Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Groundhog's Shadow: A Friend Comes Home on Leave

Their Frailty

He’s got a Blighty wound. He’s safe; and then

War’s fine and bold and bright.

She can forget the doomed and prisoned men

Who agonize and fight.

He’s back in France. She loathes the listless strain

And peril of his plight,

Beseeching Heaven to send him home again,

She prays for peace each night.

Husbands and sons and lovers; everywhere

They die; War bleeds us white.

Mothers and wives and sweethearts – they don’t care

So long as He’s all right.

– Siegfried Sassoon

Thursday before last, from somewhere in Kuwait, my friend Phil logged onto a computer terminal and sent me a message: he was coming home on leave. We should totally get together and have a few drinks.

It caught me completely off guard, but it made my day. I hadn’t heard anything from “one of the gang” in Afghanistan since before Christmas, and now a few of them were coming home for a week and a half that roughly corresponded with both my birthday and a week of vacation. The little Google-Chat window that popped up to announce their return was probably the best present I could get. We made some tentative plans. Then he logged out to go to lunch, and I logged off to go to bed.

In theory, “leave” should be fairly simple and relaxing. Weary soldiers should take a short vacation from the theater of war, get on an aircraft, and return to the United States. A couple of week should be spent visiting with family and friends. Then the soldier gets on another aircraft to carry them back to their deployed unit, rested and recharged. They’ll be ready to resume doing whatever good work they’ve been assigned with a new enthusiasm; however, the practice of “leave” is far removed from the theory.

Months before it even starts, the haggling begins. Private Jones needs to be home on the fourth of April for her sister’s wedding. Sergeant Davis’ wife has a baby due during the middle of June. Everybody wants to be home for Christmas. Depending on the size of the unit, between five to seven people are authorized to be “on leave” at any given time. If you have a 130 person unit, then some negotiation is going to take place.

Generally speaking, the parents of new babies are given priority when it comes to “first dibs” on leave dates. Then everyone else descends on the sign-up sheet in a sort of controlled melee. It’s not important that you get the spot you want, per se, just that you can get a spot; because, in some units there are more soldiers than there are time-slots for leave. You can hash out the trades and swaps that have been discussed since before deployment later. If you trade for a spot that’s too early in the deployment cycle, the you’ll go home a few months after the unit arrives in theater for a couple of weeks, then you’ll come back and spend a nice, long stretch of time deployed with no relief. If you manage to nab a spot near the tail end of the deployment, you might not even get to go home at all. The tour could get cut short, or the command structure might decide to suspend leaves since there’s a lot of moving around between locations that happens toward the end of deployments, and all personnel are needed to help haul equipment around. So, there are about four months worth of prime real-estate in the center of the sign-up sheet, and everyone fights for it.

Now, assuming a soldier has managed to grab a slot for leave, there’s some bureaucratic fun that has to happen before they ever hit the ground in the United States. There’s paperwork to fill out so that the soldier can get booked on the multi-leg flight system that ferries troops in and out of theater. There’s a system of briefings, de-briefings, and back-briefings that a soldier has to sit through. These cover a wide range of topics such as avoiding skulking terrorists on domestic flights, the need to stay tight-lipped about operations and practices, and maybe even the do’s and don’ts of sexual harassment. (FYI: it’s mostly don’ts.)

When a soldier finally touches down in the US, hopefully at an airport near where his or her family is actually located, the relaxation begins. Or not. “Leave” is a vacation that leaves a person in need of a vacation. For every soldier deployed, there are dozens of friends and family members who want a piece of that “leave” for themselves. Everyone wants to see the hero return, to hear the stories, and to satisfy their own curiosity about what it’s like “over there.” “How are you holding up?” “Is the food good?” The dreaded: “Have you killed anyone?” So, a soldier is faced with a choice. Do you tell everyone you’re coming home, and spend leave being bombarded with visitors and requests for visits? Do you tell only a selected few, and deal with seriously hurt feelings and major drama from those who didn’t get the memo later on?

