Leaving for war in the 21st century

This is the first installment of a Patrol series written by Army National Guard CW2 Marc Acton. For the next nine months, Acton's unit will be flying Blackhawk helicopter missions in northeastern Iraq. As an Army "lift" unit, the aviators, maintenance personnel, and various unit administrators of his troop provide for the transport of personnel and supplies for the U.S. military and their allies. While "Chief" Acton fights the War on Terror one Facebook update at a time, his wife and two young children await his return at home in Nashville, Tennessee.

BUEHRING, KUWAIT—I would have thought that going to war would be less like my freshman year of college.

As of this morning, I am officially headed off to fight the war on terror. Admittedly, I’m only one day into it, but here I sit on a Greyhound-style bus with laptop, cell phone and mp3 player at the ready, and Facebook just a few cell phone clicks away thinking how different today’s war is from the Old Days. I don’t have internet access on this bus, and I am anticipating several stretches of time over the next year that I’ll be offline. But once I get to where I’m going (Kirkuk, Iraq), there’s at least a reasonable internet connection which means I’ll have Skype (the War 2.0 soldier’s favorite communication tool), downloading movies (sorry, Hollywood) and games galore (because all that Warcraft is not going to play itself). I’m also told there will be a significant amount of down time in between missions, and to expect to fill that time with extra-curricular activities like working out, reading, watching movies, playing video games, etc. So less chance of sitting behind a hot chick in class, and ever-so-slightly higher chance of dying, but other than that, strong intimations of that glorious entry into undergraduate academia.

The odd thing is, a small part of me feels cheated. As clichéd and probably narcissistic as it sounds, one of the reasons I signed up for the Army almost ten years ago was pride. What I do just plain makes me feel good. It is emotionally significant to me every single time someone thanks me for my service or buys me a drink somewhere. The first question everyone asks though is, “Have you been deployed?” I haven’t, and upon telling this to random strangers I inevitably feel like I’ve somehow disappointed them. It’s a bit like telling someone you’re a professional baseball player, which is awesome, then telling them you’ve never actually played in the game, which is not so awesome, and watching the subtle expression change. Probably most of their disappointment is inferred or implied, but it’s real. This deployment was supposed to get rid of that feeling, and it certainly will. But as I sit and mull over how to describe the beginning of this grand experience, I feel once again like I’m going to disappoint whoever might read it.

 This is a new war, from the very first goodbye. In both World War II and the Vietnam War, soldiers’ primary and often only form of communication was letters, which were often sporadically delivered if they reached their destination at all. They sometimes took weeks to arrive. When you say goodbye to someone and you truly don’t know if you’ll ever see or hear from them again, the emotions are abundant and inexpressable. When you say goodbye to someone and your lines of communication are so open that you feel the need to obsessively keep them updated by text message on the surprisingly-long battery life of your brand new (non-Apple) mp3 player, that’s another thing entirely.

This isn’t the time or place for a sociological exploration of the effects this major communications paradigm shift has on the psyche of the average soldier. But it is surely significant. And there are other significant changes that affect the fighters of this new war as well. Near-mandatory mid-tour R&R, stronger support structures for the families left behind, and more command emphasis on holistic emotional health all combine to make this surely the easiest war to fight yet from an emotional standpoint. But does “easiest” mean “easy”? The short answer is no.

My wife and I had about two months notice before I left town, which is plenty of time to prepare. The problem is, putting off preparation is easier than dealing with the emotions that come with the preparing. One of my coping mechanisms is denial, which made it even harder to sit down and do the practical things that needed to be done. Unfortunately, being unprepared and leaving unfinished business only increases the tension level, which leads to a downward spiral of building stress.

When you say goodbye to someone and you truly don’t know if you’ll ever see or hear from them again, the emotions are abundant and inexpressable. When you say goodbye to someone and your lines of communication are so open that you feel the need to obsessively keep them updated, that’s another thing entirely.

The last week I was home was bizarre in a way. I wanted so bad to enjoy my time as much as possible, but that pesky building stress made it difficult. Add in the fact that my wife was feeling the same mounting stress, and our connection was strained at the time when we both needed it to be the strongest. We both needed to be comforted. On top of that, the implications of the impending physical separation kept the cauldron of complex emotions swirling. (And I’m one of the lucky soldiers who completely trusts his wife. For the average G.I. Joe, the stories of spousal infidelity during a deployment are frequent enough to introduce doubt into even the most solid relationships.)

This morning came, and with it time to say goodbye. I had the distinct feeling that I should say something important. I kept hoping some magic words, some soothing prosaic nugget would come to mind that would ease her fears and mine. Maybe if I were a better man I would have had the right words and the intestinal fortitude to say them. But maybe the intensity of the situation forced me to boil away the unimportant and get to the heart of what matters. All I could bring myself to say was that I loved her and would miss her. Anything else would have seemed trite. “Don’t worry about me?” “I’ll be fine?” Those sound nice, but our relationship’s foundation of honesty wouldn’t allow the empty promises. Maybe something like, “I’m proud of you for the way you’re serving your country by letting me go?” That’s true, but something tells me she didn’t really feel sold on the idea of letting me go at that moment.

So here I am, on a bus with my Facebook page recently updated, email freshly read and communication devices at the ready, but emotions jumbled. I’m headed to war, but what does that even mean these days? Will it be easy? Will it be more like my freshman year of college or the books about war I read during it? At the end of the deployment, will I feel that I’ve done enough to warrant the thanks and appreciation of random strangers and family members alike? I guess we’ll find out together.

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