"But war, in a good cause, is not the greatest evil which a nation can suffer. War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things: the decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks nothing worth a war, is worse. When a people are used as mere human instruments for firing cannon or thrusting bayonets, in the service and for the selfish purposes of a master, such war degrades a people. A war to protect other human beings against tyrannical injustice – a war to give victory to their own ideas of right and good, and which is their own war, carried on for an honest purpose by their free choice – is often the means of their regeneration. A man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. As long as justice and injustice have not terminated their ever-renewing fight for ascendancy in the affairs of mankind, human beings must be willing, when need is, to do battle for the one against the other."

Friday, July 03, 2009

Mesopotamian sunset

Yes indeed, the sun is finally setting on this, my second and (most likely) last deployment to Iraq. Not so much in a literal sense, as we're now on day four of a shamal sandstorm that's engulfed most of the country and the last time I saw the sun was Thursday, flying over the dust layer at 5000 feet before shooting an instrument approach back down through it. But in the grander sense, my sojourn here is at an end. I've flown my last combat flight in this country, and now I'm packing and sitting through the myriad 'warrior transition' briefs we get before going home, where we're gently reminded not to abuse our wives and children and instructed on the proper employment of the barbeque. Shortly, we'll be wheels up and underway back to CONUS, where my son is earnestly asking "Daddy soon?" every few minutes and my wife is putting the final touches on my post-deployment to-do list (at the top: potty training and getting Aaron to go to bed without a nightly re-enactment of Pickett's Charge. Hint: Pickett is evidently the parent, and the result of the contest hasn't changed). And I can't wait. I'm about done with the heat, the dust, and flying through both of the above.

Conveniently, Iraq arranged for both of the above to be present on my last flight out here. Like I said, we're in a sandstorm that started four days ago, which coincided with a pretty important event - the departure of the last American troops from Iraqi cities - and a couple of high-priority missions in support of that event, which our squadron was tasked to fly. The first was what we call a "helicopter governance" mission, in which we had to fly the governor of al-Anbar province to several remote locations to meet with local leaders and sheiks who rarely see the presence of political leaders. I didn't fly this particular mission, of which I was secretly glad: higher had scheduled this mission two weeks earlier, in equally crappy weather, and that time our squadron - based on higher's own weather criteria - decided not to launch since our minimums weren't met. Well, that didn't go over too well with the general in charge of all the glad-handing (who already didn't like us because one of our aircraft leaked a little hydraulic fluid on his nice clean cammies), but the weather never got good enough to go that day. So it got pushed back to Iraq Sovereignty Day; and, lo and behold, the weather was just as bad as last time (even a little worse). And could we feel higher's eyes boring down on us, wondering if we'd cancel this time too? Oh yes. Our CO knew that anything short of armageddon cancelling the mish would have heads rolling (starting with his), so damning the torpedoes we launched; and promptly had to execute not just our slice of the mission but virtually the whole thing, because everyone else but us cancelled in the face of the shamal. So we looked like rock stars, though the ten hours of flying our pilots had to do, including approaches at the end through blowing dust, was pretty demanding.

So the next day I was on another mish with the same crap weather and same rock star/jackass option before us. We were doing a practice Aeroscout mission with some Iraqi commandos and their Marine advisors, and while the weather was good at the moment in Al Asad, it was supposed to get bad any minute. But off we went, into the wild blue yonder, and landed at the LZ to pick up our commandos when a text message on our neat little scrolling Blue Force Tracker maps came in telling us that yep, everyone else just cancelled again for weather and by the way, home field went from unrestricted visibility to a 1/2 mile in the 30 minutes it took us to fly down. Oh well; we're 361 and apparently we launch in anything, so we loaded up the troops and went on an abbreviated flight during which we couldn't even land because the QRF required to let us do so was stuck in Al Asad. It was completely uneventful (except for the decoy flare I accidentally dropped directly into a Bedouin's pick-up truck bed when my defensive gear went haywire; if you're reading this, buddy, I'm really sorry) up to the point where we'd dropped off the grunts and tried to work our way back home. First we tried hugging the ground through the dust, but when we could no longer tell where mother earth stopped and the storm started, we climbed . . . and climbed . . . and climbed up to 5000 feet, where the dust finally stopped. Of course, we had to drop back through it on our approach to the runway, but hey, this wasn't the first billowing wall of doom I'd navigated. We popped out of the goo over the runway approach lights and got back to the line, no problem.

And those few minutes at 5000 feet were the last time I saw blue sky. We spent our 4th of July huddled inside coughing at the dust that sneaked through the cracks in the windows and doors (with the occasional break for chow at dining halls that featured massive butter sculptures of the Statue of Liberty. Yes, butter. What they do with it after today, I don't know, but I imagine Lady Liberty will be a vital component of our grilled cheese sandwiches for the next three months). Which is fine, because lately I've been thinking that what this country needs is a little more dirt.

Sidebar: I am now on day three of trying to finish this post. Gone are the days when I could knock out a small essay in an hour. I really am getting old (or my thoughts are less interesting. Not sure what scares me more).

Anyway, I've been thinking on what to say in my 'final thoughts on Iraq' post, and three days later I still don't have it all (I can hear you all saying, "oh great, this will be a serialized piece". Well, you can deal with it since I get paid by the word; or at least write like I do). I doubt I'll have it all until I'm back home with my family and everything I've missed for the last five months hits me; even then, the final analysis won't be complete, because how things play out in this country in the months and years to come will continue to resonate with all of us who've spent time pounding (or hovering over) the sands of Mesopotamia. Make no mistake, my outlook on these last two deployments will depend greatly on what the Iraqis choose to do, and how America responds to those choices. I've said it before and I'll say it again: my greatest hope is that Iraq turns into a peaceful country that I can visit as a tourist years down the road, where I can see first-hand how our efforts bore fruit and enjoy the culture and history that I've only glimpsed through my chin bubble. And I pray the United States continues to do everything possible to cultivate and support this new, democratic ally it has bled so much to midwife. Otherwise, what was the point of the cumulative year of my life I've spent here?

