There was a lot of thanking of veterans this past Memorial Day weekend, and that is not altogether out of place. June 14 was the U.S. Army's 237th birthday, and another round of thanks is in order. We ask a lot from the people in the military, and in return many would like us to understand what they endure, so when we thank them it is not just a bumper sticker but a thank you that comes from some understanding. From understanding comes empathy, and from there it's a hop, skip and jump to sincerity. Excerpted from my book, We Meant Well, I offer this meditation on what it means to wait this Army Birthday.
Soldiers did a lot of waiting. They waited for orders, they waited for trucks to arrive, they waited for chow, they waited for someone to explain why they were waiting. Not as bad as prisons, nursing homes, and shipwrecks, but it was an artificial way to live. Soldiers learned how to ingest time as if it were a physical thing. They became Zen masters of boredom, always waiting.
They waited, too, back home. We regularly had communications blackouts, when the Army cut off the Internet and the phones. The blackouts lasted two or three days and were usually after a soldier was killed and the Army did not want anyone calling his or her family or the media or posting online until the next of kin had received official notification. For our spouses and children, panic set in when the emails and Skype stopped suddenly. They knew it meant someone had died, and they held their breath and waited until they learned who. That was hard, so we usually figured out which one of us had a cell phone with international dialing that worked outside the Army system. There were a lot of 10-second calls to say the dearest words a soldier can utter to a waiting loved one, "Can't talk, but I'm OK."
In our war, communication was omnivorous-present, and waiting was done at Internet speed. Facebook did not exist when the Iraq war started (war, March 2003; Facebook, February 2004), but it sure as hell was here now. Even in the smallest dirt hole there was a sat phone or some kind of Internet connectivity or someone with the right Jetsons iPhone that got a cell signal in a place that did not even get daylight some weeks.
It started off as a good thing. We don't have to wait for the mail! Hey, I can call you from the war! OMG frm #iRaQ LOL. Sometimes it was cool. But a lot of times it meant two worlds that had nothing in common but the soldier collided. Why the hell was she Skyping from home about a small problem with the backyard fence when I've just come in from six hours in 110 degrees looking for an arms cache site? What to do about the leak in the basement? You call a plumber, burn down the house, I don't care, we just took a mortar round and I'm going to miss my only real food of the day in five minutes.
Other times it was worse. No one picks up at 3 a.m. back home in a house that is supposed to contain a sleeping wife. Kids answer the phone, distracted by the Disney Channel, and have nothing to say. You worry after three deployments that the substitution of a phone call for a birthday party grows old even for weary preschoolers. The attempt to reconcile a life out here with a life over there fails again and again and again, until you quit trying. Yeah, the lines were down, or I guess you weren't home when I called, or maybe I'll call in a week or so or never. Sometimes after they'd hung up you watched guys unable to say it earlier whisper "I love you" to the dead phone, maybe waiting for a response.
Of course, many nights it was different and you wanted to sit with the phone to your ear and hear the voice at the other end talk about anything, nothing, forever, your world collapsing into the wire. You clung to a wife complaining about the dry cleaner because that represented somewhere better than where you were and today your head was screwed on tight enough to realize it. You had to store up the good stuff when you could get it because you couldn't count on it coming when you needed it. Like sleep, you wished there was a way to bank it.
The availability of communication sometimes forced on me more than I wanted to accept. I was waiting to go home, waiting to hear from my child, waiting for my turn to use the phone, and had no strength left to share everyone else's burden. I walked past a stranger on the phone in the calling center and heard him say, "I want to touch you" to a girl somewhere else. I saw a man listening to a 6-year-old recite lines from a play 7,000 miles and a world away, using the speakerphone so he had both hands free to cover his eyes. It was too much to be plunged this deeply into the lives of people I didn't know, and I wished at those times that phones and e-mail and Facebook and Twitter would just go away.
Outside the calling center I saw an orange dot poking a hole in the darkness and smelled cigarette smoke. I heard another guy crying in the latrine, buttoned up into some of the only privacy available. He couldn't wait for the moment of his breakdown -- technology thrust it onto him. That's when I knew it was bad. I stopped sleeping for a while and started just waiting for my own mornings to come.