Phil went with option number one, and we’ve been playing phone tag ever since. He’s been bounced between family in Massachusetts and New Jersey for the past week. We were going to meet Thursday night, but his fiancée’s family wanted to do dinner. In a battle between family and friends, family is usually the victor. Trying to spend two weeks visiting everyone you know is taxing in its own way, and I can hear the fatigue in Phil’s voice and see it in the photos posted to Facebook. I’m left in the position of wanting to hang out with a friend (and satisfy my own curiosities,) and yet I know all too well the burden of demanding time from a person who has precious little to spare.

Phil and I were deployed to Iraq together nearly four years ago, and we spent some time theorizing about how the nature of military deployment affects changes in both soldiers and the people they love back home. Our friends and family flock to us when we’re on leave because it might be the last contact they ever have with us. It seems trite to say it, but communications break down when you’re living in a chaotic situation and trying to stay in touch with people halfway across the planet.

The first barrier to communication is simply physical. Phil’s been deployed to Gardez, a place so remote that to call it a “backwater” does a disservice to other, comparatively cosmopolitan backwaters across the globe. They’ve managed to put up a satellite uplink that gives them some limited internet capability, but by-and-large that’s reserved for military communications, not friendly e-mails. Old-fashioned letter writing is somewhat of a lost art in today’s military. To complicate matters, it assumes that a soldier has access to things like paper and envelopes.

Time also constitutes a massive impediment to communicating with home. Phil’s told me that they’ve been running mission daily since they got into the country last September. That’s twelve to eighteen hours a day, six to seven days a week, outside their base camp, patrolling the local countryside and villages. For the six to twelve hours that they’re “home” at the compound, there’s maintenance to do. Vehicles need to be fueled and repaired. Weapons need to be cleaned. People need to bathe, and eat, and sleep. I remember those situations well. While we often thought of home, the thought of banging out e-mails for an hour seldom crossed our minds.

And what would we have said if we did write, or call? Probably nothing that would have put our loved ones at ease. Phil’s told me that they’ve been in “shooting situations” on a number of occasions since they’ve been in Afghanistan. Rockets and mortars pelt their base on a fairly frequent basis. In Iraq, Phil and I used to stand on the roof of our “house,” and watch rockets impact on other parts of the airfield where our compound was located. We’d listen to car bombs detonate, then put in a pool as to how many kilos of explosives were in it when it went off. (The winner was the person closest to the weight, without going over, as determined by Explosive Ordinance Disposal when they made their report. We used “Price is Right” rules, naturally.) There is a certain dark humor that the situation necessitates. It’s incredibly difficult for a soldier to put on a happy face, and reassure the folks back home that everything is all right. More often than not, we don’t.

Those who do call home with the “real story” are not well liked among their peers who value their family’s piece of mind. Most family members are connected to some sort of “Family Readiness Group” sponsored by the deployed unit. Ideally, these FRGs are social networks that let the families support one another while their soldiers are deployed. If Staff Sergeant Meaux’s wife is having a hard time getting groceries because she’s expecting a baby, then maybe Sergeant Hawkin’s wife can go give her a hand.

In reality, FRGs often just amount to a prairie in which the grassfires of rumor and panic can be easily lit. Spouses and parents, hungry for any information at all, latch onto even the most outlandish stories. Those most inclined to pry into other people’s business and spread rumors seem to gravitate toward positions of “authority” in the FRG. The end result is that somehow the (usually incorrect) dates of leaves, returns, and demobilization are somehow “known” to the FRG long before the soldier in the field ever comes across the information. The last time Phil and I demobilized, we came home to families that were irate that we’d “been home for weeks” and hadn’t called home. We’d been home three days, and not had access to a phone.

