November 24, 2008
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 you will have a Born on the Fourth of July style meltdown, pee your pants, and start screaming at the heavens. The problem is just that no one knows enough to even buy into 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 other acronyms and jargon we use mean. And beyond the language, the reference points just aren't there. To have a topical, free and easy conversation about the subject, I need to have someone who actually knows Afghanistan. It’s a world away, and maybe I’m not the best at communicating it, but if you’re reading my blog posts, keep heart -- as the tour rolls on, I hope to at least partially educate (using the word loosely).
On your final leave there are too many responsibilities. Too many people to see, too many hands to shake, and too many 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 too thinly. Really, you miss out on the depth with that one individual you’re thinking about the most. But you realize 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 is palpable, and you try to turn each moment into a golden one. More often than not they turn out to be bronze, and sometimes aluminum.
Eventually, right around the last day, the visit comes to a head, and nearly all the pretense of normalcy is dropped. Very few people have a screenwriter living in their head, relaying 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.”
“Don’t forget to take care of yourself.”