Off in the distance I heard a distinct sound — the metallic blades cutting through the air. Could this finally be it? Was this really happening? I touched my face to make sure that I wasn’t dreaming. I was 20 years old, and I was nearing the end of my first deployment.
As the helicopter neared, my excitement grew. My heart raced, and my legs and hands were jittery. I couldn’t stand still; I had to pace in circles. I could feel the gusts of wind getting more violent, pushing me back. The sound grew louder. Over the hill I saw a black shadow illuminated by the moonlight. Sand, dust, and particles filled the air. Within seconds, I felt like I was being thrashed around inside a wind tunnel. I didn’t care. I embraced the feeling. I ran to board the helicopter.
I had just spent eight months in a remote, small outpost in Afghanistan called Baraki Barak. I was with my platoon, and this was my final day. Ever since my arrival at the base, I had felt nothing but misery. We had been assigned to the outpost in order to create a “safe space” to protect the U.S. forces in the province as they slowly withdrew from the area. This meant that my job was to protect our base and make our presence known. We performed daily patrols to signal to the Taliban that we were in town. During the winter, we had no equipment to keep us warm, so every night it felt like we were inside a freezer. The cold would creep in, forcing me to wiggle my toes so they wouldn’t freeze together. In a desperate attempt to keep my hands warm, I urinated on them, only to realize that the freezing liquid made them even colder. Small red sores were appearing on my hands, the beginning stings of frostbite. In the spring, our only oven broke, and for a month we couldn’t replace it. We rationed our food. One biscuit for breakfast, one biscuit for dinner. Every night I could feel my stomach screaming for food.
I placed all of my hope in leaving so that I could escape the torment, but the date of departure kept getting pushed further and further back. With each delay, I lost a part of myself and became resigned to the fact that this place was my “home.” I had to accept this reality; I had to live in the moment. There was no alternative. I couldn’t spare the mental power needed to imagine being elsewhere. There was no more daydreaming about getting some R&R (rest and recuperation) on the main base, or starting the day by enjoying a warm hot shower, or treating myself to an ice cream sundae to cool off in the heat. I tucked those happy thoughts into a box and locked them away. The delays made me feel stupid for hoping this existence could be over. “How stupid could I be?” I would ask myself. I need to stop foolishly thinking that life would get better here.
I grew sour and bitter. I hated everything and everyone. The air, the people, the missions. I hated myself for ever wanting to join the Army.
As the helicopter began to take off, the pleasing thoughts that I had locked up slowly returned. I thought about how great it would feel taking a long, hot shower. I wanted to sleep in a nice, proper bed. I felt the bitterness leaving and optimism beginning to seduce me. As we flew over the hill, I looked back one last time at the small outpost, and I said goodbye to the old me.
Robert Hickman served as an infantryman in the U.S. Army for three years. He earned his AA in biology at Reedley College and is currently studying biology at UC Santa Barbara, where he will be graduating in the spring. He plans to become a physician.