Editor’s Note: Nick Willard is the pen name of a service member serving in Afghanistan during the closing days of America’s longest war. He will write what he sees in an ongoing feature for The Daily Beast. Biographical details have been changed to protect his identity.
I told my kids goodbye as they went to bed the night before I left. I sat with each one for a few minutes, told them to be good for their mom, that I’d call or Skype as often as I could, and I’d be home before they knew it.
Each one reacted differently. One of our boys wouldn’t look at me. I saw tears in his eyes, told him it’s all right to cry, and that we’d be OK. He didn’t cry in front of me and that just made it harder. My wife turned away, and I struggled to be as strong as our son. Our other son deflected the goodbye, said his legs hurt, and told me his pet crab would die because nobody would clean its tank after I left. I reminded him that his mom and sister would help him care for the crab, but he wasn’t convinced. Our daughter veiled herself in smiles and laughs.
My mom had flown out to send me off and help my wife. She planned to stay a few days after I left, but my shifting departure dates torpedoed that plan, and she had to leave the same day as me. She was sitting in the dark when I came downstairs that morning. She echoed the classic line, “Keep your head down.” I told her goodbye and she stayed at home with our sleeping children.
The emotions sucker-punched me as my wife and I waited for our drinks at the airport Starbucks. She said, “Don’t start that now.” I nodded, and we carried our tall cups and sat by the window at the gate. We watched the sun emerge from behind the far off mountains and laughed at the Delta pilot leaning from his cockpit to clean his windshield. She stayed with me until the final boarding call came.
On the plane, somewhere over the Rockies, the lady to my left asked where I was off to. I said, “Afghanistan.” She said, “Oh, boy, I thought we were done over there.” The guy to my right said he’d been in the Army, served in Iraq, got out when he realized Afghanistan wasn’t ending anytime soon, and now works as a defense contractor.
Hours later I boarded my rotator, the contracted plane overseas. The plane bore a massive blue-and-gold image of Atlas balancing the globe on his back. The former Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire marked our first stop. When we landed, shortly after 3 a.m., a flight attendant said, “You’re going to love it here. It’s amazing. The most patriotic place I’ve ever been to.” Half-drunk and short on sleep, I asked what she meant, and she said, “Just wait and see.”
In the otherwise empty terminal, dozens of people of all ages and backgrounds waited to greet us. They cheered, snapped photos, shook our hands, hugged us, and told us thank you. Once all several hundred of us were inside the terminal, the leader of the group—an older vet in a weathered VFW hat—said they were the Pease Greeters, and they’ve met nearly 700 plane loads of deploying troops no matter the time. In my haze, I thought he said they were the Peace Greeters.
Flags, banners, photos, posters, coins, and patches from countless other units who’d passed through covered the walls of a hall dubbed the Hero’s Walk. The greeters offered food, drinks, toiletries, books, games, and phone calls. It was a moment of home before the long trip across the Atlantic.
A flight attendant said, “You’re going to love it here. It’s amazing.” Half-drunk and short on sleep, I asked what she meant, and she said, “Just wait and see.”
Before we departed, they asked us to gather for a group photo, presented the colors, sang the National Anthem, and asked a chaplain for a blessing. They introduced the vets in their group who represented all the services and wars since World War II. One had fought hand-to-hand combat and earned a Purple Heart in Korea. Then their leader saluted us and said, “We, the old warriors, salute you, the young warriors.”
On our way out they presented each of us a care package that included a star from a retired flag along with the following words: “I am a part of our American flag. I have flown over a home in the USA. I can no longer fly. The sun and wind have caused me to become tattered and torn. Please carry me as a reminder that you are not forgotten.”
As the plane taxied to the runway, I looked out the window and saw the Pease Greeters lined up waving from the fence line under dozens of flags to send us on our way into the cloudy morning sky.
I tried to sleep but mainly stared at the random programing on what seemed an ’80s-era entertainment system on our plane. I kept my earphones off and caught random images from the Newhart show, a surf documentary, The Matrix, Rio, Austin Powers, and the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
“Really, the Newhart show?” asked a master sergeant sitting across from me. “Half the people on this plane don’t even know who that is.”
“It’s has to be a VCR,” said a captain. “Look at the lines.”
“I bet it’s a laser disc,” said the young enlisted man in front of us.
We spent three hours each at several more stops along the way and eventually reached a transit base in the Middle East. Each step closer to Afghanistan makes life less comfortable and time more warped. In-processing at the transit base took hours as we waited in lines, got orders stamped, listened to rules, signed forms, shuffled bags, and broke our first deployment sweat in the desert sun.
Most of us had been traveling at least 36 hours at this point, and we zombie-walked from the terminal to rows of what looked like white double-wide trailers. More than 40 of us crammed into each darkened bay lined with bunk beds. We scrambled for the prime spots… bottom bunks on the wall, just close enough to the gale-forced air-conditioning ducts. I awoke, looked at my watch, and read 3 p.m. I grabbed my sunglasses, stumbled outside into the dark, and realized it was 3 a.m. A few hours later, I watched the Pacquiao versus Bradley fight live in the dining facility as I ate Lucky Charms for breakfast.
We got word of our 4 a.m. show time for the flight to Afghanistan the next day. In the terminal, people seemed quieter as we waited to board the jet. In the holding area, a sign: “By order of the commander: Graffiti is prohibited in any government facility. DO NOT write or draw on anything or anywhere… Violators may be prosecuted…” I saw where walls of stickers had been painted over with tan paint and realized times are changing. In the past, troops would scrawl notes and slap stickers in these last stops before warzones. I loved the displays and marveled at the makeshift galleries, but these days even that small bit of color is gone. Today, the walls are whitewashed and dull.
With less than eight months to go before Dec. 31, more people are headed out of Afghanistan than in. Our C-17 was half full. A black Jolly Roger flag hung from the ceiling. I wondered how many people this plane had carried to and from war. I wondered how many injured it had flown to Germany and how many fallen it had carried back to the U.S. Some slept and some talked above the engine noise. I listened to music and tried to read, but couldn’t focus. On that flight, my mind took me everywhere except where I was going.
And, just like that I’m back in Afghanistan. Back in the land of dust and mountains, camouflage and patches, Velcro and beards, soldiers and contractors, MRAPS and Blackhawks, sobriety and abstinence, T-walls and Kevlar, bullets and drones, tourniquets and stories, hierarchy and posturing, Taliban and tribes, guns and rockets, and everything in between.
My clock starts now.