35. THE LONG WAY HOME
I was kicked awake sometime before the sun came up and told to grab my bags. We weren’t leaving quite yet. We had to go through customs first. Balancing what felt like about one hundred pounds of gear on various parts of my body, I made my way across Manas with the rest of the soldiers in my company.
We lined up in front of a big tan warehouse. I dumped all my bags on the ground and sat on top of them. A fat Air Force guy strutted around at the entrance of the warehouse with a microphone in his hand. I noticed his spotless uniform had creases in it. He had time to diligently iron his uniform before showing up to work that morning. I hadn’t even brushed my teeth.
The Air Force guy paced around in front of us while he explained what we couldn’t bring on the chartered Ryanair flight we would be getting on. No fluids over ten ounces, no fingernail clippers, knives, or anything else you would think you wouldn’t be able to bring on a civilian flight. I had heard this briefing before, and it was mostly just for show. As long as you weren’t trying to smuggle back any war trophies, explosives, or weapons, they would just let you walk.
After he was done reading from his script, the Air Force guy opened the door to the warehouse and we slowly walked inside. Little wooden stations were set up to dump your gear on and some tired-looking airmen to rifled through it to make sure you weren’t trying to commit any kind of international crime.
I walked up to the stall when it was my turn and dumped all my bags out. A fat guy wearing rubber gloves started rifling through it. He opened every little pocket on every uniform and unfolded everything. From the time I was seventeen, I had spent way too much time going through airports, so I knew a little trick to sneak things through customs.
Customs agents, military or civilian, were usually fat, lazy bastards who hated to actually do their jobs. If you place contraband you don’t actually want in an easy-to-find place, they will dutifully find it and think they’ve done their job—leaving your good shit securely unmolested by their Cheetos-dusted fingers.
I left a knife in the pocket of one of my uniforms for that fat bastard to find. Like clockwork, he pulled it out. “You can’t take this home,” he said, his eyes staring daggers at me.
“Shit! Sorry.” I faked surprise. “I totally forgot about it.”
The fat guy put it in a little crate labeled “contraband.” He would probably take it for himself after we were gone. Then that fat bastard did something I’d never seen before: He kept going through my shit. Hidden in the liner of one of my jackets was a bag of tiny pink pills. I had hidden a cache of over-the-counter cough pills to help me sleep through the incredibly long plane trip back to America. “If you have anything in here you shouldn’t, you need to tell me, because if I find it, you’ll be charged,” the fat guy said for about the third time.
“Yeah, I have a rocket launcher in my shower bag,” I sneered.
The fat guy opened my shower bag to check. He took out my bottle of body wash, my fingernail clippers, and razors.
“You can’t have these either,” he said, placing them into the contraband crate. That was just punishment for being a smartass. After proving that he had more power than I did, he tossed my shit into a pile and told me to move along.
I stuffed all my gear back into the bags and shuffled my way to a lobby area. From there we were stuffed into rickety Russian buses with broken seats and trucked out to an airport.
Manas International Airport was a pile of crap. Its main terminal looked like it was vintage Soviet 1950s design. Wreckage of MIG fighter jets was strewn everywhere. The rusted, burned-out husk of a huge Russian transport jet lay in ruins by the side of a runway. By comparison, the various Air Force jets on the runway stood out as beacons of the modern world.
A big white jet with “Ryanair” painted on its side crept down the runway. Ryanair was probably the Department of Defense’s favorite airline—a cut-rate Irish airline that cuts corners wherever they can to save money. I was surprised they still had a bathroom. They were always staffed with the angriest bunch of Eastern European stewardesses who would ignore you and pretend they didn’t understand what you were saying.
The flight from Central Asia back to the States was a grueling one. Spending nearly twenty hours crammed into an airline seat was bad enough, but when you can’t wait to get home from a war, it’s nearly unbearable. You could only sleep so much of the flight away. Naturally, anyway.
I went into my bag and fished out the little baggie of pills I had smuggled through customs. I upended the bag into my mouth and washed it down with a bottle of water. It didn’t take long for me to start fading from the sleeping pills pumping through my bloodstream. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep before the flight even took off.
A jolt woke me as the plane bounced off the tarmac. I was awake but too blitzed on sleeping pills to really understand what was going on. I noticed my face was wet and tried to wipe away a massive amount of drool. “What’s going on?” I slurred to Thad, who was sitting next to me.
“We’re in Germany, bro.” He clapped me on the shoulder. “Halfway there!” he cheered, squeezing past me and getting in line to walk off the plane. I got up and stumbled my way into the terminal. I plopped down in a seat next to someone I didn’t recognize and stared mindlessly at a TV that sat in front of me.
I was trying to fight off the effects of the pills by forcing myself to stay awake. I was worried that if I fell asleep, I would be left behind. I’m not sure if it was paranoia due to the intake of way too many sleeping pills or whether I just didn’t trust my fellow soldiers at all. I wasn’t going to take the chance.
My hands and feet tingled, and my brain struggled to comprehend what was going on around me. It took me the better part of an hour to figure out the news channel I had been watching was actually in German. A loudspeaker kicked on and announced that our flight was restocked and refueled, and we were good to take off once again. We all got back onto the plane. I crashed into my seat and was out as soon as I leaned back.
