Long Goodbye

My first two deployments were short-notice deployments. I found out we were going to Iraq the first week of February, 2003. The war hadn’t started yet and the Commander couldn’t even confirm that we were going there. We were told that we were going to “southwest Asia” for “something.” The Department of Defense already put out a press release confirming the deployment of an Airborne Infantry Brigade, and we were the only one still available, but whatever. We stayed up late for the next two weeks stuffing our lives into duffel bags. We said hurried goodbyes, and we flew away for a year.

My second deployment was similar. I was driving for a General, and he was reassigned to a position in Iraq and had to be there in a couple of weeks. He asked his staff if they wanted to go and we all said yes. I packed, said goodbye, and was gone a week later as ADVON.

This current deployment loomed on the horizon like a giant barge, sitting in the water, inching closer by the minute but appearing not to move at all until finally it was here. We knew about it with some degree of certainty back in November, when rumors swirled we were put back on “the patch chart” – this mythical board that dictates when units will deploy. Further, the predicted deployment date was sometime in the summer, giving us at least a full six months in which to prepare.

That long run-up to a deployment is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it allows more time to train and prepare. A curse – and this is especially true for those who’ve deployed before – because a good chunk of time is spent soaking up the good things in life under the excuse of “soon I’ll be deployed and won’t have this opportunity.” Thus begins a see-saw cycle of hard gym sessions followed by binging on Chips Ahoy and beer, because, you never know.

It’s worse on relationships. It’s the elephant in the room, the thing that is right there and coming that both parties try to ignore so they can “enjoy now.” A couple of weeks before this deployment, I sat in a beautiful sea-side restaurant eating breakfast with my wife, looking out at a bay in Saint Thomas. Gazing at the lush hills, my mind drifted to reading terrain for an attack and our current and projected task organization. We began to argue over something stupid, but it was really frustration about the deployment – an oncoming train that won’t stop.

And then, after months and months of that – preparing and binging, ignoring and acknowledging – the day finally comes and it is time to say goodbye. There is no good way to do it – I’ve done it too many times and the only thing that makes it any easier is knowing that the actual physical act of saying goodbye is the hardest part. There are actually multiple goodbyes; the one in the living room, the one in quiet car ride to post, the first one when you thought you were just going to be dropped off at base before you saw all the other families lingering around, and then the final one where you say “this is it.” Inside that goodbye, there are a dozen false starts. You hug and kiss and say goodbye and step away, only to move in one more time “for real this time.” After that, you finally have to go. You look and try your best to absorb the entirety of that moment; the humid air, the early morning, blue hued twilight sky, the feeling of your loved one’s body against yours, one last time.

And then you break and say goodbye, turn around, and walk away.

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