Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Oh Death, I Found Your Sting

I’m not a “hearing voices” kind of guy, but this night seemed to be the exception. Much to my dismay, there was a body in the back of my helicopter, and it was talking to me.

“You’re going to crash and die,” it said.

I had always felt like I had a pretty good handle on death as a concept. Both my paternal grandparents died when I was growing up, and I feel like I coped with those experiences fairly well. I was appropriately disturbed, but then got over it. You see I’ve been going to church since I was a fetus, and that religious background has encouraged me to actually look forward to death, although if I’m honest with myself I have to say that I’ve always thought that sounded like the sort of concept you would hold onto if you didn’t enjoy living as much as I did. I am rather fond of living. It’s actually right at the top of my list of favorite things to do, and I have a hard time feeling guilty for that. But the idea of not doing it was something that I could handle too, or at least so I thought. As it turns out, nothing gives you an up close and personal reminder of your own mortality like an up close and personal look at somebody else’s.

On this particular night I was on the schedule to fly a normal “battlefield circulation” mission, which for us meant moving lots of random people (we’ll call them Bob from Accounting) and random things here and there around the northern half of Iraq. While we did occasionally get tasked to perform some necessary functions like resupply or delivering repair parts, our cargo usually tended towards the mundane. We carried everything from cheerleaders to dog food (seriously) to the General in charge of All the Important Things in Iraq. I couldn’t tell you what we were supposed to carry this particular night, but it’s a safe bet it wasn’t terribly important, and I can say with all certainty that it wasn’t as important as what we ended up carrying.

I was on the night shift, so I showed up to work along with my co-night shifters in the middle of the afternoon. Shortly after arriving we got the word there had been an “incident.” This particular gem of Army jargon is generally used only for something serious, but can mean anything from a minor maintenance issue to a catastrophic crash. The specific connotation can generally be found in the inflection of the person who announces said incident. This afternoon the inflection was grave, as was the palpable emotional pallor that had set quickly over the squadron.

As it turned out, this particular incident involved the death of two pilots. All we were told at the time was that it seemed there had been some sort of malfunction in the aircraft’s engine, from which the pilots were unable to recover.

Whenever this sort of thing happens, there is an investigative team sent to the site of the crash immediately. As soon as possible a recovery team is also sent. Our commander called the flight crew that I was a part of into the unit’s office and told us as a group that the plan was for a Medivac unit to recover the bodies, but that there was a small chance that we would be tasked with the mission. After letting the possibility sink in for a moment, he asked us each whether we would have a problem with that. One by one the pilots and crew chiefs said they were fine with it. When he came to me, my response was that I would actually prefer it were us and judging by the way the rest of the crew immediately agreed, I wasn’t the only one who had been thinking that we should be the ones picking up our own fallen comrades. Less than a half an hour later we were headed out to the aircraft and within an hour from notification we were in the air.

The group of people I was working with at the time was an extraordinary group of individuals. It was generally a younger crew, although there was an appropriate smattering of experience as well. Any given night, the in-flight discourse would normally range from the inane to the obscene but would be generally hilarious and mostly continuous. The great thing about hanging out with pilots and helicopter maintainers is that aviation inherently attracts a certain kind and caliber of individual and these are some of my favorite people to be around. A quiet group, however, they are not. Except for tonight. Not an unnecessary word was spoken the entire flight down.

“Before takeoff check’s complete,” “Redcon-1,” “Clear left,” and then the mandatory radio calls were pretty much the extent of the dialogue.

When we arrived at our destination, the somber tone continued as we shut down and waited on the ramp. We had been given a sheet of paper with the protocol to follow for occasions like this and we studied it together. There wasn’t a lot for us to do, only a couple of requirements for what was supposed to happen while the bodies were being loaded – honors rendered, etc, but we were all intent on doing it right. I suspect our part of the process seemed especially important because with all of the emotion packed into what we were doing it was helpful to hold on especially tight to what we could control.

Through this point I felt intently the import of this mission. The honor of what I was being asked to do was not lost on me (and still to this day I consider this flight to be by far the most important mission I flew during the whole deployment). There were no Bobs from Accounting tonight. Tonight we were to carry two fallen soldiers – heroes in every sense of the word. They had given the ultimate sacrifice for their country (for me, even), and to be allowed to carry these fallen warriors on the first leg of their long trip back to their loved ones felt immensely important. It wasn’t until the ambulance pulled up that things started to get really personal.

After waiting about twenty of the longest sort of minutes on the tarmac, a convoy of four vehicles came into view. It was clear by the flashing lights and slow speed that this was the conveyance vehicle we were waiting for. All desert nights tend to be gloomy, but this one’s illumination matched its emotional tone well by being particularly black, so the flashing lights of the ambulance seemed like a bit of an intrusion into the otherwise peaceful darkness. It was cool and breezy too – maybe it was just my emotions projecting themselves onto our surroundings, but tonight even the weather seemed to be reverent.

Like every combat mission, we had two aircraft and a crew of two pilots and two crew chiefs for each aircraft. Because part of the protocol we had been given was for the crew to be in a formation outside the helicopter while the bodies were loaded, each crew had formed up outside our respective aircraft. The first indication that things were going to be more hands-on than we’d expected was when one of the people who had gotten out of one of the four vehicles motioned us all over.

