Home > War Journalism > The Road Home

The Road Home

The Road Home

by Joe Kassabian

May 10th 2012

Our bags are packed. We’ve cleaned our weapons for the hundredth time. We are all gathered in this stinking, hot, overcrowded tent. It doesn’t seem real yet but the rumor is we are going home. It seems like a blur, the last twelve months. The firefights and explosions. The boredom and aggravation. The blood and the wounded.

Has this last year of my life really happened? I can tell from the nagging pain in my back and knees, the plastic zip lock baggy that hangs heavy with tiny pink pills I have to take to sleep. The last year has in fact happened, but did I really do anything? Does this year count? Or is it one giant minus in the column of my life, one year just struck from the record.

Some of the guys around me are obviously happy, some aren’t. Only half of us are going to the airfield tonight to fly to Kandahar Air Field, where our giant Air Force plane will cart us off to Manas Air Force Base in the former Soviet Republic of wherever.

We all gather at the ad hoc helipad around midnight even though our flight isn’t until sometime in the morning. Chinook helicopters swoop in overhead. Their chopping blades beating the air into submission, it bounces around on the air current. Its unsteady looks remind me of a bumble bee.

The down pressure of the blades knocks the unprepared on their backs. We experienced few kneel down and brace for it, one girl even gets blood drawn from bouncing across the landing zone. During her flight she loses her Iphone.

We pile into the cramped interior of the armed bumble bee copter.  Our bags, everything we have owned for the last year, are piled up in the center with soldier smashed between the bags and the wall. My own rucksack has more room than I do.

The noise inside the helicopter is deafening. I have been in fire fights that were quieter. All around us the mechanics of the chopper are visible. The pistons and wires, the workings of flight were right in front of us. I kept wondering if all the fluid leaking out was normal.

The helicopter’s crew chief was standing in the back, the ramp lowered with a machine gun hanging off of it.  The dull flickering lights of Kandahar City passed underneath us, maybe for the last time. The city that had taken so much from us passed harmlessly by.

From a few hundred feet up it almost looks like a normal city.

Before long we land at Kandahar Airfield, and the smell hits us immediately. KAF is home to a giant pond of human waste. Every toilet on the base of near a hundred thousand people is emptied into one giant open air pool of shit and piss.

Kandahar is also a naturally dusty place; fine grit dust gets into every nook and cranny. It carries the abundant waste through the air. So every breath you take, every time you sweat its shit dripping down your face. Finding a home in your lungs.

Every time someone smiles at you they are flashing teeth covered in a thousand people’s waste.

They pile us all on a bus and truck us off towards a place named without irony, ‘South Park’. We are spared the majority of the nauseating stench because of our distance from the shit pool but are all smashed into un-air conditioned tents stacked high with mattresses they probably stole from a half way house.

Odd stains cover the parts of the mattresses that don’t have springs shooting through them like they are trying to come up for air. No problem though, we are only suppose to be here a few days who cares where we live right?

May 10th-19th, 2012

Any false hope of leaving KAF anytime soon has been dashed when we learn we will be here for over a week. After twelve months of constant work, we are all unemployed. With so much free time on our hands we have no idea what to do.

Everyone seems to have a hard time understanding their war is over. People are hesitant to turn over ammunition; they preach false reasons on why they still need it. I take this opportunity to not put on a uniform for the whole week and not even bother to carry my weapon.

 

My weapon, like me, is unemployed.

 

Murph and myself wander around KAF with nothing to do. We walk uncountable miles, choking down shit dust and car exhaust fumes. KAF isn’t like a normal military base; it’s more like a self contained world.

It has its own power grid, cable, and internet. Many of the soldiers, airmen, marines, and sailors living here won’t ever leave the safety of its walls. To them the Afghan War is an abstract thing, like the problems of the inner city to suburb dwellers.

Walking through the ‘boardwalk’ area is bizarre. It looks more like a strip mall in a bad part of town then something you would see in a deployed military base. Countless shipping containers were transformed into store fronts by people of various ethnicities and nationalities.

