Monday, April 2, 2012

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 18: Full Circle

Nate's blog: Apr 1

This will be my last update. Part of me can’t believe I’m typing this. It seems unreal that I am finally done with this deployment! In the past week or so, I’ve travelled from my remote FOB in the middle of Afghanistan to a giant airbase, complete with nice showers, food, and a Coffee Bean, and from there to a not so lovely airbase in a former Soviet country near China. My last step is to get on a plane and fly home. My “luggage” is packed, everything is ready, all that’s left is to go through customs to make sure I don’t have anything illegal (I hope my latest present for Saija doesn’t freak them out haha), and to find a comfy spot on the plane! I did my last workout in Afghanistan and my last run yesterday here in Asia. I’m ready to go home.

The way we return the same way we went just backwards. I was here in this spot 6 months ago talking to AZ, where I was inspired to start this blog. In some ways it feels like I’ve been gone forever, but in other ways it feels like I just left yesterday. It’s amazing how quickly yet slowly this deployment has gone by. When I get home, will this all seem like a bad dream? It has been a stressful deployment, full of ups and downs. Things never go the way you expect out here, and there is no way to really predict anything. That’s normal though, it happens every time. You have to take the bad with the good, and learn from them both. Some Marines volunteer for deployments, to escape “real” life. Those Marines will be coming back home to find all of their problems waiting for them. Whether its bills, personal issues, or relationships that couldn’t weather this storm, they have to face them soon. Others like me can’t wait to come home. I’m looking forward to seeing my friends and family, my wife, my cat. To falling asleep in my bed, my home, not having to worry about being attacked in my sleep or on an “adventure”. Still, even the most excited of us can’t help be a little nervous. The world has moved on while our lives are on pause, and it will take time to adjust.

When you read this, I will already be home. The website is blocked right now, so I have to save this update for when I get back to the states. To all of my friends and family, thank you for your support! The life of a deployed Marine is a hard, lonely life, and your love and support has made it easier to deal with. Saija and I have made some tentative plans for visits while I’m on leave, and I’m looking forward to seeing you all! Thank you for the care packages, the emails, pictures, letters, and postcards (that’s you Heather and Sean!).  I couldn’t have done it without you!

This deployment, like every other one I’ve been on, has had it’s own set of unique challenges and obstacles for me to grow from. I’m so happy that they are finally over! I made it through, I survived, and soon it will be time to relax and celebrate. We have a spa date planned in Palm Springs where we will get MUCH needed massages. We have tickets to Comic-Con, Ink & Iron, various charity races, and plans for all kinds of fun events! And I already have a list of like 10 movies I want to see!

Some of us are coming home with pieces missing, and some aren’t coming home at all, having made the ultimate sacrifice. My thoughts are with their friends and family. All wars are terrible, but this one is particularly so. Marines die at random from IED’s, and the political climate makes any kind of progress difficult to see at best. We have Afghanistan soldiers turning their weapons on us, and even turning their weapons on each other. The locals have an almost uncaring response to the murder of 17 civilians, to include children, but when some of their Korans are burned they scream for blood. The culture here is truly alien, and one has to ask if we can truly succeed in a place where we have so little in common. I can only hope that after we are gone, they are able to build and grow off of what we have done, rather than let all of our sacrifices be in vain.

It’s time for me to sign off now; my flight will be leaving shortly. While this blog and this adventure may be over, I know that there are still many more adventures in store for me. I’m looking forward to the challenges and mysteries that the future holds, and I am ready for them. This is neither the beginning nor the end of my story. Thank you all for following along and sharing in this adventure with me!

