Monday, September 26, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 2: Hurry up and wait.

Nate’s blog: September 26

That’s the title of this blog, and a pretty accurate description of the past week. Those in the military know this expression very well. Travelling to our FOB (Forward Operating Base) is a slow and measured process, and can take a week or more.  At the moment I am at a major military base in Afghanistan, waiting for my flight out. My next update (hopefully) will be from our FOB, in what has been described by many out here, as a “warzone”. Throughout the last week we’ve gone through some training, classes, and slowly adjusting to life out here. Adjusting to the climate, adjusting to the reduced living conditions, and hardest of all; adjusting to being away from our loved ones.
While uneventful, the last week certainly has been memorable. To start with, as soon as we arrived here I got sick. Wonderful. As I am asking the Corpsmen (Navy doctors) for some medicine, they tell me that I’m really probably not sick. I won’t get into the details, but TRUST me; I was down in a bad way. So I ask them in the most polite Marine-speak that I can, how they came to that conclusion. Apparently, all this travelling through different time zones and climates is hard on the body, and my system is “adjusting” to the new location. In short; I am allergic to Afghanistan.
While waiting for our flights, I have been able to talk to many people. This base is a major transportation hub, people are coming and going from different FOB’s and bases. It’s interesting, eating lunch in a giant cafeteria (or chow hall), and hearing the story of the dirty Marine across the table from you.  In general, Marines aren’t quick to open up. Every Marine I’ve talked to that is going home has lost someone in their unit. Sometimes a lot of people. They are dirty and tired, and ready to go home. They have been fighting for 7 months in an area that most people could never even find on a map; towns and cities that mean nothing to the average person, but that they fought, bled, and sometimes died for. While I sit there and talk to them, I think to myself, “In 7 months that will be me”. At least I hope so. I hope that 7 months from now, I will be able to be sitting in an air-conditioned chow hall, while some annoying new guy in a clean uniform is harassing me with questions.  I also hope, though I know it’s not likely, that we all make it back.  None of us wants to lose a fellow Marine, a buddy; a brother.  Of course when they ask me where I am headed to, they are quick to open up about what they have heard. “The most dangerous town in the most dangerous part of Afghanistan”, they all say. Hooray…
As I type this, I am sitting on a cot, in a tent with about 30 other Marines. While the living conditions aren’t great, it’s something we are all used to.  During training, Marines frequently sleep in the dirt, with nothing but a thin pad between their sleeping bag and the dirt, and the sky as their roof. Many Marines have taken the time to order things to make their lives easier at the FOBs, such as snacks, pillows, books and batteries for their electronics. The hardest adjustment is being away from our loved ones. This is my 5th deployment, but some are on their 6th or even 7th, while for others, it’s their first time. Wives and girlfriends are a common discussion among the Marines here in the tents. Marines talk about plans they have for our return, and in our own “macho” way, how we miss them. Occasionally there is a wifi signal here, and you will see Marines pulling Ipads, phones, and small computers out of their bags to talk to their loved ones. It’s not perfect, talking over Skype with a blurry screen and choppy sound, but to be able to see our loved ones and hear them, even if it s for just a few minutes before the signal is lost, means a lot to the Marines. It means a lot to our loved ones too, who also have to go through their own “adjustments”.
It’s easy to think about the troops, and how hard it is for us out here. We are fighting a war, in this far corner of the world. Marines will sometimes go for over a week without any kind of shower, a month without hearing from back home.  We are tired, hungry, and dirty while we are gone. But it’s also hard for our loved ones too. Those husbands and wives, girlfriends and boyfriends, parents and relatives. They sit at home trying to adjust, trying to live their lives while all of a sudden there is this giant void in their life. I can hear it in my wife’s voice, every time we are able to talk to each other. Many Marines (and everyone in my unit), live where they do because the military moved them there. We are stationed in the California Desert, not by choice, but by military orders. And when we moved here, we brought our wives and loved ones here as well. And now they are alone without us, and they miss us. They miss being able to see us walk through the door after a long day of work. They miss spending time with us, waking up with us, and even fighting with us over things that seem so mundane and meaningless now. Those shows that we all watched together as a family, they now watch alone. The couch, dining room table, their home, seems so much emptier now without us. And while we here have all trained for this deployment, those loved ones at home, have had no training for theirs. I am so thankful for Saija, as we are all thankful for those loved ones we left behind. We recognize the sacrifices they make for us, and we appreciate you all for staying strong and staying with us through these trying times. And of course, for doing those household chores that we are used to doing! Thank you Saija. Thank you wives and girlfriends, family and friends. We could not do this without your love and support.
I look forward to my next update, hopefully in about a week, from the FOB. Thank you all for reading, following, and for the supportive comments I’ve received through Facebook and my blog. Your support means a lot!

