Our duffle bags were packed and piled at the end of a large cement surface. The stars hung in the night sky as we awaited our final ride out of FOB Walton. We, of course, had been told the helicopters would be coming for us hours before, but they never showed. Something you learn early on in the army is that whenever you’re told that transportation is coming, it will inevitably be several hours late.

We all used our duffle bags as uncomfortable pillows in an attempt to get some sleep, but everyone was fully awake. We were all too anxious to get on the coming helicopters to sleep. Every single time the wind blew a little too hard we sat up from our duffle bags and stared into the sky waiting to see the big gangly form of a Chinook helicopter come into view.

“I think these assholes run off black people time,” Oldies cursed, staring up into the sky.

“That’s racist,” Memphis drawled.

“Mother fucker, I’m black.”

“You’re not black, you Cosby sweater-wearing mother fucker,” Memphis joked.

“He’s got a point, bro,” I said. “You’re the whitest black guy I’ve ever met.”

“And he’s from Detroit,” Memphis added, pointing at me. I didn’t even bother to correct him.

“Fuck you guys,” Oldies said, rolling over on his stomach and showing us his back.

I started to drift off into a fitful sleep when I thought I heard the sound of helicopter blades chopping through the air. I opened my eyes and stared into the sky and didn’t see anything. The stars still shone overhead in the empty void.

Where the fuck is this thing? I thought. As if something up above was answering my question, the large form of a Chinook helicopter emerged from the darkness. It had no lights and was painted pitch black. It was hiding in plain sight.

The helicopter’s rotors sent dust and rocks flying throughout the area, and we ducked for cover. Several people’s bags were sent tumbling across the helipad, and they tried in vain to chase them down while getting beaten by hurricane-force winds. Another two Chinooks landed on the crowded helipad. Slim got off his bag, balanced himself with an awkward crouch, and braced himself on his rifle. He turned to face us: his squad sitting in a loose circle on the rocks holding onto our bags for dear life.

His mouth moved, but we couldn’t hear a single word over the deafening thud of helicopter blades. After a few attempts, he quit trying to talk and frantically pointed to one of the Chinooks. He grabbed his bags in both hands, his rifle smacking off his chest from the sling it was attached to. He ran to the helicopter in a low crouch and we followed.

Thankfully I was a large guy, so the rotor wash from the helicopters didn’t threaten to sweep me away. Others weren’t so lucky. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a short blonde girl from one of the other platoons get blasted off of her feet and dragged across the helipad as she tried to run to the helicopter. Her bags tumbled across the concrete after her.

We crammed into the innards of the helicopters and piled all our bags in the middle. We sat on cargo nets and, with the back ramp of the helicopter still hanging open, we slowly lifted into the air. A soldier who was strapped to the helicopter with a long piece of cord stood on the ramp. He had a machine gun in his hands as he stared over the expanse of empty Afghan countryside.

As we flew over Kandahar City, I saw the brightly lit form of Walton fade away, swallowed by the darkness of the rest of the city. Not a single light could be seen in what could easily be mistaken for a dead city. Like something out of a bad zombie film.

The helicopter banked sharply and sent all our bags crashing down onto Kitty who was seated across from me. I laughed, but my mean-spirited laughter was completely drowned out by the sounds of the helicopter.

After about forty-five minutes, we dipped back to the ground and landed at Kandahar Air Field. Mercifully, the engines of the helicopter powered down and I was able to hear something other than painful ringing and pounding. We pushed and shoved our way out of the crowded helicopter and onto the tarmac. A long line of buses waited for us.

If I thought the inside of the helicopter was small, then the bus was microscopic. Wearing full combat gear and carrying all our belongings, we could barely fit through the door of the bus, let alone sit down. I smashed into a seat and felt someone push against me and try to sit in what was left of the seat.

I was so tightly packed into the bus I couldn’t move. Stuck to the ceiling of the bus was a sticker that depicted a jet bombing tiny stick figures with the caption, “We will free the shit out of you.”

The buses drove on for what seemed like longer than our flying time in the helicopters. Probably because I could hardly breathe inside of that moving sardine can.

We stopped in front of a sea of tents somewhere on the outskirts of Kandahar Air Field. The bus doors slid open and we piled out as fast as we could. Some people could do little more than toss themselves out of the bus and land like a sack of shit on the dirt.

Tents were set up in a small city with massive generators between each one. Slim led us to the tent we were allocated. On the way, I saw several showers and toilet trailers set in a row with a little wooden walkway built around them.

“No more shitting in a port-o-potty.” Cali smiled.

“It’s about the little things in life,” I said.

We walked into our new temporary home, and I was taken aback by how many beds they had managed to smash into the small tent. With a few inches of clearance on either side, bunk beds were lined up with little room for anything else. The top bunk was maybe six inches away from the tent’s ceiling.

There was so little room, we were forced to put our bags in the same bed we planned to sleep in. I put my rifle under the mattress and my arms around my bags and drifted off into a night of restless sleep. The next morning, I woke up to Slim shaking my bed and yelling at me to get up.

“What’s going on?” I asked still half asleep.

“We have PT,” he said.

I looked him up and down and saw he was wearing the horrible vinyl army short-shorts that we had to wear to do physical training.

“Seriously?” I thought he was joking. I sat up and smacked my head on the upper bunk’s support beams. Wincing, I looked around and saw several other people changing into their PT uniforms. “You got to be kidding me,” I groaned. I rolled out of my bed and started searching through my bags for a PT uniform. I couldn’t believe we finally had no missions to do and Slim had woken us up for this bullshit.

We all lumbered outside wearing stained, gray PT shirts. They said “Army” in big, bold letters on the front and were paired with tiny shorts. I felt objectified by everyone who walked past us.

“Fall in,” Slim ordered.

We all lazily stood at attention. The hot Afghan sun was cresting overhead and already burning my skin. After a few minutes of stretching, we took off into a lazy jog down the dusty roads of the tent village.

We jogged on, huffing and puffing the shit-caked, dust-filled air. Our lungs worked overtime trying to find tiny oxygen molecules in the middle of all the air pollution. I coughed and gagged on dirt and debris, but I didn’t care. We were leaving Afghanistan. It didn’t seem real yet. It felt like any minute Slim would turn around and scream in my face and we would just go on living in that hellhole forever. It was real, though. Every single step we ran down that road brought us one step closer.