PS: I arrived home a couple of days ago. I've spent the last 2 days readjusting to California time, and spending time with my wife and our demon cat. He recognized me immediately, and has been more cuddly and sweet than he ever was before haha! Saija and I finally got out of the house today, and made our first trip to Palm Springs. Tomorrow I will start making my phone calls to family. Life is great, and I can't wait for our future adventures together!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 17: Last Call

Nate's blog: Mar 19

It’s finally happened, my deployment is almost over! This week, is my last week here (Due to security reasons I can’t say when I am actually leaving, this is close enough!). It’s been a week full of “lasts” for me. I’ve already gone on my last “adventure”, and I’ve come back with all my bits and pieces relatively where they should be! I am very thankful for that, there have been a lot of us who did not come back with everything, and some who are not coming back at all. I’ve (hopefully) had my last MRE out here, my stock of granola bars should last me through these final days. I’ve put on my FROG suit for the last time (no, not like in the Mario Bros game), and I’ve been in an armored vehicle for the last time! I’ve mailed a bunch of stuff home already, and some of our replacements have already arrived and started taking over.

I saw my friend AZ a few days ago. He is doing well, and has decided to stay out here for another 7 months. He says the money is very good and he has a family to raise. I respect him for it, but I know I could never do that! This is my 5th deployment, and when you’ve spent so much of your life in a combat zone, it kind of loses its appeal. And my departure can’t come soon enough! While my unit has done amazing things in our small part of the country, it seems like as a whole, everything is falling apart around us. The US and Afghan government can’t agree on anything, the Taliban are backing out of talks, and it seems like people from both sides are going crazy! Recently a soldier, rank Staff Sergeant, was taken back to the States, most likely to be tried for murder of Afghani civilians. This is a guy on his 4th deployment, with a wife and kids, a senior soldier that no one would have expected to go crazy! And it seems to really be dividing people. Some people think he’s nothing more than a murderer, while others feel that the multiple deployments were just too much, and he snapped. I’ve read one report that said people in the military are afraid to admit he snapped, because it leaves open the possibility that it could happen to anyone with multiple deployments. FYI, I’m not going to turn all crazy. But I am bothered by all the comparisons I am hearing between Afghanistan and Vietnam.

I’m looking forward to really saying goodbye to this place. Goodbye to the people shooting at me, goodbye to the sandstorms (I’m in one right now) and crazy weather, and goodbye to this horrible food! Goodbye to Afghanistan, and hullo to my beautiful wife, demon cat, to crazy drivers and delicious Panda Express, and apparently high gas prices haha. I think I can manage that.

Oh, and there is one more “last”. This is my last update from Afghanistan! The trip back is long, so I will still have an update or two left as I make my final journey home. Wish me luck, I will see you all soon!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 16: Dropping the pack

 Nate's blog: Mar 2

There comes a time for every Marine and soldier, where it becomes really tough to do your job. Your attention wanders, your motivation drops, it’s harder to get things done (like update your blog), and you focus on things in your life that you probably shouldn’t be. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Office Space”, you understand. In Marine language, it’s called “dropping your pack”.

Well I think I can officially say that’s how I’m feeling right now! In one small way I suppose it’s good, because it means I am SOOO close to coming home. But in Afghanistan, maybe it’s not the best point of view to have haha. But it’s so hard to concentrate now! My bags are packed and loaded, I’m basically living out of a backpack and I can say to within a week of when I will be home. In Marine language, I have 3 haircuts left.

Those who keep up with the news (and I try my best to be one of them), might say that this is not the best time for that attitude. They would be right. At a time where an Army base screwed up some of the Afghanistan soldiers have just plain lost their minds. There are now multiple accounts of Afghani soldiers killing US servicemembers on our own bases and FOBs, and without giving away classified information, I can tell you it’s been pretty crazy over here! At a time when the deployment should be winding down, and things should be quieting down, it has just become the most intense part of our time here.

The culture of Afghanistan is very strange, and recent events have only made it more apparent. Soldiers that have ostensibly been our allies fighting for the security of their own country turn their guns on us. Policemen spit on the ground when we pass by. How can they switch from being allies to enemies, even enemies of their own national self-interest, so quickly? It’s something that I think no American understands. And I think it’s something we can’t understand. The culture here is so different than what we know; it may as well be alien. It’s been said that Afghanistan isn’t ready for Democracy, or any real government. It’s been said that they are not mature enough, and won’t be until through their own hardships, demand a fair elected government, much like what has happened to the countries transformed by the Arab Spring. Maybe those people are right.

