So said Pete the Ranger to me one fine evening.
Why am I bringing this up today.
Because of several things. One, it’s yet another anniversary of horrible 9/11, a day that changed (and ended) many lives. Two, spent some quality time with the combat trauma counselor today. Three, I was reminded of the vivid “in the moment” thinking of combat due to the excellent writing of a friend. Four, it’s September, a bad month where bad things happened.
Why did I use the above image? Well, it shows me at a real low point. Also, you can see the cement patio with the fold-up chairs in the foreground. When I used to have nothing better to do I would sit in one of those battered, dusty chairs and chain smoke. As the blue noxious plume lofted heavenward, I would behold the mountain from where the Taliban would occasionally shoot wildly inaccurate 107 rockets at us.
The mountain was purple, the sky was red. I smoked away. Night was coming.
Pete walked up, I drew in another drag. He spoke. I exhaled from my nose.
“You are never leaving this place alive, motherfucker.” He paused. “You know that, don’t you?”
I pulled another cheap L&M from my pack and lit off the old cherry from the previous. I drew in and looked at him.
“Yeah. I know.”
There. I confessed what I knew, in my darkest heart. I let it out, into the open. Ten years later, and I still remember this conversation. Word for word.
Pete just looked at me and nodded. He walked off.
There. In his own way he acknowledged the truth of soldiers in combat. To function, one must abandon all hope. To live in the moment, to concentrate only on what is in front of a person. No plans, no dreams, no loved ones, no home.
It was all gone, washed away in moon dust and acrid smoke. I quit writing or calling. I was dead anyway, so maybe people could get used to the idea. Mission piled on mission. Events led to events. I didn’t care about anything but doing my job.
And then, poof! It was over. The mission, complete. The pain, intense. My comrades, betrayed. I was going home, they had to stay and fight.
Our battered little team made it to Bagram AB outside of Kabul. What happened there was really a blur to me, all I can remember is that we eventually filed into a C-17. I held my breath until we leveled off, the Taliban didn’t have anything that could hit us at 30k or so.
Then I felt an unnerving outpouring of relief, grief.
How. Why. What?
This. This is today’s struggle. Pete was right, although in a twisted sense.
Physically, I left. Gone. Touched down around midnight in a base in Central Asia that wasn’t Afghanistan.
But I didn’t leave. Part of me was still there. Will always be there. Until the grave claims me and I forget.
“You are never leaving this place alive…”
He was right.