My last post before leaving the desert detailed how different life is while deployed, sometimes out of necessity, sometimes convenience, and sometimes because of an earnest effort to make the best of less-than-ideal circumstances (mmmmm, peanut butter and jelly on French toast). What I’ve realized since returning to the land of apple pies and baseball is that deployment changes life at home as well. It’s partly for the better, partly for the worse, and usually pretty hilarious, depending on how warped one’s sense of humor is.
My roommate and another good friend returned from their six- and three-month deployments just over two weeks ago, and their anecdotes and general enthusiasm for normal life reminded me of all those feelings, good and bad, that flooded me upon my return. I’ll start with the story that inspired the first conversation.
1. Exaggerated or completely inappropriate reaction to noise
After my roommate, Raeanna, had been home for a few days, she told me that she had heard my alarm through my door one morning. Her first thought wasn’t, “What a cool song,” or, “Man, Katie’s getting up early,” or, “I should jump out of bed so I can have hot breakfast waiting for her when she gets out of the shower.” Instead, it was, “I’ve never heard that siren before. What do I do for that one?” Our in-briefs upon arrival in country are complete with demonstrations of every possible alarm that could resound through the camp. Only a couple of the sirens had any practical use (actual use of the alerts redacted for security purposes); however, that didn’t stop our briefers from playing every single signal, including something I’m pretty sure alerted us that it was going to be surf and turf night on a day other than Friday (I only got food poisoning once before I quit eating the shrimp in Afghanistan). Normal people hear new noises all the time, and the typical response is either mild curiosity, or more often, complete disregard. For someone recently returned from deployment, however, the general assumptions about the harmlessness or unimportance of any noise goes out the window, and we become certain that the car alarm down the street is actually a new siren. It didn’t help that all deployed bases use different sound patterns for the same warnings, so as aircrew spending time at various garden spots throughout Afghanistan over the course of four months, we learned to simply assume the worst out of every loudspeaker alert.
2. The entirely different meaning of, “What was that?”
A few days after I came home, I was on a friend’s back porch, enjoying cheese dip and normal clothes and good company. Our group of eight or so (of which I was the only one who had been on the recent deployment) was chatting merrily, when one friend pointed up at the night sky and exclaimed, “What was that?” My eyes followed his finger to something orange streaking across the sky. The trajectory was wrong for a firework, but it looked too close to be a shooting star; my heart jumped into my throat and I thought, “IDF” (indirect fire, our term for a rocket launched from outside the perimeter by a desperate Afghan militant hoping to hit something, anything, of value). It took a great deal of resolve to resist the urge to hit the ground immediately, probably pulling a few of my friends with me as I went, as I reminded myself that I was sitting in Jacksonville, Arkansas, chatting with my friends, and rather than the Taliban trying to kill us, the most likely explanation was some redneck had launched a flaming beer can across the sky. I breathed slowly to try to settle my pounding heart, and a friend turned to me and asked, “Did you see it?” I nodded, and he looked around at the rest of the group who were still loudly and incredulously squawking about the strange sight. “I’m trying to figure out why your reaction is so different than theirs,” he said. What I didn’t tell him was that the call of, “What was that?” brought back the few times in Afghanistan when those words had come from my own mouth.
The first was our first rocket attack during my deployment, nearly a month after we had arrived. Compared to other bases and even other times of year at our base, the number of attacks was extremely sparse. On this particular night, Jamie (my navigator and roommate) and I had taken a squadron van onto the flightline to pick up a crew that had just arrived for a few days from Kuwait. We pulled close to the aircraft, where the ground power cart was already attached and whirring away. One of the maintainers that had accompanied the plane came to my driver’s side window to tell us that the crew would be out shortly.
Boom. It wasn’t just a sound; it was a vibration, a concussion that shook the ground and the van and sent my heart dropping to the pit of my stomach. “What was that?” I uttered, looking in the direction of the noise but seeing nothing. Jamie had already leapt from the van, and I could see the aircrew running from the airplane and into the nearby concrete bunker. Jamie, the maintainer, and I followed suit, and spent the next hour of that January night huddled on the frozen ground.
The rocket had landed in front of one of our airplanes, close enough to blow out the cockpit windows and require an engine and a propeller change. Some of my more flippant squadronmates saved pieces of shrapnel as souvenirs. I guess it really is one-of-a-kind Afghanistan, if you want to look at it that way.