Whatever the motivations are for these strange people in this strange land, to be honest no longer matter to me. I wish this country all the best, but I think it’s going to be a long journey for them, and I think they want to make it alone. I don’t mind. I find my thoughts and eyes more and more drift to the West, to sunny California my home, and the series of adventures and challenges that await me there. At least at home I am familiar with them all and for better or for worse I know I will make it. I’ll have my demon cat, my charity races, my trips to San Diego and family in northern California, and of course a new tattoo, waiting for me. And hopefully orders to Embassy Duty. So much to look forward to, how can I not drop my pack?!

I’m doing my best to balance work and play. I’ve signed up for 2 charity races already, with my eyes on a few more. I’m planning on a new set of running shoes, running watch, and some sexy shades. One of my friends has told me to expect a bottle of tequila when I get home (Thank you DD, haha you know me well!). But I’m also going on at least 3 more “adventures” over the next week, and I know that the last part of the deployment is the busiest. And the most dangerous. So I’ve got to keep my eyes on the prize! I’m trying to keep my head up, stay alert. I’m working out and keeping up steady 4-6 mile runs (to my friends, I know those are “short” runs for me but it’s so boring to run on a treadmill!). And I’m packing up my stuff and throwing away the junk that I thought would be SO useful but has done nothing but gather dust! Next week I send a big locker of stuff home, and that’s when my figurative pack will be REALLY heavy. 3 more haircuts Nate, you’re almost home…

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 15: Coming soon to an embassy near you?

So for just about the entire time I’ve been a Marine, I’ve wanted to be an Embassy Guard. For the guy who wants travel and adventure, it’s basically a dream job! 3 years, split up into 2 different countries for 1.5 years each. Well I decided out here that I had waited long enough, and started the request process. It goes through 4 levels; Company approval, Battalion approval, approval from Embassy Guard screening interview, and finally approval from HQMC (Washington DC). So I got my Company and Battalion approvals, and just finished my screening interview. They approved me! My request still has to go up to Headquarters Marine Corps, but that’s the final step! If everything works out, in July I will be in Quantico getting pepper-sprayed in the face and other fun training, and out of the country before the end of the year!

More good news, I have less than a month left! Well, less than a month on this FOB. Once I leave here it will take a week or two to get home. Here in the next week or two I have to pack everything up and start sending stuff home. I’m not looking forward to living out of basically a backpack for 3 weeks, but it means I’m coming home soon! And I’ve started my planning for after I get back home too. Some fun runs; 5k, 10k’s. If I get orders to the Embassy School I probably won’t have time to work up to half or full marathons, but it would be nice! Making plans to see family and friends has been fun too, but my command needs to stop changing our leave dates! And there are those tattoos I’ve wanted to get for a while too… Lot’s of fun stuff to look forward to!

It’s been getting more and more crowded here, as people start arriving from the smaller positions to pack their stuff up. Pretty soon our replacements will arrive, which will be nice but will mean this place is SUPER crowded. It’s already hard enough to get gym time in, but it will be almost impossible soon. All small sacrifices to make though, to come home so soon.

Well that’s really all I have to report right now. Packing up and making post-deployment plans has been the big focus for everyone lately. I’m hoping to hear back in the next few weeks about final approval for Embassy Guard Duty, keeping my fingers crossed!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 14: Roads less travelled.

Nate's blog: Feb 3

For those of you that are close, you know that we are now almost done with the deployment (and that I’m coming home a little early!). As of today, I’m 75% done with this deployment. At times it has gone by quickly, other times it’s been very slow. This is my 5th deployment, and I can honestly say it’s been unique among the others. Thinking about this, the 5 deployments, the nearly 3 years of overseas time is what inspired this update.

