A sudden jolt awakened me from a loose sleep. I opened my eyes and feel every bump on the turbulent ride. How long had I been out? It felt like hours, but I look at my watch. 5:30 in the morning. Shit. I look around to see who else is awake but don’t find any returned glances. Only our knees are touching, but I can feel the heat from the dude sitting to my right, his head cocked onto his shoulder. Bill’s hands rest neatly on his lap over a tattered copy of National Geographic from 2004. The Sphinx peeks curiously from underneath his fingers. A trucker in his days before the Army, Bill’s face shows the strain and anguish of two tours in Iraq, his skin eroded by the sun and sand. His son was born in October of last year, three months into the deployment. He spent his two weeks on leave catching up before returning to Mosul. I reach into my cargo pocket and feel around for my mp3 player. I find it buried underneath torn black gloves that hold the putrid smell of a year’s worth of sweat and dust. Before putting on my headphones I settle back into my seat, getting low and comfortable. I hit shuffle and the first song that comes up is Time by Pink Floyd. Fitting. I look to my left, expecting to see mud huts dotted along roadside palm groves. Quickly I realize where I am. The fuselage rumbles as we cut through a thick cloud. Streams of gray and white flow over the wing that commands my view in the tiny Plexiglas window. The fasten seatbelt sign dings and flashes courteously, and a message from the pilot sounds just as pleasant. “Gentlemen, in about fifteen minutes we’ll be approaching Bangor International Airport. Please fasten your seatbelts while we make our descent.” Three hundred and forty five days after leaving the states, we’re about to touch down in Maine.
Those of us awake let out a cheer that rouses everyone else to their senses. The sun is barely visible as we make our way to the ground. The lights on the wing blink with an impartial red and white rhythm. As the plane taxis down the runway, the sound of unbuckling seatbelts can be heard throughout. With a spontaneous burst of energy, the officers and senior enlisted men at the front of the plane shuffle toward the door. In the middle, not a man can hide their excitement. One more stretch and we’re home free. For some of us, this was our one and only deployment. Others finished their second, and a third is in their future. But for now, everyone that made it out alive has a year to spend at home before returning to Iraq. Walking down the tunnel that connects the terminal, I spot a crowd on the other side of the clear glass door, decked out in red, white and blue. I see their mouths moving but the only sound I hear is of dirty boots grinding on the clean green and blue checkered carpet. Banners and signs display messages like “Welcome Home” and “Land of The Free.” Both kids and adults wave tiny American flags. Veterans of past wars wear hats proudly displaying their branch of service, with CIB pins and unit insignia stuck in their bills. The crowd takes up most of the terminal, but a line is cut to the waiting area. After an exhausting amount of handshaking, I take a seat in a hard plastic chair.
“I just have to say, I’m so proud of what ya’ll have done” says the woman already sitting down.
“I know it was a hard year.”
Above her head a television on CNN plays without sound. The banner above the news ticker reads “Violence in Baghdad Escalates.”
“Thanks, I appreciate it” I say to her.
“My son is in the Navy. Do you know him?”
A Bradley with half its hull missing lay on its side, flames escaping the hole where the driver used to sit.
“I asked if you know my son” she repeated with a smile.
A squad bearing the 82nd Airborne patch crosses a broad, trash filled street. I see the urgency in their steps and movements. One man covers the intersection with his rifle as the others sprint past him. They must have been in a firefight.
“Oh, I don’t know. I might. What’s his name?”
“Daniel. I think he waves those light sticks at the pilots or something.”
An Iraqi man pleads with tears in his eyes, covered in cuts and blood. A woman with a shrouded face behind him looks up and shakes her hands toward the sky.
“Ah, I can’t say that I know him.”
“I didn’t think so!” she says, with a laugh. “I better find my other son. He’s not quite old enough to join you! Thanks again for your service.”
Before I can return her kind words, the woman walks toward the book shop. I raise my hand to my forehead to part my hair. My palm comes back damp with sweat. I wipe it away on my uniform, down the right sleeve to my wrist. An hour, it was supposed to be. The plane would be done refueling and ready to load back up in about 45 minutes.
“Who the fuck was that?” asks a familiar voice. I take my eyes off the TV and see Josh walking toward me with an unopened pack of Marlboro Lights in his hand.
“I don’t know, some lady who spends her free time at airports. She asked me if I knew her son in the Navy.”
Josh has been my roommate for nearly the entire time I’ve known him. At Ft. Lewis we split a corner room in the barracks, and in Mosul we shared a connex with another guy. At 5’6’’, Josh is shorter than most in the platoon but made up for it in brute strength. Most of his free time during the deployment was spent lifting weights at the gym on base. In Mosul and Baghdad he lifted six days in a week. The move to Baqubah uprooted everyone’s routine, especially his. During our three month tenure there, he was lucky to fit in three nights at the gym in seven days. Even on a rare day off we got tasked with escorting commanders to other bases, or standing by in case another unit needed our help in the city. Josh seemed to sweat the muscle right off his body in the 110 degree heat. He put back on a surprising amount of meat during our three week stay in Kuwait. Sitting in the chair beside me, he looks like himself a year ago, more so than the thinner, exhausted frame of two months prior.
“So, you excited about seeing Laur-en?” asks Josh, with his patented strain on the –en.
“I’m excited to see roads that don’t have massive bombs underneath them, but in particular, yes. I am excited to see her.”