The end result of this failure to communicate is that soldiers end up in a sort of “time warp” where they constantly think about home, but are unable to connect to it in a meaningful way. Phil and I took to calling it “Groundhog’s Day” in homage to a Bill Murray movie of a similar name. A soldier lives the same day, over and over. Sure some details might shift, but from the time they leave home, until the time they get back, they are more-or-less in suspended animation. All of the social information they had when they left is what they’ll be operating on when they get home. At the same time, everyone at home is going on with their ever-changing lives – forging new social bonds, breaking others, switching jobs, listening to new music, seeing the newest movies, continuing school, and so on. When a soldier comes home, the usual remarks from friends and family are along the lines of, “Wow, you’ve changed.” Phil and I felt the opposite; we’d more or less stayed the same. We’d seen some radical things, but it was the United States around us that had changed. We were time travelers from 2006 that had been tossed into 2008. Our friends were strangers to us, and we were even strangers to our family.

It was future-shock, firsthand. As Phil said at the time, being deployed makes you “love your country so much that all you want to do is get away from it again as fast as you can.” In some ways, going back to the war is a relief. At least a soldier knows that things there will be pretty much like they were before “leave.”

Now I’m part of the shocking future in Phil’s life, and it stings. Hopefully we’ll be able to get together for a few drinks and some stories before he heads out next week. If not, then I’ll keep sending him pictures of the beard that I’ve been growing since they left. At least that’s a change that they’ve watched happen with amusement, and they’ll be ready for it when they get home. Every morning I look in the mirror, it’s also a reminder of how much I’ve changed since they left.

During World War One, Siegfried Sassoon wrote a number of poems about the uncomfortable reality of soldiers coming and going between home and the front. In “Their Frailty,” he muses about the fickle affections of those of us here at home, and how we attach our emotions to very individualized cases. What does the war-at-large mean to me, really, as long as Phil, Fitzy, Rodney, Mike, and Pete are OK? It’s a trick of perception. It’s why we can obsess over one baby in a well, and somehow still manage to ignore millions of children worldwide with no clean drinking water. We can attach ourselves to individuals, but empathy for large groups is elusive.

The war’s not over when they come home. There’ll be others who take their place. Soldiers with names that I don’t know, or maybe names I do know but have lost contact with – people I once called “brother.” They’ll be back in harm’s way for reasons that both they and I will have difficulty articulating. Whether they live or die, they are ultimately sacrificing their lives because as a nation we have decided that they should do so. They’re in limbo – living the same terrible day over, and over. They want to come home, but dread what they’ll find when they get back. We owe them at least a few moments of introspection a day. We can tell them “thanks” when they get home, but coming from someone who has been thanked, I can tell you it’s a little hollow without some sort of real reflection or sacrifice on the part of the person doing the thanking.

So I’ve decided to keep the beard growing, even after Phil and the gang comes home. It seems stupid and small, and to tell the truth, it kind of is. It’s a reminder, though. It’s a modern hair-shirt that causes me to reflect on my place in a modern contract society that sends soldiers abroad to maintain a status quo at home. When it starts to annoy me, and I want to shave it, I remember how annoyed our troops are with their situation, and how they have no “quick fix.” Does the stray moustache in my soup annoy me as much as the stray bullet in a village that kills an innocent person, regardless of who pulled the trigger? There’s no shaving ourselves out of Afghanistan, or Iraq. When people ask me about the beard, it’s a prompt for me to remind them that we’ve still got a war going, and no end is in sight.

If you’re reading this and you give a damn, and you’re male, I’d like to challenge you to grow a beard as well. (Ladies, we’ll figure something out.) Do it for the soldiers you might know, but especially the hundreds of thousands of soldiers you don’t, and the millions of civilians for whom there will never be any “leave” or “demobilization.” While our young men and women are deployed to “Groundhog’s Day,” let the people at home watch the faces of young men grow old in front of their eyes. If we find ourselves with fading memories of brothers and sisters, father and mothers, sons and daughters, friends and lovers sent into harm’s way, and if we find that our memories of their faces have become fuzzy, perhaps our faces ought to become fuzzy as well. Let our mirrors reflect the chaos that we have ordered our lives around for the past decade, in hopes that it won’t last for another.

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