When we got to the ambulance, the first thing that went through my head was the lunacy of the fact that I still had my flight helmet on, and the second was that I couldn’t possibly take it off, despite the fact that because it was a flight helmet, it was specifically designed to keep sound out of my ears. The stupid protocol that was supposed to have told us all we needed to know about how to do this mission in the first place had told us that we were supposed to wear our helmets through the whole process. I suppose this is out of respect, but the affect it had on me was that hearing the instructions of the Sergeant Major who was apparently in charge of this operation was pretty much out of the question. So I found myself craning to catch a word of instruction here and there, cursing my inability to read minds, and hoping that the Sergeant Major would release us quickly so we could go back to our expected roles of reverent bystanders. To my dismay, apparently enough of the rest of the crew had apparently developed lip reading skills at some point in their lives to know what was going on, because they began taking their place as if they were going to actually play some part in taking the bodies out of the ambulance.
I still don’t know how it happened, but somehow, someone had taken the fact that we were here to “transport the bodies” to mean that we were going to physically carry the bodies onto the helicopter. This, I was not prepared for.

The situation worsened: as the ambulance was a military vehicle, it did not have bells or whistles, which I now know includes rolling gurneys, so we were to transport these warriors, these heroes, by hand, on simple litters, I’m sure the very same ones that have been used since the World Wars. In hindsight, I suppose it’s fitting that their conveyance should connect them to those that have fallen before them, but mostly at the time it felt irreverent, as if the bodies these brave souls had departed deserved more. The crew of our sister ship somehow got tasked to take the first body, so my crew watched as they attempted to extract the bodies from the vehicle – not a physically easy task, while maintaining as high a level of respect as possible. The apparent difficulty was confirmed for me when it was our turn.

The body was heavier than I expected. Even with four strong men, one on each corner of the litter, it took a good amount of effort to get the litter off the ambulance, although I’m sure the emotional weight of the situation added to the perceived physical exertion. As long as I live I will never forget the walk to the aircraft. It was only about 30 yards, but this is when I started hearing the voice in my head.

“You’re going to crash and die.”

It wasn’t a literal voice, of course, or at least that’s what I’m going to tell the psych evaluator if he asks. It was more of a subconscious inference. I feel confident that if this had been the body of any other type of soldier, the experience would have been significantly different, but I could hear this particular voice speaking to me because like me, he was a pilot. This man (the body carried by our sister ship was a female) could have easily been me, and he was simply bringing to the surface a repressed feeling that I should be doing something else with my life.

Because being a pilot is a relatively dangerous profession, we are encouraged early on in our professional development to develop callousness towards the fact that our job could lead directly to our death. I think it’s fair to say that the innate qualities that point a man or woman towards being a pilot probably include a predilection towards a feeling of invincibility. Even in flight school we are shown videos of terrible fatal helicopter crashes and I think the general response to them is, “Well, sucks for that guy, but I’m too good a pilot for that to happen to me.” That’s easy to say sitting in a classroom watching a YouTube video. Carrying the body bag of a man who I had passed in the hallway countless times, whose smile I still remember as being luminous, whose pleasant laugh was both infectious and always at the ready, I could feel my ten year career’s worth of feelings of invincibility shatter, and because this invincibility had been so necessary to making it through my day to day life, the splinters were lodged pretty deep in my psyche. It’s amazing how the physical act of carrying this body had so quickly turned this mission from being an extreme honor to a significant emotional event. But it had.

I didn’t cry (yet – that would come two days later when I finally got to hear my wife’s voice for the first time after the incident), but my heart was heavier than it had been since I had left home. My first thought was of my wife. I immediately judged myself for the recent stress I had put her under. My thoughts then turned to my children; thinking of what their future would be like had I been the carried rather than the carrier. When the walk to the aircraft was over and the body was secured appropriately, we took off and headed home. This flight was silent verbally, but deafening emotionally. It took us fifteen minutes to get home, and I couldn’t get over the message this body was sending me.

I started coming around when we finally reached Mosul airfield where we were stationed, and shut down in a particular spot that had been prepared for us. Around seventy or eighty soldiers were waiting for us, mostly consisting of the Troop these particular pilots had been a part of, joined by representatives from the entire squadron. As we shut down, the soldiers there formed two lines stretching out towards the two aircraft, facing each other, with enough room in between them for the bodies to be carried. The crews got out of the aircraft and stood on both sides of each cargo door. Here, fortunately, there were mortuary affairs personnel to oversee the conveyance, a wheeled gurney, and pre-chosen pallbearers. As the body was removed feet first from our aircraft, our crew rendered a slow salute. Again I felt viscerally the extreme honor of what I was doing. And something about the solidarity of those present helped make the whole thing ok.

It was as the body was making its way down the fifty foot aisle way formed by the saluting soldiers that it occurred to me that all of this pomp and ceremony wasn’t for the fallen soldiers, it was for the men and women rendering honors. Whether or not I had been picked to hand carry this body tonight, it would have eventually spoken to me. I might not have heard it until the memorial service that was held a few days later. I might not have heard it until we got home and it surfaced unexpectedly. But it would have come. Tonight’s ceremony was a chance to begin the closure process. And having had my own time together with this warrior’s remains not only provided the opportunity to make its message to me real, but it made it real in a way that I could address it. It gave me the chance to talk back.

By the time the gurney was reaching the end of the aisle, ending this leg of its journey that I had shared, the inferred message was still heard.

“You’re going to crash and die,” it still called.

“I think what you mean to say is, I am going to die. Someday.”

And while that’s still not something I look forward to, it’s something I can at least be ready for.


