Expanded from an excerpt of an older post
Navigating the half dozen outposts between where I had spent the last six months and the last checkpoint out of theater took me a day and a half of helo rides, praying a dust storm wouldn’t come and lock me down again. There was never any straight way out. It was island hopping, camp to camp with the sea of unprotected Jazeera Desert in between. Ramadi to Fallujah to al Asad to Balad. Then to the big bird out.
The first sand storm stopped me in Ramadi. I laid on the dusty plywood floor for a day in the helo landing field terminal with my head on my bag spitting Copenhagen into a taped-up water bottle. I knew if I wandered too far off I’d miss the next bird. And then who knows from there. So I planted myself there on the ground, drifting in and out of sleep long enough to put in a fresh dip, disturbed from time to time by the sound of a new troop coming through the terminal. If modern war was anything, it was the scraping thud of boots on dust and plywood.
The dust storm relented. And finally, I got out.
In March, when the rest of the group attached to the Team headed back to California by way of a “decompression” stop in Stuttgart, I got permission to head straight home. My son was sick. And I was out of time.
The decompression stop was supposed to be helpful. It was a chance to let the war out a bit before it was time to assimilate back into “normal” western culture. There were counseling sessions and cognitive tests and some time to let the desert sand wash out of your hair. For one reason or another, I never made it to one. My family was in a bad way. Every second of decompression for me was compression for them. And they’d had enough. The war was over for me.
There was a McDonald’s at the Ali Al Salim air base in Kuwait. It was the last stop in or out of CENTCOM. I bought a hamburger and a soda. But it didn’t taste right. Or at least it didn’t taste the way I remembered. I hadn’t had anything except DFAC slop for months. I killed time listening to the motorcycle and car salesman pitching special pricing to a line of marines out the door of the building the Air Force built so that car and motorcycle salesmen didn’t have to wait for 20 year old kids to come all the way home to sell them a car or a motorcycle. I found an internet terminal and emailed my wife. Two lines.
I made it out. I love you.
My ride eventually found me. He was a kid from the special boat teams whose war experience would be driving people from the SEAL Teams to and from the airport in Kuwait. We made the 30 mile trip in 20 minutes. I peeled off my desert BDUs for the last time in the back of the truck and swapped them out for clothes that had been folded at the bottom of a bag for half a year. They didn’t fit. There was nowhere to run on Sharkbase. Just weights. So I’d put on ten pounds of muscle.
I stumbled out of the back of the truck and onto the sidewalk of a modern airport. No guns. No sandbags. No fucking plywood. I was alone for the first time in months. Alone from the machine at least. Lieutenant Commander Hughes was no more.
In the terminal, my lone bag was too heavy to go on the plane. So I had to buy a box from the attendant at the check in counter and put some things in that box, tape it up and check it. I knelt on the smooth polished floor in the Kuwaiti Airport alone, piling body armor, a ballistic helmet and an assortment of other tactical gear into a box as the powder of Jazira desert dust spilled out of all of it. I taped it up and handed it to a smiling Kuwaiti gentleman behind the counter for him to check. On the seem between two worlds, I’d packed up the war in a box and handed it to someone. And then I was gone.
When I touched down in San Diego there was no welcome. No one had any idea where I’d just come from. I wandered out of the war for the last time and into the night air in San Diego dressed like a SOF guy trying not to look like a SOF guy. I tried to jump into a cab. A woman on the curb snapped at me and pointed at the long waiting line behind her.
“Um, there’s a line.” Sigh. Head shake.
I hadn’t noticed.
While I waited, I took a knee on the pavement and got to work on unpacking the box and stuffing the war back in my bag. Holster. Magazines. Flashlight. Compass. It wasn’t gone. I gave it away and they gave it back. And now I didn’t know what to do with it.
Someone waiting at the front of the line for cabs noticed and told me to take their cab. I walked passed the disapproving woman and I jumped in. I don’t remember thanking anyone. All I could think of was getting rid of that Goddamned box.
The cab dropped me off at my door a little after midnight, about 48 hours or so after I’d left my unit in Ramadi. My wife had left the door unlocked. I came in, laid my bags down at the door and sat down at our kitchen table.
In the room I’d pictured every day since I’d left, I was alone in silence for the first time in months. There was no dust. And there was carpet. No boots on plywood. No boots anywhere.
Eventually the kids woke up. We were reunited. They were excited. My one son didn’t really notice I was there. He didn’t really notice anything. He was diagnosed Autistic when I was gone.
I tried like hell to be present. But I wasn’t.
One foot in. One foot out.
I ran down the street in the morning to wait in line to register my oldest for kindergarten. It was the first thing my wife had gotten help with in months. The school nurse chastised me for not having his immunization records.
I think I told her to “take it fucking easy”.
Life began again.
It was hard to sleep at first. It was impossible. This deployment, I wasn’t out on patrol every night like I was the last time I went out. I was senior. Too senior to go outside the wire much. I was back on the FOB, staring at targets through “kill TV” every night, strung out on Copenhagen and Rip Its and one slide PowerPoints.
I was safe, relatively. And I didn’t think the transition out this time would be as hard.
I still couldn’t get any fucking sleep though.
When my family was down for the night, I would walk down to the park next to my house and do box jumps on a picnic table until I couldn’t jump any more, music blaring from my headphones. Titus Andronicus had an album that came out the week I got home. It was full of tortured songs about the Civil War. It was perfect. So when I couldn’t sleep, which was most nights at first, I stayed up all night doing box jumps in a park with no shirt on in March, listening to his music.
One night, while blasting To Old Friends and New into my ears so loud it hurt, jumping on that stupid concrete picnic table, I slipped and ripped open my shin. It didn’t hurt that badly but the blood was everywhere. I’d just started jumping though. And I knew if I stopped I wouldn’t be able to sleep. So I just kept jumping.
Soon the blood soaked my shoe red. Then a puddle formed on the table. It splashed each time I jumped. Then I noticed that some tissue had shaken loose and was hanging out of the front of my leg.
Somewhere between the last jump, and the hospital getting stitched back up, I realized something.
It was over.