Lauren was waiting for me in Washington. This morning will be the first time I’ve ever laid eyes on her. A few months before we deployed, I started talking to her online. We quickly found we had a lot in common. I had about sixty days to meet her in person, but I didn’t. I knew that someone who goes to war comes back a different person. I didn’t want her to look into my eyes and see a changed man, or see me flinch nervously after a sudden noise catches me off guard. I was certain before we left that she was special. In the beginning months of our deployment, I had little opportunity to talk to her. She was at school, I was in northern Iraq. When I received a package from her one day, I had an epiphany. Outside of my family, she was the first person to send me anything. Friends I’ve had for years seemed to forget to send even emails. Before her, I have never known such care. When we got word of going down to Baghdad in November, I was worried it would put a heavier strain on our relationship. Quickly I realized that wasn’t the case. In our platoon bay we could get our own internet line for sixty dollars a month. It was a high price considering the service, but well worth it. I bought a cell phone that took prepaid cards, so after we burned through eighty minutes on the phone, we’d talk online until one of us was forced to leave. Seven hours was the longest we ever talked consecutively. We had a fourteen hour clearing mission the next day, but I wasn’t fazed by an hour of sleep when she was on my mind. I might have been delirious at the end of it, but I’m a daydreamer anyway. So is she. We pledged to wait for each other. Of course it was easier on me than it was on her, but it was the principle of the matter. In a few hours, a year’s worth of waiting, hoping, anticipation, will come together.
The speakers click on: “Attention in the terminal, Flight 815 to McCord Air Force Base will be departing in thirty minutes.” Immediately a flood of voices beckon everyone back to the gate. My hands feel sore from all the handshakes, but I give a few high fives to the crowd before boarding the plane. Entering the cabin again, I find it colder than before. I glide down the aisle to my seat. What was it again, 33A or 35A? I spot the faded, rolled up copy of National Geographic in the center seat. Yep, 33A.
I sit down, buckle in and wait for everyone to board the plane before I put my headphones back in. I close my eyes. The plane is at half capacity, but I can feel the electricity in the air. On the last leg of our journey, it’s finally becoming real. No more patrols, no more heat, no more thirst, no more pain, no more bullets, bombs or bad guys. Just me, Lauren and the rest of my life when the plane touches the ground. Everyone is seated. The engines begin with a faint groan that quickly becomes a roar. We’re moving at two hundred miles an hour when the plane takes off.
I drift in and out of sleep, but it seems like just an instant before we see the plains of the Midwest. The cornfields are a vivid green in the mid-June summer. I can barely make out tractors at work in the early morning fog. Fortunate Son is playing when my mp3 player finally dies after fifteen faithful hours. I should have bought a magazine when I had a chance. I had already read about the restoration work on The Sphinx, so Bill was no help in my cure for boredom. I stare out the window until the plains turn into the Rocky Mountains. Not too long now. Now without music, I can hear the twenty different conversations throughout the plane. Bars to visit, cars to buy, divorces to begin. Josh is talking again of the Halloween party where everyone is going as a superhero. He’s going as Captain America and I, as Thor. My mind drifts to the possibilities of drunken superheroes playfighting in a bar. A lot of demotions seem to be in our future. From the Rocky Mountains it seems like an eternity until we see the deep blues of Puget Sound. I’ve flown into Washington five times, but this is the first I’ve come in during a clear day. The sun is in the middle of the sky and reflecting brilliantly off the water. I count the taps of my left foot until we start descending to McCord. On 937 we feel the hard bump of landing. We’re home.
With how fast the plane emptied, you’d think the back half was on fire. In less than two minutes everyone was off the plane. Coming down the aluminum staircase, we barely make out the crowd standing a safe distance from the runway. In a single file line we make our way to them, but as we recognize faces, the line becomes a mob in a mad dash to loved ones. I search the signs and banners for any mention of my name. On the leftmost corner I spot a multicolored banner with a peace sign on it, saying “Welcome Home Alex.” I can’t help but smile ear to ear. Lauren s standing with her younger sister behind the cardboard sign. I told her jokingly beforehand, look for the guy in the Army uniform. My stride picks up as I get closer. She finally spots me. Twenty feet from her, she’s more beautiful than I could ever imagine. The only thing I can see on earth is her light brown eyes staring back at me. I don’t know who streamed tears first, but ten feet away my vision becomes hazy. I blink to regain clarity. This is it. The beginning. She takes a breath, and with sorrow in her eyes she says two words that melt the tarmac away: “Wake up.”
My eyes shoot open. Staring back at me is the most clear, uninterrupted view of the stars you’ve ever seen. Somewhere in the distance there’s a muffled explosion. “Wake up and get your shit on, we got a patrol,” says Bill, as he throws his boots on, not even stopping to lace them up. I roll over and check my watch. 3:14 Am. On the roof of our outpost on the east side of Baqubah, the mosquitoes dance in a cloud over the sandbag bunker next to me. With half opened eyes I throw on my vest and helmet and walk down the stairs to the gate, lowering my night vision goggles to my eye. “Alright, everyone ready to go?” asks Matt as he lazily steps outside. I pull the charging handle back to chamber a round. "Three more months of this shit," Bill mutters as he follows Matt. Stepping out of the gate, we walk past the charred frame of a car as the frogs croak with indifference in the muggy desert night.
Somnium: Latin. To daydream.
(This story is a work of fiction. I wrote it on June 12, the day we were supposed to be home before we got extended for three months. Instead of flying home, I settled for a flight of fancy.)