Written in memory of CPT Marcus Alford and CW2 Billie Jean Grinder. The fallen warrior on my aircraft was CPT Alford. A fund has been set up for the two children he left behind. You can donate to the CPT Marcus R. Alford Sr. Memorial Scholarship Fund by sending a check to or contacting Regions Bank-Village Green Branch, 1144 Nashville Pike, Gallatin, TN 615.452.5063.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Homecoming

The big news at our house is homecoming. Not of the formal dress and corsage variety, but rather the soldier-who-has-been-out-of-the-country-for-nine-solid-months-and-is-coming-home-to-NASHVILLE type. The precise date is a moving target. Just today, Marc's group was delayed leaving Kuwait by 24hrs. They will be headed to Oklahoma for an unspecified number of days, then home to Nashville, probably before this time next week. See what I mean by moving target?
The kids are very excited about Daddy coming home. Wesley has been making about 10-20 welcome home signs each day, and Catelynn is just following suit with the general spirit of elation. She is equally excited about Bob and Larry fruit snacks, but oh well. I am using this week to prepare physically, mentally, and emotionally for the BIG changes ahead. It is a bit surreal that this journey is actually coming to an end. I am so thankful for the innumerable ways God has sustained both Marc and me for the last year and look forward to seeing his continuing faithfulness into the next phase...reintegration!

Monday, February 1, 2010

No more mail! (this is a good thing)

The bad news is, I have to ask you all to not send any more mail. The good news: it's because I'm coming home sooner than it might get here.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Make a Merry Christmas

Christmas approaches! In a way, the timing is pretty good for all of us over here in Hot and Sandy Land I think, because after having been deployed now for the better part of a year, one doesn't have to look too hard to find signs of wear on everybody's psyche. So some positivity is in order. On a personal level, Christmas is one of my favorite times of year, so being away from Michelle and the kids will be especially hard, but I'm determined to make the best of it. And good news! You can help!
Here's what I'm doing: Michelle has sent me enough stockings for each of my pilot friends to have one. Another pilot friend of mine's wife sent him enough stockings for each of the maintenance guys that fix our helicopters to have one. Now we just need to stuff them. I thought about asking for people to send boxes of stuff for that purpose, but there would be a couple of problems with that. First of all, the stockings are going to be a surprise for everybody, so me receiving a large number of boxes might tip people off. Also, there would be plenty of shipping costs. Then there's the issue of mail occasionally getting delayed unexpectedly. So, I've decided to ask that if you are interested in helping me make Christmas a little more bearable for the guys in my unit that you send a monetary contribution by Paypal to: m_macton (AT) hotmail (dotcom). Obviously, replace the @ sign and the .com to make a regular email address. They have a PX here that will have plenty of stuff for stuffing, so I'll take whatever moneys I can gather and get various and sundry items from there.
If you can help, really, any amount would be helpful. I'm not going to break the bank here, but there are about 60 people or so that I'd like to fill stockings for. And no amount is too big either!!! If you haven't used Paypal before, don't worry you can send money without creating an account just by going to http://www.paypal.com/, clicking on "Send Money" and using some sort of credit card. I don't use the Paypal account for anything else at the moment, so I will know what it's for.
I feel like my focusing on somebody other than myself will be good for me not only because it's an appropriate expression of the Reason for the Season, but because it'll take my mind off of my current situation, all for a good cause. If you would consider helping to make that happen, that would be awesome. Thanks! And please feel free to pass this on to anybody you think might be interested in helping.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Home for the Holidays

Three birthdays and one major winter holiday without Marc down, two other major winter holidays, an anniversary and possibly one more birthday to go. We are spending the holidays at home (which is what I have come to call Nashville, TN), and I think it is the best possible scenario right now. That's not to say we would not treasure time with extended family, but the allure of dear friends, church, our own beds, our little fake Christmas tree, and zero driving hours (among other things) is great enough to tip the scales. I know certain aunties are disappointed, and maybe even an uncle or grandparent too, but I know they love us and try to understand.
Today I sent Marc a box full of Christmas cheer to add to his scores of lights that he is preparing to hang in, on, and around his CHU (and possibly even underneath, if it comes to that!). Before the week is out, I will send his Christmas present which I planned to wrap but realize he will know what it is as soon as he reads the customs form! Oh well. I guess it is the thought, right? He is intensely nosy and would have no doubt opened it before Christmas Day anyway. People keep reminding me that the end is getting closer, and I often reply that it is quite impossible for it to get any farther. And for that, I am thankful.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Day in the Life

Aside from Marc's unit, we know several other families with husbands/fathers who are deployed. This movie was filmed by Jerry Dickerson, a med-evac pilot stationed in Afghanistan (flying the same aircraft that Marc flies). His family, Kristen (wife), Sarah and Emily (6y/o and 2y/o), are awaiting his return to Savannah, GA in about a year. (Please do not be alarmed by the video saying that a virus is detected! It is just part of the production. (: ) video

Thursday, November 19, 2009

New Address

We have been waiting for the official go ahead to release information (sounds really top secret, right?). Marc has moved to another post (still in Iraq). Please see his updated address below.
CW2 Acton, Marc E.
Trp D, 1-230th ACS
FOB Sykes
APO, AE 09351

Monday, October 12, 2009

Meet Me Halfway

The end of September marked the official halfway point in the deployment. Six months down, six to go. I guess it should feel like a joyous accomplishment, but I'm having a little trouble mustering the half-full mentality. Over the last six months, I have become well-acquainted with the challenges I will face for the next six months. I often remind myself that our struggles are not unique, and others face far more difficult circumstances. Then the glass appears overflowing. And it is! The kids are coping incredibly well. We are blessed with regular communication with Marc while he remains safe. Our personal relationship continues to grow, even when "restricted" to typing over a chat. God is good. And He is faithful. He will be faithful and good for the next six months. And even after that.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Heroes At Home

I actually wrote this song while I was in Alabama, but it's pretty fitting at the moment, so I thought I'd share it with all of you.

"Heroes At Home"

It's time for bedtime prayers
For a boy who wonders where
His daddy's gone
And if he'll be back soon.
His trusting, faithful heart
Knows that God will do His part
But he still wonders
If he'll see him soon.