We recently had a meeting where our 1stSgt was telling us to tighten up, that we were almost done with the deployment, and to keep from screwing up for just a couple months longer. This is normal, but what really struck me was when he mentioned that most Marines here would probably not see Afghanistan again. With the drawdown, our withdrawal from Iraq, and planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, it certainly seems that way (and with my Embassy Duty request I’m definitely not planning on coming back!). But to no longer have deployments, it just seems so strange. It is by no means fun for us, but at the same time, it feels… normal. For the civilians reading this, friends, family and supporters, what do you imagine when you think of Iraq, Afghanistan, of us troops out here? It must be so strange for you, imagining us in these faraway lands, doing things we can’t talk about, in a place you can’t see, in a culture so different; it may as well be another planet. Do you imagine the firefights, the patrols? Do you think of Marines sitting in a fighting hole in the rain, cold and wet but on the alert for enemy activity? Or the group of Marines in a bunker late at night, swapping jokes while they play poker and drink flavored water? Do you imagine us doing the mundane things, shaving, showering, reading a book? While you are at the movies, there is a Marine sitting on a rock cleaning his weapon. While you are eating that pizza you just ordered, there is a Marine eating an energy bar before he heads out on a patrol. When you hit that snooze button to sleep an extra few minutes, there is a Marine who is getting his legs blown off by an improvised explosive device. And for those of you with dubious morals, while you are cheating on your Marine, he is looking at that photograph of you in his wallet, wishing more than anything else in the world, that he was with you.

It’s a unique world us Marines live in, a cruel world and a hard life, but it’s the life we know and have known for over 10 years. I will never forget the first moment of the Iraq invasion. It was like a movie. Just before sunrise, my platoon and what seemed like a billion Marines, tanks, and aircraft, waiting for the order to cross the border of some dusty, insignificant looking piece of land to bring war to our enemies. It was so quiet as we slowly moved towards the border, it seemed like you could hear a pin drop, like the whole country was holding its breath. Then as soon as we crossed that invisible line of sand and dirt, someone above flipped a switch and the quiet was replaced by complete and utter chaos. Since that unforgettable moment, the chaos has continued to this day, and still has not run out of steam. Since that day, the Middle East has not been some obscure location on a map for us; it’s been our second home. The sandstorms, the camel spiders, the local villages, the firefights and ambushes, it’s all as normal for us as your daily run to Starbucks. While I am very happy that I should not be coming back here, it’s hard to believe that this is really the end. No more 30 hour flights, no more getting smashed in Ireland (oh how I love that airport pub!) or Germany, no more weird pills to protect us from foreign diseases. No more watching camel spiders and scorpions fight, or videotaping the massive sandstorm as it rolls in. No more excel “deployment trackers” (Marines know what this is), Dear John letters, and no more pooping in bags. No more dying would be the best part of this. But with all of this being over, what is a professional warrior, a Marine, to do?! I plan on moving on in my career to more adventures, working on that degree, and spending more time with my family. But years from now, while I am on a hike with my wife’s family, or going bar hopping with my sisters or doing last minute Christmas shopping at Arden Mall (which finding parking then is basically the same as a deployment!), I will think back to these times. I will wonder what happened to those FOB’s we stayed and fought at, I will wonder if that airbase still has that amazing coffee shop, and I will wonder if that fighting hole I dug to protect me from scud missiles in Kuwait is still there. I’ll wonder if they ever rebuilt that fence we blew up in front of a tank statue that one of my Marines thought was an enemy tank advancing on us early in the morning, and what that kid did with the satellite dish that he was dragging across the desert. And I’ll think about those post-Iraq adventures in Australia; snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef, and discovering Jager.

In some ways I feel bad for our friends, for our family, our loved ones. These warriors, us Marines, are all sharing in the same collective experience. Laughing, fighting, bleeding and bonding in these foreign lands, we are living a lifestyle that no one who is not one of us can understand. These experiences that our closest relatives, parents, siblings, or lovers can never be part of; it separates us in a way. When your son or daughter, husband or wife, brother or sister leaves to come here, they come back a little different. Sure we look the same as when we left. But we really aren’t. This place changes us, for better or for worse, we come back a little different every time. And every time we come home your world is just a little bit stranger to us. The songs are weird, that top movie you saw 3 months ago, we didn’t even know was out. People dress a little bit differently, and you all react to the sound of a car backfiring much differently than we do! But while the Middle East is a second home, it’s an abusive home haha that I am looking forward to leaving. While I can’t wait to come home and share a few drinks with my Marine friends, laughing and joking about our deployment shenanigans, I’m really looking forward to getting back to being me again. Not me the Marine, but Nate, the guy who loves to run, who jumps when he is excited, who watches scary movies and loves a good margarita. The guy who goes on frozen yogurt/coffee, “book dates” with his wife and lounges on the couch with her drinking wine and watching the latest episode of Archer, and who looks forward to the day when he can color his hair again. 

