A Flight Home I Didn’t Want to Board
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It was a bitterly cold night in December, 2002, and I was sitting by myself in the small, quiet, wooden structure that served as the passenger terminal at Kandahar Airfield. There were only a few others in building. I was just sitting there with nothing more than my gear and a mind full of fresh memories of most of a year in Afghanistan. I was waiting for my flight out on an Air Force C-17 transport plane under the cover of darkness. The airfield and base were “secure,” but due to the size of the planes, they were prized targets for Taliban or anti-American fighters, so flights were still to nighttime. I’m sure I stuck out like a sore thumb, but it didn’t bother me since I had literally come right off the front line to catch this flight. My hair was thick, long and needed to be tamed, and my face was unshaven. I badly needed to be groomed or shaved, period. My uniform was very faded, missing the majority of patches. I also had an odor. True combat has a distinctive smell, and my uniform stunk of it.
Just a few days prior to that moment, my redeployment orders had come down: it was time for me to return to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina.
Great… Just great…
Unlike the vast majority of other soldiers who were elated by the prospect of going home, I was not. Frankly, I was devastated on the inside.
About midnight, while waiting for my flight out, a major came through looking for me. In an impromptu, informal and quiet ceremony, I was awarded my Combat Infantryman Badge. I must say that I truly did earn it. Before he headed out, he “suggested” to me that “It wouldn’t hurt if I made myself more presentable when I got to Germany before getting back to the North Carolina.” I told him that I’d work on that, and he was gone into the darkness of the night.
It was getting close to dawn when we heard the C-17 land and Air Force personnel instructed us to head out and get ready to board for the ten-hour flight to Germany. There were only about twenty of us getting on the flight, which felt almost awkward, given that the cavernous space inside a C-17 can easily at least 120 personnel. The loadmaster for the flight, who is responsible for the entire cargo area of the C-17, did manage to get a smile out of me. He was an Air Force sergeant—classy and with a sense of humor—from Maryland. While we boarded his aircraft, he was blasting away Ozzy Osbourne’s “Momma, I’m Coming Home” from a little boombox. Still to this day when I hear the first strums of the guitar intro to that song my jaw clenches and my eyes close for a good long minute.
Things didn’t move slowly at all with the C-17 on the tarmac. We got in the plane, got situated, and less than twenty minutes later we were in the air. After we received the ”you’re free to move about the cabin” order, roughly thirty minutes after takeoff, those who were not already passed out asleep were quickly sprawled on the floor of the aircraft getting comfortable. As for me, nope. I was wide awake. My body was absolutely physically exhausted, but my mind had no intention of letting me sleep—at least not anytime soon.
We had been in the air for just over an hour and the loadmaster and I were the only ones awake. We made small talk for a while, and then I found myself peering out the little window just to the left of the aircraft door. The sun was up now, shining bright on the ground below. I could see down on the earth with wonderful, crystal-like clarity. I just stood there, looking as we flew over mountains that were lightly capped in snow. They were different mountains than those where I had spent much of the past year, but they looked so very similar to the mountains that I had lived in, fought in, and gotten to know like the back of my hand. They made me think about all of the people who inhabited them and made up the tribal society that was in so many ways shaped by that mountainous terrain. The vast majority of my time in Afghanistan was spent in the provinces of Ghazni, Paktia, Paktika and Khost. These four provinces all share or sit very close to the border with Pakistan, which made for many volatile, violent and tension-filled days.
Standing there looking out the window, it finally hit me. It hit me harder than any explosion had hit me up to that point in my life. The tears just started flowing from my eyes like a river, my throat swelled up like I’ve never experienced before and I bit down hard on my bottom lip. Thinking back, prior to that, I can’t even remember the last time I had cried or felt such passionate emotion. I had fallen hard for that country. I had fallen hard for the people of that country. I had fallen hard and it hurt so bad on the inside to leave, knowing there was still more to be done, so much more I wanted to give to them, so much more fighting during which I wanted to be alongside them, and yet, I had to leave.
So there I stood, a grown man at the little window on the left side of the C-17, looking out and quietly crying. With one hand I braced myself against the aircraft, and I brought the other to my head to hide the tears, to hide the pain I felt inside from leaving.
John Uxer is a United States Army veteran.