Right now his dad's a soldier far away
But he waits and prays for the day that he can say

His hero's at home
No longer alone.
In the safety of his loving arms
Free from danger and
Safe from harm.
Right where he belongs
Day by day the proud son prays
For God to bring his hero home.


It's dinner time again
And a mother tries to win
The battle between her and
Two wild horses.
Their daddy's been away
For far too many days.
And each night that she lays awake
Is harder for her heart to take.

Her lover's just a soldier far away
But she waits and prays for the day that she can say

Her hero's at home
No longer alone.
In the safety of her loving arms
Free from danger and
Safe from harm.
Right where he belongs
Night and day this woman prays
For God to bring her hero home.

All the while,
Far away,
The hero fights a war but knows
Even though fear never shows
When life seems that it's going wrong
The only thing that keeps him moving on

Are his heroes at home.
His son who waits and prays at night
His wife whose touch will
Make things right
Even when he's all alone
Each day the soldier stops and prays
That God will speed
This hero home
No longer alone
To the safety of their loving arms
Free from danger and
Safe from harm
Right where he belongs

Every day the proud son prays
Night and day the mother prays
For God to bring this hero home.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Busy Bee

I've been busy for the last week. In the last seven days I have worked approximately 65 hours without any days off and flown a total of just under 20. They told me today that I have an unscheduled day off tomorrow. When they told me, my first thought was, "Sweet, I get to sleep in." My second thought was, "Dang, I don't get to fly tomorrow."

I think I might stick with this flying thing. It seems to suit me.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A few recent highlights

A few things I've been up to lately:

1. Averaged 4-5 flights a week, at around 4-5 hours each. Longest flight so far has been 7 hours straight.

2. Spent an evening watching a band on a USO tour. Band was nothing special, but were decent, and made for a fun evening. The drummer is also the drummer for System of a Down if you know who they are.

3. Trying not to eat too much. Occasional boredom is the worst thing here when not working, and I do love eating. It's sometimes hard not to eat 3 really big meals a day, as they're always available at the all-you-can-eat chow halls. So far I'm winning the war and have lost about 10 pounds, but it's a constant battle.

4. Talking to Michelle and the kids. Having internet access here has been awesome, as I've been able to Skype with Michelle most days. It's been a little bit harder to find time now that I'm flying regularly, but hopefully soon I'll get internet in my room. Haven't talked to Wesley as much, now that he's in SCHOOL! Missing his first day was the first real missed milestone and was not fun to deal with personally.

Here are a couple pictures of me before my very first flight here.




Sunday, August 16, 2009

What I've Been Doing The Last Few Weeks

When you're a pilot and you join a new unit, there's a process you have to go through called RL (Readiness Level) Progression. Basically, you have to prove to the Instructor Pilots (IP's) in the new unit that you are capable of performing all of the maneuvers you might be required to perform in a mission, so while you're going through RL Progression you fly only with IP's and during flights you go through all basic maneuvers. This would include different kinds of landings/takeoffs (rolling landing, single engine landings, minimum power takeoffs, etc), practicing emergency procedures, and doing things like operating radios. You could compare RL Progression to being on a sort of probation. So that's what I've been doing since I got here in Kirkuk.

Unfortunately, progressing me has not been a priority for the unit. The IP's are all mission pilots as well, so they have only been able to fly me when there are no missions and when we have the aircraft and mechanics available. It's been kind of a slow process and somewhat frustrating. If I'm going to leave my family to get deployed, I don't want to be just sitting around doing nothing, which I have been doing a lot of through this process, having flown maybe once a week on average, for only an hour or two at a time.

The good news is, as of this week I'm officially RL1, which means I'm done with the RL Progression. Over the last 3 days I have flown 3 missions and racked up a whopping 16 hours of flight time, which is more than the whole month that it took me to progress. Because eligibility for civilian (or military, for that matter) flying jobs are predominantly based on flying hours, accruing a ton of hours was one of my goals for this deployment. With that in mind, this is a trend that I hope continues!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Goodnight Moon


I have a thing for the moon...and the stars too, really. I first realized my love for the night sky at age 13 when I visited Haiti for the first time. Being a city girl, I had never before experienced darkness of such intensity. I remember lying on the ground, gazing up at a multitude of stars I had never seen. If there is anything I love more than a starry night, it is a full moon. Perfectly round piercing brightness that penetrates my soul. There is a feeling of connectedness. We are all under the same moon. On nights like these, I look up and imagine Marc seeing the same moon. The distance loses some of its power. I love you to the moon and back, Babe!

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A New Meaning For the Term "Spiritual Warfare"

This morning I got to attend my first chapel service here on FOB* Warrior (as an indicator of the relative oddity of the experience, I will tell you that it took me a minute or two just now to decide whether to call it a "Church" service or religious service, or what). It was weird and somewhat unsettling, and yet simultaneously oddly peaceful.

First, you should know that the U.S. military is actually very pro-religion. Almost every single official military function (even those primarily designed as an excuse to partake of the grog bowl - see the description of "Violations of etiquette" under wikipedia's Dining In entry) has a chaplain say a prayer at the start. There are multiple chaplains on every post or base and you even find chaplains deployed in the field with ground pounding infantry units. Even in Basic Training we were issued a Bible and encouraged to “practice our religion.” As soldiers, we are often encouraged to seek out chaplains when faced with tough personal circumstances or mounting stress. Is all that spiritual encouragement because the top military brass are concerned for their soldiers' spiritual well-being? Maybe. But it's also because it makes soldiers into better killers.

