I am an active duty officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. All views expressed in this blog are my personal views as an individual and not those of the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Thoughts on heading home

Last night, we lifted from the Lashkar Gah LZ on an MV-22 Osprey.  It was tough to say goodbye to people that I’ve gotten to know and admire and work with through some difficult situations and who I will in all likelihood never see again.  Being in Lash these last six months was a great experience – enjoyable, enlightening and meaningful.

At night you can often see the static electricity along the rotor tips

This being a V-22, in nearly the blink of an eye we were transitioning back out of airplane mode and touching down at Camp Bastion/Leatherneck.  Once the scramble of unloading all our gear onto the tarmac was complete and we sat down to wait for our ride, I looked around. 

When I first landed here in March of 2010, Bastion airfield as it exists today (the new flight line) was little more than some preparatory earthwork and a bunch of blueprints.  The old runway was shorter (it now serves as a taxiway), the aircraft aprons were crowded, the structures were all temporary.

I will never forget stepping off the C-17 here for the first time.  I was wearing sunglasses but the wind-blown dust and the intense glare of the desert sun had me squinting anyway as I followed the pack in front of me off the tarmac.  It was noisy, slightly disorienting and a bit chaotic.  I was, of course, excited.

C-17 Globemaster

During that deployment one of my big projects was to design and oversee the security plan for the new airfield, so I became intimately familiar with its layout.  Last night, though it was dark and we off-loaded at the V-22 apron instead of the rotor wing terminal, it was easy to get my bearings. 

There were the rest of the V-22s, lined up in perfect parallel outside their huge hangar bay.  There, across the runway, was a C-130 taxiing onto the cargo ramp.  Behind me, though I couldn’t see it at night, was the eastern perimeter of the base, along which I had rocketed my old Toyota Hilux (The Beast I & II) on rutted dirt roads at speeds I’m still a bit hesitant to admit publicly. 

But not as fast as a C-130 Hercules

Shortly after we landed our ride showed up – a dilapidated micro-van with 7-inch rims into which we stuffed ourselves and all our various bags and trunks and body armor – and before long we were in the transient tents, which have AC, electricity, a fridge and a jacuzzi.  I unpacked a few things, balanced my laptop on my deployment bag, plugged in the head phones, turned on an episode of Top Gear, and was out cold before the end of the opening credits.


This morning I slept late: till 0630.  For the past few weeks I’ve been up by 0330 or 0400 and out running by 0500.  I remember this strange phenomenon from the last deployment too: as it wore on I inexplicably (and paradoxically) needed less and less sleep before I woke up, naturally, ready to start my day.  I haven’t woken up to an alarm in at least a month now.

But anyway, I got up, took a shower, met two other Marines for breakfast and we went to medical where I got the paperwork started on my neck injury.  Then I walked back here to the tent and started typing this. Later, I'll walk over to one of the morale buildings where there is wifi and upload it.

Landing at Bastion last night was the first time I’ve ever been happy to see this place, since it obviously is step one on the long trip home.  By this morning, though, the feeling was gone.  Considering this place has the amenities of a five-star resort, I have to wonder why I hate it so much – and I do.

It’s not just because I spent a long year here and was, uh, relieved when it was finally over.  That’s part of it, but everyone I talk to hates this place, regardless of how long or how often they’ve been here. 

It’s an annoying place, to be sure.  It’s loud: I counted twenty-six industrial generators – each the size of a semi trailer – next to just one of the large chow halls.  Maybe they're refrigeration units.  Whatever.  The base is still one huge construction zone, even with all the improvements that have already been made.  It's crowded and congested and there is an unbelievable amount of traffic.  It’s sprawling, so getting anywhere is a minor expedition.  It's much dustier than Lash; the moon dust just accumulates inside your eyelids like snow on a window sill.  And the entire base smells like poop; the only variable is how strong the smell is depending on the wind and where you’re standing. 

But none of that is it either.

I think it’s because – and this is going to sound horribly cheesey and moto but bear with me – we’re Marines.  The two most salient features of Camp Leatherneck are the “softness” of it – coffee shops, mattresses, paved roads, pool tables, 24-hour chow halls – and the “garrisonness” of it – the speed limits, the crosswalks, the regulations and pointless rules and uniforms and safety and just properness in every microscopic way.

Common sense?  Nonsense.  The signs will protect you.

What does this even mean?

What is the point of becoming a Marine and deploying to a war zone if your experience – from the food to the weekly hair cuts to the Sergeants Major yelling at you to get your hands out of your pockets when it's five degrees out to your daily routine of sleeping in a bed and working behind a desk – are indistinguishable from garrison life?  As I've said a few times in the last few years: they put me on a plane and 24 hours later I got off.  They tell me I’m in Afghanistan…but I can’t prove it. 

No loitering.  No credit, no problem.  No shirt, no shoes, no service.  No shit.

So why go to Afghanistan if it’s no different from Twentynine Palms or Yuma? 

In my deployment experiences, I got a little bit lucky.  I never patrolled with 3/5 down the bloody streets of Sangin (not that anyone would call that lucky) but at least I got to patrol some place and interact with the locals in their environment, not just the transplanted Camp Wilson that is Leatherneck.  And I worked with coalition partners (not that Lash was that much more austere than Leatherneck of course) and went to a few outlying FOBs and stood post on a perimeter and talked with Afghan kids and in other ways experienced a little more of what I envisioned being a Marine to be, compared to the thousands who have been drawn into this gravitational vortex base, done their job for six months or a year and gone home, never seeing an inch of the real Afghanistan.

But I did all these things, minor though they were, not by being on Camp Leatherneck but by escaping it.  And that is why I hate being back here so much. 

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it as a base.  Marines here are generally secure and all their needs are well met.  It’s just not the real thing, if you get my meaning.  It’s cushy and it’s safe and it’s regimented to the nanometer and it’s just not what Marines do – not in a war zone, anyway.

Oh come on now. Seriously.

But whatever it is Marines do in a war zone, I’m almost done doing it.  In about a week or so we will leave here.  A few days later I’ll be back in California.  A month later I’ll be on post-deployment leave and two months after I get back from that I will be complete with my active duty service.

That's because I submitted a letter - actually an Administrative Action NAVMC (5216.19) 10274 Rev. 3-93 form, naturally - to the career designation board, asking not to be considered.  I sent it in a few days late but if I do get offered CD I will decline it.  Hence the form: why take a spot that another Marine might want and deserve.

As I've said many times before, joining the Marine Corps was the best decision I have ever made.  I can't even begin to describe everything I've gotten out of it: it has changed me for the better in fundamental ways.  But at 32 years old, I admit that I'm feeling the itch to settle down.  The house in the burbs, mowing my own yard every weekend, staying in one place for more than a few months at a time - these things are definitely beckoning.

But...I'm not going to pursue them right away.  First, I'm moving to Israel for a year (or so).  My biggest reason for doing so is - obviously, for all who know me - to hopefully meet that special someone.  Odds of meeting a nice Jewish girl in Israel: better than anywhere else (even Afghanistan!).  Aside from that, I just want to relax for a bit, devote many hours a day to writing instead of just a few hours a week, do some traveling here and there and spend quality time with my Israeli family including my mom, brother and sister-in-law. 

So that's the plan, in a nut shell.  I've already bought my ticket to Israel: I arrive on Wednesday, January 11, 2013.  Can't wait to start the next chapter.

Meanwhile, I've got a few days to kill here.  I'll try to post some pics from the last six months - I know I keep promising but the Internet here is even slower than Lash. For now, though, here is one that will definitely stay with me...


poop bags said...

"Thoughts on heading home" is a great post at all. Thanks

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