marveling at the journey of a saltwater crustacean to a military chow hall in the middle of a landlocked country in Asia.
After a few days at Camp Leatherneck, during which the junior Marines were constantly speculating and trading rumors about our impending departure, we finally received credible news of a flight scheduled for the following day. The Marine Corps has mastered the art of fighting its country’s wars and moving people from one place to another to fight those wars. This process mostly involves assembling before dawn to stand in line, then following the person in front of you when the line starts moving several hours later, while being yelled at, regardless of your rank.
Leaving Afghanistan followed this same pattern. At 4:00 a.m., we boarded an ancient, Soviet-era bus that coughed out bursts of black smoke from its exhaust pipe, driven by a politely smiling Nepalese man with a grandfatherly demeanor. At the base airfield, our unit’s three dozen tan backpacks and olive-green seabags were arranged on a large pallet, covered with a tarp, strapped down with a canvas cargo net, and then set by forklift alongside nine or ten identical pallets. The only identifying features of the hulky pallets were small colored tags noting their unit fastened to the cargo nets by thin metal wires. Some Marines placed friendly wagers on the odds of our unit’s pallet ever meeting us again.
We were then herded into a C-17 transport plane whose seating layout was designed for efficiency rather than comfort. Twenty-five rows of five nonreclining seats were bolted onto the plane’s metal deck. Another twenty fold-down canvas seats were arrayed along each side of the plane. Every Marine had to wear their flak jacket and helmet and hold their rifle between their knees. The added bulk made the uncomfortable squeeze into our seats even tighter.
Many of the Marines getting on board carried empty quart-size Gatorade bottles in anticipation of making a head call on the three-hour flight to Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan, the first stop on our journey home. The C-17 only had one small stand-up urinal that required patience and a steady hand to use as the heavy plane shuddered and quaked through turbulent skies. Once every seat on the plane was filled, an incomprehensible brief blatted over its speaker system, its back ramp shut with a hydraulic whine, and conversation became impossible as four mega-engines cranked to their full capacity. The nose of the aircraft turned into the wind and sped down the runway for an agonizingly long takeoff run. Finally, we felt the sensation of “wheels off the deck,” and the sound of 165 Marines shouting “Hoo-rah!” briefly drowned out the clamor of the airplane’s engines. We were going home.
Manas Air Base was the transit hub for the thousands of US and NATO troops headed to and from the war in Afghanistan. Situated in the northern part of a former Soviet Socialist Republic, the base had been a diplomatic headache for the United States since its initial operational use in the GWOT in late 2001. The US eventually paid the government of Kyrgyzstan over $200 million per year for its use before Kyrgyzstan’s president let the lease expire in 2014, making good on his campaign promise to turn the base into a civilian airport.
However, in late 2009, the politics and strategic role of Manas didn’t concern us. We were still being herded en masse—for the sake of efficiency and accountability—when our plane landed at Manas, and we were crammed, standing up, into seatless buses called “cattle cars.” The cattle cars took us to a large aircraft hangar that had been transformed into a barracks, with hundreds of rusty bunk beds lined up on cold concrete floors. Each of us claimed one of the musty, sagging mattresses that countless fellow service members had used. We took it as a matter of faith that they had made some efforts at personal hygiene.
It was winter in Kyrgyzstan, and snow being pushed off the nearby Tian Shan mountain range—sometimes referred to as the “Asian Alps”—found its way into our aircraft hangar barracks through one of the many gaps in its walls or was kicked off our boots when we came in from outside. A cloud of funk hovered above us, a combination of the odor of hundreds of pairs of feet released from the confines of well-worn combat boots and the phlegmy spittle coughed up from lungs unaccustomed to the cold, moist air.
In Afghanistan, things were always urgent and tense, even in relatively quiet moments. In Kyrgyzstan, we just had to wait. And patiently think—the constant stress that came from living in a combat zone no longer consumed our thoughts. The amenities at Manas, like hot-water showers and Wi-Fi, were welcome signs that we were coming back to the twenty-first century and helped us bide the time while we traded rumors of our departure the same way as we had at Camp Leatherneck.