Almost without exception, the job of every Army soldier is either to kill the enemy, to help others do a better job of killing the enemy, or to protect those who are killing the enemy. Even the Medical Corps' ultimate purpose is to maintain or return to health those who do the killing, to maximize our "force potential." That's the unfortunate nature of what an Army does. The bottom line is that even in a peace-keeping mission, which is basically what Iraq has become, we keep said peace primarily by demonstrating and strategically exercising our ability to kill.

For example, my job as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in a lift unit is to move people and supplies around the battlefield. We are here to "maintain the force," affording safe passage to those in harms' way and those who bring harms' way to others. Ground convoys are one of the deadliest ways to travel in Iraq, but travel by air is exceptionally safe. At first glance, then, you might label my unit's mission as being a life-saver and to a certain extent you'd be right. But the big-picture, ultimate end state of my mission goes further than the maintenance of life, to the preservation of the lives of friendlies in order to maintain their potential to cause damage to the enemy.

So where does religion fit in to the Army's mission to kill (or at the very least to have the ability to kill)?

Many years ago, the Army discovered that a happy soldier is a better soldier. Just like any civilian, the more mentally and physically fit a soldier is, the better he will perform, no matter what his job. Over decades of experience, it was also determined that for many, spiritual well-being can often be an indicator of wellness. Essentially, as the soul goes, so goes the soldier. Cue the chaplains. Part preacher, part pastor, part counselor, the chaplain's job is not so much to win souls as to minister to them. Which brings me back to this morning's kind-of-weirdness.

The service itself could have been transplanted from any small-ish Midwestern Protestant church service. There are several worship styles available throughout the week ranging from "Gospel" and "Liturgical" to "Muslim," but the service I chose to attend was labeled "Contemporary Christian," so I pretty much knew what to expect in the way of doctrine: basic, non-confrontational, often-generic but still specifically-Biblical teaching, and I wasn't disappointed there. The building was fairly generic as well, with concrete floors (not nearly as unusual here in-country as it would be at home), normal church-like chairs, and a regular old pulpit. The pastor was a reasonably well-spoken guy, generally likable, and entirely unobjectionable. Even the music felt familiar. The worship team is made up of well-meaning volunteers, and according to one of the singers I talked to afterwards is sort of team-led, with no real leader. My new worship-team acquaintance was also probably accurate when he qualified it as "combat worship," which might be a good description of the whole experience. Maybe the weirdness can be explained best by calling it "Combat Church." This is where the experience departs from the norm.

First of all, and probably most glaring is the presence of numerous firearms, as at least half of the "congregation" is strapped. I will just say, had Armageddon come and had Satan's minions been susceptible to small arms fire, there were at least enough nine-millimeter pistols and fully-automatic machine guns to defend that little House of God for a fair piece (or peace?). Second is the near-complete lack of fellowship. While looking around, I did see a few polite hugs during the obligatory welcome-time between those who were obviously familiar with each other, and I did share some brief pleasantries with another guy that I sort of knew from my unit, but other than that it felt less like a church family and more like a collection of individuals all attending the same mandatory spiritual training session. Along with those major weirdness factors, there were a few minor oddities that contributed to the whole experience too, like the fact that like nearly all buildings on FOB Warrior all the windows were blacked out to make the building less of a target for mortars at night, or the fact that everybody was wearing one of two types of clothing - either the standard issue physical training uniform of black shorts and grey T-shirt (with shoulder holsters for handguns, of course) or head-to-toe camouflage battle uniform. All that being said, though, it was still a positive experience overall.

There's something to be said for simply finding a place of peace. The turning of one's heart towards God is always easier when the atmosphere is quiet and calm. And true worship does not require exceptional preaching or exceptional musicianship, only exceptional openness. And even something that provided weirdness was a source of comfort in that the fact that I shared a uniform with all of these people meant shared experience, shared trials, and at least some shared goals. These were people in whom I could put immediate trust, and with whom I shared an immediate bond. In that respect, it had something that no church ever could. And further, the weight of even the smallest pleasantries was increased as well – when the chaplain said he was glad we all could be there this morning, the three soldiers from the FOB who were seriously injured this week came immediately to mind, and I really believed that the chaplain was glad I was there. So, how does my religious experience mesh with the reality that the service was provided to me as a way of enhancing my ability to perform my aforementioned mission?

Maybe this is a case of the means justifying the ends. Does it matter why I was afforded the opportunity to worship? Does it matter that the same chaplain who preached to me from Luke on the importance of giving God glory by seeing miracles in everyday life is likely to be the same chaplain who presides over the Muslim service? I don't think so. I think just as God can speak to each of us through nature, or non-spiritual circumstances, or extract illustrations from even inanimate objects, I can be spoken to in a blacked-out windowed, sandbag-fortified, armed-to-the-teeth chapel. Ultimately if God's desire is for me to commune with Him, then the most important factor in how easily I can hear Him speak is whether I'm willing to listen, and as long as the air-raid sirens are silent, the chapel on FOB Warrior, Kirkuk is as good a place as any. And if going to church ultimately makes me a better warfighter, then I guess that's a win-win, isn't it?


