Going to War

On the evening of March 7, 2003, I led my wife out the front door of our small three-bedroom home, up our slightly sloped driveway and into the middle of two empty, intersecting streets that met into a cross at our driveway. The asphalt beneath my toes was cool and jagged. The distant street lamps were blown out, and the twinkling stars that shone through the streaking clouds provided the only light. The air was crisp and the night was quiet, like the stillness of an early morning pond.

It seemed that normal life in our usually bustling neighborhood had ceased to exist — for the week that led to this night, cars were not driven, children did not go outside to play and wives refused to leisure in the gardens of their half-empty homes. We lived in an off-base neighborhood dominated by military families, and I was the last to leave.

With my wife’s hand in mine, I pointed into the sky at whatever recognizable but unknowable groups of stars were visible above us. When my wife turned to look into my eyes, I told her that when she was unbearably lonely at night, to look into the sky at the stars we saw at that moment. I wanted her to know that when she looked into the sky, I would be doing the same, but from the other side of the world.

After a few solemn and wordless moments with her hand in mine, I led her back down the slightly sloped driveway and into our home. I finished my half-empty rum and coke, and went to bed thinking silently and despairingly of the following morning.

Saturday, March 8, 2003, was the morning I left for Iraq. My bags were packed into our only car, an old hand-me-down from the in-laws that had been towed from California to Kentucky by an even older motor home. My hair was freshly cut, my sideburns were expertly trimmed, my face was scraped clean by an old razor and I took the last hot shower I would know for months.

I rechecked that I had everything. My dry-cleaned and pressed Desert Combat Uniform rested carefully on the dresser, with my tan boots sitting neatly on the ground beneath them. Not knowing the when the next chance to change my underwear would be, I did without them. Inside my left breast pocket, I had my government issued ID card, my identification and allergy tags, an Army Values card and my HMMWV (Humvee) license. Most importantly, I had my most cherished memento: a scotch-tape laminated piece of paper with a pencil-drawn, stick figure portrait of my family smiling in front of our home.

There is no such thing as a “goodbye” when the deployment orders to war say “180 days, to not more than 365.” I knew that when I left, our dog would sit by the front door, moping and awaiting my non-return. She always hated when I packed the big, green bags, often leaving for a weeks at a time. That morning would be different, and after making all my phone calls to friends and family, I was as physically ready as possible to leave behind the dreams of love and life for the uncertainty and horrors of war.

We drove onto post through Gate Six, past the run-down billeting for the families of the junior-enlisted. Every door was shut; every window and curtain was closed. Deer wandered the deserted streets, picking at the grass in the front yards and doorsteps of empty homes whose wives and children had left for the company of family in other places. A stale air of absence glided over the fingertips of my outstretched hand through the passenger window.

Continuing past the Second and Third Brigade gyms and their empty parking lots, we saw no soldiers walking about and no cars on the roads; Fort Campbell, home of the Army’s 101st Airborne, was a ghost town, and the 502nd Infantry was readying for departure.

Later that evening, Headquarters Company and Bravo Company 2/502 Infantry flew out of Campbell Army Airfield on a commercial 737 airliner, enduring a one-stop, 17-hour flight to Kuwait International Airport. On the evening of March 10, 2003, at Camp NY, in the Kuwaiti desert, I looked into the sky, seeing the same recognizable but unknowable constellations that I saw from my own street two nights previous. They looked contorted and upside down from the other side of the globe.

I thought of my wife, wondering how she would get through the next year without me. Had she looked into the sky the way I was at that moment? The uncertainty of the following year weighed heavily in my mind. It was only day two of 365, and it would be another 10 before I crossed the border into Iraq.

The war was about to begin.