Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I left my heart in Afghanistan

I guess I’ve been slacking a bit in the blog department. Sorry. Got caught up in the whirlwind of a new semester (more on that later). In the meantime, many thanks to my friend, Nate Jacobs, for saving me the trouble of coming up with a whole post. These insightful and articulate thoughts come from him:

I seem to learn more and more about myself every day since I left the military. Today I came across a guy who happened to be an Iraq veteran. Meeting another vet was like giving water to a thirsty man. I really haven't encountered any other vets since coming to Portland. Instantly there was a bond at what I haven't experienced in a while. Finally, someone who understood. Finally, someone who I didn't have to explain myself to. Our conversation became a game of how many war stories we could share we before we had to go our ways. I can tell he felt the same relief that I did having encountered another vet.

This just goes to show the power of the military bond. I left the military of my own choice. However I left a large chunk of my heart and soul in Iraq. I really wanted the Iraqis to learn and take control of their country. I really wanted the violence to stop. I had committed 100% of my being to doing whatever was in my power to make that happen. Like a Band-Aid ripped off a wound, it's not a clean separation. There's a little bit of Iraq still left in me. I can only hope there's a little bit of me left in Iraq.

Oddly enough, tonight I came home after the experience and turned on the TV. There was a TV show about a bunch of vets honoring a recently fallen 101 Airborne troop who had died in Iraq. The imagery and the playing of taps instantly brought me to tears and I cried like a child. That proverbial Band-Aid covers a wound that will always stay fresh. A wound that I never want to heal. I left the military. The military will never leave me. Iraq affected me profoundly and I'm grateful for the experience.

Well said, Nate.

Sometimes I forget how much Afghanistan affected me. No, that’s a lie. Sometimes I deny it. Nobody really wants to be tethered to – let alone defined by – a singular experience. Even an Olympic champion probably doesn’t want to be known just as an Olympic champion. Every champion has a face and a name and a personality, and a multitude of experiences that come before and after that crowning event.

But it’s impossible – and erroneous – to try to separate the two. That moment in the arena, in the pool, on the track, was the culmination of months and years of blood, sweat and tears, intense focus and commitment, passion and perseverance. And it made an impact; sent reverberations from the champion’s life to the world in the pages of history books. You can take the champion off the podium, but his footprints remain.

You can take the girl out of Afghanistan, but you can’t take Afghanistan out of the girl.

I learned so much from my military experience. I discover new lessons every day. Granted, some of the lessons suck: Life isn’t fair, idealism isn’t realistic, people have the capacity for tremendous cruelty, no one looks good in tapered light gray sweatpants. But in the real world, the bad comes with the good; and someday, hopefully, eventually, they even out. Or maybe, if you work at it, they even leave you in the positive. That’s what I’m shooting for when I pour my wine glass a little more than half-full.

Like Nate, I truly hope I left a piece of myself in Afghanistan. I’ll never know for sure. And I think it’s the not knowing that makes the separation so hard for me. An Olympic champion has the history books; concrete written proof that he left his mark on the world. In a warzone, nothing is quite so concrete. You have the statistics: number of missions completed, bad guys killed, schools built. But what does that mean? Even the concrete walls around the schools my team helped build could be whittled away with the picking of a fingernail.

Nothing is concrete, except the memories.

So where does that leave us? Inexorably tied to a place and a time we’ll never be again; perhaps sometimes even wistful for it because whether we like it or not, it does, at least to some extent, define us.

I guess I’ll think of myself as a puzzle. Afghanistan and the military are big pieces that don’t necessarily fit snugly with everything else. Do I need to bend and reshape them? Or mold everything else around that chunk? Or do I need to forge new pieces to fill the gaps? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll always be a bit skewed and misshapen. And maybe, in the end, I’m better for it.

At least I won’t be wearing tapered light gray sweatpants.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Planes, Trains and Humvees

Call me crazy, but I actually enjoy air travel. Yes, you lose a day, but it’s an excuse to spend said day reading and/or napping. I also enjoy airports. Yes, the food is overpriced and you have to lug your carryon to the bathroom, but they’re great venues for people watching. Or you can buy expensive exotic perfumes duty free (I’ve never actually done this – I favor my $12 drugstore cologne – but it’s nice to have the option). Or you can get your shoes shined or sit in one of those $1 massage chairs (actually never done this either). Or you can catch up on the latest celebrity gossip without ever buying the magazines (Definitely done this. I hope people who see me realize US Weekly is just a way of killing time. Really, it is. Seriously. Don’t judge me).

