Wednesday, February 27, 2008

A World Without Fences

I am, by no means, a poor soldier.

I have a GT score of 128. I received an ARCOM for my service in Iraq. I have served in a variety of different positions, from engineering reconnaissance specialist to tax advisor, and during that time my counselings have been outstanding. I have no disciplinary actions on my record. So by most counts, though I may be a poor fit for my MOS, I am, for the most part, an exemplary soldier.

So why shouldn't the Army want to aid me in my career.

I spent most of my deployment searching for ways to change my career path within the Army. I find my duty specialty to be dull and unfulfilling, but all the same I wanted to spend a little more time in the service. So for months, I was in and out of Retention offices, trying to see what they could get me. Time and time again, I was told that either schools were closed out, that there weren't enough openings, or that I lacked the sufficient security clearances.

So when, after 15 months of trying, I place a call to the Retention offices in Heidelberg, do I expect to hear more of the same? Stupidly, I didn't.

The latest: I am in an MOS listed as critically understrength. The Army calls this a "Priority Two." I have been advised to reclass into everything from Military Intelligence to Legal to Journalism. All of the above are listed as "Priority Four." This means that, as long as I am in the Army, I will be forced to accept a job that is below my qualifications.

A great soldier, with a promising future. And the Army would rather see me leave than give me what I want.

I worked for the better part of two years, for this.

The end of my enlistment is approaching. My current unit is planning to rebase stateside. My leadership, seeing that I am so close to my ETS, is planning to cancel my orders for movement, so that I can be attached to a unit remaining behind, long enough for me to finish out and clear from Germany. After three years, 15 months of which were spent in a war zone, I have finally come to see that the Army life is a path that I am no longer willing to follow. I have a wife. I have a degree that needs finished. I have a book that I want to see published. I have a whole series of goals for my life, and the Army has just informed me, in no uncertain terms, that it isn't willing to help me achieve them.

It's hard to describe the feelings of bitterness I now harbor. What was all of this for? I endured loneliness, depression, spiritual conflict, and marital strain, and after all that I have borne in silence, the Army can only tell me that they want to give me more of the same.

It took me nearly two years to see the clear path, but finally Fate has laid her cards upon the table. Though my last six months will now be a mess of paperwork, planning, and endless phone calls, I feel strangely relieved. I feel lighter now, knowing that in a year's time, I will be out of this uniform, out of this way of life, back to making a real living.

The way laid before is a difficult one, make no mistake. There will be sacrifices. But for the first time in years, I can look forward to a world where my choices are my own, where I can look outside and not have my view obstructed by walls or gates. My way is the way of self-determination, my world is to be a world without fences.

And with all of the hardship that such a world promises to bring, I nevertheless feel exuberant.

My time with the Army is ending. I'm going home.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Beyond The Sand

Hello again.

Yes, I'm back from Iraq. Yes, I'm back safely with Anne. I returned home in December of 2007, and after a well-deserved month of leave stateside, I'm once more back in Germany, though thankfully I've managed to get myself behind a desk, for the time being anyway. Connections are good.

I'd like to apologize for my absence. The truth is, I needed the hiatus. I grew tired of living in fear, of worrying when some vindictive person might use their surfeit of free time to track my writings to their source, thus creating difficulties for me and my chain of command. To this day, the amount of effort wasted by those who wanted me silenced disgusts me. So to those individuals, I say: You failed. You failed, and I am not going away. Not again.

It came to a point where my days were so long, so exhausting that I grew tired of reliving them in writing. Living out the Army life is one thing: rehashing it every day in words is quite another.

Truthfully, it was good that I stepped away when I did. It was a chance to focus on myself, focus on my marriage. I kept myself busy with other forms of writing; the woodworker's daughter helped me to escape the daily confines of the deployed environment. I owe much to her, as well as to my wife Anne. Odd: it is women--their compassion, their expressive natures--who give our worlds sense and purpose. Says something, I think, about who is truly the stronger sex. So yes, I am back, and I am glad to be so. It was a long time in coming, but it has not been without its difficulties.

