Bill Totten's Weblog

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Home Fires: Something Worth Fighting For

After a third tour, a homecoming at the airport is marred by disillusionment and dark imaginings.

by Roman Skaskiw

New York Times (December 03 2009)

A colonel once advised me to never, ever, under any circumstances feel like I'm pulling one over on the Army. We were friends despite his higher rank, and I had been struggling with a form DD 1351-2 to be reimbursed two bucks a day for laundry expenses.

"The Army is very good at treating you the way a juicer treats a lemon", he went on. "You need to make yourself the juicer, and let the Army be the lemon". This philosophy was easy to adopt.

It was summer 2007 and I had just reluctantly returned to uniform after a few years of civilian life for a third combat tour, and felt a small degree of entitlement, as I found myself, much to my surprise, among the 25 percent of involuntary recalls who actually showed up.

Entitlement - how far I had sunk in my cynicism! Please don't let it reflect poorly on the unit which raised me, where I cut my teeth, the legendary 82nd Airborne Division, that wonderful fraternity, which I still feel honored to have attended. In Iraq in 2003, I felt my mission was the culmination of my 27 years of life, my calling and my reason for being. My only aspiration had been to prove myself a good soldier and good leader. H-minus! Death from above! Airborne all the way!

Tragically, over time, I became infected with the belief that our foreign, undeclared wars and endless militarism were destroying America, and this made rolling the dice again extremely difficult.

A gigantic void occupied the part of my gut where my patriotism used to be. I needed a principle to be my guiding light, and the colonel's fit nicely alongside my fragmented and contradictory memories of oaths and creeds I had sworn to long ago:

Recognizing the hazards of my chosen profession ...

Against all enemies foreign and domestic ...

Under no circumstance will I ever embarrass my country ...

Support and defend the Constitution of the United States ...

About a year after receiving the sage advice, I concluded my stint supporting and defending the Constitution of the United States in Afghanistan's remote Kunar Province against an enemy obviously poised to destroy it - what with their pajama pants and flip flops, emaciated bodies and dirty children. (We go through an awful lot of trouble to find people who don't like us.)

I was even awarded a Bronze Star for my efforts: Captain Roman Skaskiw is hereby awarded the Bronze Star for not doing anything catastrophically stupid during the course of his deployment with the Kunar Provincial Reconstruction Team.

The colonel's philosophy remained with me and probably influenced my decision to break with convention and not mail the bulk of my belongings back to the United States at personal expense. Instead, I carried with me four duffel bags and a MOLLE (Modular, Lightweight, Load-carrying Equipment, pronounced "Molly"), which, for all the research and development invested in it, serves only as a gigantic suitcase for ninety percent of the military.

Please don't think me a prima donna who needed excessive luggage. Aside from a few books, a chess board and the leather jacket I bought from an Afghan who looked like he could really use sixty bucks, it was almost all Army-issued stuff.

The gear, including a half dozen slightly different versions of the same windbreaker, was all brand new when issued to us at Fort Bragg, still wrapped in plastic and bearing tags adorned with eagles and flags. I don't know who started saying I was going to war ill-equipped, but I can imagine some guy with an American flag lapel pin making an absolute killing. I'll save that for another essay.

I was going home. In Asadabad, a friend helped me drag my five bags onto a Chinook helicopter. In Bagram Air Force Base, my unit's liaison drove them in a pickup to the airstrip. In Kuwait, I made three trips through the intense heat, carrying them to my assigned tent, and a few days later, arranged for a golf cart to ferry them to the customs area for the flight home. I tended them at Fort Dix, New Jersey, where the air smelled wet and familiar, and loaded them onto a bus which brought me to Philadelphia International Airport, where I managed to squeeze the bags onto a cart and, after a bit of wandering, found the airport's USO. I had never realized they provided sleeping quarters.

In the morning, a sergeant barked us into obedience. "No", she yelled, "I said everybody put a hand on the wall. Not just stand near it." The army had long since accustomed me to the indignities of the herd. She didn't have a combat patch.

The sergeant who didn't have a combat patch led a long line of us through the airport, and stopped suddenly midway through a public terminal. We, burdened with our heavy luggage, bumped into one another like cartoon lemmings.

"May I have your attention, please", she announced, "these soldiers and sailors are returning from Iraq. Please be so kind and welcome them home." Every man, woman and child in the terminal faced us and offered thunderous applause.

