When Soldiers say Goodbye
In movies, we often see the tear-filled moments when soldiers leave on deployment or are re-deploying from a mid-tour leave; when watching the soldiers leaving, the loved ones are usually crying while the warfighter remains calm and stoic, giving his loved ones a rock to lean on. What about after that; what about the time between the car and the plane? Whether it is sitting on the flight line waiting to board for a first deployment or sitting in the International Terminal of an airport to re-deploy from mid-tour leave on the tenth deployment, those minutes can feel like the longest minutes in life.
If you haven’t read my previous blogs, then stop reading this one and do it! I am kidding, kind of. To give you some of those who haven’t some background, I am a veteran of the United States Army Infantry. I have two combat deployments, one to Iraq and another to Afghanistan. Each was a yearlong with a fifteen-day leave in the middle. I have personally experienced the moments I mentioned above, and so with Veteran’s Day around the corner, I thought I would share a little insight into those unspoken minutes.
Now obviously, I cannot speak for every soldier, so if you are a soldier reading this and thinking, “That’s not how I felt at all.” Then send me an email telling me how you felt, then write your own blog. The night before, a deployment is generally spent on the phone talking to significant others, family members, or close friends, saying things like T -8 hours, thought I would call and check-in. A few buddies and I went out to dinner, laughed, and joked about the probable shit show the next day was going to be like, while also allowing our minds a few moments of peace before the realization of what was happing had time to set. After dinner, we went back to our now sterile rooms, in the barracks, to get some rest. I had said all my in-person goodbyes while on pre-deployment leave, so I just made some calls to check-in. After several beers and completing my calls, it was now just me and my half-drunken brain alone together. I can assure you most of my unit did not sleep a wink that night. The anticipation of finally putting our training to the test, the anxiety of the unknown, the curiosity of whether we are as good as we think we are, and the excitement of going on a life-changing journey were all a mixed cocktail guaranteed to ensure a sleepless night. While on the phone, though, none of those emotions shown through. No, I couldn’t show hesitations or doubt. I had to be confident and sure that I was the best, and no other fighting force could stand against my guys and me.
When we boarded the busses that would take us to the flight line the next morning, there was an uneasy murmur amongst the passengers. No one was really talking, just some deep sighs, the hum of earphones buzzing with music, and stares out the window. The mind was back and now sober with more challenging thoughts. It sinks in, “I am an infantryman; I am not going over there to play video games and experience the happy ending seen at the end of a movie.” No, your mind pierces through those joyful thoughts with the unadulterated truth, life rarely has a happy ending; that’s why we go to movies to get away from real life. So my mind starts giving every possible finish at breathtaking speed, and most of the endings were not great. There are worse things than death, and the mind can reveal all of them.
When we arrived at the Air Field terminal, we put all our duffle bags and rucksacks on pallets and shuffled through a corridor of screens where we received our last-minute shots. Things like Anthrax boosters, Penicillin, Small Pox, and so on. We moved closer to the flight line with every step, and every step drew us nearer to our unknown fate. Then we emerged into this wide-open waiting area where we could see our rides sitting on the Tarmac. Two huge 747s were sitting there with their noses pointing towards us like boatsmen eager to carry us to the underworld. Now volunteers were selected and ordered to the flight line to load baggage onto the plane. I remember thinking, “Really, we have to load our own luggage; this must be what it’s like to have to dig your own grave.” Just when the hour of departure was arriving, we were notified of a delay; we now had 12 more hours to wait. We would break up into our familiar cliques and pass the time. Finally, we boarded, and the medics passed out the Ambien, and a few minutes later, I was asleep. By the time I woke up, we had landed in Germany, and all the anxiety had passed.
Fast forward about four months, and I am going through an abbreviated version of the above events. I was returning to Iraq after a mid-tour leave, and my father and brother were dropping me off at Dallas, Fort Worth International Airport, Terminal D. We had a going-away party the day before and had once again had the goodbyes. However, only my father and brother took me to the airport because other family members felt it would be too hard to repeat goodbye, and deep down, I was glad they had made that decision. My strength was waning, and I was fearful my face might soon start to show the anxiety building. I exited my brother’s Chevy Suburban grabbed my bag, hugged my brother; I could hear him trying to hold back tears, unsuccessfully; I told him, “I’ll be alright; it’s going to take a lot more than a guy in a dress and flip flops to kill me.” He chuckled, gave one last squeeze, and let go, then turned and walked to the driver’s seat. I turned to my father, he shook my hand, told me to keep my head down, and that he loved me, which may have been the first time I had ever heard him say that. I responded with, “It’s hard to see the enemy with my head down.” With that, he simply smiled, but he knew what I was doing. I was lightening the mood to project calm, put them at ease, and mask my nerves. I turned away from them and headed to the escalator to go up to the departure desk. About halfway up, I turned and watched as my brother and father drove away, feeling alone, nervous, and once again anxious. Only now I knew what I was returning to, and I didn’t really want to go back. To this day, part of me thinks if my brother and father had touched the brakes, I would have run back down the escalator and jumped back in. Still, I had a sacred duty, and I knew that there was no walking away from it, so when I got to the top of the escalator, I marched to the gate counter and handed the lady my orders, I could feel my legs shaking, but at least my hands weren’t. She gave me a smile and pointed me towards the chairs; I went and sat down, and once again, I was waiting.
As I sat there, more and more soldiers began to show up, although none I knew personally. About an hour before departure, high school students from Aledo High School arrived to show us off. While I understand their intentions were good, but I must admit it wasn’t very well received. They were asking questions like, “Are you excited?” or, “What is it like over there?” Just when I had settled in with my anxiety, I had to throw the mask back on and try to answer their questions with confidence and pride. Once they left, the feelings of being alone and missing my family came rushing back in. I didn’t throw up as it shows so often in the movies, but I did start to shake and had to hold on to my belt to keep the shaking in my hands from showing. Finally, we boarded the plane, and like a light switch, those emotions were turned off, and I was able to focus on the future objectives, and before we took off, I was already asleep. From the things I heard while in the military, some of the most frequent times for soldiers to go AWOL, absent without leave, is right before a deployment or right before re-deploying from mid-tour leave. I have not yet seen these moments talked about or shown from a soldier’s point of view in movies or other media types. It is possible because it is something soldiers rarely talk about, either because we forget about them or don’t want to show the world our moments of weakness. But here it is as I experienced it these two times, which the other times were relatively the same. So this Veteran’s Day, when you see a veteran and go to thank them for their service, keep this in mind; for some, the most challenging thing was when, as a soldier, they had to say goodbye.