Turning 21 on deployment

Birthdays are good for reflection. Where am I coming from, where am I, and where am I going.

The last significant birthday I had was 21. People love to tell other people about the time they turned 21.

I turned 21 on Failaka Island, (جزيرة فيلكا) a small island off the coast of Kuwait. I was training there before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Instead of going out and drinking beer legally for the first time, some buddies gave me their Skittles from their MREs during lunch. Good friends, good friends.

Fast forward three or four months. I was sitting outside of our bay in our company firebase in Baghdad. My PL took a seat next to me and said with a grizzled voice for a young PL “SPC Gomez, you turned 21 in Kuwait, right?”

Me: “Yes, sir.”
PL: “Let me tell you what’s cool about turning 21.”
Me: “Ok.”
PL: “You know when you go to Texas Roadhouse with your boys and there’s a 30 minute wait because it’s payday, and you have to go sit in the waiting room with all those other joes, eating peanuts?”
Me: “Uh, yeah.”
PL: “Well now you just go to the bar and have a drink. The time goes by much faster.”

And you know what, he was right.

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The last letter war

One of my happiest deployment memories is receiving mail at a train station in As Samawah, Iraq in 2003. Our unit had been in Iraq for about a week, and we had just experienced combat for the first time – a liminal event, if there ever was one. Lounging at As Samawah, we were resting before moving on towards Baghdad. We were covered in dirt, exhausted and exhilarated. Shortly before moving out, the company XO appeared, zig-zagging in-between sleeping bodies along the train platform, dragging OD green bags of mail. Santa Claus in DCUs and body armor.

Unless you didn’t get any, or the news was bad, the appearance of mail always lifted morale. Mail was distributed with a hint of bitter anger. Senior NCOs called out last names, then irritably handed over that short respite from reality. Soldiers that received “too much mail” were met with jealousy covered by suspicion.

Quiet blankets the platoon area as everyone rips open their letters, reading, re-reading, and re-re-reading. Silence is interrupted only by someone exclaiming some piece of exciting news that no one cares about. “Ha! My wife won $5,000 in the lottery.” “Oh, that’s cool” someone responds without paying attention, turning back to his own letters.

Those who got nothing congregated like laughing hyenas. Not receiving mail somehow made them harder than the others.

Waking up to packages organized by platoon. Like Christmas morning in Habbinyah.

Better than letters (but not always) were packages. Fat boxes of happiness. Candy, cookies, dried meats, protein, baby wipes, games, magazines (the best!), DVDs, newspapers. A friend sent me a long combat knife. My parents loved sending care packages. Once they mastered the basics (the essentials listed above), they moved onto the exotic. One hot summer day, I received two large brown packages from my dad. The bottoms were slimy. I opened up the packages to find rotting pineapples. My dad thought pineapples might be refreshing. And they would have been if they survived the five week trip from New York to Baghdad in temperatures that reached 130˚ F.

A little more than halfway into the deployment, we got access to an internet tent at our battalion headquarters. I used to take small teams there in the early morning, waking up before anyone else and making the short walk from our compound to the nearby battalion compound. There, we’d write emails and talk on AOL Instant Messenger with anyone online. Soon, the company got access to a cell phone that could be used to call home. Time was rationed out to about 20 minutes per soldier. The phone was used nearly non-stop, only resting to recharge.

The arrival of email and phones replaced written letters. As food and supply got better and the mail became more reliable, even care packages became less important. Soldiers ordered online what they wanted.

It’s with foolish nostalgia that I fear we’ve seen the last letter war. There is something heroically romantic about soldiers’ letters. Yet, we all ditched letter writing when email came along. Some of us, myself included, tried to keep writing. The emotional attachment was there, but was quickly broken by the promise of now.

I don’t think I wrote a single letter during my second deployment.

I have not deployed in the Facebook era, but I can only imagine that with it, letter writing in war is that much closer to dead.

It’s possible that future wars may come accompanied with a short period of time that makes letter writing necessary because of limited supply, speed of movement, and a degraded communication grid. But technology has improved dramatically since 2003, and it’s hard to imagine the internet being far from anywhere. For troops tucked away in remote combat outposts in Afghanistan, letter writing might still exist, like an endangered species kept alive artificially by a dedicated bunch of conservationists.

It’s easy to get nostalgic about letter writing. So much of our romantic literature revolves around letters and letter writing. And we tend to think that some of our heroes from “the old days” would scoff at email, Twitter and the rest. I often have to remind myself that more likely, they would scoff at us for waxing nostalgic for an ancient system that moves glacially, and sometimes not at all. Letters never received. Letters that sink to the bottom of the ocean on freighters. Letters that burn in uncontrollable fires. Letters that are stolen. Letters that arrive in bunches in tightly packed wrapping, years after being sent.

No, I’m fairly certain most would agree it is better to have certain and quick communication.

But still.

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The smell under the body armor

Recently, I was cast as an extra in a big budget Hollywood film. I played a marine (it couldn’t be helped). For a few hours, I had to wear fake, pillowy body armor, and a fake, plastic helmet. It looked like the real thing, but without SAPI plates and kevlar, it was only make believe.

Still, wearing the gear, I began to sweat. After a few hours of standing around and doing my best marine impression, I sat down, and as my body armor shifted slightly, it created a small pocket of space between my chest and the armor, forcing up a super-charged hot stream of air that quickly swooped into my nostrils.

The smell!

For an instant I was whisked away from the comfort of cool, cloudy London to bright and sunny Baghdad. Taking in that smell was like going 88 mph with July 2003 on the time circuits. The smell of body armor, uniform and human perspiration, compressed for hours and suddenly released is unlike anything else. It’s a small cloud of awesome. It’s not a bad smell. It’s hot and only lasts for a moment. It’s hard work. And then it’s gone.

Smells trigger memories.

For some, the deep and cutting whoop whoop whoop of a helicopter, or loud, sudden sounds usher in old memories of busy skies and tense moments. Others are reminded of the past by the things they see: garbage, crowds, stillness. Sights and sounds don’t do it for me. Smells, more than the other senses, makes me remember. And I’m grateful for it.

Grateful because it’s not just memory. It’s a small portion of the feeling associated with that time. The smell is familiar, and the brain does quick work, conjuring a host of feelings that have long sat dormant. Not deep, reflective feelings. But bio-chemical feelings. The ones you actually feel, not think. The memory that rests inside of bones, muscles, cells, and blood vessels.

For a moment, that stuff is activated. Not fully. But enough to make you pause to remind yourself where you are. For that instant, dull lightning throbs in the body and turns on things that stopped working, stopped paying attention, long ago.

Smell is primal and chemical. It’s not sound or light waves. You ingest it and it becomes a part of you.

Other smells that trigger memories for me:

Early Morning Urban. The smell of cool air mixed with overnight garbage. Sometimes on the way to the gym in the morning I’ll catch this.

Early Morning Desert. Still air and dust being slowly warmed up by a rising sun. I think it’s mostly the dust. Small particles. You can taste it.

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