This week is full of milestones. Some good, and some bad (see the post below on our fallen comrade Brian Chevalier). Yesterday was a duel anniversary: six months together with my girlfriend Lauren and six months since I returned home from Iraq.
After coming back from our final leave in April 2006, we came to a realization very quickly: Iraq was lingering two months into the future. We had done most of our last minute training and spent a lot of our time cleaning weapons and packing up equipment. What sounds like hours and hours of busywork is in reality a lot of sitting around and meetings high above my level of responsibility. That led lower enlisted types like me to two activities to kill time during the work day: videogames and the internet.
Daily I was at a crossroads. Did I want to jump into on online game of Counter-Strike, or fulfill my other cyber habit of perusing local Myspace pages? Perhaps it was the voyeur in me, but I got a kick out of looking into the lives of people living in Seattle. Locals in the Tacoma and Seattle area were a bit uptight and even rude to those in the military. Their imaginations ran wild with the notion that we were all ignorant and violent rednecks, the worst of society had to offer. My hat is off to anyone who could score a date with a woman that didn't actively seek someone in the military, which is not the kind of lady I'd associate myself with for various health reasons.
I suppose deep down inside I was looking for a penpal. I didn't have a girl waiting for me back home in Texas (as wonderfully cliche that would have been) to send me packages and letters when I reached Iraq. I was told my standards were unreasonably high when my scant dating history and average looks were taken into account. It kept me from settling, but it also kept me alone.
Back to mid-April and my habit of thumbing through Myspace accounts. I had seen many but the women in them were a little...off. They seemed to be interested in fashion and Paris Hilton more than anything. After nearly giving up, I found one a bit intriguing. Dark hair, glasses, excellent movie taste. It was really too good to be true. Nevertheless, I sent her off an email proclaiming my admiration. Hours later, she sent back a response with her name: Lauren.
Lauren and I became penpals after that. Curious in nature, she wanted to know what I did in the Army. Her questions along with others inspired this blog to be created. She holds the honor of being one of the original five readers with a comment on my second entry:
Alex, i am so glad you started writing this blog! I can't wait for more to come. you grow more and more interesting everyday.
p.s. be all you can be ;)
April 26, 2006 12:50 AM
Needless to say, I was ecstatic. She was a reader before I had gained any notoriety. Any writing opened a window her to get to know me better. I had tried calling her a couple of weeks before we deployed, but she ignored my call. Hmph. Even still, she vowed to be my intercontinental friend.
She was a busy young woman with school and a bustling social life, but she still made time for me. It was happenstance if I ever caught her online after coming back from a patrol in Mosul at the start of our deployment. I'd send her a message, hoping she'd see it before leaving, and if I was lucky, we'd talk over instant messenger for as long as she could stay on the line. The internet cost five dollars for an hour and a half, so I'd bring extra money with me just in case I ran out of time.
One of the first things I did when I got to Iraq was compose a letter to her. She was excited to get it, and told me a reply was on the way. It came in the shape of a package, bursting with books, candy and a long letter. I was hooked. Everyone wanted to know who the mystery girl sending me packages and letters was. I told them simply, "Her name's Lauren. She lives in Seattle."
In the three and a half months we spent in Mosul, I can count the amount of times we talked on one hand. In late November when we were ordered to move to Baghdad, everyone was very nervous. We had great living conditions in Mosul. We knew the city well and had a reliable schedule. With the exodus to Baghdad, everything was up in the air. Rumors began that the base we were going to didn't have the internet, phones or even a gym. We'd likely be living in tents or worse. We couldn't tell our friends and families where we would be going for security reasons. All they knew is that we were going somewhere, at some time. Two hours before we left in the early morning, I had vehicle guard with Dozer. I realized that I had to get word to Lauren somehow. I remembered her phone number was in an old email from months prior, but I didn't have an internet access card! Shit!
