I wrote most of this a couple of weeks ago but didn’t get a chance to review it before posting; hence, the delay. Now back to my leave.
Getting out of the Middle East went faster than expected. My unit was scheduled to sit in Kuwait for about four to five days killing time until we could catch a flight to Fort Bliss. The gods were on our side that day as we were directed to a customs briefing when we arrived at Camp Arifjan, which indicated we were out of there that night.
This was a morale builder that our unit needed. Toward the end of our time in Iraq, the littlest things would cause friction between the soldiers: a funny look, a faulty assumption or the wrong odor. Anything was a potential instigator, especially if it involved the commander. He earned the nickname “The Common Denominator” during our deployment because of his connection to every problem in the unit whether it was spreading rumors of sexual impropriety or the creation of hypocritical policies about religious expression like “no discussing religion in the building” after he finishes read scripture to us in formation.
Regardless, we were on our way out of Kuwait and things were looking up. Since we are a small 20-man unit, we were slipped onto an aircraft with a unit from the Texas Guard.
This was a long torturous journey, but well worth it. Our first leg stopped in Germany. I’d been to this airport a few times before. It is a regular stop when returning home on leave and heading into theater. Stepping off that plane there was the the first time going home felt real. I shuttered from the change in temperature. It was less than a day prior that my skin was stinging from the heat in Iraq. Now, the chill of Northern Europe was soothing and came with a sense of peace.
The only downside to stopping there is the torment that comes from shopping in the two stores there. They sell sell two basic products: candy and beer. Boy did that beer look good, but we were still under General Order No. 1, which meant we weren’t allowed to drink. “No beer” is one of Joes’ favorite things to bitch about and, after serving with the Brits who stop off in Cyprus to get loaded and beat the crap out of each other before they get home, I was a little disapointed myself.
Back on the plane, we stopped in Bangore, Maine, to refuel before landing at Fort Bliss in the middle of the night.
Bliss lived up to its name. It must have been 20 to 30 degrees cooler than Iraq and yet it is still a desert. It must have rained prior to our arrival because the smell of freshly moistened desert floor permeated the area. That’s got to be my favorite smells, which stirred nostalgia for me that day. Bliss was my first duty station on active duty in 2000 and that’s where I learned the majority of what I know about newspapers, public affairs and the Army. It’s still a great post and my former boss Jean Offutt is still there telling the Army story.
As we entered the reception building, we were greeted with a shot in the arm and a paper thermometer under the tongue. The shot was for Tuberculosis – or some traditional ailment – and the temperature read was tied to the hippest new fad in medicine: Swine Flu. I didn’t have a curly tail, or a temperature, so I was a “go.”
It was about three days later that we finally got to go home, minus four medical holds. When a soldier checks the box that says “I want a doctors apointment” when filling out their exit interview, they get to stay at the de-mob station for a couple of days. Most of us wanted to see our families more than we wanted to get fixed.
Arriving in Phoenix was interesting. There was a dog and pony show waiting for us outside as we carried our gear to the bus. Those who greeted us then got onto their motorbikes and escorted us to the armory where we would receive a homecoming from the Guard, media and, more importantly, our families. Normally I would discount this hoopla treatment as mindless jingoism, but a couple of years ago I joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars. My deployment was a big deal to a lot of those guys. They threw a big party for me before I left and many tears were shed. I’m not sure if it was because they were having memories of Vietnam, or if they were drunk. Regardless, they were concerned for my welfare and they considered me a brother in arms. Their feelings were not just romantic notions of war. They were genuine sentiments from people who cared. It was very touching to me and made me appreciate their heartfelt support.
I feel that it is important for me to clarify one point about patriotism these days. I get it when Vets want to shake our hands. They can relate to our experiences. What I don’t respect are the patriotic gestures of non-military people, or people who feel like they “know what we’ve been through.” All of our experiences are different, some of which are uneventful. It hits us all in different ways. I’ve interviewed and chatted with hundreds of Iraq War vets and they all have unique stories. I just don’t appreciate the fake attitude that comes off as “See, I’m a patriot. I kissed a soldier’s ass today and said ‘thank you’. Can I get a latte with that?” It just doesn’t work for me. It’s hard to be fake back to that person and make them believe, “Yeah, I give a shit about what you think.” I’m not talking about people who are friendly and smile at us, those who are curious about us or those who understand the role of the military. They usually say, “It’s good to have you back,” and leave it at that. I’m talking about the civilians who say “thank you for protecting my family over there.” This is a slap in the face, in my opinion. People who say that are so far removed from reality, or so brainwashed by today’s political ideologies, that they have no idea what they are talking about. Iraq didn’t attack us, they didn’t have weapons capable of attacking us and the only thing we managed to do was destroy what civility they had and anger many of them to the point of responding to us with violence any way they could. We might have something to fear from them now, but we didn’t in the beginnging. Containment worked. Arrogance failed.
Now that we are home it will be weird to go back to our regular drilling routine. The last time this unit “deployed” it went to Tampa, Fla., for a year and to the Olympics in Utah prior to that. This was the first time it went to war that I am aware of, and yet it seems like there was more of an internal threat to our soldiers than from the opposition forces in Iraq. We will see if any damage was done next time we get together. In the mean time, we will enjoy our families again and, for me, that means my wife and new son.