The best way to describe my opinion of the plot of the movie The Hurt Locker is as follows: imagine watching The Silence of the Lambs, except at inopportune dramatic moments the characters spring into a Bollywood song-and-dance number. Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter are inexplicably warbling in Hindi in his jail cell flanked by prancing elephants and choreographed dancers in lab coats. Then, it’s suddenly serious again, as if nothing had happened.
That said, when explaining the feeling of returning to the real world, there’s a part of the film that actually gets it completely right. Near the end, when Sergeant James can’t save the guy with the bomb locked to his body, the aftermath of the explosion and chaos suddenly cuts to a scene of James cleaning the gutters at his house, James wearing civilian clothes, James confused by the absurd plenty of a local supermarket. That is what it feels like.
My friends let me stay with them in a hotel in Anchorage on my first night home, and jet lag kept me awake and alert while two beers kept me almost dangerously intoxicated. I felt great—I felt nothing but hope and excitement. Within twenty-four hours, I had my truck out of storage and was scouting for a place to live. Within three days I had rented a house, and the absolute terror that I felt when I realized that I was sleeping unarmed gave me an indication that things might not be so easy.
In truth, the startled moments and the unease went away pretty quickly. The boredom, however, set in almost immediately upon returning to work, and though the month’s vacation that I spent in Washington, D.C. was a welcome reprieve, the frustrations of transitioning back to garrison life (and an office job) seemed overwhelming. I made up my mind that I was going to get out of the Army—the excitement was gone, the war seemed to be following an endless cycle, and my disappointment at the news was matched only by my desire to go back there, back to a place where I felt relevant.
I studied journalism in college, and it seemed an ideal profession to pursue. I fully intended to move to Kabul and start work as a freelancer. I contacted some old colleagues who worked in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. They had some great advice: first, don’t try to contact the Taliban yourself. Second, make sure you have a lot of money saved up. Third, don’t expect work in the wintertime—the war practically shuts down in Kabul. Expatriates and government wonks can be snotty, they said, and don’t expect a good nightlife.
Still, it sounded better than getting up at 5 a.m. every morning to stand in the inevitably freezing Alaskan air, to prepare legion PowerPoint slides for training meetings, training synch meetings, command and staff meetings, brigade air operations meetings and the like. In the span of two weeks of traveling back from the war zone that had become my home, I had gone from T.E. Lawrence to Milton Waddams.
During a speech at West Point, Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a comment that stuck with me: “Men and women in the prime of their professional lives, who may have been responsible for the lives of scores or hundreds of troops, or millions of dollars in assistance, or engaging or reconciling warring tribes, may find themselves in a cube all day reformatting PowerPoint slides. The consequences of this terrify me.’’
That was me, and there was nothing to be done. Nobody liked their jobs: that was the dirty secret of what coming home actually meant. The consequences that I experienced were: contempt, bitterness, despair and a desire to drink to excess on a regular basis. My work was unpleasantly simple and mundane. I’d spend my idle time in the office researching apartments for sale in Buenos Aires, townhouses for sale in Washington D.C. or organic farming cooperatives in (no joke) Nagorno-Karabakh. I’d spend my weekends hammered reading the depressing Afghanistan updates posted on the New York Times by C.J. Chivers or Dexter Filkins. I hated every minute of it, and I was ready to leave it all behind to go somewhere and do something real.
That is, until the morning that I checked my email and discovered that the Army’s Human Resources Command had corrected a clerical error it made in 2007: the terms of my enlistment had been updated, and the earliest date on which I could exit the military had shifted from June 2011 to May 2014. It was all my own fault, but the information I had received every time I queried had clearly stated 2011. So, heart-set on finding a new occupation, I instead found myself staring at the next four years and the implications therein. It didn’t help much that a girl had broken my heart a few weeks before. Everything seemed to be in free-fall. I would have deployed back to Afghanistan in a heartbeat if they had just let me.
And then, unbelievably, the opportunity to write this column arose. Then, two days after I received word that I had the chance to publish my story, a unique opportunity to deploy to Central America and work in humanitarian assistance for six months arose, too. Of course I accepted. Looking back on this past year, it’s easy to imagine that none of it had ever been in doubt, that it was always going to transpire this way, but honestly it’s terrifying to think about what might have happened if it hadn’t. No one who survived the war is a stranger to blind fate, to the abritrary nature that decides who lives or dies, and so there’s no reason to dwell on it. That was just how it was.