PS: Saija has already informed me that she will have plenty of chores for me to do when I get home. And I cannot wait to be back at home, taking out the trash.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tales from Afghanistan chapter 1: Nate's attempt at a blog

Nate's blog: September 19

Hello all. As I am typing this, I am laying in a tent in some country I can't spell. It doesn't matter, because I'm pretty sure I'm not allowed to name it anyways. Here in a bit I will hop onto a plane to Afghanistan, where my 7 month combat deployment will begin.

I was inspired to start this by a conversation I had with a translator imbedded with our unit, which I will get into later. For now though, I want to catch you up to speed on what has transpired so far.

For the last 8 months or so, I have been part of an infantry battalion in 29 Palms, preparing for a combat deployment to Afghanistan. For those who haven't been to 29 Palms, it's an absolutely amazing place, full of lush trees and the base even has a beautiful lake. On September 16 (about 3 days earlier than expected), I departed 29 Palms and by bus, plane, and helicopter, slowly made my way towards Afghanistan.

For my last week before leaving, I did my best to live life to the fullest. My wife Saija and I had just returned from part 2 of 3 of our honeymoon, a cruise through Key West, Cayman Islands, and the horrible island of Jamaica, which should be wiped clear by a hurricane. We went out, we partied, we harassed our cat Hiisi, had a great week!

But eventually our last night together passed, and my alarm went off for the last time this year. At 3am we got up, and started getting dressed and ready to head to Base. I knew it was coming but now that the day had arrived, it was so much harder on me than I thought it would be. This will be my 5th deployment, but my first with Saija. I'm man enough to admit that I broke down that morning in the bathroom while shaving, at the thought of being without her for 7 months. It was like I got hit in the chest by a sledgehammer. 4 deployments and I had never felt anything like this. But I had to go. Finally everything was packed and ready, I looked around our home for the last time, said goodbye to our cat, and headed out the door.

Once we arrived on base, I got my weapons, gear, and we joined the other Marines and their families at a field. Hundreds of Marines, wives, kids, friends and relatives filled the field, along with trucks selling food, and a bouncy castle. It looked like the saddest county fair ever. We spent our last few hours together on that field, sad but looking forward to our future reunion. As the buses arrived, so did the tears. Wives, kids, and even Marines. There's a reason why a lot of us wear sunglasses when we leave.

From there it was uneventful and boring, and time was hard to keep track of. Long bus rides, waiting at an airbase for hours, and a 30+ hour flight really messes with your sense of time. Eventually we arrived at this country, that I could never have pointed out with a map. The next 2 days were spent taking anti-malaria pills, adjusting to the time zone, and attempting to "FaceTime" with Saija on the crappy wifi connection. Boring and sad in general, although I had a very interesting conversation with one of our interpreters, "AZ", which inspired this whole project.

While eating lunch, I struck up a conversation with AZ. We had a number of interpreters with us, and I was curious about them. As it turns out, they were just as varied a group as us Marines, coming from all walks of life. This man, AZ, had a wife and 2 children, and had never deployed before. We spoke about family and deployments, and how hard it was on each of our families. His 4 year old son, according to his wife, had woken up in the middle of each night since we left, walking throughout the house looking for him. His wife was heartbroken, having never experienced this before and fearing for his safety.

Being an interpreter for US troops carries an additional danger, as he explained to me. If they are captured by the Taliban or Al Qaida, they are treated as traitors, tortured much more than one of us would be before finally being killed. I won't go into the details, but apparently it has happened before. And if they have family in the area, and they are found, the family is tortured and sometimes killed as well. It doesn't help that they are contracted there for a year; a full 5 months longer than us Marines.

He is worried, but proud of what he is doing. He believes in our cause, and is glad that he can share in our experience, for better or for worse. Like all of us, he wants to complete the mission, and get home safely to his family. He tells me that as this is his first deployment, he wants to keep a journal, and turn it into a book when he returns, detailing his experiences in Afghanistan. It reminded me of something I did during the Iraq invasion, and while I don't have such lofty goals as a book, I was inspired to start a blog as well.

I'm planning on updating this about once a week or so, depending on connectivity and how much I have to write. Hopefully I'll be able to upload some pictures, although most of them will have to wait until I return, due to security reasons. Please tell me what you think! My next post will come from Afghanistan, in a week or so. Goodbye for now!