I felt punched in the gut. The utter reverence was more than my indifference could bear. It had served me so well throughout my deployment. I'd been playing a part - pretending to be a herald of democracy and pretending the scores of millions of reconstruction dollars I personally helped manage were anything other than a bribe from an Army that pretended Afghanistan was a threat to the United States and for a government pretending it could afford its vast military empire.

I didn't know know the terminal was full of actors as well. It broke my heart. My face grew hot.

What, you may ask, is the alternative? Should we not welcome home our military youth? Of course we should. Can we not support the troops (that tortured phrase) independent of politics? Of course we can. What then is the alternative?

I have no answer. Perhaps there is no place for an attitude like mine. I felt my palms sweating on the handle of my luggage cart as the applause pounded me from all sides.

I imagined what my lines might be: Thank you, dear taxpayers. Thank you. I will keep you safe. Remember though, that you have sacrificed nothing, and you must at least allow what the authorities require. After all, what is liberty without safety? Please don't worry, and don't you dare be the first to stop clapping. We are watching!

The thunder of that applause still rang in my ears after I checked my many bags and approached the Transportation Safety Authority checkpoint. It seemed wholly inadequate. I wanted them to wear body armor and helmets, knee and elbow pads and ballistic sunglasses. I wanted to see sandbags, concertina wire, and Afghan soldiers manning the outermost perimeter. I wanted a machine gun pointing at me as I approached.

The lady asked me to remove my boots. I looked down at my uniform for show, then straight at her eyes. "Do you think I'm a terrorist?" I asked.

In my imagination, she glimpsed into my soul and saw that I didn't give a damn about her uniform, or mine, or what they represented, that I didn't respect her right to search and question free Americans, and that I considered her as big a charade as me. In my imagination, she realized all this, and gave the secret signal to her fellow TSA agents who suddenly sprang to life, whirling toward me, hands on the holsters of their weapons, as I bolted through their checkpoint, knocking over the tower of plastic bins, my dog tags setting off the metal detector, which began repeating the word "intruder".

In my imagination, they offered a terrific chase, flushed with the thrill of the hunt - a thrill I know and recognize as the only honest thing about combat - and just as I reached my gate, panting and extending my ticket to freedom to the outstretched, manicured hand of the smiling stewardess, they tackled me. They flex-cuffed me, then Tasered me into trembling, hysterical submission, and as they carried me off, the sergeant without a combat patch said a few words, and the terminal once again filled with thunderous applause.

I wanted to be tried, convicted and imprisoned for lack of patriotism, and for the jury to sing the Star Spangled Banner, and for the final strike of the judge's gavel to put an exclamation point on the refrain "in land of the free, and the home of the brave". I wanted to be sent straight from victory parade to gulag, and to serve hard labor alongside men who'd committed crimes like delivering mail, using gold as money, and labeling rBGH-free milk "rBGH-free".

In my imagination, I will wait to finally hear a rumbling in the grey skies of the gulag, and to see, first as specks on the horizon, an echelon of C-130s Hercules aircraft rumbling toward us, and then the fine young men of the 82nd Airborne Division's third battalion, five-oh-fifth parachute infantry regiment filling the heavens, silken parachutes unfurling above them and shining like halos as my heart bursts with joy, and the sons of the republic descend gently to earth.

I will realize that had been the plan all along. The mighty 82nd had it figured out from the beginning. My old battalion commander, the famous firebrand LTC S, will parachute down on a white stallion and gather us around him. His face will be streaked blue, like Braveheart, and he will say: "Sons of the republic, I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of tyranny. You have come to fight as free men, and free men you are. They may take our lives, but they will never take our freedom!" He'll have a gigantic two-handed sword slung behind his back.

My platoon sergeant will hand me the maroon beret I'd left somewhere long ago, somewhere beside my idealism. My resilient machine gun teams will be there too, bending only slighting under their enormous loads, and so will my faithful, hard-laboring RTO monitoring the radio. "Bravo six on the line, sir", he'll say, offering me the hand-mic. I'll gather my salty squad leaders and explain the mission, and I'll be flushed not only with the thrill of the hunt, but once again with the pride of having something worth fighting for ...

The TSA agent told me it was regulation, that everybody must remove their boots, and I lowered my gaze, bent over and obeyed with the sheepishness and cowardice of a lame dog.


Roman Skaskiw served as an infantry officer with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan and Iraq. After three years of civilian life, he was recalled from the inactive reserve and deployed with a Provincial Reconstruction Team to Afghanistan's Kunar Province. He lives in Iowa City.

Bill Totten


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