Editor’s Note: The following essay was co-authored by Mike Gnoffo and Zack Neyman, and told from Zack’s perspective as a Marine Lance Corporal and Radio Operator on a shared deployment to Afghanistan in 2013-2014.
Helmand province is covered in moon dust. I first encountered it when our transport helicopter dropped us into a remote combat outpost in the dead of night. As we descended closer to the deck, the giant rotors began to kick up some kind of flour-like powder that enveloped the helicopter and choked the air. Laden with bags, gear, armor, and weapons, we collapsed out of the rear hatch and hustled awkwardly away from the landing zone while our ride tore away into the night skies to avoid potential incoming fire. The dust descended around us as we moved towards our new home in the steppe, the suddenness of our arrival deadened by the deep sand that seemed to suck us downward into the earth. With every step, clouds of the stuff would fly into the air and hang in space, defying gravity before falling slowly back into place. The depth of it silenced the sounds of our movement, and in the quiet, I had time to marvel at how I came to find myself at the bleeding edge of a war so far from home. Exhilaration, terror, and anticipation gripped me and I gasped for air, only to breathe in a mouthful of dust. There would be no escaping it. We found our hooch and collapsed into our bunks, exhausted but stoked with excitement.
Sunlight broke over the outpost the following morning and I stared out over a ramshackle collection of wooden structures, tents, and high walls, every inch of it covered in a tan silt, like some monstrous sand castle. We began to unload and transform our tent into something more recognizable as a home. Cloth partitions were hung, knick-knacks and things with private memories were placed near cots, clothing was stowed, and gear and ammunition was prepared for easy access. Before we had finished, the dust had swiftly worked its way into every nook, cranny, and pore, rooting itself into the fabric of our new lives.
As time passed, the world shrank around us until our waking minds could reach no farther than a few hundred meters beyond the outpost’s sandy walls. In these days, weeks, and months, we trudged between our tent to the outpost command center and back, kicking up hurricanes of dust. We fought, exercised, relaxed, and ate together, always together, shaking the silt out of our clothing and hair, and scraping it off spoons and forks of food. It mixed with sweat from long patrols and blood from open wounds, creating a vile mud that caked and stained our bodies. We endured all of it as a team, our small contingent leaning against each other and gaining strength from one another as we faced a constant onslaught. Though we endured gun fights and mortars from Taliban fighters and drug runners, it seemed we were in perpetual battle against a silent burial beneath foreign sands.
By the end, the moon dust had embedded beyond the threads and seams of our clothing and bled into our skin and lungs and veins, and we knew we’d carry it back home with us when we departed Helmand. Our relationship with it had become inextricable. As we departed in a long slow convoy, the dust seemed to overtake the outpost in an instant, reclaiming its rightful space in full. When we finally stepped off the airplane back in the States, we were greeted by trees, highway traffic, billboards, and the smiling faces of family whose clothes, bodies, and hearts were free of the dust we had come to know so well.
Years passed, and while the physical presence of the moon dust had faded into memory, its absence felt like the phantom tingle of a long lost limb. One day, I found myself on a trip to the coast with my family. As we stepped out of the car, a raging wind kicked up and assaulted us with stinging specks from the beach. Overwhelmed and covered in sand, we dove back into our car for refuge and headed to a calmer bay. We climbed out at our new spot, and as my family frustratingly dusted the sand from their clothes, I reached into my pocket and found a handful of fine silt. I let it slowly slip through my fingers and fall quietly to the ground, some particles floating away in the warm breeze, and I smiled as I thought of my brothers from Helmand, whose veins coursed with the same sand as mine. Finally, I shook off all that remained on the outside and went down to the edge of the water to join my family.
The authors on deployment in 2013