by Michael Baumgarten
What causes you to see the world as you do? When you go to work what is it inside you that furnishes a sense of satisfaction? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to lose that? To experience profound purpose, to live in glory amongst events wrought of the most wretched sorrow. Each tragedy a triumph that can stain the soul yet grants the initiated with profound insight. In June of 1965, Ed White spoke at the end of the first American spacewalk during the Gemini 4 missions, he said simply, “I’m coming back in…and it’s the saddest moment of my life.” This too can be a soldier’s lament.
It seems that few occupations can drastically change your world view in this way. Ed walked along the abyss of the world’s end and was forever changed. What earthbound vista could ever satisfy those eyes? Removed from this celestial landscape a profound sadness took hold as elation gave way to the realization that it was over. Now we imagine Ed returning from his walk and upon returning decides his time as an Astronaut is up, and he chooses to leave. He has faced death enough for any one man, was away from loved ones and friends enough for several lifetimes. He wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything, a hoarded treasure but one that comes with a price.
Like a jigsaw puzzle dumped on a dining room table that feeling of a piece of the puzzle that fits into the larger picture of post-military life for veterans. I will attempt as best I can to share with you my memories and to transmit experiences through my humble words. Yet they can only do so much justice and I am at best, a poor writer so please bear with me, dear reader. I will tell you why as much as I can. I will share with you why the thought of a nine to five grind causes me to real back in aversion. To live life in a cubicle with halogen lights, recycled air, and water cooler gossip as my working comforts; is an empty meal that never provides satisfaction. I do not attack those who occupy this space; this is simply how I see the world. Perhaps reader you too are a veteran and like me find little comfort in the norms of your newly acquired civilian life. Once the veil is lifted it cannot be replaced.
My spacewalk didn’t come until later in life. One must learn to crawl first. My experience will stand as a caricature of other experiences. Of the wide-eyed private to the striped sleeves of an NCO. Not at all the same, just similar shades of the same basic color. So we start where I began, not so long ago. The paths of the enlisted diverge sharply from their peers, and in short time that descriptor can no longer be applied. If it is, it takes on new meaning as peer is now fellow soldier and no longer viewed as classmate. Life during those young adult years is a wide-eyed and exploratory one; experiences may vary. From eighteen to twenty-two I went on my first five deployments to combat where you esteemed reader were probably in college or pursuing a career. This is just to give perspective and to allow reflection, this is not a criticism. We now stand side by side at the beginning of this journey; it will not be a long one. Let us walk through space together.
I stepped off an airplane in a state I had never been before. What Southern California teen wants to visit the deep south? Setting off on a journey standing truly alone for the first time, but I would meet others like myself sooner than I thought. I knew where I was going, no false pretenses to hide behind. So I stepped off the plane in Atlanta and breathed deeply of the new air, thicker and older than the smoggy aether of southern California. The humidity of this strange land smacks me in the face with the same oppression as the drill sergeant screaming, breaching my personal space that I am clearly no longer entitled to. I smile inside as I blink from the hot air and spit cascading onto my face like broadsides from an old man of war. I smile inside because I am right where I want to be. I made good my escape from the tract homes and safety of suburbia. I fear living and dying five miles from home more than I fear anything before me. At eighteen I feel more alive than I ever have. Then again, what does an eighteen-year old know about life anyway?
The sunsets and rises many times over. I am older now. I sit inside a room full of big-screen TVs. I am not alone. Others sit around me in various states of uniformed attire. They seem like normal men, sitting at their desks typing away at reports or emails; it could be that corporate job if not for the crosshairs following people on TV screens. Our air is full of the dust that blows constantly in this country. Our lights are basic bulbs but during the day we pop the window flaps open on the tent to let the sun in. One of us answers a phone and simply says “roger that sir” after a few minutes of listening to whomever was on the other end. We change the channels on the TV and watch a different set of people. This is our target for tonight. You call it the night shift at your job, the time when your toilets get cleaned and your trash is taken out. For us, this is the rhythm by which we live. The day is sleep, an escape from the harsh sun and the eyes of the enemy. We are nocturnal predators.
Daylight fades, our workday has just begun. That little tent with the TV’s has become a buzz of activity. Older, experienced men talk loudly over each other as younger ones stand on the periphery trying to snag information from the air like a toad nabbing a fly mid-flight. All are focused, single-minded but tasked separately. A plan is being heated and hammered in this forge of martial elements. We do this every night. Every mission is a test in creativity and tactical nuance. Every building a problem to be solved, labyrinths with lurking minotaurs. A hundred scenarios flash through our minds at fiber-optic speed. Our imaginations see dead ends, traps, and faulty positions. Our eyes see breach points and entryways. Fields of fire come to life in our mind’s eye as the battlefield comes to life. We daydream violence. We all think like this. “It is by will alone I set my mind in motion” – “Pieter De Vries” – Dune, 1984
I stand on the tarmac of a runway. I breathe deep as jet fuel and exhaust mix a noxious perfume. I know this smell and what it means. The whine of the Blackhawk indicates that it’s time to go. I want you to stand here and see what I see, feel what I feel. Adrenaline starts its metered release as darkness envelopes the world around me. Multitudes of stars sit in celestial judgment as we load our bird, old dead light-seeking its way to our green electronic eyes. Our ride sits baying in its own mechanical way blacked out but for a simple call sign taped to the side. This is a bird of prey, she has claws. You may shudder at air travel, yet here you may ride with us free of your anxiety, through dangerous paths. I get the signal to approach this dark machine with all its malicious intent. I am first to the door, the chalk leader.
Others greater than I have stood in this spot and I will not let them down, I will not let my men down. We are armored and deadly. We hunt at night and see in the dark. Our movements honed by repetition. My hands know where to find every magazine, every lethal instrument of my trade. I do not need my eyes to see, senses trained and reaching as the first men did when things hunted them in the primal gloom of our origins. We are proud of the uniforms we wear; our cubicle is the door of the Blackhawk. Our eyes are up, absorbing the world we see through our night vision. We are not hunched over a keyboard as the world passes us by. My team leader sits next to me and so does my best SAW gunner, my sword and my shield. We will be the first to step off into whatever awaits us. With one look I know these men will not let each other down, our lives are in our comrades hands.
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