On January 20th, 2007, I choppered out of Baghdad after a one-year assignment with the reconstruction effort. One month later, I'm on my way to Afghanistan for a new assignment.
I sit here drinking coffee in rumpled khakis, holding my beat-up and overstuffed messenger bag. My road-worn and dusty duffel bags are tossed in a corner, showing the dings that come from being dragged across dirt fields and gravel airstrips. The heavy bags will likely max out my baggage allowance on my chartered flight into Kabul, but it can’t be helped, I still haven’t learned how to pack for the unknown. It’s hot and humid, too hot for February. Every other time I’ve sat in a Middle Eastern hotel lobby, I’ve longed for a jacket to counter the frigid air conditioning, but this time I sweat in my unwashed clothes. Do the Arabs turn off the A/C from November to March? My nerves are frayed from 24 hours of travel, too little sleep, and too much coffee. A battle wages between my desire for a cigarette and the need to hit the hotel gym to work out the kinks. I don’t smoke, but a hit of nicotine to my system might dull the stress, at least for a moment. I’m carrying at least 10 extra pounds around my gut, a by-product of life on the run – airline food, fast food, stress, and no gym membership.
Even my month-long break was stressful, too many people to reconnect with, too many stories to tell, not enough time to do either. My family supports me, and provides unconditional love, yet I can see the blame in their eyes, hear it in their voice, and witness it in their remoteness. I forgive them, as though I had any right to do so, since I know it’s a natural reaction to the stress of their first-born and only son going willingly into another conflict zone. Relating to old friends is even harder, since so many of the chains of friendship are based on shared experience. How can I find common ground with anyone that has not been there? I do my best to tell the story and then fall back on old memories, old ties. High school, college days, rugby matches remembered from years ago. Yet I cherish these dear friends. Strong relationships are forged in stressful environments, I’ve seen many love affairs bloom in the desert and I have bared my soul to peers whom I have known only a few months. However, these relationships lack the grounding of the friendships fostered over many years and often break down outside of the war zone. Those friends that survive the decompression process often scatter to disparate parts of the world. Some return home to old lives and others venture even further afield. Thus, our social network spans most continents of the world. This is great when you’re looking for a cheap place to stay in Jakarta, but is less than convenient for regular visits.
I know that I underestimate the risk of working in a war zone, it’s the only way to allow yourself to sign up. We lost a colleague to a coordinated and vicious attack in Baghdad several weeks ago. A young woman, younger than me, gunned down in an ambush. It’s easy to place your confidence in your security detail, those robust and steely-eyed warriors with the armored vehicles and intimidating arsenals. But it was a security team just like that who failed to protect my colleague and lost three of their own in the process. Recently, the military in Iraq has lost a half dozen transport helicopters, those steel birds that regularly haul us throughout the country. The choppers were brought down by elaborately coordinated attacks, symptoms of a resolute enemy who can adapt his tactics and take on the might of the US Army.
I am relieved to be out of Iraq and away from the daily violence. By the time I left, I could recognize the source of an explosion by its sound and concussion, the deep resonant boom of a car bomb outside the gates, the shriek and terror of a rocket attack, the quick thump of a mortar strike. Afghanistan certainly is not a safe place, but the last car bomb in Kabul was four months ago. The last car bomb in Baghdad was less than four hours ago.