Specialist Christopher Robinson is a member of the Iowa Army National Guard who will be deployed to Afghanistan during 2010 and 2011. Throughout the course of his deployment, he will send reflections on his experience as a soldier in a controversial military engagement.
The Eve of Deployment
Sunlight rides low on the wall, making the room glow gold. I’ve been packing all day, and my ruck is still empty. That’s one of the things we call our backpacks in the Army: rucksacks, or assault packs. Rolled-up pairs of pants lie next to piles of sandy brown t-shirts and faded socks. They are all ready to stuff my rucksack, which is still dirty from the last deployment. Instead of actually packing, though, I’ve been going through my phone and sending texts to old acquaintances, knowing most of them won’t reply. I did this last time I left too. I’m not sure what I’m hoping for, but it seems like something that needs to be done. Sending the texts and waiting for non-responses takes the entire day. I look outside and watch the streetlights come on. Finally I find the motivation to load the bag. First the clothes, stacked vertically for easy access. Second, a dark brown folder containing all the legal papers I might need, tied tight with string: copies of my orders, DD214s, powers of attorney, and my will. All of these are in triplicate, of course. Last come the things that remind me of civilization, those things that I will need to survive a year away from home: laptop computer, iPod, and notebook.
My partner Jessi has left me to my work for most of the day, coming upstairs only to check on me. When she offers me food and drink, I can see that she has been crying. Her gaze is steady, but the red in her eyes gives her away.
“I’ll be done in a minute. It looks worse than it is,” I tell her. She nods and walks away. As the creaking of the stairs grows fainter, I feel smaller than I have ever felt. Tomorrow I will put on my uniform, be issued a weapon, and assume the role of the larger-than-life soldier from the commercials: crisp uniform and broad shoulders, accompanied by a soundtrack of hard-rock music or soaring instrumentals. But there will never be a commercial of that picture-perfect soldier saying goodbye to a forlorn wife and hysterical kids. There will never be a commercial showing how small I feel the night before deployment – not because I’m afraid, but because of what I have to leave behind.
Jessi and I had plans to go out for drinks tonight, but we are already an hour late. I’m finding it hard to leave the house. What do you do on your last night in the real world? She says we’ll do whatever I want. Nothing seems appropriate, but we still have to do something. I suppose drinks will be fine.
Jessi falls asleep before I do. The entire city of Ames is sleeping, but I cannot. I’m thinking instead about all the questions I’ve spent the last month answering. I cannot fathom how many times I’ve explained where I’m going, how long I’ll be gone, what a “full spectrum mission” is, what I think of the political situation, what the food is like. I’ve received both promises of prayer and admonishments to take pictures and write home. I heard all of this, and answered these questions so often that I forgot to think about the things that really matter: the warmth of Jessi’s skin pressed against mine in the night, the smell of vetiver and lavender in her hair, the look of satisfaction in her eyes when I smile. How do I remind her that I love her from nine thousand miles away? I hope that the mail will be constant, and that this will be the most uneventful year of my life. I think about the fact that I will never sleep in this bed or this room again. Jessi is selling the house while I’m gone, and when I come back it will be to a new home, and a new bed, and at last I am able to fall asleep.
In the morning she cooks me the best breakfast she can, which is pretty good, considering we’ve been too busy to buy groceries. I sit still and eat at the place she’s set for me, though my heart is racing. I know I risk being late to the ceremony, but I want to focus on enjoying this last meal with her. I try to be inconspicuous when I look at the clock.
It’s time. I check all the rooms in the house, again, to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, and to just look at them one last time. My boots sound heavy on the hardwood floor. I tell Jessi I will see her in a couple of hours at the sendoff, and I step out the door. She follows me into the street, barefoot and wearing one of my PT shirts emblazoned with the reflective letters A-R-M-Y.
Tomorrow I will be in Mississippi. A month later, California. Some time after that, Afghanistan. I’m not sure what to think about it all, or how to feel. All I know is that it’s time to go.
A large white curtain separates the one hundred and forty soldiers of Alpha and Bravo Troops from the crowd assembled at the steamy high school gymnasium for our sendoff ceremony. A black carpet forms an aisle down the length of the gym floor. We are in formation, Alpha and Bravo across the black carpet from one another, invisible to the crowd. We cannot see anyone through the curtain, but we can hear the drone of their voices and the cries of infants. A group of bagpipers stands behind us, ready to play as we march forward. A horse enters the room through a door behind us. I recognize the horse as Blonde. Her owner, Sgt. Weed, rides her between the lines of soldiers, ready to lead our formation forward. It would be a lie to say that I don’t get caught up in the pageantry like everybody else. Sgt. Weed cuts an impressive figure as he rides into the gymnasium in a Civil War cavalryman’s uniform. It’s a silly thing for the Army to do, but it is nevertheless a spectacular sight. He addresses us as though he were a ghost from the past, and concludes: “Take care of yourselves, but most importantly take care of each other. Be safe. Come home. We will be waiting for you.”
I tense as the bagpipes hum and crescendo, and the curtain parts, displaying an ever-wider view of family, friends, and other well-wishers. Every soldier’s child and every soldier’s pregnant wife have been given a white teddy bear. I’m surprised by how many there are. We snap to attention and march, following Sgt. Weed, his sabre drawn and presented. The crowd rises to its feet as the pipers play “Cadence to Arms.” There’s an overwhelming swell of noise and emotion. Finally I feel a sense of pride and excitement about my role in the deployment. The pipers stop piping, the troops stop marching, and the crowd sits down. The gymnasium is quiet, and the heartsick sinking feeling from earlier returns.
We endure remarks by half a dozen speakers. Most of us neither know nor care who is speaking or what they say. Our job right now is simple: to stand still and look like well-trained soldiers. After the mayor, the congressman, the governor’s wife, the mayor’s whatever, the Congressman’s whoever, and all the other important people finish talking, we are dismissed from formation and given 30 more minutes to spend with our families. Each minute seems weightier under these circumstances. There is no appropriate thing to do or say, so I try to speak as though I’m not leaving, asking how my family has been and what they’ll be doing this year. My father talks business: car payments, insurance premiums, housing allowances. I nod uh-huh, uh-huh, while I hold Jessi as close as I can. Letting go of her hands is the last thing I want to do, the moment I dread the most.
The call comes: load up. I am ready, mostly. I hug my family – mother, father, grandmother, sister, aunts, and uncles – and pull Jessi to a corner to be alone for a moment in this crowd. There is nothing left to say. Our eyes talk for us. I love her. We kiss one last time and we say goodbye. She tries not to cry. So do I.
The buses lumber slowly out of the high school parking lot, passing the crowd amassed to see us off. I can’t help but feel like a swimmer in rough seas, watching the shoreline disappear in the distance. As I’d raced to the school earlier this morning, I had felt sick, like my body needed to somehow voice its objection to this departure. That feeling returns as I scan the anxious faces of the people we are leaving behind. The hardest part is passing Jessi, who is doing her best to comfort the other women.
Once we’re on the road, everything starts to sink in. There is an air of uneasy excitement. Most of the guys had vowed to sleep through the sixteen-hour drive, but no one can relax enough. I’m surrounded by my old friends, the guys who served in Iraq with me, who have already established a history with me. We talk about the future and Afghanistan with skepticism. Everything we say is a joke, as though any harsh truths we stumble onto might be blunted by the dark humor we have developed over our years of service. We joke about how scarce information is and how little we know about what we are getting into. All we know for sure is that we are going.
The sick feeling fades again, and I can finally believe this is happening.