Nostalgia is a strange sensation. You feel it when you see a professional football team don “throwback” uniforms that date back nearly a century. You feel it when an old song comes over the radio that you haven’t heard in decades. You feel it when you see faded photographs of friends and family from years past. I felt it myself last week when a team bus belched diesel exhaust in my face outside historic Allen Fieldhouse.
It probably wasn’t the healthiest choice I made that day, but I breathed in the fumes and let the memories wash over me, taking me back to a night not so long ago at Ali Al Salem Airbase. The excitement of hearing the buses in the darkness at the end of a long deployment. The anticipation of seeing the “freedom bird” that awaited those buses on a faraway tarmac. The catharsis of the contract airliner accelerating down the runway, knowing the buses were left in the wake of our turbines. Nostalgia.
Eventually, the sense of nostalgia begins to fade, only to be replaced with one more closely resembling a vague emptiness. Those left behind, the “battle buddies” who weren’t able to ride the buses with you. The place you called “home” for a year (or more), be it a tent, a repurposed building, or a metal shipping container. The tremendous sense of camaraderie that forms under conditions of intense stress. The Band of Brothers (and Sisters) with whom you shared the best of times, and the worst of times. A significant and meaningful piece of your life.
For most people who don’t share our experiences, such nostalgia is difficult to comprehend. How can you feel nostalgic for the violence and chaos of war? Such feelings seem misplaced among those who have never deployed into a combat zone, never felt the intensity of such an experience, and never tasted the raw emotion that it often brings. It grows on you in a strange way.
When Deployment Reality Smacks You in the Face
On the other hand, there are more than a few aspects of contemporary conflict that don’t grow on you. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as nostalgic as the next person in uniform. There are days – a lot of them, actually – that returning to combat appeals deeply to me. Days when I utter those fateful words, “I’d rather be shot at than subject myself to ‘this’ any longer.” Days when I remember fondly some long-forgotten moment in time and wish for a fleeting moment that I was back “in the fight.”
Then reality sets in. And I remember things a little more clearly.
The CONUS Replacement Center. My personal experience with CRC can be summed up in a single event: a lieutenant colonel in front of a formation in flip-flops, ACU pants, and a Hawaiian shirt, pacing back and forth like a lunatic while screaming at the top of his lungs about standards. Coming or going, that place stirred a lot of feelings, none of them nostalgic.
The Burn Pit. Specifically, the odor of things that weren’t meant to be burned. Human waste, garbage, wild dogs, office chairs, computers, tires, and live ammunition, all sautéed in a fine coating of JP-8. The toxic cloud that wafted in the breeze near the burn pit will probably be the death of us all one day. Literally.
The Big Voice. There was a time when the only big voice was the sound of the Electronic Ayatollah. Then came the Big Voice. If you ever wondered what your voice would sound like if you performed a Klingon opera while eating a week-old KBR entree, it would likely resemble the Big Voice. There are days when I’m curious how many people were injured standing outside during an attack trying to figure out what the Big Voice was saying.
Reflective Belts. What’s the use of wearing camouflage if you’re going to strap on a highly reflective piece of otherwise useless equipment? Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of camouflage? Frankly, my idea of battlefield safety is not getting killed. Are you any safer when you can be easily targeted by bad people with equally bad intentions?
Water Bottles. It wasn’t the water bottles that bothered me, it was the contents of those bottles. Randomly strewn about, filled with bodily fluids meant to be disposed of in a different manner altogether. And where did they all end up? In the burn pit, of course.
Dust, Dirt, and Sand. Everywhere. In your boots, in your hair, in your eyes, in your ears, in your drawers. Everywhere. In your weapon, in your bedding, in your food. And every bit of it infused with centuries of refuse, not to mention the remains of whatever was last thrown in the burn pit. There’s a reason why I’ve had a cold since 1990. And it only clears up when I inhale a fresh dose of dust, dirt, or sand. Or diesel exhaust.
That sick feeling you get when you realize you don’t have your weapon. During the Gulf War, I somehow managed to come down with dysentery and spent much of the first 24 hours squatted over a hole in a plywood latrine. During one trip late that first night, I heard a dull splash, and only realized as I stood that the source of the sound was my service pistol. The one that wasn’t attached to the lanyard. The one that was sinking to the bottom of a barrel. The one I had to fish out with a piece of wire and clean.
The Garrison Mentality. Deployment into a combat zone is about fighting and winning, surviving against all odds, courage in the face of danger. It’s not about any of the myriad dog-and-pony shows that litter the modern field of battle. There’s a vast difference between “getting back to the fundamentals” of our craft and refusing to sign anything because the S-1 ran out of red signature flags. Get your head right.
Extremely Loud, Slow Pidgin English. They’re not deaf. They’re not mentally challenged. It’s their country, it’s their language. Make it easier on everyone and use your interpreter.
Ali Al Salem Airbase. Ali Al Salem is our Earthly purgatory. It lingers on the precipice of sanity, like some forlorn episode of the Twilight Zone. FOB zombies – those lost souls who know neither deployment nor redeployment – shuffle aimlessly across the gravel day and night. People gather gleefully for photos with a sunbaked caricature of Ronald McDonald as if it’s spring break in Miami. It’s a surreal experience better forgotten than remembered.
Nope, I don’t miss it at all.