*FOB (pronounced “fawb,” like a watch fob) = Forward Operating Base

Blackout

I talked to Marc today after not hearing from him in three days. On the first day, I chalked it up to schedules and time differences. On the second day with no calls or emails, I began to worry that more than scheduling was coming into play. I knew this could/would happen. Whenever there is an "incident" involving injury to any soldiers, the post communication is shut down until the families can be notified properly. They call it a blackout. Turns out, on Wednesday, a convoy of ground troops were attacked, and a few soldiers were injured. Marc has joked about the relative ease of wartime conditions, but we both realize that the danger is very real. I know you all join me in continued prayers for safety for Marc and his other comrades in arms. God is good. All the time.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Mission: Almost Possible

In the several weeks he has been "in country," Marc has undergone a series of test flights (so to speak) with an instructor charged with verifying his competence. Marc is an excellent pilot, or so he has told me! ;) Actually, it has been universally agreed upon by virtually every instructor he has flown with. If you ask me, it is a good thing to be good at. Though the weeks have seemed laborious at times, the daytime portion is complete (with a nighttime portion still to come). Marc has been cleared to fly daytime missions, and he could begin doing so as early as tomorrow. He said the only condition is that he cannot be shot at since he has yet to be checked off on maneuvering. Personally, I'm okay with that and would prefer that he be prohibited from enemy fire for the duration of the tour. He is eager to begin working, allowing him to become a more contributing member of the unit.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

What to Send: A Short List

Wikipedia has an interesting bit on the origins of care packages. If you are anything like my father-in-law, you might be interested to know that...

"The first CARE Packages contained:[3]

  • one pound of beef in broth
  • one pound of steak and kidneys
  • 8 ounces of liver loaf
  • 8 ounces of corned beef
  • 12 ounces of luncheon loaf (like Spam)
  • 8 ounces of bacon
  • 2 pounds of margarine
  • one pound of lard
  • one pound of fruit preserves
  • one pound of honey
  • one pound of raisins
  • one pound of chocolate
  • 2 pounds of sugar
  • 8 ounces of egg powder
  • 2 pounds of whole-milk powder
  • 2 pounds of coffee"
So, perhaps not a jumping off point for what to send Marc. Maybe this list from him would be more helpful:
  • protein bars and/or protein shakes
  • stationary (got some regular paper and envelopes today so I could start writing to you guys, especially Wesley, but it'd be cool to have something a little nicer)
  • smelly candles or incense or oil burner thingy. Our room smells a bit like poop.
  • Warcraft time card. These would be nice once the internet gets up in the room.
  • gift cards to places I could shop online. Best Buy cards, for example would be awesome.
  • letters or emails. It's really nice actually to just get emails from people, or even just Facebook messages. Regular letters would be nice too, I guess.
  • magnets. I don't really NEED things to hang up in the CHU (containerized housing unit), but it might be fun to have like a collection of stuff that people sent.
  • I'd prefer not to get a bunch of junk food. Not that it'd be bad, cause I could just put it in the pool at the flight line for everybody to enjoy, but I don't want to have a bunch of junk sitting around that I have to try not to eat. :) Sunflower seeds wouldn't be bad.
They do have to open the packages in front of a commanding officer, so everything is monitored. Alcohol is prohibited. Also, be mindful of things that will melt, like chocolate, or spoil since transit time can take up to 4 weeks (though I heard that M&Ms hold up well...melts in your mouth, not in the desert).

Friday, July 17, 2009

War is Hell

Having settled a bit into Camp Warrior here in lovely Kirkuk, Iraq, I thought I'd share with you a few of the atrocities I have to endure while fighting the war on terror:
  1. No internet in my room! But fear not, they tell us this will be remedied within the week. So I should have it at least by September.
  2. The Pizza Hut doesn't deliver, and it's BAREly within shouting distance of my room!
  3. It is at least a 5 minute walk to the place where I drop my laundry off to get it washed for free!
  4. My 24 hour gym is often very busy between the hours of 5 and 6am! This makes it very difficult to find a treadmill close to the TVs to watch the free cable! I haven't been to the other two 24 hour gyms between 5 and 6am, but I am assuming they suffer from the same affliction.
  5. They haven't figured out a way to air condition the entire country of Iraq, so on my way to work I have to walk in the heat between my room and my bus stop, then between my bus and the hangar!
  6. The "haji-mart", as they call the bazaar of local vendors that comes and sets up once a month on post to sell tea sets, knock-off watches, random crappy paintings, a multitude of pocket knives, scarves, cigars, and other local-flavory chotzkies only takes cash, check, Visa, Eagle Cash Card, and Discover. NO AMEX! Savages!

You can send sympathy cards to the address noted in the post below.

Gotta run. I'm off to my 3-nights-a-week jiu jitsu group, then midnight chow at the all-you-can-eat buffet chow hall after that. Wonder if it's gonna be a Baskin Robbins night...

That is all.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

How YOU Doin'?

In my mind, I imagine this asked in the style of Joey Tribbiani of Friends. It is a question I hear often, and I never quite know what to say. My response is usually based on who is asking, how many children are lobbying for my attention, and what level of composure I am capable of mustering.
I am glad people ask. It is comforting and encouraging to know people care. It also serves as a sort of emotional barometer for me. How AM I doing, anyway? Sometimes in the midst of daily life, I forget to take inventory of my feelings. Catharsis works miracles in the processing department.
This week, I'm starting to feel...well, adjusted, I guess. I know that is a good thing, but I hate it at the same time. It feels wrong to be whole without my other half. But they weren't kidding about time standing still for no one. My life allows very little time for self-pity, though I'm not above squeezing it in when I can. Instead, my focus is on growth. I have goals that I am working toward over the span of the deployment (and hopefully thereafter) : physical, financial, spiritual,domestical (fake word, but I love it). My theory is that accomplishing something positive negates some of the negative...you know, kind of sticking it to the terrorists.
What about the kids? I am blessed with two very flexible children. While they love Marc and I deeply, they could really care less if either of us is present, at least for a period of time. A lesser man might be offended that his five year old would rather go play with his friends than take a call from his daddy in Iraq. But make no mistake, his presence is missed, though the kids may not always have the emotional maturity to express it.
And Marc? He is mostly unflappable. Not superhuman, but strong. He is also motivated by goals for his military career, fitness, and spiritual walk. And it seems like 18 summers in South Florida may have given him a leg up on the average soldier when it comes to tolerating 115 degree temperatures in the desert. Who would have thought?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Camel Express

Drum roll please....
Here is Marc's mailing address for the next 10 months or so!