Sharing my story has been an absolute privilege, even if the story wasn’t always positive. I’ve been particularly thankful to receive messages from other soldiers, especially the ones who deployed with me and who recognized themselves in my writing. They are the most terrifying jury of my peers that I could possibly imagine, and I hope I’ve done right by what took place.
Finally, an update on what’s happened since I left:
My interpreters Tony and Santos (the interpreter who helped me with Abdulhaq) are still in Afghanistan and working for the coalition. I hope that they get their visas in Fiscal Year 2012, but I have no influence. We still keep in touch via Facebook, and though I can’t do much from here, I’m thankful that they’re safe.
I wrote Brian’s parents a letter after he died, and I have since become friends with them. They and their family adopted my detachment and sent us dozens of care packages throughout our deployment. They are the most generous and kind people I have ever met.
My soldier Tony, with whom I went on leave, got out of the Army and is now in training to be a locomotive engineer. He had a rough year, too, but things are getting better, he says. He lives in Atlanta, and I’m going to go see him one of these days.
Khan is still there and still working for the governor’s office. He had the governor’s spokesman write out an email that he dictated; he says his kids still ask him when they can come over to his friends’ house to play again. I’m still holding out hope that I will get to talk to him again. I tried calling him on Skype once, but the connection is terrible and my Pashto is not much better.
Governor Katawazai is now the deputy chief of the Afghan National Directorate of Security. I’m sure he’s doing alright. He is a canny survivor above all things.
My battalion commander has become a huge supporter of my writing, and is a voice of reason when I feel like I’m going insane. We were all more than lucky to have so conscientious a person in charge of us over there. He’s still in the Army for now.
Most of my soldiers from the compound have left the military. I don’t blame them; they saw the ill-lubricated gears of the war grinding on an hourly basis. I still talk to most of them, and I envision us all as aging, cranky vets at some distant reunion. Some of them are back in Afghanistan already. All of the ones who stayed in our battalion will be back by the end of this year. I worry about all of them.
I never saw Abdulhaq again. All of my experience gives me the impression that he probably held on to that letter. Maybe I’ll see it again someday. Maybe I’ll even see him. I’m enrolled in a program that will have me studying intensive Pashto soon, and with luck I’ll actually learn that language well enough to truly communicate what I want to say. I know I’d recognize him if we ever crossed paths.
A few days after I published the column about Shams ul-Haq and Syed ur-Rahman, I received word from Tony that their father had been captured and beheaded by the local insurgency. Not even religious leaders are safe in that conflict, and it was a sad reminder of just how fragile things really are over there.
I contacted both Tony and Santos and asked them if they could get in contact with the family. I know that they must have cousins and uncles who will provide for them—kinship is important above all else there—but they just lost their father, the head of the household and the only one employed. The boys are just two of eight kids. I wanted to see if I might be able to send some money: a thousand dollars to try and keep them on their feet for the time being.
It’s extraordinarily hard to wire money to Afghanistan, and so rather than sending it directly to the boys (whose personal information I didn’t really know), I asked Santos if I could wire it to him instead and have him deliver it in cash. Getting the particulars of his bank account took about a week’s worth of back-and-forth messages on Facebook. In the meantime, I had to attend the 2011 U.S. Army Maneuver Conference in Columbus, Georgia, where I encountered my old company commander—not the awful one, but rather the one for whom I served as a platoon leader before deployment.
Waiting in the hallway before whatever afternoon speech fell next on the schedule, I asked him what he thought of my plan. I told him that I figured it was my obligation: I make in a week what an Afghan family makes in a year, and if the interpreters give them the money, I know it’s not going to the insurgency. He unequivocally disapproved, and was angry that I would even suggest it. In his opinion, it was just a means of making myself feel righteous, and in truth they were going to either make it or starve to death, and the sooner they figured out which, the better. I asked him what kind of employment he expected a ten-year-old and a twelve-year-old to find. “I know plenty of ANA commanders who would love to have them as chai boys,” he said, making reference to the almost ubiquitous practice of child sex abuse and victimization that takes place among Afghans. Almost everyone I know who’s deployed there has some story of encountering it.
All around us in the re-purposed ironworks of a convention center were defense contractor booths hawking new technologies: new optics for snipers, new drone aircraft, new camouflage, new armed combat vehicles, new assault rifles, new mortar tubes, new munitions, new armaments. The networking and glad-handing taking place between the lines in this conference would clearly lead to new acquisitons, to billions of dollars changing hands between the Department of Defense and the familiar names like Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems, General Dynamics, the companies whose skyscrapers loom over Arlington, Virginia and line the capitol like medieval siege towers. When the irony of the scene struck me, the solution became obvious. I sent the money.