I’ll be home next month now, and I cannot wait! It will be weird to never fly in an Osprey again while wondering if an RPG is going to blow us out of the sky, or spend 7 months without a rifle in my hand. The weirdest part of all though will be wearing civilian clothes again for the first time in 7 months! I’m ready though, to move on to the next adventures of my life. While I can’t promise I won’t look back at this strange country on the other side of the world as I board that flight out of here, I can promise that it will be with a smile on my face.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 13: Don't pee on that dead guy.

Nate's blog: Jan 16
Common sense is an uncommon virtue. I feel like that’s not how that quote is SUPPOSED to go, but it applies. There are certain things that you would think you don’t need to explain to other people. Don’t stick your hands in that fire. Don’t jump the fence to pet the lion at the zoo. Don’t film yourself peeing on a dead guy. Leave it to the Marines to screw that up. To be fair, I’m sure stuff like that happens all the time, and lets be honest, the bad guys do waaaay worse stuff. But still, not the best way to win hearts and minds. Ahh, and it must be an election year, because the politicians are all over it, putting their spin on things to win votes. Don’t you guys have anything better to do? You know, like try to work together and for once have a functioning government?

I can’t wait for these elections to be over. I swear every 4 years it gets more and more ridiculous. Without getting into my political views, I’m pretty sure it’s going to be an embarrassing landslide victory, and the losing party has no one to blame except themselves for giving their power away to political terrorists who’s parents never taught them how to share, compromise, or work with others. Meanwhile the TV comedians are exposing our joke of an electoral system with super-PAC shenanigans. It’s sad when the “fair and balance” news reporters are the joke and the comedians are the main source of real information. I’m sure I’m missing out on the most hilarious political commercials.

So Marines are peeing on dead guys, and politicians are crapping on our country. What a wonderful world. Iran is one blocked strait away from the annihilation of their entire military structure (which would probably mean ANOTHER desert vacation for me), and Pakistan looks ready to dissolve into anarchy. Most of this hasn’t actually affected us here in any real way; it’s just another thing for us to joke about when we aren’t being shot at. This last week has been nice for me actually. Working out, running, watching my tummy shrink and my muscles grow, it’s good to be back where I used to be with my fitness level! It’s been a long time since I was happy with what I saw in the mirror, but right now I’m feeling really good about myself. And of course, reading a billion books a week and attempts at online flirting keeps my off-time interesting.

I should find out some news about my Embassy Guard goals this week, my fingers are crossed for good news! If everything works out, I will be starting the request process next week. And there’s only 11 weeks till I am home!!! I can’t wait till that countdown gets below 10. I’m already making plans for when I get home. A post-deployment tattoo (thinking Huginn and Muninn, the 2 ravens in Norse mythology that belonged to Odin), and Vegas parties! I’m going to be taking a month of vacation where I’m planning on making up for the 7 months gone. I’m expecting a crazy month haha.

So that’s all the news for now. Next week I’ll be mailing some of my stuff back home, I can almost taste the freedom! This party blows and I can’t wait to ditch it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tales from Afghanistan, Chapter 12: My New Years Resolution is to finish this blog.

Nate's blog: Jan 8
I haven’t updated this in a while, because the last few weeks have been so crazy for me. Also, I’m really really good at procrastinating. It has been an eventful few weeks though. Flying around in Ospreys, dealing with bad guys who look like a lawnmower ran over their face, and of course the zillion care packages we received for Xmas.