CW2 Acton, Marc
D Trp 1/230th ACS 6-6 Cav
FOB Warrior, Iraq
APO AE 09338

He is safe and settling in.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

It's So Hard To Say Goodbye (Or...That Shakespeare Guy Is Full of It)

There was nothing sweet about the sorrow in this parting.

Michelle 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 along with the preparing. In our house, that’s a successful recipe for procrastination. Different people handle significant emotional events differently. 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.

Mentally processing the idea of going to war was an exercise in mental gymnastics. Some of the induced thoughts were actually positive. I felt more impetus to work out. I felt a lot of pride in what I was about to do. I was looking forward to getting to fly my helicopter more. But for each of those positive thoughts came negative ones, in many cases simultaneously. The extra working out is a perfect example - the reason I felt more motivated was that the fact had occurred to me that the odds of me having to literally run for my life in the near future had gone from none at all to ALMOST none. That might be a small increase in odds, but good Lord that's not an easy thought to process. And then there's the possibility of me never coming home at all. Talk about opening a Pandora's box of emotions. Do you spend the effort to delve into that possibility? Do you really want to find out where that hypothetical road leads? Do you live your last days at home like they're really your last? If you do, good luck enjoying them. But what if you don't and they are?

At the end of the day, my approach was to try to strike a balance. Most importantly, I didn't want to put any more pressure on Michelle or myself than the situation already had. The last week I was home was bizarre in a way, though. 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 Michelle was feeling the same building stress as I was, and our connection was strained at the time when we both needed it to be the strongest. We both needed to be comforted, but neither of us had the full love tank that we needed to be there for each other. On top of that, the knowledge of the implications of the impending physical separation (if you know what I mean) 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 of relationships.

When the actual morning came, saying goodbye…well there’s certainly nothing quite like that. I had the distinct feeling that this was the time to 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 to say or the intestinal fortitude to say it. 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 things 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 that probably wasn’t the time for that. At the end of the day, you have to find out what matters most and stick with that and for me, all the things that matter most are summed up best by that simple expression of commitment. I love her, and that’s really what matters.

The next year will be the hardest of our ten years of marriage, without question. Neither one of us knows how this parting will leave us. Absence might make the heart grow fonder, but at what price? To end where we began (with Shakespeare, of course), where will our relationship be after suffering the slings and arrows of this outrageous fortune we find ourselves trodding through? For all the Army's insensitivity and bent towards the unemotional, they might just have the answer: whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

War 2.0

This was written on the bus just after I had said goodbye to Michelle and the kids, and left Smyrna, TN for Ft. Benning, GA en route to Iraq.

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 not even 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), movies to download (sorry, Hollywood) and games galore (because all that Warcraft’s 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, 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 collegiate academia (if I can even call my freshman year that.)

The odd thing is, a small part of me feels cheated. As cliché 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. As such it is emotionally significant to me every single time someone thanks me for my service, tells me they're proud of me, 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. How much of this disappointment is inferred vs. implied? Probably most of it, held over from some unidentified pubescent emotional issue. 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 this.

This is a new war, from the very first goodbye. Consider that in WWII .307% (or right around 3 of every 1,000) of the entire US population died. In Vietnam it was .03% of the American population. In both of those wars (and to a progressively-lesser extent every conflict up until the current one) aside from the exceptionally infrequent phone call, soldiers’ primary and often only form of communication was letters, which were often sporadically delivered if at all, and took sometimes 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 inexpressible and abundant. When you say goodbye to someone and your lines of communication are so open that you feel the need to obsessively keep your spouse updated by text message on the surprisingly-long battery life of your brand new (non-Apple) mp3 player, that’s a whole ‘nother thing entirely (incidentally, in Iraq to date, less than .001% of the population has died.)

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.

There are still goodbyes. There is still distance. There is still an inability to physically comfort and connect with those closest to you in a time when it is needed most. I don't know what the next year will hold. I'm headed to war, but what does that even mean these days? 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.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

That's Desert With One "S"

Marc was able to call today from Kuwait. He is on a military base there, the name of which has already escaped me. He has an orientation briefing tomorrow (or today, in Iraqi time...they are 8hrs ahead of CST). Then he will wait until a flight can be arranged from Kuwait to Kirkuk, Iraq (the original destination), which will probably be the middle or end of the week. Here are a few bullet points from our conversation...
  • It is hot and sandy. Straight up desert. He said the heat will take your breath away when you walk outside, but you don't really sweat since it is so dry. There is a constant "breeze," creating a sort of convection oven feel and lots of airborne sand to be randomly deposited on EVERYTHING
  • He has quite a bit of jet lag. When I talked to him, it was about 11pm there. He had to be up at 3:30am, but he wasn't really tired since he had only been awake for about 6hrs. He said he is not really sure when to eat and is just caculating his next meal time by the clock since his stomach is also adjusting to the time change. "The chow is not too bad," and they have a Starbucks there!
  • He is sleeping in a tent on a cot (see picture above). It is basically one big room lined on either wall with cots, which he claims are relatively comfortable. There IS air conditioning. When he arrives at Kirkuk, his accomodations should improve significantly. He will have an actually room with one (or possibly no) roommate.
  • He purchased an internet card for the week, so he will be able to be online when the connection cooperates. It was good for the kids and me to see his face via web cam! God is good.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Let the Hotness and Sandiness Begin

