Yesterday I got back up in the air, and it felt great. I forgot the excitement of hopping in a spun up bird and being whisked away to some new remote location to visit soldiers who sometimes emerge from their hooch like cavemen walking out into the sunshine for the first time in weeks. You can see in the eyes of the first timers, this “drinking from the firehose” look where they are struggling to take it all in.
You know the questions: How am I going to adapt living here? How do I find a routine? Is this place safe? What am I doing here?
There are tons more, each different for each individual. If they have never been outside their neck of the woods in the states, they are wondering how such a beautiful country existed and they never knew about it, taking in all of the majesty of these enormous mountains and the green zones that flank the rivers. It is a foreboding country, and you can quickly understand how the people who have lived in these valleys for centuries have become a hardened people. It is unforgiving, and as the saying goes, “the mountain always wins.”
We visited three locations and the most austere one made me feel most at home. There is something very special about finding yourself out on the front line in difficult living conditions on a holiday. Something sacred. The soldiers are beginning to come together as family, and understanding what it means to depend on one another for morale, security and camaraderie. They accept where they are in life and are shown by the old timers that they can overcome conditions and appreciate so many little things. They definitely have a new way to consider what to be thankful for, on Thanksgiving.
We arrived back at the base in time to ground gear and head to chow, and let me tell you how diligently cooks and contractors work to make our holiday meals something special. I remember serving chow at FOB Bostick after Battlefield Circulation, and watching COL Brad Brown handing out multiple slices of pie. Watching wide eyes and overflowing plates, as they took their mind off the battlefield for a little while. Yesterday’s feast was no different…except for lobster tail. But hey, when in Rome!
And in that moment yesterday, I realized what it was that brought me to where I am today. A simple phrase went through my head which strung together so many difficult experiences that I look back on and wonder, “Why did I like that so much?” Looking at that group of young soldiers, many whom are older souls than civilians twice their age, I thought, “Wherever it is worst, that is where I want to be.”
That is totally unlike me. I complain in my heart when things are difficult, I hate not being able take long hot showers and lay in bed for a long time. I hate getting up early and even worse being somewhere on time. Naturally, that is totally not like me to ask to be somewhere difficult.
But when I see the faces of people searching and needing comfort, the first response I have is a desire to be there for them. I can only explain that it is a response that God has developed in me over the years, as he has given me a heart for those hurting. I can best sum it up in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” based on Tom Joad’s speech in John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath”:
“Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries
Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air
Look for me Mom I'll be there
Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand
Or decent job or a helpin' hand
Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me."
My workout playlist is a mishmash of songs that both get me excited about the mission here as well as looking forward to going home. Each day I hit the gym, I am reminded of so many around me: family, friends, soldiers. But when I hear Zach de la Rocha and Rage Against the Machine’s cover of Springsteen’s much more mellow version of the song, I am reminded of why I am here on this Earth and in Afghanistan currently. Of who I am called to be as a husband to my wife, father to my sons and chaplain to my soldiers. To quote another musical poet, Ben Harper:
“Reality is sharp it cuts at me like a knife, everyone I know is in the fight of their life.”
I fight for the welfare of those whom have been entrusted to my care. To be even more specific, when I stand up to speak at Chapel or a Memorial, or even sharing a little bit of encouragement before a prayer (like yesterday) my body wants to start shadow-boxing. Those who have been on the sidelines of me speaking know this to be true. Maybe it’s how I get psyched up, I dunno. Deep in my being I know this for a fact: we are to be about the Father’s business of bringing Hope to the hopeless, Faith to the faithless, Truth to the ones who have believed lies for years and Love to everyone.
Bringing the good news of freedom and free will to everyone, one person at a time. Wheels up.