Moving Toward Home
by Seanan Holland
FOB Jackson is an effort to remember now. Two weeks ago, I was sitting on a hescoe sipping a coke and watching the sun go down over one of the most war-torn places on earth. Rumor is Genghis Kahn went around - instead of through. I can see why. It’s gotta be a pretty rough place for Ghengis to avoid it. The short wall of Hescoe barriers make for an interesting sort of bus stop. I took my cue to pull up a seat from one of the First Sergeants who was waiting for his trucks to run him back up the 611 to his company outpost. When it comes to outdoor furniture, the Hescoe barriers are about the most ergonomically optimized places to sit that we have – a wire cube full of dirt. With a lot of effort and a few good tools, the thick wire of the hescoes can be formed into nice garden chairs. Few went to the trouble – war is always a compromise among priorities. A few days later, I went around the camp saying my good-byes to people and the place.
At Leatherneck, we get music in the chowhall – an eclectic mix. This morning at breakfast it was Abba’s Waterloo followed by the Bee Gee’s Staying Alive – no kiddin’. Somebody’s gonna have to let the DJ know about the war.
I ran into some guys I knew from my flying days – one of the pilots I went to Iraq with and a crewchief that I flew with in the Reserve squadron out of Norfolk. My friend, Chris, may come to visit from Kandahar. Apparently one or both of us has connections. I even ran into a British doctor that I had been on the HMS Ocean with for a couple weeks. War is an interesting place to meet up with old friends. At every one I come to, I run into buddies I haven’t seen in years.
Warrior Transition training should be complete tomorrow. Hopefully everyone feels more informed about their stress response system and why it doesn’t automatically spring back to its pre-combat state when we get removed from the stress environment. We have been practicing with our limbic systems for seven months – we can focus some intense energy on a moment’s notice. Most of you have probably not been practicing your stress response as diligently – at least, I would hope you haven’t been. Out here, our bodies have been pouring Omega-3 fatty acid on the neural wires of our survival system – thickening up the myelin sheath of the most-used circuits. This tiny physiological difference will likely be a source of disruption as we try to re-connect with family, friends, and a place that doesn’t have IEDs.
Most everyone in my tent is coughing. Those who aren’t coughing are snoring and will be coughing soon. I made it six and a half months without getting sick. The combination of finishing the cruise book and warrior transition training caught up with me. Self care has been very good and intentional up to this point. Somehow I got the book project. Good place for my creative energy, but hard for me to organize it all not knowing how the software works and having the battalion spread out over four locations. I got behind and now have to play catch up.
When I was walking around FOB Jackson in Sangin, my knees and ankles attended to the large gravel that was everywhere. We have gravel at Leatherneck, but more on the scale of miles rather than yards. Here it is distance that my body attends to. Force protection makes everything difficult. The heads have to be outside the concrete blast barrier where the rows of billeting tents are. Same with the garbage cans. You can’t go to the bathroom or throw away a piece of gum without putting shoes on. Everything is far away. Apparently the place is much improved over a few years ago when the roads were un-paved. It’s harder to put IEDs under a paved road. Highway 611 through Sangin was recently paved. Commerce is on the move – trucks and fleets of little white Toyota Celicas zip along anxiously waiting their turn-off onto the dirt roads. The occupants of a few of those little white Toyotas know where many of the IEDs are.
One of the civilians in the tent just said these are the worse beds he’s ever seen in his life. That guy can go sleep on a sharp rock. They are packing up to go live in metal cans. Weenies. War is a big experience and there is a temptation to compare how bad it was or to scoff those who suffered less. I am not immune from the impulse. On the one hand, this is a rather silly temptation. On the other, we’ve had an experience that is new, big, and hard to understand. It is a challenge to put words to it, and we may be leery that the effort will be misunderstood by those closest to us. When our limbic systems are dialed up to high, and our pre-frontal cortex is dialed down to low, we tend to think in terms of basic categories – something like, “it sucked” or “it was good.” At warrior transition training, I try to explain to the Marines and Sailors that it is not enough to say that it sucked; we have to be able to name the details – the heat, hunger, exhaustion, pack-straps, and all the rest. The skill is not to compare who had the most dramatic deployment experience or to compare our experience to that of our loved ones back home. It was difficult for all of us. The skill is to name the differences.
When you hang out with aviators you learn to see the world in a certain way – from way high up. What Marines call micro-terrain matters a lot less from the aviation point of view. When you hang out with the infantry, your feet become more observant – micro-terrain matters. And of course, perspective changes from one military service to the next. I’m now at Manas Air Base in Kirgizstan. Turns out the Air Force has much nicer gravel than the Marine Corps. The stones are much more uniform in size from one to the next, and they are smaller – less apt to turn one’s heel on Air Force gravel. I like Manas. It’s not dusty and stuff seems to work here. It’s not fancy by North American standards, but the chow hall is open 24/7 and you can choose your own food. Like a lot of military bases, things are set up communally and foster gatherings – the chow hall, the internet café, the gym. Manas is nice, but I’ll be happy to go home. The first few months went very quickly. The last two sort of dragged. For weeks I have been mostly successful at not thinking about going home, but I can feel it now. I think some sailing will be in order, and I should be home in time to catch some fall colors with my camera.
Before I deployed, serendipity orchestrated an unexpected gathering. My friend and fellow UU military chaplain, Chris, and I wound up scheduling ourselves at the same Buddhist retreat event. I thought the retreat was just what I needed. The icing on the cake was a warrior blessing that put me in touch with the spiritual legacies of Odysseus, Sitting Bull, the Samurai, King David, and fellow warriors of the US military. To Chris and all of you, who were there, thank you for the sustaining energy of that blessing.
Before we left the retreat, Chris also bought me a gift – a Japanese tea set. I read a little bit about the tradition on the internet and was vaguely aware that the tea ceremony was part of the Samurai tradition – fulfilling the warrior’s obligation to attend to beauty and creative forms as a counter balance to the destructive forces of war. Chris, barely in country for a week, managed to pull off a trip from Kandahar to Leatherneck. A friend here at Leatherneck picked him and his assistant up at the fixed-wing terminal and Chris invited us all to tea. Just like there is a way to do everything in the Marine Corps, there is a way to do everything in the tea ceremony. Like the Buddhist retreat eight months ago, the tea ceremony was powerful in its simplicity and form. It challenges my western sensibilities to discover how much richness there is in drinking tea, but there it is. For 20 minutes, my attention was on the movements and textures of the ceremony rather than war. When the bowl was emptied the last time, I realized that my mind and heart had been skillfully cared for. The ritual of tea happened my last full day in Afghanistan. I feel ready to come home.
See you all soon,
Thanks for all the support you’ve sent my way,
Lt. Seanan Holland is a Unitarian Universalist military chaplain stationed in Afghanistan. He has served as an intern with the CLF.
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