I think there’s a part of me that has always found air travel intriguing. I’ve never quite understood why people get so unbelievably I’m-going-to-yell-at-these-poor-people-just-trying-to-do-their-jobs/thank-goodness-I’m-on-blood-pressure-medication stressed about it.

But as I flew back to Boston this week, sleepy, but relaxed and contentedly stuffed with Christmas chocolate; as I was bombarded with the little airport annoyances and the people overtly annoyed by them, something donned on me: maybe I don’t get so annoyed because I’ve been through much more bothersome travel scenarios. For example, after having driven across the country, I know air travel sure as heck beats that option. And air travel anywhere sure as heck beats air travel to and from rural Afghanistan.

Looking around at my fellow travelers annoyedly aligning their laptops, shoes and carryons on the security belt, I wanted to tell them that it’s better than emptying out the entire contents of several jam-packed duffel bags into bins and watching someone sort through it all with a fine tooth comb, throwing away things like vitamins no longer in their original container.

At the crowded terminal, overhearing my fellow travelers annoyedly groaned about layovers, early arrivals and “long flights from Vegas,” I wanted to tell them it’s better than boarding an exhaust-spewing bus in the middle of the night, twice as many body armor-clad people as seats, and 24-hours straight of flight time; it’s better than transferring from contract aircraft to military aircraft to smaller military aircraft to helicopter; it’s better than a four-day layover in Kuwait or at Bagram Air Base, sleeping under a tent in a rickety bunk with 100 other people, with all the lights on all the time, and finally drifting off into a fitful sleep only to be jolted awake by the sirens of incoming mortars.

Squeezing into a coach seat while my fellow travelers annoyedly huffed and puffed about limited leg room and noisy children, I wanted to tell them it’s better than pull-down web seating on a C-130 where your butt falls asleep almost immediately after takeoff and your hair keeps getting caught in the netting behind you; where the engines are so loud they issue passengers earplugs.

Hefting my mondo, just-barely-within-weight-limits suitcase onto the airport shuttle the driver exclaimed, “Wow! You made that look easy!” I almost said, “Dude, you should have seen me in full body armor lugging four bags and two weapons across the HLZ while the Chinook spewed dust and gravel everywhere” (or more accurately, “You should have seen me in full body armor being helped by my burly teammates . . .”)

I tried to assume the same smug pride later on the subway when I very politely informed the conductor that I had a large bag and would it be possible to exit from the middle door instead of climbing up, then down the steps of the front platform, and he very impolitely cut me off and grunted, “Use the front door.” (Seriously, MBTA? You open the rear doors for the first 12 stops of the route, it is really impossible to help an overloaded girl out?)

So yes, I would be lying if I said I don’t get annoyed at all. (Don’t even get me started on oversized carryon roller bags . . . ) There’s a part of me that does. But mostly I tell it to shut up. Besides, it’s the people who really bother me. I get annoyed at people getting annoyed. Then, instead of expressing my anger, I brood on it silently. Does that make me more stoic? Less annoying to objective observers? More prone to high blood pressure? Or just plain hypocritical?

Okay, I admit it, I’m a hypocrite. I tell myself this often, and often I forget. So now I’m saying it to you all so you can keep me accountable: Lauren, keep things in perspective.

When you’re wandering the isles at a home improvement store, dazed and confused because you know nothing about home improvement, don’t stress. It could be worse – you could be looking for twine and giant twisty ties to help pack all your life’s belongings into a 12x8 storage unit for the next year. (Except the cats, of course; those go to your parents).

When the T goes underground in the middle of your texting conversation and you’re cut off from technology for – gasp! – five whole minutes, don’t stress. It could be worse – you could climbing to the top of the old guard tower (where a somewhat paranoid but maybe slightly justified voice keeps telling you you’re going to get hit by sniper fire) to get two measly bars on your Afghanicrap cell phone.

When you’re waiting in line at a deli (café, restaurant, etc) and the customers and/or the servers are moving like molasses, don’t stress. It could be worse – you could be waiting in line outside a chow tent in the snow in anticipation of what is sure to be another exciting meal of dry, overcooked meat, soggy vegetables and your choice of three kinds of potatoes.

When you get your Seattle snow globe souvenir confiscated at airport security . . . well that really just doesn’t make any sense. What illegal substance could you possibly inject into a snow globe?

Whatever. I’ll get over it. Somehow, life will move on.

It always does.

(P.S. I think I just made up the word “annoyedly.” Catchy, huh?)