That's not to say that these deployments would be empty in their own right should Iraq and America choose to fail. I've learned much in the months spent in the desert. I've honed my skills as a pilot and experienced many things - good and bad - that have expanded my box and developed my knowledge base to help make me a better flyer and officer in the future. You can't put a price on most of these things, be it recognizing the signs of vertigo in myself, increasing my proficiency at flying on the goggles with absolutely no ambient light and in lousy weather to boot, or seeing just how dangerous and foolhardy it is to plow through a thunderstorm. These lessons are priceless, and the failure to learn them has killed better pilots than myself. I can now appreciate Churchill's adage about being shot at without result, and have increased gratitude to the bloody work of the grunts who made it so that the threat is far smaller than it could be. I've progressed in my professional development as a company-grade officer, and - last deployment anyway - had the opportunity to directly lead Marines in my own shop (I got lucky: my S-6 assistant was an outstanding NCO and taught me far more than I taught him). The shared hardships, dangers and stress of our time out here has forged tight bonds among my fellow company grade and given us enough experience to better watch each others' backs. I can't quantify how much this unity has helped us, but I know for a fact that the mutual trust we have for each other has counteracted many a poor leadership decision from outside our group. And while I haven't had anything remotely resembling the cultural interaction the ground-pounders get in their daily work, the few times I've worked with Iraqis, and the ancient and silent testaments to their history that I've seen along the Euphrates, make me want to come back and know more.

But these silver linings will be greatly diminished should the forces of violence and chaos take root again in Iraq, or apathy and faithlessness grip our leaders back home. Because words cannot describe what these deployments have cost me and my family. I have missed a full year of my son's life and any number of big and small experiences with him that I'll never get back. I missed his first steps and first birthday, have spent back-to-back Independence Days somewhere else, and he knows me better as a voice coming through the phone than anything else. There is no way to pay that back to him. My wife has shown incredible forebearance and strength in her involuntary role as a single mother, and there's no way to really make up for these forced separations either. For one out of the last two years, I haven't been there as a father or husband. I can never appreciate what it took to raise our child alone, dealing with tantrums, health problems, and the occasional natural disaster (I hadn't even landed in Kuwait last year before Bree'd been forced to evacuate from one of the wildfires ravaging San Diego), while balancing a job and her own personal tribulations (kidney stones are never fun. Kidney stones with a rampaging two year old can't be any easier). How does one repay those days when she deserved a break, a respite, even if only for a few minutes, but I wasn't there to give her one? Can't be done. The only recompense is success in these deserts and the enhanced security that gives our friends and families back home. Even those words and concepts are cold comfort; 'enhanced national security' doesn't calm a crying child, bring relief to an overworked mother, or help me forget the stress and fatigue of non-stop combat ops, and any number of oh-so-close calls that almost kept me from coming home. The dividends of these deployments will be enjoyed by strangers in the future; I can only pray that those dividends are in fact paid, and appreciated.

OK, if I keep spilling my stream of consciousness onto the keyboard I'll be home before I finish this post. So, I bid Iraq farewell, and look forward to bidding my family a hello and good day. I hope you've enjoyed these dispatches, infrequent and rambling though they've been. With any luck, I'll get a longer respite this time 'round before I start my next series of "Live from ____________", though I have a pretty good idea of just where _________ will be. You may even have seen it on the news recently, in between updates of who's getting MJ's kids and guided tours of Neverland ranch. The Marines there have just launched their largest combat operation since Fallujah in 2004, and the largest heliborne operation since Vietnam. They are in for some tough fighting, and they don't get to go home anytime soon. Give them a thought, when you have the time. As for me, I appreciate all the good wishes and prayers I've received over the last five months. Take my word for it: they work, and saved me from the wrong side of disaster more than once. Keep praying for the guys still here and in the 'Stan; and in the meantime, I look forward to seeing you all soon, back in the World. Semper fidelis.


Patrick Brown said...

Eloquently worded, as always, my brother! We're all looking forward to having you back on North American soil.

Ooo-rah to you and all the servicemen in the Sandbox. You do us proud.

Winefred said...

Mesopotamian Sunset -- isn't that a drink made with one part dirty water, two parts cafeteria coffee sediment, and an unpitted black olive?

And what are these "any number of oh-so-close calls that almost kept me from coming home" you speak of? Are there stories to tell when you get back? Guess you've had the good sense to keep them on a "need to know" basis, and Mom doesn't need to know until way, way later.

Hope you will have the time to start resurrecting and printing up the entire blog (including the squelched parts) -- I think publication is not beyond the realm of possibility...........

See you soon at the hoe-down. Stay safe in the way-back machine.

Cincinnatus said...

Well, the short answer is yes, I've omitted a little of the narrative. I figured the war stories could wait until I'm far, far away from the war. I'll make them available once I get back and am safely ensconced in my soft Temperpedic bed.

The Accidental Blogger said...

Instead of my normal tendency to argue with you, I'm just going to say that this is a great post. Well phrased, engaging, etc. If it may have taken a few days, the extra time was well-spent.

Cincinnatus said...

I sincerely thank you for your kind comments; I probably could have continued in that strain for several more paragraphs, but it would have been repetitive and as I said, words can't really capture everything that goes on during a deployment. And any temptation I might have had to spend a few extra days working on a longer post was tempered by the fact that the plane would leave without me.

I now return you to our regularly scheduled programming of arguing :).