Well Christmas sucked. I’m used to taking a few weeks off, driving up north and spending Christmas Eve at my Aunts house, where she throws an amazing party every year. Then the next day I basically drive a thousand miles to make sure I see everyone in my family on Xmas day. It’s a stressful crazy time and someone in my family is always upset at someone else, but I would have given anything to be there again! To my mom and Aunt Joy, thank you for the Christmas cards and letters! I really appreciated them. And Aunt Joan you KNOW I am loving all those pistachios! Thank you!

New Years came and went, and I didn’t even notice. I’m pretty sure I went to bed at 9pm haha. But what’s to celebrate here? It’s 2012 but it’s still in Afghanistan. My new years resolution is to work on “future Nate”, and find some of that inner “me” that I’ve felt I lost. The key to resolutions, if you didn’t know, is to keep them generally vague, so it’s harder to fail them and the standards for success are more flexible. To be fair, the last 2 years of my life have been pretty rough, with the one shining exception of meeting my soulmate, Saija. The struggles I went through in 2010 won’t be shared, but moving to 29 Palms (again) and finding out I’m deploying to the most dangerous part of Afghanistan, wasn’t exactly the relief I was looking for. And I’ve found that in times of stress, I kind of withdraw from the world, and I feel like I lose more of my self the longer it goes on. So, 2012 gives me the perfect chance to get some gorilla glue and duct tape, and fix myself up! At least until the world ends later this year. Saija and I have a lot planned, and I have things planned that she doesn’t know about, so I think this will be a good year.

The last week or so has been full of planning for everyone here. We are OVER halfway done, and everyone is looking forward to returning home! Everyone is talking about their post-deployment plans. Aside from getting a couples massage in Palm Springs and going wine tasting with Saija’s grandparents, one of our first plans is the same as everyone else here, the Marine Corps Ball! It is our late 2011 Ball, and we aren’t supposed to call it that, but that’s what it is. We will be going to Vegas on Cinco De Mayo, and spending 2 crazy nights there. Saija has just finished shopping for a new dress and shoes, and I am excited to be wearing Dress Whites for the first time. I’m 99% sure the white pants will not survive Vegas hehe.

2012 also seems to have brought out all the crazies! For those that don’t know, I’m a representative for the AnyMarine program, which means people and groups send care packages to me, which I distribute to everyone. I have my own profile with our info on it (kind of like a Facebook). I have a stack “this” thick (you can’t see but I’m showing with my hands) of penpal letters people have sent me lately. The VAST majority of them are 17 year old girls (or in their words, “almost 18”) looking for a Marine to holla at. I give all of those letters to the single guys (so Saija put away the knife!), but it’s been very entertaining reading. Some of these girls are motivated haha!

I also had some crazy drama with a crazy lady! I recently found out that one of my very close friends, who had deployed with me previously, was potentially going through a divorce. And he is about to be deployed for a year! We started talking, and through her Facebook page, I found out she was messing around on him with some army guy. Of course it would be through social media I find this out. So he basically makes me his private investigator, and when he finally confronts her, she denies it. Well of course, don’t they always? She puts on her crazy pants and threatens to take me to military court for “slander”. FYI, slander is not a military offense, I’m sure the legal people on base had a good laugh when she showed up. And I’m pretty sure that if your husband asks you to look into their relationship, and you tell him, that’s NOT what slander is. This was all good and fine until the husband, who like I said was one of my closest friends, decides to forget he asked me to look into this, and tells me he supports her decision to go to base legal and that I shouldn’t have gotten involved. Are you kidding me?! Am I in the Twilight Zone or something? You got me involved in this “buddy”, if you want to bury your head in the sand and ignore what’s going on, fine, but don’t pull a 180 and all of a sudden decide it’s MY fault. So there goes one friendship I guess. On the bright side, I’ve made some new friends out here, and I’m looking forward to tagging along with my best pal Hiisi while we drive Saija crazy! Hiisi is our Savannah Cat, and thinks he’s her boss. It’s HILARIOUS.

So this has been my life for the last few weeks. Airplane rides, scarfaces, reminiscing of the holidays, and planning for the future. And crazy people. Life would be boring without crazy people! I hope that everyone else has had a good time with their loved ones over the holidays, and enjoyed a wild new years eve. But the holidays are over now, so get back to work!