Simply adjusting to the lack of a weapon proved a daunting task in those first weeks. Me and Anne have been required to reacquaint ourselves, thankfully a smoother transition for us than for most military couples we know. What has truly shocked me most was my return to the States. It was like somebody simply shut off the war. No mortars; no rotating shifts in the guard tower. People actually receive weekends off; can choose what they wear, and when. More than that, though, was a sense of disappointment. It seems as though the normal excesses and stupidities of popular culture, obvious enough before my deployment, seem more starkly exposed now. The same stupid reality shows on TV, the same banal obsessions with Britney Spears and her decaying mental state. Meanwhile, news coverage on Iraq has nearly faded to zero. As Jon Stewart put it last night, "Is that still HAPPENING?"

I finally saw a piece on CNN this morning, featuring Gen. Petraeus promising imminent drawdowns. He promised a return to the normal 12-month deployment cycle for Army soldiers, down from the current 15-month rotation still in place. I don't know if I believed him or not--realism has never been a trait I saw in him--but whatever the case, it daunted even me to consider that there are people still back there, still suffering through the loneliness, the endless ticker of 14 months to go, 13, 12. To be honest, with my own plight resolved, I found myself saddened that I had forgotten so quickly.

We've all forgotten, it seems.

Here's what happened while you were sleeping: Violence in Baghdad decreased, or so we're all told. In response, it spread to places like Diwaniyah, home of Echo, or Balad, where the pro-U.S. mayor was publicly assassinated. It flooded out of Baghdad into outlying areas, leaving soldiers in those areas to try to account for the sudden spike in violence. Meanwhile, soldiers are still suffering through the 15-month rotation. Fifteen. Can anyone untested truly understand the grueling difference in those three months? I think not. Meanwhile, while we listen to our candidates bloviate and postulate, while we complain about the falling dollar, people are dying. Friends and lovers and family members are dying. And yet our newsmedia can spare little more than a thirty-second blurb.

Is this how far we've fallen? Is this how tolerant we've become to the abuse?

I'm close to abandoning the Army as a career. I'm bitter, I'm tired of the lack of privacy. I'm tired of the lies, of the separations. I have a degree to finish, I have a craft--my writing--to hone. I began writing a novel for young adults back in May; I hope to have in finished by July. Meanwhile, my wife and I want to start a family, and I'm not sure I can stomach leaving them to grow up as I blink in and out of their lives. Sorry, fellow patriots: my family, my wife, all matter more to me. Leave someone else to clean up the Iraqi's mess.

I'm no longer the person I was. I was lucky--I saw no close-up death, no friends put in the groun, despite all the time I spent out the wire. But it was still hard, and none can expect me to renounce that statement. I pray for and pity the ones left behind, but the truth is, it's just not my fight anymore.

I have no plans of going back.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

"Fall Out."

On the morning of December 13, 2007, an Airbuss A330 chartered by the U.S. Government touches down at Ramstein Air Force Base, near Kaiserslautern, Germany. Its undercarriage strikes the rain-slick runway with a wet slap and a screech, and as the plane shudders under the buffet of reversed thrust, 160 soldiers cheer and whoop, or merely sigh with relief.

I am among that group.

We're greeted on the tarmac by an array of officers from across Europe. Though giddy, our spirits are muddled--the weather is cold and wet, and few of us have slept on the plane. We're shepherded by bus to a USO reception station, where our IDs are swiped. We're offered weak coffee and sandwiches. Throngs of us flee to the nearest exit, desperately craving our first cigarette in over 7 hours.

A long wait, and some of us try to contact our families. Time passes, and finally we form into files, meeting with a truck from our company, where members of the unit's rear detachment collect weapons. Suddenly naked without our M-16s and 249s, we once more board the German charter buses, and so we begin the final leg of our long journey home.

