On October 10, 2004, I disembarked from a United Airlines 747 at Kuwait International Airport, arriving in the oppressively hot, dusty, and hazy evening with a general feeling of dread. This dread only intensified during the next day’s C-130 flight from Kuwait to Al Asad, Iraq. We had to wear our helmets and flak vests on this leg, and I pictured running off the back of the airplane, locked and loaded, ready to establish a perimeter and defend the aircraft. The reality, however, was running off the back of the airplane to see a group of Marines playing basketball near where we had parked.
Now it’s March, and I’m sitting in the terminal of Bangor International Airport on a cold, snowy Maine morning, waiting for the final leg of our flight to Miramar to be called. We left Kuwait at about 3 this morning and flew to Shannon, Ireland, where it was startling to see green, green grass and cows. Upon our arrival on the Emerald Isle, most of the 300 Marines on the flight made a beeline for the bar, downing Guiness and Heineken to assuage their 6-month thirsts. Others of us descended upon the duty-free shop, paying too much for souvenirs of a country we only saw from within the terminal.
The sudden change of scenery from the sand, dust, and desolation of Iraq and Kuwait to the green hills of Eyre and the snows of Maine is disconcerting. It was also disconcerting to be applauded and greeted with a chorus of voices murmuring “welcome home” and “thank you” as we entered the main terminal here in Bangor. I have such mixed feelings about our presence in Iraq - and my part in it - that I found the applause and welcoming words touching yet disquieting. Ironically, I would have felt less uncomfortable if we had been met by a crowd of war protesters.
Beginning with the helicopter flight from Kalsu back to Al Asad, this trip back to the U.S. has so far been long but unremarkable. It began on a beautiful night just past the full moon, and Kalsu never looked better than it did disappearing behind us as we flew away. I only spent a little more than a day in Al Asad, tying up loose ends and repacking for the trip home. The journey continued with another sardine-like flight to Kuwait on a C-130; this time, however, my spirits were buoyed rather than sunken as we neared our destination. The 36 hours in Kuwait went quickly, occupied by sleeping, tossing and turning, and several early-morning hours spent reading, writing, meditating, and playing my guitar in the empty chapel. As I played and sang to the empty chairs, I pictured them filled with my friends from two UU congregations.
This last, and longest, part of these travels began in fine military fashion with many hours of hurrying up to wait, then waiting to hurry up. Customs briefing and inspection, moving from place to place, on the buses, off the buses, and more hurry up and wait finally resulted in boarding the MD-11 and departing.
The trip out to Iraq carried a feeling of inevitability – a feeling of inexorably being carried to my fate by the military machine. This trip home, however, has been marked more by the lazy flow of time as the minutes, hours, and days melt away and my return to home and family nears. This too feels inevitable and unavoidable, but the future holds bright promise and excitement, rather than uncertainty and dread. It’s a good feeling, going home.
(Later) Now I’m sitting in a hotel room in San Diego, and in many ways I feel like I never went anywhere. Arriving at Miramar was very depressing at first as all the Marines with families to greet them were hugging and kissing their loved ones. Before long, however, I realized that it was good to be able to turn in my pistol, get blood drawn, and pick up my bags without having little ones hanging on me.
Next stop, Monterey!