The second memory that came flooding back to me as my friend gaily yelled and pointed at the sky that night in Arkansas started as a standard day in the squadron, a mere week before our projected departure date. Since my crew had been designated as the one to ferry a C-130 home instead of waiting on the rotator, we were the default duty crew for the week. My aircraft commander, Dakota, was in the tower helping with general management of flight operations, my engineer, Landry, and loadmasters, Whitny and Jess, were preflighting aircraft for later missions, Jamie was upstairs doing homework, and I sat at the duty desk, answering phones and radios and occasionally checking our classified text messaging system to chat with aircrews looking for weather updates or airfield information. Thunderstorms had plagued most of eastern Afghanistan all day, and the open squadron door revealed rays of sunshine peaking through a blackened sky. I sat at my computer when once again, Boom. The building shook, and everyone in the squadron gazed at each other for a few seconds. If they were like me, they were scrolling through the possibly sources of such a noise.
“What was that? It certainly wasn’t thunder,” I said, looking outside. “I don’t think they announced a controlled det, either.” Controlled explosions were commonplace as a team of highly skilled and probably crazy people disarmed or destroyed mines and other unexploded ordnance, leftover from as far back as the 1970s. They were typically announced over loudspeakers with a five- to ten-minute advanced warning.
Within a few seconds, one of our squadron’s navigators came running through the front door, pale as the desert dust that coated our uniforms, stuttering and wide-eyed. “A 747 just crashed off the end of the runway. I saw it. It just crashed.” Those of us gathered around the duty desk moved quickly outside and up the stairs in order to see above the huge concrete barriers erected to protect the buildings from rocket attacks. I will never forget what I saw that day, the thunderstorms darkening the mountains in the distance, but paling in comparison to the black, billowing smoke cloud rising and curling above the airfield. A 747. There were people on board that thing. How many? What happened? Were they shot down? What happens to the next plane that takes off, the next C-130 filled with my own squadron mates, my own friends?
I spent only a few seconds in gut-wrenching disbelief before the acting operations officer, in charge of flight operations for our squadron in that moment, pointed at me and said, “Let’s get moving.” The runway would be closed, at least temporarily and potentially longer depending on the extent of the damage, and we had aircrews all over the country executing missions that would eventually need to return home. We began contacting the tower, where Dakota had just watched the 747 plummet from the sky and was now in the process of directing emergency crews to the scene, to ascertain the extent of the damage and the possibility of recovering our airborne aircraft anytime soon. I began sending messages to the crews from the computer, instructing them to design a divert plan and report to us so we could keep leadership updated. Phones rang and mouses clicked as we frantically tried to react to a crash – a crash about which the great cloud of smoke gave us our only information. And then, when we were certain that our own aircraft were taken care of, we stopped. I had never seen our squadron so full, or so quiet. Ten of us stood in a circle, listening to the rain that had begun falling outside, just staring, staring at each other and at a complete loss for the right words, for any words. We nursed that feeling, that deep punch in the stomach, the ache of loss and of fear and of our own mortality. It hung in the air like the storms building outside. There was nothing to say.
3. A very skewed concept of how interested other people are in my personal information
Among the plethora of redeployment tasks awaiting me upon my arrival home was picking up and sorting through four months of mail. Though I had, in my humble opinion, exercised excellent foresight and prior planning, I had neglected to come up with a mail plan . . . I found a yellow slip in the box stating that my mail could be retrieved at the local post office. Later that week, I happened to be outside when my mailman was making his rounds. He very tactfully handed me a stack of “hold mail” slips and explained to me how to use them . . . Sorry, Mailman. I’ll be more responsible next time.
I lugged my ten-pound stack of mail home and began the sorting process. At the end, of course, my junk mail pile far outweighed anything I actually cared about (though the stack of Backpacker magazines was pretty inviting). Instead of placing the junk mail in the recycling with the rest of my unwanted papers, I set them on the kitchen table to shred. Yes, I wanted to shred my junk mail – each envelope had my name and address for everyone to see, just waiting for a Taliban terrorist to find and exploit to his heart’s content.
Except . . . I wasn’t in Afghanistan anymore. There, we shredded absolutely everything, from address labels (you’re welcome, everyone who sent me stuff – I protected your information and therefore you from inevitable acts of terrorism) to laundry slips. I even placed a plastic grocery bag full of papers in my luggage for disposal in the United States rather than worry about finding a way to destroy them in the desert. Throwing anything with addresses, names, phone numbers, even cards or letters for the first few weeks I was back in the states took nearly as much resolve as convincing myself that the fireball in the Arkansas sky couldn’t have been an Al Qaeda rocket.