I tried several cards that were collecting dust around the keyboard. I finally found one that had a few minutes left. I barely found the email before time ran out. Schoo, a close one. I dug out my neglected phone card to give her a call. It rang, and rang, and rang...to voicemail. I left her a quick and nervous message telling her not to worry, and I'd talk to her soon. It was the first time she ever heard my voice.
We got to Baghdad the next morning, only to eat, change uniforms and go back out on our mission to find the F-16 that had crashed in the Anbar desert. A week later we came back to see how accurate the rumors about living conditions were.
We were delighted to find the new base in Taji surpassed every expectation. We were living in bays, separate from our leadership. Everyone had enough room to set up a TV with an X Box. The base PX was huge and accommodating and the chow hall was magnificent. Most important of all was the internet access. There was a cafe with thirty computers within walking distance, but there was also an Iraqi service that gave you a dedicated line for $60 a month. Most of us shelled out more money than we would ever pay Comcast for a connection that would rival AOL in 1994 for speed and disconnections. But it was what it was: no more waiting an hour to use a computer for thirty minutes at a time.
This was not only a boon to this blog but my relationship with Lauren. When I wasn't on five day clearing missions or raids in Baghdad, I was back in Taji talking to her or hoping she'd get online, checking in between matches of Call of Duty 3 on our networked X Boxes. I also bought an Iraqi cell phone, which was less reliable than the internet connection and cost nearly a dollar a minute to call the states. Between the phone and the internet, we'd talk for hours. I famously had an hour conversation with her over the phone, only to jump online and talk for five more hours. What followed was the longest one day mission we ever did: fifteen hours of clearing. I slept for 45 minutes before we left and later felt the consequence of that. I was hallucinating near the end and couldn't recall what certain people said to me during the day. But I was happy: I talked to Lauren longer in one night than in the first three months in Mosul.
It was in those long Taji nights that we began to develop feelings for each other, though both of us neglected to tell the other person. It took me to say something incredibly stupid for her to be offended and tell me how she really felt, which goes to show that sometimes it pays to be a dumbass.
On top of being home and getting out of the Army, I was looking forward to seeing Lauren in June 2007 when we were scheduled to come home. I had the option of going back home to Texas to see my family, to Seattle to see Lauren or someplace else when I went on R&R leave at the beginning of April. I chose to go to Europe with my best friend Steve, as it was my only chance in life to go there for free. Besides, I'd be seeing my folks and Lauren two months later.
Coming back to Iraq from Europe meant going through the Frankfurt International Airport in Frankfurt, Germany. I stopped by an internet terminal to send a quick email to my friends and family that I was on my way back to combat. Signing out, I saw the headline that Kurt Vonnegut had passed away. My heart sank. Vonnegut was one of Lauren's favorite authors and introduced me to his work. I sent her an email with the link to the news article and coincidently, she was on the other side to receive it. She quickly sent me a response saying she was glad the news came from me, another fan. It was almost time to board. I signed out of Hotmail, which brought me to the news of the day. The first headline:
Tours in Iraq and Afghanistan Extended from Twelve to Fifteen Months
With a lump in my throat, I read the news to Steve. I barely had enough time to send an email to everyone saying I wouldn't be coming home in two months but rather five. I sent another email to Lauren letting her know that despite us never meeting, I missed her more than ever.
As I stepped onto the plane bound for Kuwait, my platoon back in Baqubah was called into a courtyard during a patrol and told the news of our extension. And so began the longest plane ride of my life.
I had only spent ten days in Baqubah before I went on leave, but the extension would give me ample time to stroll in the lush palm groves and trash filled streets the city had to offer. There was a reverse trend in living conditions and access to the internet. In Taji we peaked, but in Baqubah we took a nose dive. Forty of us lived in a tent made for twenty without insulation to shield us from the imposing sun. Even with the A/C running, it was always incredibly hot with the greenhouse effect lingering. Generators turning off like clockwork added to the shared misery of forty sweating bodies breathing and cussing in tight quarters. We were like dogs in a locked car.
