I’ve finally left the war zone. Over the past week I thought I would never get out. According to my military orders, I was supposed to leave by September 14th. September 14th came and there was still no word of departure. I began to wonder if they would extend me another four months given the recent tempo of the war. Fortunately, a couple of days later, I rejoiced to learn we would be leaving on September 18th. However, on the 17th, they told us our departure was moved back to the 20th. This wasn’t so bad, what were 2 more days in a war zone when I had been there for 126 days already? The 20th finally arrived and we had checked out of our tents and had everything packed and ready to go only to find out we did not have seats reserved for the flight that evening. We would probably be leaving on the 23rd. As you can imagine at this point I was a bit frustrated. My frustration ended however, when a couple of hours later we were told our leadership were able to pull some strings to get seats for most of us to leave on the 20th. That evening we got on the plane with battle gear and all and our plane even took off earlier than expected which is a rarity in the military. I breathed a sigh of relief when there were no attempts to shoot down our plane. Finally, I could say that I made it out safely, or could I. As we approached our destination airfield in Kyrgyzstan, we learned that because the Kyrgyz people were burning trash near the airport, poor visibility prevented us from landing. The pilot told us we would have to go back to Bagram and that hopefully we would be able to leave a couple of hours later if the visibility improved. At first I thought he was joking, but I quickly learned otherwise as I felt the plane turn around. Needless to say I was devastated. I began to imagine the worst case scenario of having to stay in Bagram for several more days or weeks. Now that we were going to land and take off from Bagram again, our chances of getting shot at had increased. Would I still make it out alive? After complaining and worrying for a few minutes, I did what I had learned to do throughout my deployment, not worry about what I could not control and get back to reading my book about Mormons and Muslims. Many others coped with the frustration by laughing and telling jokes about the whole situation. I had to chuckle when one military member remarked, “Well, at least we get one more day of combat pay.” Thankfully, within a couple of hours of landing again at Bagram, visibility in Kyrgyzstan had improved, and we were on our way home again.
I have definitely learned a lot and experienced a lot over the past four months in Afghanistan, but I think among the more important lessons I learned was to not worry about what I can’t control and get on with life. You almost have to do this as a military member in a war zone or you will go crazy. After leaving Bagram, I’m beginning to realize just how confined I was on that congested, dusty, military base. I don’t think I would do well on a small island. I’m the kind of person that loves cross-country drives and long runs along a mountain trail. In spite of being so confined, I decided to run around the base and not worry too much about breathing in the dust and exhaust that probably took a few years off my life. I’m reminded of an incident that happened on the morning of September 11, I was scheduled to run a Patriots Day 10K around the base. However, early that morning I was woken by a huge explosion right outside my front door. A few minutes later I learned that we were being hit by mortar attacks and two of them had hit less than 50 feet from my barracks. It all became very eerie when I learned that the shrapnel from the mortars chopped the American flag pole in half sending our beloved red, white, and blue to the ground (I remind you that this was on September 11 of all days). The flagpole to the left of the US flag was still standing with the Afghan flag waving in the wind. As I got into my battle armor, I wondered whether they would cancel the run, or whether I would show up if they still held it. I had arrived to my barracks late from work the night before, and after being woken up by the attack, I would be running on less than 3 hours of sleep. When the time came closer for the race to start, I decided I would not let the attacks keep me from running. In a way, I felt like running the race was the least I could do to honor those who had died on September 11, 2001 and those who had died in Afghanistan over the past nine years. When I arrived at the starting line, I was truly inspired by the hundreds, if not a thousand people who made the decision to come run the race in spite of the circumstances. They had to change the course route a bit because of the attacks, but they were still going to hold the race. This was by far the largest turnout of any of the races I attended on Bagram. It was also inspiring to see that just a few hours after the attacks they had already hoisted Old Glory back to its spot atop the pole. This taught me a lot about the resolve of the American spirit which I hope I have come to resemble a bit more after this deployment.
Another thing I learned was a new respect and understanding of the Islam religion. I am grateful for this as many in America seem to be ignorant or confused about Islam and what it teaches its followers. Religion or should I say Islam plays a role in every aspect of the lives of the Afghan people. I noticed that in many ways the Muslims in Afghanistan seemed to be more committed than those I met from Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and America. During the month of Ramadan, every Afghan I met strictly followed the fast of not eating or drinking from sun up to sun down, even when they worked in the hot sun for most of the day. The Muslims I met from other countries either chose not to fast because of work demands or they would limit their fasting. Of course part of the Afghan’s ability to fast all day might be because they generally eat only one small meal a day or sometimes walk for large periods of time in the sun without food or water. I was also impressed by the fact that even the Afghans as poor as many of them are tried to give whatever they saved from not eating to those less fortunate than themselves. I immediately appreciated this principle since as Mormons we also fast at least one day a month and donate the money we would have spent on food to those in need.
I also respected the fact that the Muslims I met in Afghanistan were not afraid to talk about and share their faith. Almost every conversation I had with the locals, inevitably turned to religion. I think religion or Islam is such a part of their lives that they can’t help but talk about it. When I taught English to the locals we had a conversation circle where each of us discussed what we do each day, it was interesting to note that each of the young men had exactly the same schedule. They wake up at 5:00 am to go to Mosque to pray. Next, they eat breakfast and leave for school. After school they go to Mosque to pray. Each of them explained how they pray five times a day (and they aren’t afraid to pray in front of each other in between class periods). Each of them uses their shemagh (Afghan scarf) as their rug to kneel on and pray while facing Mecca in between class periods. They all told me about the activities they engage in on Friday, their holy day. Their conversation was fascinating to me because I didn’t ask them about religion at all. I asked them about their daily lives, but Islam is such a part of their lives that it’s impossible for them to talk about their daily lives without talking about Islam. I think this was so fascinating to me because of how secular America has become. I think we are afraid to bring up our religion in conversation. Our lives, or at least our conversations are centered on our careers and worldly tasks we perform each day and religion is mentioned as a side note if it’s mentioned at all.