Just a short post to put the word out that Marc arrived in Kuwait this morning. His flight left Georgia yesterday afternoon and laid over in Bangor, ME and Germany before arriving in Kuwait. He will stay in Kuwait for several days (possibly up to 2 weeks) to acclimate and do whatever else they tell him to do there. There is still some question as to where exactly he will be in Iraq, but as far as we know, it is somewhere in the northern part of the country. As soon as we have an address, I will post it. Thank you so much for all the prayers offered on our behalf.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Blessed Be Your Name

Blessed be Your name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name

Blessed be Your name
When I'm found in the desert place
Though I walk through the wilderness
Blessed be Your name

Every blessing You pour out
I'll turn back to praise
When the darkness closes in, Lord
Still I will say

Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your name
Blessed be the name of the Lord
Blessed be Your glorious name

Blessed be Your name
When the sun's shining down on me
When the world's 'all as it should be'
Blessed be Your name

Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there's pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

You give and take away
You give and take away
My heart will choose to say
Lord, blessed be Your name

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Once More with Feeling

This morning, Marc boarded a bus in Smyrna and officially
shipped out...like, for real, this time. We knew he would be home after training in Pennsylvania, but since the Nashville layover was expected to be short, we said our good-byes, had our parties, prayed at church, etc. In April, we all experienced a lot of emotion, went through initial adjustments, settled into a routine. Then he came home. And for a month and a half! So we unadjusted, tossed out the new routine and reverted back to the old one, lived in denial, and enjoyed the unexpected blessing. Now it is time to start over yet again. Tears, anxiety, re-acclimation, dusting off those new routines, warming up the web cam. Next stop, Iraq. Marc arrived safely in Georgia today, where he will be training for a few days before catching a commercial flight to Iraq on Friday. This time, it is not a drill.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Updates on the Updates

We have enjoyed some marvelous family time since Marc returned home on May 15th. There has been some shifting of the time line, which is par for the course. For once, the changes seem to be working in our favor. Marc's departure date for Ft. Benning is LATER than we expected. For about 24 hours, it was July 4th (so patriotical), but it is now June 27th. As Marc so aptly put it: "As always, all changes final until next change posted." In the meantime, I am working at the hospitals, and we are trying to soak up ever drop of togetherness. This week, we are taking a trip to FL for Marc's youngest sister's wedding (a monumental event he would have missed). We are looking forward to time with our families and all kinds of quality time in the car (24hrs or so, all told) with the FOF (family of four).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

To Make a Long Story Even Longer

The Army doesn't do anything the easy way. I have very seldom looked at the path ahead and thought, "Yeah, that makes sense." Flexibility, I have learned, is key. For a girl who likes plans and calendars, that is a challenge. The timeline for training and deployment has always been a bit sketchy, but here is the latest: Marc will finish Blackhawk AQC (flight school) on Friday and probably be home by dinner! At the behest of the military (and in order to avoid any health complications in Iraq), Marc needs to have his wisdom teeth removed before he can deploy. Strange, I know. Because of this, we were pretty sure that he would be back in Nashville before the final departure to Iraq. However, he has missed some kind of deadline to meet up with the rest of his unit, who are currently in Ft. Sill, OK. So, after his visit to the oral surgeon, he will have to wait until his unit is in Iraq and go instead to Ft. Bragg, NC, where he will receive mobilization training. It looks like the earliest this will happen is the first week in June, so his stay in N'ville will be longer than we anticipated, which is FABULOUS. After two weeks of training at Bragg, he will meet the unit in Iraq, most likely before the end of June. The important question: does this mean he will be gone longer? Nope! The deployment is for 12 months (give or take...remember, flexibility?) from the date his unit was mobilized, which was March 31st. We are still expecting that he will be back home sometime early in April 2010.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Officially a Blackhawk pilot.

Killing stuff is OUT. Picking stuff up and moving it around is IN. Woot.

As of Monday, I am officially a qualified UH-60 Blackhawk pilot. We took our checkrides, and my stick buddy and I passed with fairly flying colors. I have mixed feelings about leaving Apaches. I would have liked to have gotten deployed at least once with that airframe, but there are things I definitely like about being a lift puke. Basically, the Blackhawk's job is to move stuff around. Whether it be people, supplies, parts, etc, I am basically now a glorified UPS driver with a little bit of taxi cab driver mixed in. Here's what I like about it:
  1. The Blackhawk has a much more varied mission. This helicopter was made to be versatile. The Apache was made for one reason: to blow stuff up. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

  2. I can actually perform the mission without getting deployed. Being in an Apache unit for almost 9 years and never having been deployed feels a little bit like being on a baseball team and only practicing. Basically I've been sitting on the bench for the last 9 years and never got in the game. With 60's, I will be able to play more.

  3. One word: crew. Apaches have only 2 seats, and they're both occupied by pilots. That means it's only me and one other dude. In the Blackhawk, including the other pilot, the crew chief, and the 11 combat troops I can carry, that's 13 other guys that can find out how good of a helicopter pilot I am at one time! :)

I will miss flying guns. But here's to getting in the game.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Daddy Pillows

My friend Kristen just went through a deployment last year with her husband and their two girls. For this and so many other reasons, she is a wealth of information for me! While Jerry was gone, Sarah had something called a Daddy Doll (aka: Hug-a-Hero). Although Marc is somewhat disturbed by the idea of his picture being mounted to a pillow, I thought the kids would really like them, and I was right! Catelynn calls hers "my Daddy piwoow." I wanted to take a picture of the kids with the pillows, and I can't resist posting several attempts...
No? Okay then, maybe another day.
I believe my instruction in this shot was "Open your eyes!"
Sir Ham-a-lotSeriously, this is the best one I could get.
Perhaps justification for Marc's being disturbed
And, she's out! That's a wrap.