Our landing in Newark is unremarkable. We exit the plane, passing the captain, some crew, and a few people waiting for gate-checked luggage.
“Thank you for your service.”
“Thank you for your service.”
We nod and move down the jet way. We walk through the gate area and down a long corridor, flanked to the left with big windows looking out onto the flight line. As we get closer to the exit I can see a small crowd holding signs. I am almost home.
We are greeted with clapping hands and smiling faces. My four sisters and my youngest niece are holding signs, my father is smiling widely and my mother is almost in tears. My wife is in training and I won’t see her for another two months. I hug them all and give my niece a kiss.
“How are you?”
“I’m so happy you’re home.”
“I bet you’re glad to be back.”
“We missed you.”
“How was it?”
“What do you have to do now?”
“Are you hungry?”
We take pictures by the baggage carousel while we wait. My luggage was lost in Qatar so I’m just waiting on my guitar and my weapon case. They can’t come soon enough. The guitar, with its crushed edge courtesy of Kandahar Airfield, comes first. We talk about what assholes the handlers are. The black Pelican case with my rifle and pistol shows up and I bring itto the pickupoutside.
On our way to New York we stop at a restaurant on 17 somewhere near Mahwah. I am hungry and it’s an opportunity to spend time with my family. I think I spoke with them more when I was in Afghanistan than before I left.
“You don’t have to go back on base for a while do you?”
“What are they like?”
“Overall, how was it?”
“Did you see anything crazy?”
“Are you done for a while?”
I enjoy their company,but the conversation turns to white noise and I find myself impatient to go home.
My dad drops me off at the house my wife and I share with her family. My two nephews and brother-in-law are home when I get there. My sister-in-law is at work. The kids run up and hug and high-five me, and then go back to their tablets. Eric and I drink a beer at the dining room table.
“So, how was it?How ya feeling?”
“It was alright. It sucked, but it was alright.”
“What do you have to do now?Are you done for a while?”
“I just have to burn leave and relax.”
“That’s not too bad.”
I finish my beer and walk upstairs. The stairs leading to the middle landing still squeak. My room is neat and clean. I sit on my bed, the stench of Afghanistan still in my uniform.
It’s the height of the fighting season and a dome of smog and dirt obscures the sky and the surrounding mountains where bearded men wage war. Down here it’s mostly the POG’s, the fobbits, the support troops. We don’t chase around bad guys; we just wait for their mortars, or rockets, or whatever.
“Me and Teddy found the perfect song for driving down Disney in the morning,” Mike says, as we pull onto the main drag of Bagram Airfield. We start the morning crawl with “Shiny Happy People” coming out of the speaker in the cup holder.
The sidewalk to our right is filled with people reluctantly starting their day. Some drag their feet like the only thing getting them to work is the muscle memory. Others wince like they just smelled something awful. They probably did. The speed limit is 12 km an hour but it’s impossible to even go that fast through the streams of people crossing the road wherever they want.
We stop at the road crossing between Koehle DFAC and the PX area. It is the largest source of congestion on base. Inch by inch the hood of our truck slices through the thick column of pedestrians. Eventually the crowd parts and people stay to their side to allow us through. Mike slams the brakes. Some Army private, or specialist, or maybe sergeant walks slowly past the front of the truck. His head is down. You learn not to let it bother you.
As we approach ECP 1, the traffic pattern is disturbed by a manmade hole that runs from the middle of the right lane to well past the right sidewalk. A backhoe sits idle beside it. Inside the hole, a group of Afghans dig. They wear reflective vests and hard hats and scarves and sandals. Some wear gloves, some don’t. They all wear the linen pajamas.
They say these Afghans are the ones rocketing us at night. I don’t know about that. I don’t know much about anything people tell me.
We make the left at ECP 1. It’s either that or outside the wire. Large groups of Afghan day workers disembark small shuttle buses on either side of the road and form up around their wranglers. The large black clouds of diesel exhaust, blown in their faces, don’t seem to bother them.
A short way down the road, we make the left into our S-4 yard. It’s the left after Inglett and Stubbs but before the curve where a mortar killed SGT Johnson, and SPC Ellis, and SPC Moody, and SPC Alt. The shitty pavement turns to huge gravel and fine dirt. A brown cloud chases us through a double-stacked corridor of colorful CONEX’s.