On another occasion I was eating breakfast with the locals and they asked me how many times I pray. I tried to explain to them that I don’t really pray a set number of times, but that I prayed as often as I could or as often as needed. They told me that Muslims pray five times a day and that I should do the same. When I saw these men again they would ask me how many times I prayed that day. As I was leaving the dining facility one day, one of the locals asked me, “Why aren’t you Muslim?” It was almost like he couldn’t understand how someone else who believes in God could not be Muslim. This interaction showed me that the Afghan Muslims are eager to share their faith with others. Many of them also lack knowledge about other faiths which I attribute more to the state and culture of Afghansistan which strictly enforces Islam as the one true religion.
I realize that I cannot make a representative statement about Islam as a whole since my interactions have been mostly with Afghan Muslims and Islam is much more diverse and complex than what I have learned from a few Muslims from one country. Nevertheless, after my experiences and reading I have done, I'm convinced that Islam as a whole teaches man to do good, to love God and his fellowman. I believe that Muhammad was inspired of God and deserves respect from people of all religions and backgrounds. However, just like in most religions, there seem to be those few who use scripture out of context to justify their evil agenda.
Another lesson I learned in the war zone is an appreciation for the simple blessings I have in my life. As we left Afghanistan and arrived back to the base in Manas, Kyrgyzstan (the holding station for military members on their way to and from Afghanistan) I was amazed at how what seemed like an ugly and uncomfortable place on our way to Afghanistan had become like a luxurious resort after being in Afghanistan for four months. After breathing in the dust and exhaust at Bagram, I thoroughly enjoyed the first fresh breath of air I took when I stepped off the plane in Kyrgyzstan. The sky was clear and I could see the stars, we passed dozens of wood poles with green foliage on them (I believe you call these trees). After being here for a just a few days my allergies which had all but tortured me to death in Afghanistan, are virtually non-existent here. While the food in Kyrgyzstan didn’t seem that great before, it is like eating at a gourmet restaurant after eating the same food at Bagram every day. One of the first things I did the morning after my arrival to Kyrgyzstan was go for a run along the nature trails on base. I felt like a free man, I can’t describe the freedom I felt as I was able to run in open area with no people, vehicles, weapons or dust around. I marveled at the beauties of nature and felt so grateful that God made trees and the sky and the clouds so beautiful for us to enjoy.
Also, I think I have slept better the last few nights than any of my nights at Bagram and even recovered some of my hearing since there are no jets flying constantly overhead. Furthermore, I appreciate the peace and calm that comes from not having to constantly worry about being attacked. This is a stress that I had gotten used to at Bagram that I didn’t think much about until we landed in Kyrgyzstan. As I stepped off the plane it was as if a huge burden was lifted from my shoulders to know that I was now relatively safe soil.
Most importantly, my experience in Afghanistan taught me to appreciate the gift of life. I will never forget the feelings of sadness, respect, and gratitude I experienced as countless coffins draped in flags came across our flight line as July and August were some of the bloodiest months since the war has begun. Many of the marines I have talked to in Kyrgyzstan are returning home with significantly smaller platoons than what they left with. I feel that the least I can do to honor those who have given their lives is to try my best to appreciate the freedoms they have sacrificed for by living righteously and taking advantages of the opportunities this freedom provides.
The final and probably most important lesson I learned in a war zone is how Heavenly Father is always there for us. Although these were some of the most difficult circumstances of my life, I was able to experience more peace and joy than any time I can remember as I sought to draw near to my Heavenly Father. Part of this was probably because I was much more humble and needed His guidance and comfort more than usual, but I think a huge part of it was how many people prayed for me and the military. I know I have never had so many people send me mail and emails telling me they supported me and prayed for me. It seemed like every time I started to get discouraged or fearful, I would receive a letter or an email that comforted me and buoyed me up. As a result of the prayers of the righteous, I believe the Lord takes special care of the military. Of course he doesn’t protect us from all injury and death, for doing so would take away the agency of man, but I believe He does everything He can. I was amazed at how the mortar attacks on September 11 were within just 10 feet of hitting buildings with people in them but hit vacant buildings instead. I certainly felt protected and thanked the Lord earnestly that morning for watching over and protecting me as well as my fellow comrades.
One thing I will miss is going to church at a chapel filled with service members singing hymns. On one of my last Sundays there we sang the words from “I am a Child of God”:
I am a child of God and He has sent me here,
Has given me an earthly home with parents kind and dear,
Lead me guide me walk beside me help me find the way,
Teach me all that I must do to live with Him some day.
As we sang these words I was overwhelmed by the love of God and the reminder that we are all His children. It is sometimes easy to forget this in a war zone and military members as well as innocent people are being killed almost every day. It can be tempting to ask whether there really is a God in all this mess. However, during church that morning and countless other Sunday mornings like it, there was no doubt in my mind that God exists, that He loves us, that He is our Father and that we are all His children. How grateful I am for the opportunity of feeling God’s love and concern for me and my fellow comrades even in some of the most difficult of circumstances man can find Himself.
I could probably fill pages with all of the little lessons I learned from my deployment, but at this time these are the lessons I feel have made the biggest impact on me. I am proud to have served my country and the country of Afghanistan over the past four months. I feel privileged to have played just a tiny part in defending freedom in our world. I hope and pray that I will not forget these lessons. God bless America!