 

Coffee shops, smoothie shops, places to buy suits. None of it needed to fight a war.  In the middle of the boardwalk  a faux grass soccer field sprouts from the ground. It looks nicer than anything we even have at Fort Hood.

It’s a perfect setting for an explanation for how this war has lost its way. While out living with the Afghan Police we were without just about everything, while the people at KAF ate ice cream and had coffee dates.

This is what happens when the Ipod generation goes to war. No idea how to operate the weapon in their hands, but they could show you how to jail break your Iphone. I’m convinced most of these people don’t even have jobs on KAF. Deployed just to meet numerical goals. A waste of the cloth on their backs.

 

During this time our medic went to the hospital because his nut sack was causing him pain. A few days later it was revealed he had a condition known as ‘testicular torsion’, when your balls wrap around each other.

Apparently this horrible disorder requires surgery and he is put on a plane to Bagram Air Field where they will operate on him. He won’t be going home with us.

May 20th 

Finally after long days sitting in the dust, shit smelling hell of Kandahar Airfield we land in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, I comfortable Air Force base used as a transit hub for soldiers going to and from Afghanistan.

We also learn our Medic somehow talked the doctors into just sending him here to meet up with us, after everything we have been through obviously nothing as pedestrian as his nuts twisting around one another would keep him from us.

He is much more of a trooper then I, I would have been crying and praying to all major and minor deities for my sack to be healed.

Manas is a breath of fresh air, both literally and figuratively. I take in deep lung full’s of untainted air for the first time in six months. The crisp mountain air and bright green foliage are a great cover for the crippling third world poverty suffered by the country’s people outside Manas’s walls.

 

At least the scenery is nice though.

 

We go through customs, throwing are heavy bags through scanners and piling them into a box for transport back home. The customs agents talk to us like we are retarded children, trying to drive the point home that, no we should not have brought explosives and bullets back with us from Kandahar.

 

Really? No shit.

 

Manas is also not in a war zone, meaning one critical thing for all soldiers passing through: Alcohol. While passing through Manas we are allowed to drink if our commander allows us too, which being a sane human being he does.

The catch is we are only allowed two beers. That’s fine with me, I am twenty-three years old and just spent a year patrolling Kandahar. While yes I would love to get wasted and pass out drunk, I will settle for relaxing with a friend and drinking a beer while we stare off into the pristine mountain scenery.

 

We are given a few threats by our platoon sergeant. We are allowed two beers, that means only two no matter what. You can’t buy someone else’s, or give them away. Two. Period. Don’t fuck this up.

The threats sound stupid, but are kind of important. The Army is not a box full of America’s brightest crayons, they need to be warned like that to get the point across sometimes when shit is serious. Who wants to get drunk here away? We are only hours from boarding our flight to the US at this point.

 

Then my squad leaders starts talking to us about how we shouldn’t drink just so we don’t do anything wrong. Only hours before we were in a war zone, weeks before that we were on combat patrols. I was trusted to carry a gun with a fucking grenade launcher strapped onto it.

 

I was not only trusted, but expected to fire my weapon and kill another human being. But drinking two goddamn bud lights is way beyond my responsibilities. This is only directed at us, lower enlisted. Not the leadership. Everyone seems to forget that in a few days time we soldiers will be released upon the USA A place well known for its copious amounts of booze.

 

May 21st 

Grenade and I decide to go to the Air Force bar area after dinner, since the military’s meal times are like that of a 70 year old’s that means around 5. The place is well put together, with a nice patio on the outside with places for pool and corn hole to be played. The inside looks like anything you would see in the US. A normal bar atmosphere if you could ignore the random Air Force related posters slapped on the wall.

 

We were told before we got there to order the ‘Number Nine’. It being the beer with the most alcohol content. The massive brown bottle was the size of four or five normal beers, cyrillic script was plastered across the bottle it a bright red. I sipped it and it tasted terrible, like you would imagine a beer from behind the former Iron Curtain would taste like.

