With two weeks before I, along with 200 the other soldiers of the 14th MI BN, board a flight to Afghanistan, I have realized that I can no longer postpone certain line items on my “to do” list. This list, comprised mostly of banality like “suspend Verizon wireless coverage,” “find the house slippers accidentally put in the storage unit,” “take off the toe nail polish dating back to last April,” etc, also includes “establish a blog.” With my days slipping away, I decided today is the day to begin.
Over the past few weeks, I have wondered just how to start this process. I have read plenty of blogs and have never wanted to write one, but anticipating this upcoming year in Afghanistan has caused a change of heart. I have been connected formally to the military since 2002 when I signed my ROTC contract while an undergrad at Duke, but this is the first time in all of the years since that I will deploy. Many of my friends and family have been through other milestones in my military career: basic training woes, jump school concussion stories, and even the process of answering a call to Army chaplaincy. Deploying to Afghanistan is another story altogether and seems to warrant deeper reflection on my part. I am hoping that by making my experiences, thoughts, daily struggles and joys publicly accessible, I may offer an opportunity for raised awareness of the issues and realities many, soldiers and civilians alike, are facing in Afghanistan after a decade of war.
In the coming weeks, as I write my thoughts on our preparation and departure and then as I enter my life as a chaplain based out of the largest detention center facility in Afghanistan run by the US government, my blog will likely evolve to include a few pictures and stylistic features. For now, though, it will remain “under construction.” If I waited for a completed “blog” product before I wrote my first entry, I may have never written a word.
Appropriately, I begin both my blog and my year of deployment, having little clue what to expect but still knowing that there will be plenty of work in which to engage. If this next year is anything like the last months of training before deploying, I will have my hands very full. It is the good kind of full, at least on most days. That my office is often buzzing with soldiers who are rummaging for homemade cookies or brownies baked and shipped by friends in Maryland or occupied by a soldier who needs simply to talk to someone about the difficulties of transitioning post deployments, divorce, and moving many miles away from family, I am grateful. I definitely don’t want to eat all of those cookies alone and am aware that without stable community, the chaplain is sometimes the one person a soldier has to go to in the midst of crisis. I have been surprised when, on a first meeting or encounter, a soldier feels comfortable sharing stories of pain or vulnerability. I have realized that my office and company is one of few places of safety where a person whose job requires strength and courage, has the space to admit and wrestle with fear, anxiety, disappointment, and grief.
I want to close this first entry with two stories from this past weekend. If anything, the range of these reflections may indicate just what my readers should expect from me over the next year-- a true spectrum of emotions and depictions.
Friday, 7 OCT 2011-
A trip to public storage: a reminder that even the best Army training cannot make up for all that I missed not becoming a Girl Scout. I may be “always prepared” for a lipstick crisis or a hair snafu requiring bobby pins and travel sized mousse, being raised in the south with a former cheerleader as a mother, but rarely, if ever, do I remember to carry emergency flashlights and spelunking gear in case of an emergency deep within the bowels of my storage unit. Perhaps last friday’s “incident” is gentle preparation for what I may need to be prepared for around “camp” in Bagram.
I realized early last week that I had no kevlar helmet to go under the “multi-cam” helmet cover that was issued to me last month on a day trip to Ft. Hood. I figured, erroneously, that I would get a new helmet for Afghanistan since the one I have has probably been in service since at least the early 80s. I guess they never go bad or out of fashion, but still, my brain is important to me. Nonetheless, if I wanted to avoid telling my commander that I forgot or lost my helmet, I needed to retrieve it from storage. For all of you out there with storage units, you probably don’t need to read any further. You know where this helmet retrieval story is going. Obviously, when we need to find something in a tightly packed, dark space, it is going to be in the furtherest, least accessible corner.
My first lesson for Afghanistan, always tell SOMEONE where you are going, in case you get stuck and need to be rescued. Trying to visualize gymnastics moves of years gone by, I mounted my couch which was at least 10 feet tall on its side to make more space for other household items. My weight lifting finally paid off and I was able to balance with one foot on top of a stack of boxes of books (stable, yes), but teetering perilously close to another box labeled “VERY fragile.” Upon clearing the couch, the lights in the hallway which work on a timer, went off. In the dark, standing on one foot and knowing that a false move could cause the destruction of my precious pink china which I had just lugged across the country, I saw little hope. Good thing I am a trained soldier. Giving up was not an option. So what if it was dark, I had the use of only one foot, and needed to lift and relocate multiple boxes of books and clothes in order to find my hemet that was probably used last by an extra on MASH, I had no choice but to keep at it.
The good news is, I found my helmet and only incurred a few minor bruises. I will think twice before leaving home or my houch (what we call our rooms at the camp) without a pocket sized flashlight and smoke signals in case I find myself in a similar sticky situation.
Sunday, 9 OCT 2011-
Last night, the family I am living with in San Antonio in these weeks before deploying (Kelly, John, Clare, and David... all good Presbyterians!) hosted a dinner which included a man who recently spent a year in Afghanistan doing work on conflict resolution with the Army and local Afghan tribal leaders. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to ask questions about life in Afghanistan. Toward the end of the evening, though, another guest asked me whether or not I was afraid about being deployed.
The source of fear is not always easy to locate. When I have talked to my soldiers about their anxiety and fear, most of them, myself included, have not named our deployment as culpable. Separation from family and friends, perhaps, and even the knowledge that for a whole year, our lives will not be our own but always monitored and regulated by the powers-that-be, this is all worthy of alleviated stress, but Afghanistan... not really. After all, we are going to be at a secured facility and will scarcely if ever leave its protection. Many of our brothers and sisters in arms do not have that security. It seems weak to admit fear, when in the scheme of the war in Afghanistan, we will have it pretty easy.
Regardless of where our mission falls on the spectrum of risk, we are headed to a combat zone and there are no guarantees. We can prepare and train for everything we know about, but the unknowns still lurk dangerously over the horizon. This is true for all of us whether we face a deployment or just another day of life where none of us know the number of hours, days, and years that we will enjoy. Boarding a plane for war is a stark reminder of the fragile and fleeting nature of life. We cannot fully control or secure our lives or the lives of our loved ones, and so we are left to cope with all that we can’t know.
There are many things that I fear, raw chicken at the top of the list! But, these past three years of ministry have helped me to grasp more deeply the promises that God has made to each of us. Whether it was standing around a grave in South Africa, watching members of my church sing praises to a God who grants life to us even in the midst of death or being reminded that even into the unknown places and paths where we are called to go and serve, God is always with us, I face this next year and, perhaps more significantly, my life, holding on to these promises.
About a year ago, preparing for Advent, I ran across a Henri Nouwen quote which has helped reorient me when I have felt my trust slipping. Nouwen said, “When you pray with hope, you turn yourself toward a God who will bring forth his promises; it is enough to know that He is a faithful God.” It is with this in mind that I prepare to go in just two weeks. There may be much that is unknown, but with this knowledge of God’s presence with us wherever it is that we go, what more do we really need to know.