There were three internet cafes sprawled out over the base, each distinguished by their incredible ability to draw huge lines of waiting soldiers. In many cases, we came back to the base for a few hours to eat, shower and change uniforms before heading back out. I'd abstain from any two of those so I could try and catch Lauren online. I had a success rate of about 5%, but that didn't keep me from trying every time. I might have been sweaty or hungry, but I'll be damned if I was going to miss an opportunity to talk to her for half an hour!
My phone reception fared far worse in Baqubah. When our equipment wasn't interfering with the signal, I was standing on concrete barriers trying to get a signal. Even with a few bars, I could make a call for only a few minutes before losing her completely. It was beginning to be like Mosul: having the chance to talk to her for very brief moments every so often. I brought my phone to our outpost deep in the city to get better signal. The only place I could make a call was on the roof, standing in plain sight of enemy snipers and machine gunners. The con of being shot in the head was outweighed by the pro of getting to speak to her for more than ten minutes. The base didn't allow cell phones, so $30 phone cards would sell for $35 on the black market. It was a scam, but they had idiots like me to buy them at a marked up price.
Our last few months of combat crawled by. Any kind of routine was changed on the fly for new missions to clear and reclear other neighborhoods. That meant walking all day and sitting around at night. Staying up during guard on the rooftop of the house we took over, I asked the guys if it was better if I met Lauren and my parents the day I got back, or meet my parents at Ft. Lewis and see her the next night. It was split down the middle. Lauren and I decided I'd meet her the next night to spare the awkwardness of my parents being there. She'd still meet my parents a couple of days before I flew in. On the day we were supposed to come home, I wrote a short story about what could've been. The real thing would have to wait.
On September 12, we embarked on a day long journey back to the states. I could think of nothing other than her as I was wedged up against a six foot tall cajun and someone I'd never met before. My thoughts were my only comfort on the shoulder-to-shoulder ride over the ocean.
We touched down on American soil in the evening, but we made the error of arriving too early; our buses weren't scheduled to arrive for another hour and a half. Most of us changed socks and brushed our teeth in front of a television camera. Five miles away at Ft. Lewis, our families were watching us sit around in high definition.
The buses finally came and dropped us off at the Sheridan Gym on the grounds of Ft. Lewis. It felt like we hadn't been there for years. We removed our hats and straightened our uniforms in formation so we could march onto the basketball court. As soon as we walked in, the crowd erupted into a frenzy. I couldn't help but smile. After the shortest speech ever by an officer, we were released to our families.
Imagine a single piece of raw meat thrown into a tank of pirahnas and you can understand what kind of frenzy ensued.
My parents didn't spot me in the crowd before hell broke loose. I was wandering aimlessly in the crowd of crying wives and yelping kids. I found the wife of one of my friends who asked me, "Have you seen my husband?" with her baby in tow. I said we could look together for the other half of Team Destructon.
In between crowds of people, I saw my dad running up to me with my mother closely behind him. But my attention was focused on the girl behind her. It was Lauren. I pretended not to notice as I hugged my dad tight.
She had come on the behest of my parents and like in my fictional story, her deep brown eyes were the first things I noticed. I embraced her with the emotions and feelings that had waited fifteen months to manifest.
It has been six months and one day since that moment and we're still together. She contributed infinitely to my ability to reintergrate into society when I got back and left the Army four months ago. Without her, I'd likely be back home, lonely and without much direction. This entry would have never existed, and my blog would be nothing like it is now without her. She's my inspiration, my muse. We'll be moving to Austin, Texas next month so we can go to school. We're both going ot be writers someday. She won't have a problem with that; she already has an associate's degree. I haven't taken an hour of college in my life. It'll be a big change to go back to school, but with her next to me, nothing is impossible.
Us in the gym, and me the color of a beet, for obvious reasons
On the Pacific Shore. From Left to Right: A bearded hobo and a beautiful girl
The namesake of my short story: Somnium on her ankle
Here's to six months, and beyond.