 

Before long the warmth of the alcohol flooded my body, my tolerance wasn’t just low, it was god damn nonexistent. Before long Grenade is drunk and calling all the women in the patio area whores and sluts. The rest of our company shows up over the course of the next few hours, they too start getting their asses handed to them by the massive bottle of Warsaw Pact beer.

 

In about four hours my unit has drank Manas out of Number Nine beer. We are also drunk.

 

The sun sets behind the mountains, and the party at Manas is going absolutely insane. A Army Major who walked into the patio area, which had now changed into a dance floor with several Airmen blaring rap music from their laptops, started swinging a cane she used to walk and dancing her handicapped ass off. Air Force girls are grind dancing all over Marines, soldiers from my unit are getting hammered an throwing beer bottles, kicking over people’s tables, and attempting to have sex with several Air Force girls on the dance floor.

 

Out of the corner of my eye a Marine has stripped off half his uniform and his vigorously humping a Air Force girl’s face, it doesn’t look like she’s trying to come up for air. The Marine is cheered on by about five friends who are standing near by. On the dance floor senior leadership from my unit start grind dancing on a few Army girls, clothes start to come off. The crippled Major is being  sandwiched between two massive black Marines, they aren’t dancing in the traditional sense. They are air fucking her so hard I think they should be wearing protection.

 

I retreat inside, the shear amount of repressed sexual energy chasing me off. Seated at a table neat the giant TV which for some reason is show casing the WNBA sits Slim, Blue, Robot, and Murph so I join them. I explain to them whats going on outside, before long our company commander ‘The Captain’ joins us.

“The funny thing is, we are acting like this is some insane party. To them its just Monday” The Captain laughs, his lip protrudes under the strain of a huge amount of chewing tobacco.

“Yeah their war is different” I add, my words probably slurring slightly.

“What fucking war?” Slim says getting angry. “These faggots get the same paycheck as us, get to drink, and don’t even have to carry weapons.”

“I joined the wrong branch.” I slur.

“Do you have a dick?” The Captain spits dark brown spit into a bottle he has in his hand.

“Is this a trick question Sir?” I laugh nervously. The Captain is short but built like a solid mass of concrete. To have my manhood questioned by him generally meant something to me.

“Only bitches join the Air Force.” He spits again. With that bit of wisdom he turns and leaves, I later found out he went out to the patio and destroyed everyone in Corn Hole for about two hours.

 

Everyone is mad that we drank all the Number Nine on Manas, they are reduced to drinking Stella Artois, so everyone mocks their manhood. Everyone in the company is in rare form: Happy. Tomorrow we fly home, wy hether our flight is delayed or not, we will leave Manas at some point in the next 24 hours. Everyone is talking about all the beer they are going to drink and how many women they are going to disappoint in bed.  I couldn’t help but be depressed at everything around me, it was just the little repressed children we all have inside us being vented out for the first time in a year.

 

We drank, we broke things, and we almost started fights. We screamed, yelled, and fantasized about being home. As happy as we all seemed, none of us wanted to be there. None of our heads were in that patio, they were in Fort Hood, Texas.

 

May 21st-22nd 

 

 After sleeping for about thirty minutes my unit lines up in front of the customs office once again, The time before they searched only our checked baggage, this time they were going to ripped our carry-on apart. Some fat Sergeant from a National Guard unit makes it perfectly clear that we shouldn’t try to hide anything, because they will find it, they are seriously good at their jobs.

 

In my bag I have several bags of unlabeled sleeping pills, a knife, and other things he listed as being illegal. In order to look like I am complying with his rules I throw away my body wash and toothpaste as they are over ten fluid ounces. Yes I have a rifle, a pistol, and a grenade launcher on my person, but my Dove body wash crossing customs means the Taliban win. I toss it in the trash but keep my pills.