You've never seen such fury voiced at the quirks of traffic on the autobahn. Our progress north is hampered by snarl after snarl of stau. What should have been a two-hour journey quickly turns into one of three-and-a-half. After an interminable wait, we finally arrive at our duty station, a Kaserne in the Hessen region, just before 11 am.

We do a loop around the Kaserne. Brightly colored banners hang from the gates, homemade offerings welcoming us home. At the parade grounds, a throng of family members shout and cheer, waving flags. Our German bus driver honks, and soldiers press their faces to glass. Frantic utterances: "There she is!" "Anybody see my wife?!" A year and more's worth of suppressed joy, simmering beneath the surface of this moment.

We're shepherded off of the buses, weary and anxious, where we receive a short briefing from an E-7 on the rear detachment. Rear Det members, meanwhile, the broken and the uninitiated, begin offloading our bags. We form up, and following another brief by our First Sergeant, are given a crisp "Right face!" I feel my back arch, my chin tilt upward. Even after 15 months of agony and loneliness, I can't suppress the wave of pride I feel in this moment. We begin marching around, toward the gymnasium, and all I can think is: I'm alive. I made it. I'm alive.

We're all alive. After 15 months of duty in Iraq, and an estimated 150 missions outside the wire for our unit, no soldier has died. Been injured, certainly, mostly in failures of workplace safety. But nobody has died. This is truly a miracle.

We march around the block, and finally toward the entrance toward the gymnasium. I smile as raindrops fall from the low-hanging alder branches, splashing my neck and the brim of my patrol cap. The door yawns before us, a dark mouth blaring bad country music. I don't even care. Two years ago, as a new soldier, I stood sharply at attention as my fellows returned to this place. Now, I reflect with quiet pride, it is my turn to join them.

I have taken the journey. I have passed this test, this pilgrimage, this hajj. Now it is my turn to claim this honor.

Our eyes adjust to the neon lights of the gym, beige boots thudding in time across basketball hardwood. A din of feminine shouts and cheers heralds us. Though none of our heads move, I know that a hundred other pairs of eyes are searching the crowds with mine. There is a moment of fear, of anxiety, and then at the far right, in the bottom right, I see face: Sgt. Thompson, my longtime friend from the legal office, in full uniform. Then, next to him, a tall woman with chestnut hair. She looks resplendent in a short black dress, my favorite necklace offset the creamy fairness of her ample decollete.

Smoky green eyes greet mine. A silent smile, and adoring lips mouth the words, "I love you." My jaw clenches, my eyes flare, suppressing the grin. This is what I've wanted for 15 months, and now I have her.


First Sergeant's voice: "Left, FACE!"

A hundred and sixty pairs of boots execute.

"Stand at, (Stand AT), EASE!"

We comply. Silence, and then a burly man, a Full-Bird out of Heidelberg, takes a moment to address us. His remarks are thankfully brief, and he turns us back to our commander with a bulldog "Hooah!" Then, as tensions threaten to boil over, Captain Haskewicz, a tall man of youthful features, gives us a brief reminder to be safe and spend time with our families. Then our First Sergeant resumes command, and gives us the order: Reintegration, tomorrow morning, zero-six-thirty. "Good work, guys," he tells us gruffly. Then, finally:

"Company, atten-TION!"

A hundred and sixty pairs of boots snap together.

"Fall out."

The invisible grid connecting us vanishes. Soldiers scatter, and family members pour from the bleachers. I no longer remember the steps between me and her. I only remember the sudden warmth of skin on skin, the pressure of her body against mine, the smell of her hair. My mind is lost in the darkness of our frantic kissing, and in this moment a dam breaks. A wall of anger and bitterness collapses, and for the first time in longer than I can remember, I feel not tears, not laughter, only peace. I feel like I'm reopening a well-thumbed book, returning to find the folded corner of the page.

I'm home. I'm safe.

Spc. Freeman...fall out.