The other night, I said goodbye to the medical unit that I had grown close with over the past couple of months. Because most things in the Army transpire during hours where most reasonable people would be sleeping, I found myself waiting in their holding tent well into the evening hours. Friends and colleagues came in and out of the tent throughout the evening to bid their farewells. I knew, however, that I would be there for the long haul. I wanted to watch as the buses drove away-- the beginning of their long odyssey home.
In some ways, my parting vigil was quite the pastoral choice. It’s not that there was a lot of talk about God, though there was some, or that anyone really needed me to sit there for hours as they waited for their transportation to the airport. Between IPADs, card games, books, and laptops, entertainment abounded. Nonetheless, I couldn’t conceive not being present for these last few hours because, mostly likely, it would be the last hours I would ever spend with most of them. It is a strange feeling knowing that a chapter of one’s life is moments away from being closed forever, never to be revisited or recreated. Once they drove off our camp, there would be no coming back here. This place and many of its people will live on only in memory, shadows of a past world never to be experienced again. This passage, a passing away of sorts, was too significant for me to miss.
I realized, as I waited and the dreaded hour of departure crept closer, that I wasn’t there with them, past my bedtime, because of my job as a chaplain. My love had grown far beyond my work. Over the weeks and months, some of us had shared unique friendship which contributed greatly to our quality of life. A place like this is not made most bearable because of cozy accommodations or desirable food, though these things help if and when they exist. A place like this becomes some version of home and life because of the people whose hearts share in this same sojourn, however brief. One might ask how it is possible to really love someone having only really known them for a handful of days and weeks. It is a fair question for which I have no rational explanation. But, regardless of rationale, it happens. When we allow for it, love is always possible.
It was well after midnight when the last soldiers boarded the buses. After final hugs and goodbyes, only a few of us remained standing in the rocky parking lot. The buses had not begun to pull away, but their doors were closed. This was it. Yet, the four of us, two doctors, a nurse, and me who would be staying in Afghanistan longer to finish our respective deployments, couldn’t walk away, not while these soldiers were still with us. I suggested that we wave from the street and another pointed out that it was too dark for us to be seen. Suddenly, we realized that the best place to say our last goodbye was at the gate of camp, where the lights were bright. It was also symbolic. It was a point of departure from this deployment as well as the threshold of their new beginning.
Chaplains and medical officers are not known for adhering to much military bearing. I am sure, if the Command Sergeant Major had looked out his window at a quarter to 1AM and witnessed our motley crew scrambling through the dark, hoping to get to the gate before the buses, he would have retired early. Neither the ice nor the negative temperatures could deter us. The senior officer, a Colonel who had been around the Army longer than all of rest of us put together, decided that we would simply give them a final salute as they passed through the gate and turned the corner onto the road away from us. There would be no waving, only our salute, a timeless gesture of respect and honor. We stood there, waiting and freezing. Even I wondered if we had all lost our minds.
As they approached, though, it became apparent that there was no other place in the world more important than where we were. The command to present “arms” was called and we stood at attention, “arms” raised. As people in the bus noticed us, faces pressed up against the window, catching one last glimpse of this season of their lives. Between the smiles and waves, we knew that we had made the right decision. There was no better way to say goodbye.
I have heard when they arrived in the United States that they were greeted by groups of veterans, brothers and possibly even sisters in arms from years gone by. They had come to offer their own salutes and welcome our soldiers home. I can’t help but also wonder if they had come to catch a glimpse of who they once were, many seasons ago, when they made their journey home from war. They would have been young and strong then. They would have been deeply touched by what they had been required to do. They would have been hoping that being a part of something much bigger than themselves, whatever the powers-that-be named it, would, in the end, be worth the loss they had suffered and the scars that they would carry permanently with them. I wonder, too, if veterans gather for homecomings because they know something that those in the beginning of their journey home do not yet know, that strength comes through the presence of others who have also walked this road, of people past, present, and to come with whom we become inextricably bound.
Individuals wear this uniform for countless reasons, too many to recount tonight. But, to wear it, even for one season, is to become a part of a unique family where strangers often greet one another as friends, where a raise of a hand to salute stands for honor and respect. But, the salute is not just to the person of higher rank or even about adhering to military protocol. It is also about honor and respect for all- people, experiences, and whole years of life- that has passed away and all that still will.