I woke up to a jolt again. It wasn’t the plane landing that time, though. It was Thad slapping me and cheering. “We’re in the States, dude!” he yelled.
I looked out the window and saw the lush green landscape of Bangor, Maine. The plane slowly came to a halt and once again we were kicked off. We walked through the terminal and were greeted by lines of old people and war veterans. Each of them wanted to shake our hands or hug us.
The number of people and close human interaction freaked me out. It felt like the walls were closing in. I broke into something resembling a jog to get through them all.
Breathing heavily, I walked up to a drink stall and bought several Red Bulls. I slammed them down back to back in an attempt to counteract all the sleeping pills I’d eaten.
Before long, we were pushed onto a different plane and started the last leg of our trip to Texas.
I had to sit next to one of our mechanics, whom I hated. He smelled terrible and wouldn’t stop talking about how many women he was going to bang when he got back to Texas. I wished the sleeping pills had killed me. I tried to ignore him for the last four hours of the trip.
I had my face pressed against the window watching the clouds go by. By now the infusion of caffeine had me shaking like mad. I stared hard through the clouds trying to catch any glimpse of the brown landscape of Texas under us.
I slumped back into my seat. It hadn’t seemed that long ago I was on a plane just like that one, but going the other way. For a second it felt as if the last year of my life had never actually happened. It was all just a blur.
The burning pain in my spine and the never-ending ringing in my ears were a reminder it was real. The handful of pills I had to take to sleep, only to awaken screaming and punching the air were a reminder it was real. Any sudden loud noise that would send me ducking as if a rocket had just screamed overhead was a reminder it was real. My bloodstained gear was a reminder it was real.
The plane skipped across the runway and everyone erupted into wild cheering. I joined them. I screamed at the top of my lungs and pumped my fists into the air. For the first time in a long time, I was feeling actual happiness. The plane slowed to a halt, and the door creaked opened. It was moving impossibly slowly.
We got up and pushed each other down the aisles like refugees fighting over food. We were all exhausted, and our legs were cramped from endless hours of travel, but at that very moment, we were energized by twelve months of unbridled carnal wanting. No one in the world wanted anything more than the people on that plane wanted to get off.
We rushed out onto the tarmac to be greeted by the overpaid old guys that made up every chain of command in the military. They all shook our hands. None of them had any idea what we had done over the last year. I was willing to bet that my brigade commander wouldn’t have shaken my hand and told me “good job” had he known I had been drinking smuggled booze on a rooftop and hurling the empty bottles onto innocent passers-by only a few months before.
We filed into an airport hangar and turned our weapons in at a desk. The one constant I had over the last year of my life was taken from my hands for the last time. I saw Grandpa was behind a desk further down, filling out paperwork. I vaulted the counter and wrapped that old bastard in the tightest hug I had ever given another man in my life.
“Hey, brother!” he said when he realized it was me. “Welcome home.” He grinned at me.
“Thanks, man. How’s the back?” I asked.
“Fucking terrible.” He shook his head. “You should go get on that bus, man, you can’t miss your own homecoming.” He pointed to a line of buses that were going to take us to some parade field.
“Yeah, I guess.” I hugged him again and walked off.
Walrus stopped me on the way; I noticed a little limp in his step.
“What’s up, fatass?” I gave him a hug.
“’Sup fucker. Drinks later?” he asked.
“Fuck, yeah. I’ll call you when I get home.” We shook hands, and I climbed onto my assigned bus.
The buses snaked through the back roads of central Texas. Police cars and motorcycles sped along next to us flashing their lights and sirens as they went. The buses were so close together during the trip I was pretty sure we were going to wreck. Survive Kandahar and die in a fiery bus accident outside of Fort Hood. That would be our luck.
During the trip, no one talked. We stared out the windows taking everything in. Now that the one thing we wanted more than anything else was right in front of us, it didn’t seem real. In Afghanistan, all of that was just an abstract thought. Nothing but future hopes and dreams. Now that everyone’s hopes and dreams were coming true we were frozen in place.
The buses pulled up to a parade field near our company headquarters. There was a massive group of people waiting for us. They were holding signs and banners, toting around kids or pushing them in strollers. The crowd started screaming when we pulled into view. Their cameras went off like the muzzle flashes of a hundred machine guns. I wondered how far you could see that flash at night while on patrol.
The bus doors slid open and we marched out into a neat formation. Our first sergeant and commander stood in front of us.
Rocky, looking hungover and haggard from days of travel, straightened his uniform up and turned to face us. “Go see your families! Dismissed!” he ordered in a bark.
Everyone flooded to their loved ones. The family members rushed forward to hug their husband, wife, child, or significant whatever. I dropped my bags at my feet and lit a cigarette.
The reality hadn’t set in yet.
While my body was standing there in Texas, my mind would never leave Afghanistan. The blood-soaked mountains of that country would be with me until the day I died. My rifle was silent from then until forever.
That war, though. That war would never truly be over for us.