 

My bag passes through the scanners unmolested, my pills unfound, my knife not taken. I laugh at the customs guy as I escape out the back door with my loot. The guy behind me smiles and laughs about getting through with several rounds of ammunition. Before long we are put in buses and drove out to the airfield.

 

We are seated in a plane we are sharing with some National Guard people who are also going home, abet from a nine month deployment compared to our year-long one. I eat some sleeping pills and slip off into the darkness, when I wake up we are in Leipzig, Germany being herded into a closed terminal. The pills are still seriously effecting my thought process, it feels like my body is walking off without my head. I settle in in front of the TV to pass the two hours we are supposed to be stuck in Germany waiting for our plane to be refueled or re-catered.

 

Its not until someone points it out to me that I notice the TV I am watching is set to the German version of MTV. These pills that are supposed to put me to sleep are making me lose my fucking mind. Shortly afterward we board the plane again. I sit down and pass out again. I wake up in Bangor, Maine.

 

We get off the plane again, this time in American soil. Old people and war veterans one both sides of the hallway shaking our hands and hugging us. The amount of human interaction being forced on me makes me very uncomfortable so I get through it at something that resembles a jog, I break through the old people like a runner through the finish line tape.

 

We are suppose to be in Maine for two hours, and I spend this time sucking down Red Bulls to try to offset the punishment the sleeping pills are giving me. It doesn’t work, the amount of caffeine flooding my system just confuses it and I feel like I am dying. I use this time to call home with my now working cell phone. We all pile back onto the plane.

 

The four hour flight from Maine to Tecas may just be the longest of my life. To hyped up to pass out again, but to fucked up on a misguided dosage of sleeping pills to really talk to anyone, I stare at the seat in front of me and listen to the mechanic next to me talk about all the pussy he is going to get in Texas. Suddenly I wish the sleeping pills would have killed me.

 

Finally we land at Fort Hood. We gather all of our weapons which before now just layer on the ground. Over one hundred rifles and pistols laying on the floor of a commercial flight, but not a single pair of finger nail clippers. Those are too dangerous.

We file down the stairs to shake the hands of our Brigade’s Sergeant Major and Commander. Several other people who I have no idea who they are shake my hand and welcome me home. At the beginning of the line for some reason is a Canadian General. I shake all of their hands and thank them for doing whatever it is they do and file into  warehouse to turn my weapons in.

This is around the time I was supposed to be issued a Barracks room, but they managed to fuck up all of the paper work and my name was not on the list. Preparing for us to come home was all these people’s jobs were and they fucked it all up. Not that I wanted to live in the barracks, I have a house off of Fort Hood, but they want me to have a barracks room. We get back on some buses, now with a police escort, and drive towards the parade field where people are waiting to welcome us home from Afghanistan.

 

The bus drivers manage to take the longest route possible and almost run into one another several times during the whole thirty minute ride. Survive Kandahar City and die as a smear on the road at Fort Hood. Makes sense.

Thankfully we survive long enough to make it to the field where a huge crowd of loved ones are waiting. We jump off the buses and pile into some half asses formation and start marching across the field. Our formation is so ugly looking the only thing stopping the First Sergeant from screaming at us is the hoard of loved ones.

They scream and scream, waving signs and placards. Cameras go off like the muzzle flash of a hundred machine guns. The Captain releases us and the family members charge us to hug and greet their son, husband, or father. Mother, daughter, or wife.

 

The reality has not set in. My war is over, my time in Afghanistan is done. My guns are silent from now until forever. I won’t get shot walking to the fridge or blown up walking through the mall. The smiling faces of loved ones and friends should tell me I am home. The Texas humidity embraces me in my first day of freedom as I walk into my house for the first time.

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  1. Lyssa Keefer
    May 23, 2012 at 11:03 am

    Found your blog while googling about Kandahar. You are absolutely hilarious. Thank you for everything you do! You’re right South Park is “Section 8″…. I have lived here for 3 months…over this wretched place and ready to be back home at Bragg, never thought I would say that!

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