Well, the time has come for me to end my deployment here in Afghanistan and return home to the States. This is a move I have mixed emotions about, but am looking forward to making so I can continue my life in the “real-world.” When on a deployment, it feels as though life back home is on “pause” just waiting for that final homecoming flight that will push “play,” causing everything to resume from the freeze frame. But in reality this isn’t the case at all—it only feels that way to those of us who have been deployed—which is a strange concept to truly grasp. In reality, everything and everybody in our lives back home have been in motion the entire time we’ve been away, it seems, without us. This is a feeling I’ve experienced and am prepared for. Without giving details, I’ll soon be flying to Kuwait, then to Europe where we’ll stop for a while, then to Ft. Benning, Georgia where I will out-process. My Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be unique and memorable as most of my journey home will literally and figuratively take place during the holidays.
Although I’ll be in my Army uniform, traveling on various military aircraft through several foreign countries in the next few days, I still plan on celebrating some of my family’s holiday traditions. First of all, I plan on making Christmas Eve special somehow and spending it with friends and family. “Family” meaning members of my Army family—it’s the closest thing a Soldier has while away from his/her real family. Fortunate for me, I have a few fellow Army Reservists who are on the same journey home through Kuwait and Ft. Benning so I will not be alone. We may be on different flights arriving at different times, so we have planned to meet at the Ronald McDonald statue on post in Kuwait at noon on Christmas Eve. Now, when I mention “McDonald’s” I do not mean a typical McDonald’s restaurant like back home. But it is indeed a McDonald’s stand and that’s where we will meet. (I ate some chicken McNuggets when I was passing through Kuwait back in the summer—I heard the burgers taste very different than back home so decided to steer clear of that adventure. I’m not big on eating fast food anyway.) So if we are unable to get in touch with each other due to lack of technology/communications, we will see each other at McDonald’s at the designated time.
Our only solid plan is to watch a Christmas movie of some kind at the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) or, if nothing else, we’ll watch one on my laptop while sitting at the local Green Beans. Green Beans is the overseas military version of Starbucks. (I miss my tall, non-fat, no-whip, no extra water, chai lattes from my apartment building’s Starbucks back home—there are no such luxuries such as non-fat milk here at Green Beans. Oftentimes they are out of milk entirely or other coffee shop basics.) Regardless of what the small group of us ends up doing to celebrate, at some point I will be watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” on Christmas Eve as I have done every year of my life with my family. This will not be the first Christmas I’ve spent away from home and family due to my military-related duties. Last year I spent Christmas Eve with my Crisis Action Team co-workers pulling night shift at the Pentagon watching “A Christmas Carol” and in 2005 I was deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. However, my family and I still watch the movie on Christmas Eve as though we were together.
I will also find a phone and use my calling card to chat with my family for a while and wish each other a Merry Christmas, thankful that I’m coming home safely. We’ve already discussed how fortunate we are that I was in a safer area than other Soldiers and that even as I’ve traveled I’ve avoided injury or worse. Many loved ones of Troops are not so lucky and this is a fact I acknowledge easily. One thing exposure to harsh realities of a combat zone deployment creates is perspective. The closest I’ve come to danger here is the audible whistle or whiz of incoming fire over my head and hearing and feeling the not-so-distant impact. I still lack the experience some Troops have had which allows them to tell the difference between rockets or mortar, where the rockets were made by how they sound, and where the landing might be as they fly overhead. I am fine with my lack of expertise in this area, thank you very much.
And while I’ve already sent gifts home (such as the Afghan carpet for my parents), I wanted something little to have them open when we are together in early January. So in the front pocket of my rucksack I have a gift for my mom, my stepdad, Paul (whom I call PDaddy), and my Nana. They will be the first three people I see back home in Texas and I’ll give them each their little gift once we’re all sitting together in my Nana’s living room in my little hometown in Texas.
As I mentioned, I leave this deployment with mixed emotions. I of course am happy to return safely—I appreciate the gift of life much more after being here. I look forward to spending time with family and friends in Texas and Arkansas before returning back to work in Washington, D.C. I’m eager to return to my quiet, pristine apartment in Crystal City (remember, I’ve been living in a place where everything is dust-covered and without any privacy, ha) and beginning a new position at the Pentagon. But I’m also a bit sad to be leaving. My job here is an amazing honor in helping individuals, I’ve met very special people here, and I’ve learned a lot about the real Afghanistan from the Afghans I’ve met and visited with. The 101st Airborne Surgeon Cell has really made me feel like I am part of their Army family and the Division Command Sergeant Major, CSM Schroeder, and his staff have great to me as well. This special group of professionals have taught me new things about military operations and medical concerns, let me in on their inside jokes, invited me to join their football fantasy league, (I was first all season until Rogers had his head injury last week, causing me to lose in the playoff bracket!), and even taught me their 101st song. (Okay, so it was actually more like they threatened me to learn the words overnight through intimidation of telling me I was to lead the singing of it during a Surgeon Cell meeting the following day, ha.)
So I will miss my co-workers and friends whom I’ve spent every waking minute with for the past half year. It is odd to be around them daily for work, meetings, lunches, dinners, special events, watching football on TV, etc. and then to just not see them at all. Several people have jokingly threatened to extend my orders and have me finish out the year with them. If I suddenly became just a little bit crazy, I might be convinced to transition to full-time Active Duty service with the 101st thanks to this experience. Ok, so maybe I won’t go that far. But I think I’ll be humming the tune to the 101st Airborne song long after I’ve left Afghanistan and resumed my life back home. Being back home in the United States for Christmas will be great—I’ll enjoy it not only for myself, but out of appreciation for all the brave, selfless, sacrificing, hard-working Troops and civilian workers who continue their jobs here in Afghanistan, away from family members, friends, and the comforts of life back home.
Natosha Monroe is an Army Reserve Mental Health Specialist stationed in Afghanistan. She is a counselor and PhD candidate passionate about increasing Troop access to counseling services. Her blog contents are not representative of the Army or Department of Defense in any way.