The cloud catches up to us as we stop in front of the plywood B-hut we work out of. The yard is surrounded on all sides by the shipping containers. There are two side-by-side B-huts. Ours is the one on the right, the left one is the Army’s. Our equipment is lined up along the fence across the yard. There are trailers, and trenchers, and the 2.5-ton LMTV. We let the dirt settle for a second and exit the truck.
“Look at this little guy,” Mike says, “I think he rode with us the whole way here.”
I walk around the back of the truck to the driver’s side. A dirty brown dove sits on the small ledge created by the hightop Chevy’s box. It just sits there, looking around wildly.
Dead birds are a common sight. Their bodies lie scattered across the base. Sometimes they’re busted open from being run over, sometimes their tongues are out like some fucked- up cartoon. I see them outside of the gym tent, and in the gravel around our hut, and even once found one in an oil pan I left out over night. At first it is eerie and I think maybe it’s the air that does it.After awhileI realize it doesn’t matter. I realize it’s just what this place does.
“He’s just waiting to die,” I finally respond. We enter the hut and start our day.
It’s been a little over a month since TJ Lobraico was killed on patrol. It’s some Muslim holiday, so it’s no surprise when the first rocket hits. I hold the hut’s door open with one hand and my pistol, still in the holster, in the other. I wait for the few others I know are comingbefore I head to the bunker. Woody and Vance will surely stay in the hut, guided by some ill-conceived notion of probability, or experience, or laziness.
The giant voice system trips over itself trying to track all the incoming. Each new alarm interrupts the last. The distinct booms of impacts and explosions are louder and more frequent than usual.
“Hey, we’re getting lit up,” I call into the hut
Barney comes out from behind the sheet that blocks his small personal area and we leave. We jog down the narrow alley between our hut and our neighbor’s. My PT shorts swish with every stride and every few steps a rock gets caught between my foot and flip-flop.
The alley runs past two rows of huts, including ours, before it reaches the row of bunkers. The bunkers are inverted U’s of concrete, covered with sand bags. You have hunch over to enter. Normally there are people gathered outside the entrances, talking and laughing. Normally there are only one or two booms. Normally the crew-served weapons around Camp Alpha aren’t throwing rounds over the wall.
The bunker is abnormally packed. It is dark except for the little bit of light from the entryways and the illuminated faces of a few people using their phones. If Vietnam was the Television War, Afghanistan is the Wi-Fi War.
We take seats at the ends of small benches across from each other, nearest the entryway. The booms continue, and helicopters fly overhead. The sound of outgoing is comforting. I hope it is effective. I hope it is killing assholes.
“Does this happen every night?” a male silhouette asks no one in particular.
From what I can make out, he is wearing full battle rattle with a combat load and safety glasses. His rifle’s butt stock rests on the ground, he holds the hand guard. I can’t see his rank but I know he is a private.
“Not every night,” I say. A few people chuckle.
There’s an enormous boom. Close enough to hear the explosion rise into the air. Close enough shake the ground. Everyone goes silent. We stare at each other through the darkness, waiting.
The explosions are faint, distant. They can’t be real. I have goose bumps and my heart is vibrating. I can’t sit still. The German shepherd is pacing and whimpering at the gate at the bottom of the stairs.
“She’s fine. They’re doing fireworks tonight,” I hear my sister-in-law, Addie, say to the older of my two nephewsfrom downstairs. I don’t remember there being fireworks for New Year’s Eve in the past.
I’m walking back and forth between my room, where my wife is on her laptop, and the bathroom, pretending I’m busy. My hands itch for the feel of checkered pistol grip. I’m aware there is no danger, but my body is reacting like it is supposedto. Like it was supposed to a couple months ago.
“What’re you doing? Sit down,” my wife says when I enter the room, again. I place her hand on my chest.
“Is that from the fireworks?”
“Yeah, I can’t sit still.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m good, I just need to move around.”
The gate downstairs squeaks open and I hear the dog run up, followed by Addie and my nephews. Addiestarts the bath water for the kids. She and Mary talk from separate rooms. I hear their conversation but I’m not listening. I step out into the hall between our bedroom and the bathroom, where the dog is standing with her ears on end. Addie pops out of the bathroom to grab towels. She and my wife are still talking. I just smile to her.
I take a knee beside the dog and rub her side. She pushes her head into my chest. I pet the back of her head. She stops whimpering.