After three days, our return flight was confirmed. We woke before dawn and rode the cattle cars to the base’s airfield terminal. This time, our plane was a commercial airliner, operated by a carrier that no one had ever heard of, with reclining seats, a comfortable temperature, small TV screens on the seat backs in front of us with a decent choice of movie options, and preheated meals served by a cheery crew. The empty Gatorade bottles that were an essential carry-on item on our flight from Camp Leatherneck to Manas were tossed into a trash bin. The relative comfort was unfamiliar, almost disconcerting, but we adapted quickly. We put our rifles in the overhead storage bins and settled in for our multileg thirty-six-hour journey, sleepily blurring through refueling stops somewhere in Eastern Europe and in the UK before finally touching down in America.
It’s a strange paradox that, for all the potential trauma in going to war, leaving it behind for “normal” life can be as frightening as war itself. When Americans go to war, they come back different. For some, the differences may be temporary and fleeting, barely perceptible, often positive and character building. For others, things can be a bit tougher. The Marine Corps helps its Marines with this transition in many ways, all of which are well intentioned and most of which are useful. But the best assets we have to help us with coming home are our families.
When my CAG detachment finally made its way to our home base on the southern bank of the Anacostia River, in sight of the US Capitol building’s dome and the peak of the Washington Monument, a small mob of parents, spouses, siblings, children, aunts, and uncles, along with some good friends, was there to meet us. The Marines hustled off our bus and moved into formation, their faces lighting up as they spotted someone special in the crowd. They stood at attention for one last roll call and set of instructions. Then, to the order of “Dismissed!” they bolted out of the formation and into the arms of their gleeful relatives. It’s a moment when even the most battle-hardened warrior struggles to fight back tears of joy and relief.
My reunion was several days away, since my wife and our two sons were spending her maternity leave with her family in California. So I milled about our headquarters building, helping our unit leadership with some of the administrative aspects of returning from war. I cleaned my rifle and pistol and turned them in to the armory, suddenly realizing that I had been literally connected to those weapons for nearly nine months. Now that they were no longer tethered to me, I was confused about where my hands should go. I found myself seeking out a cup of coffee, not so much for the caffeine but because holding a cup made me cock my arm at a comfortably familiar angle.
After a few days of tedium, I was able to take leave and begin my journey west to finally see my family. The least expensive flight I could find on short notice was a multileg trip that zigzagged across the country from Baltimore to Chicago to Phoenix to Las Vegas to San Francisco over the course of about twelve hours.
During my first layover, I watched a team of college-age boys in matching athletic suits identifying them as the wrestling squad from a prestigious East Coast school strut through the airport jostling each other while plugged into their iPods. Tough kids in their own right, I thought. But they had nothing on their age-group peers with whom I had had the honor of serving in Afghanistan, whose toughness could be measured not just in terms of strength and physical and mental endurance but by intangible traits like honor, courage, and commitment.
On another layover, I stood behind an angry customer at a Starbucks counter who had ordered something like a “grande soy double latte decaf with a spritz of hazelnut mocha and a half spritz of vanilla.” He was ranting to the hapless barista about his drink being a few degrees cooler than he expected. I ordered a small black coffee and reflected on how some people took trivial things more seriously than I felt they needed to. The receptionists at the airport USO lounges I visited along the way welcomed me like a VIP when I showed them my military ID and made my way into the comfort of those wonderful establishments that made me feel like a distinguished first-class traveler.
It was late in the afternoon when I finally touched down in San Francisco, sleep deprived and overcaffeinated, but also giddy knowing that I would soon be eating dinner with my wife and kids. I would probably be changing a few diapers too. I boarded a bus that took me across the Golden Gate Bridge to a depot north of Sausalito, where my father-in-law met me. I had been deliberately coy with my wife about my exact arrival plans in California, and she was expecting me in another day or two. My father-in-law had played along with my plan.
The sun had set by the time we pulled into my in-laws’ driveway, and the lights inside their house were aglow. I stood outside, looking through the picture window into the living room to watch the ruckus involving my oldest son, whose second birthday I had missed by a few days, and his similarly aged cousins. My wife sat on a beanbag, rocking a little bundle in her arms that was my two-month-old son, whom I had yet to meet. After taking in this wonderful scene for a moment, I strolled through the door to everyone’s surprise.
My older son, just learning to talk, looked at me and said, “Hello, Daddy Gus,” before standing up, waddling over to me, and hugging me around my legs. I embraced my wife as she handed me the beautiful tiny baby she had been cradling, who looked at me and smiled as I stroked his cheek. He grasped my finger, as if we were shaking hands.
I was home.