On the evening of March 7, 2003, I led my wife out the front door of our small three-bedroom home, up our slightly sloped driveway, and into the middle of two empty, intersecting streets that met into a perfect, perpendicular cross at our driveway. The asphalt beneath my toes was cool, and jagged. The distant streetlamps were blown out like matches in the cruel wind, and the twinkling stars that shone through the streaking clouds above provided the only light. The air was crisp and the night was quiet, like the stillness of an early morning pond. It seemed that normal life in our usually bustling neighborhood had ceased to exist—for the week that led to this night, cars were not driven, children did not go outside to play, and wives refused to leisure in the gardens of their half-empty homes. We lived in an off-base neighborhood dominated by military families, and I was the last to leave.
With my wife’s hand in mine, I pointed into the sky at whatever recognizable but unknowable groups of stars were visible above us. Robyn turned to look into my eyes; I told her when she was unbearably lonely at night, and missed me, to look into the sky at the stars we saw at that moment. I wanted her to know that when she looked into the sky, I would be doing the same, from the other side of the world. After a few solemn and wordless moments with her hand in mine, I led her back down the slightly sloped driveway, and into our small three-bedroom home. I finished my half-empty rum and coke, and went to bed with my wife at my side, thinking silently, and despairingly of the following morning.
Saturday, March 8, 2003, is the morning I left for Iraq. My bags were packed into our only car—an old hand-me-down from the in-laws that had been towed from California to Kentucky by an even older motor home. My hair was freshly cut; my sideburns were expertly trimmed; my face was scraped clean by an old razor, and I took the last hot shower I would know for months. Out of the shower, I rechecked that I had everything: my dry-cleaned and pressed Desert Combat Uniform rested carefully on the dresser, with my tan boots sitting neatly on the ground below. As was the grunt custom, not knowing the next chance to change underwear, I did without them. I had my government issued ID card, my identification and red allergy tags, my Army Values card, and my Humvee license inside my left breast pocket. Most importantly, I had my most cherished memento, a scotch-tape laminated piece of paper with a pencil-drawn, stick figure portrait of my family smiling in front of our small, three-bedroom home. I was as physically ready as possible to leave love and life behind for the uncertainty and horrors of war. Mentally, none of it yet seemed real.
We drove onto post through Gate Six, past the run-down billeting for the families of the junior-enlisted. Every door was shut; every window and curtain was closed. Deer wandered the deserted streets, picking at the grass in the front yards and doorsteps of empty homes whose wives had left for the company of family in other places. An invisible but stale air of absence glided over the fingertips of my outstretched hand through the passenger window. Continuing past the 2nd and 3rd Brigade gyms, and their empty parking lots, we saw no soldiers walking about, and no cars on the roads; it was like a ghost town until we drove into the 502nd Infantry parking lot.
There is no such thing as a goodbye when the deployment orders to war say “one-hundred and eighty days, to not less than three-hundred and sixty-five.” I knew that when I left, our dog would sit by the front door, moping, and awaiting my non-return. She always hated when I packed the big, green bags, and left for a week or more at a time. Deployments aren't just one day leaving for a year. Most people are amiss that the summer and winter before the deployment were spent in training, not knowing when, but preparing for when anyway. Usually, we were gone for a week at a time, every other week for months. Occasionally, we came home for weekends, drank until we passed out, then left again early the next Monday for more training.
Later that evening, Headquarters Company and Bravo Company 2/502 Infantry flew out of Campbell Army Airfield on a commercial 737, enduring a one-stop, seventeen-hour flight to Kuwait International Airport. On the evening of March 9, 2003, at Camp New York, in the Kuwaiti desert, I looked into the sky, seeing the same recognizable but unknowable constellations that I saw from my own street two nights previous. They looked contorted and upside down from the other side of the globe. I thought of my wife, wondering how she would get through the next year without me. Had she looked into the sky the way I was at that moment? It had only been two days in our eighteen-month young marriage, and it would be another ten days before I crossed the border into Iraq.
The war had begun.
* * *
In the summer of 2002, I graduated from the 13F Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and reported to my first duty assignment at the 101st Airborne (Air Assault), Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Eager to make a good first impression, I focused on the little details I was told in training that a good soldier should be. My hair was short, and trimmed to a nice medium fade. You could literally floss your teeth in the mirror black polish on my boots. My Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) was skillfully pressed, and my de-fuzzed beret was worn with the air and confidence of a grizzled veteran. I studied the training and field manuals (FM, TM) for my Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), and although apprehensive, was excited to meet my platoon.
That summer, the 82nd Airborne was fighting in Afghanistan. Consequently, the surplus Artillery ammunition for training originally allocated to them was redirected to the 101st, in an effort to quickly train up for the possibility of going to war in Iraq. We spent that summer in the field, calling fire, qualifying with our weapons, and performing various field-training exercises (FTX) with both the Infantry and Artillery. Our Brigade shot more artillery rounds that summer than they had in the previous decade.
The pace didn’t slow down that winter; we continued to train in the field through rain and snow. During the Brigade Field Training Exercise (BDE FTX), I missed my first anniversary, an unfortunate event that occurred annually. I also got my Air Assault Wings after successfully completing the Army’s Joe Sabalauski Air Assault School. In February came days of snow mixed with days of eighty-degree temperatures. War-mongering assholes left and right were scaring us into the mood of expecting an impending deployment announcement. Of course, we were all aware of Saddam’s actions on the international front, and the puffed up words of our commander “America 6.” Still, it was a shock when CNN broke word that the famous 101st Airborne had been ordered to deploy to Southwest Asia.
That evening, close of business formation (COB) was a huge let down. A whole Battery of Joe’s were sunken into despair, while senior NCO’s were parading around with their heads held high, excited for the chance to blitz into battle. Conversely, what a funny, faggot-liberal, hippie Californian I was to cherish life! The formation was a wreckitude of false “hooah.” We would all be hitting the bottle that night, afraid of the realization of our worst fears. We walked away with our heads low, distracted by thoughts young men full of ambition and a full life ahead of them should never face. It had nothing to do with confidence in our skills and abilities and training. The war just didn’t feel right, and none of us was prepared to selflessly lay down our lives for an unjust war in Iraq.
Before driving home that night, I walked upstairs from the formation into the barracks with a buddy. He was a veteran of a six-month deployment to Kosovo the year previous, and knew the rigors and demands that would be asked of us. On any given day of the week, the barracks would normally be teeming with drunken noise. Down the dirty tiled third-floor hall, music would blast from open doors. Halo LAN-parties would extend from room to room in celebration of another day of shamming. But on the night of the day we were alerted, the mood was unusually subdued. Bottles of Jim Beam were not being passed around—everyone had his own. My friend walked over to his stereo with his two Bose loudspeakers, and dug through his book of CD’s. He pulled out an old favorite, and said: "Dude, we’re gonna fucking die.”
Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches at black masses
Evil minds that plot destruction
Sorcerers of deaths construction
In the fields the bodies burning
As the war machine keeps turning
Death and hatred to mankind
Poisoning their brainwashed minds, oh lord yeah!