Brian told me this would happen. We sat beneath the concrete recon bunker outside our hooch at Leatherneck passing the time before our flight back to Kyrgyzstan smoking cigs by the pack and bullshitting, and he told me I’d want to come back. I couldn’t imagine it at the time, so exhausted by Georgians and cold and potshots and lack of PID and Marines and Afghan mud and everything. I was ready to get the fuck out. Brian, for what it’s worth, was the kind of guy who’d wear a Hawaiian shirt to a funeral. But, this little Afghan misadventure was his 3rd deployment and he had earned the wisdom gained through the post-deployment rollercoaster several times over. It may take a few days, or weeks, or months, even years, but at some point, he said, all you’ll want to do is go back.
He was right, in a way. Over time, your mind begins to erase the suck, leaving only the thick haze of nostalgia that helps you define deployment as a momentous, and even joyous, time in your life. You start to think maybe going back would be a grand old time. You remember the firepit, the guitar, and a pack of your best friends crowded around the flame with cheap Chinese cigarettes and sea stories for days. You forget the cold biting into your fingertips as you tried to mount the 50 into the turret of an MRAP before a 2-day picket, and your wife’s disappointed face embedded onto the Skype video screen after another 30 second conversation interrupted by frozen internet. You remember the exhilaration of the snap of 7.62 rounds, the adrenaline pumping into your system like an illicit drug, the streak of rockets and dizzying buzz of attack helicopters in a show of force. You forget the pain in your knees and wrists, the uncertainty creeping into your psyche, and the taste and grit of dirt in your mouth as you buried your head in the ground behind a few inches of cover in an open field. You forget that your friends who were blown up, shot, and fragged, but lived, could have just as easily been smoked. Schwacked. Done-zo. KIA.
But you don’t forget forever. It comes flowing back to you after seeing an old friend, or smelling a familiar scent, or hearing a hiss or a pop or a streak. Your memories complete themselves again, the highlights and low points merging together to fill in the whole story. Surprisingly though, instead of sorrow or regret, the unmitigated truth can make you feel a strange combination of invincible, lucky, and hopeful. You can reach into the past to remind yourself about who you were, who you’re capable of being, and you hope you can find that person tomorrow, and the next day, and all the days after that. And you realize you can do all of that right where you’re standing. If I saw Brian today and we sat down and lit some cigs and bullshitted, I’d tell him I don’t want to go back…I want to bring it with me.