4. Finally appreciating the modern miracle of indoor plumbing
5. A realization of how fast we actually drive
I spent four months driving no faster than 25 mph on dirt roads (okay, maybe sometimes I went 30, when I really felt like living on the edge). I kept the radio low to listen for rocket attack alerts or impacts, and drove with a constant game plan for these very distinct possibilities. Afghans packed into the beds of tiny white Toyota pickups followed huge tan armored HMMVs with guns and antennas sticking up in every direction (no, the Hummers you see on the roads of America are not the same thing, as much as the people driving them probably tell themselves they are). I preferred to drive our squadron’s F-250 diesel, which required me to jump from the ground and into the cab, push the seat all the way forward, and still barely reach the pedals. I never left the squadron without my gun, phone, identification, and two-way radio, which after being trapped on the flightline during the first IDF attack with dead batteries, I always checked on my way out the door.
My good friend Lisa drove me home from base on the day of our return, and all of a sudden, we were moving at warp speed, flying over hills and hugging the curves. It was exhilarating, and terrifying . . . We were going 45 mph. The next day I climbed into my beautiful, trusty Subaru Outback, which was covered in Arkansas pollen and desperately needed an oil change, looked to my right, and remembered: I drive a stick shift. I posted my trepidation on Facebook, figuring that if I stranded myself somewhere a few hundred yards beyond where my transmission had fallen out of my car, at least I warned everybody ahead of time. And then, away we went. Happily, it was much less eventful than it could have been (and than many other days of driving I’ve had since). The people following me as I kept my speed around 10 mph below the limit didn’t seem too happy, though.
6. Constantly feeling naked
Okay, maybe not naked . . . but missing something. Why do I feel so light? What am I forgetting?
Oh, yeah. I’m not carrying my gun.
My first week or two in the desert involved a lot of return trips to my dorm to retrieve the gun I had left lying by my bedside, which I wore in a holster around my right leg. Soon, though, to leave the room without it felt not just strange, but wrong, empty, salt without pepper, a clown without his makeup. No, I didn’t name my pistol, nor did I sing it to sleep every night before placing it beneath my pillow. I just placed it beneath my pillow without singing. Just kidding. Or am I? You’ll never know. But we were required to carry our weapons everywhere with only one exception, and they soon became impossible to forget. During crew movie nights (or mornings or whenever we happened to be in there), I would usually remove my blouse, boots, and gun in order to relax, and sheer laziness prevented me from strapping the holster back on for bathroom runs to the hangar. But they became just that – runs – largely because of how utterly vulnerable and exposed I felt wandering those twenty-five yards without my gun.
We returned our weapons the day before our departure from Afghanistan, and climbing into the C-130 and taking off over a combat zone unarmed was unnerving at best, bone-chillingly terrifying at worst. I wore my desert uniform for the trip home, and every morning as I walked out of my first-world hotel room I stopped and scanned myself, wondering what I had forgotten, what was packed away that shouldn’t be. It felt like walking around without pants, though not nearly as hilarious. Luckily, civilian clothes provided a fairly quick fix for this particular lifestyle adjustment after I returned home; military-style gun holsters just don’t go as well with cute denim capris. Unless you’re in a James Bond movie.
I suppose this post is probably long enough, so I’ll leave most of the sappy stuff for a future entry . . . Suffice it to say that deployment makes life at home that much more beautiful. I wake up in my familiar bed, with my dog at my feet; my nights are never littered with rocket attacks and my daytime color pallet includes more than just shades of tan. I am safe, my friends are safe, and my worst concept of stress is committing to too many fun things in one week, and studying for a checkride or a test, knowing that at home, it is much less likely that any failure of mine will mean death, as so many failures in the desert do. I can cook my own meals, wear my hair down, and kick back with a glass of wine at the end of a long day at work, scratching my puppy’s ears and laughing with my roommate about a million silly things. I can get coffee at the shop down the street, spending a Saturday afternoon reading a book and listening to music and watching a myriad variety of people walk in and out of the door, without worrying whether someone overheard something I said that could lead to a devastating compromise of security. Deployment held many smiles, many laughs, and friendships that will last forever, but all of these lacked the carefree nature of simply being home. Even now, months later, it’s good to be back.