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A Path with Heart—Afghanistan, part 12
Posted By Staff On September 30, 2009 @ 9:39 am In News | No Comments
By Sergeant Thomas Bauschke
Hello, fellow Americans. It’s mid-September already. Time is going by faster here in eastern Afghanistan. I already have eight months behind me for this deployment. My platoon and I have been doing well. I passed the Sergeants’ Promotion Board July 1. And since the E-5 promotion points cutoff for medics had dropped enough by August, I wore corporal for only a single month. The last time I wore sergeant stripes was in the Illinois National Guard in 1991; back to Buck Sergeant after 18 years. What an absurd statement! I am definitely an old man playing a young man’s game—and succeeding.
At the same time I was pinned sergeant, I was pinned with my Purple Heart for the shrapnel wound I received during the May 1 attack at the Badel Vehicle Patrol Base. I felt pride to be sure, and delight at being alive. But mostly I felt unworthy of wearing the medal; so very many have died for it. Just a few feet to the right and I would have been the one evacuated stateside, or died perhaps. So I continue the work I have yet to finish on this earth, whatever that work may be.
The missions are endless, dear reader; day and night, and often days at a time. Whole weeks fly by in a sleepless haze. I already have more than 100 missions behind me. We search for the enemy, of course, during all-night over-watches, dismounted patrols and the occasional ambush. But as the Afghan election approached, we spent much time out in the villages on presence patrols. We ate local food, bought movies and toys for kids back home to contribute to the local economy. Villagers are tolerant of our presence, almost welcoming, so long as we’re spending dollars.
Aug. 13, I boarded a helicopter heading west and set out for my R & R leave. Arriving at Dallas-Fort Worth airport, we were welcomed home in true Texas style. Local fire trucks gave our plane a shower as we taxied up to the gate. On the long concourse below, people stopped what they were doing, put down their bags, and applauded us as we walked to customs. It was a truly touching moment. Many of us had to fight back tears. My love for this country has never been greater. After all, we were fighting to preserve this very wonderfully blessed way of life. After customs, we filed out and were greeted by upward of 50 veterans from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and many military wives and widows. They gave us the warmest welcome I could ever imagine, offered us cookies and use of their cell phones.
That same night, I kissed the ferry landing in Friday Harbor, Wash. Other people getting off the ferry gave me curious looks (I was still in uniform). I didn’t care at all. I got down on my hands and knees, and put my lips right down onto the asphalt. Smooooootch! How could they understand how good it was just to be there after all I’d seen and done in such faraway places?
My home base in the Army is Fort Drum in upstate New York, but it’s not my home. The San Juan Islands north of Seattle are my home, and it was so good to be back there again. People waved at me as I walked down the street. Old friends stopped and got out of their cars to greet me as they drove by. Even with our current economy, I have work anytime I need it. San Juan County is still the only county in Washington state without traffic lights. I was glad to see that much had not changed.
Some things had changed, however. Life does, in fact, go on while we’re deployed—it just has to. By now, a handful of good friends had passed on. I sat at the American Legion Post 163 in Friday Harbor and couldn’t take my eyes off certain empty bar stools. Unless the bar was full, those bar stools and chairs still remained empty as if the missing people would somehow return to take their rightful places again. I missed them already, having known of their deaths, but the true gravity of their passing only hit me when I came home again: “A toast: To absent friends.”
Living on an island surrounded by the ocean, seafood was on my mind all along. I ate fresh salmon, crab, oysters and clams. And by fresh, I mean caught that day or even that hour. Restaurant owners bought my dinners. Bar tabs vanished before my eyes. I looked out over the ocean as I ate and renewed ties with old friends. A band stopped playing that first Friday night when I walked into a bar and began to play the National Anthem. I’d been gone 2 1/2 years that seemed like a lifetime. The views from San Juan Island still captivated me. Leaving that beautiful place was a huge life decision. I wanted to make a difference in this lingering war. And I got my wish more than I could ever imagine.
My parents drove out to the islands from Illinois to spend a week with me. My leave time went slower with them there as they kept me busy. Privacy is nonexistent while deployed. And that is what I craved most on leave. But the catch is that privacy would have meant days speeding by, me alone on a couch watching TV with a hangover. I know myself, after all. Spending time with my parents kept me in check. And in all candor, at 43 years of age, I only now feel like I’m getting to really know my parents. So my parents’ visit was wonderful on many levels; completed my leave time, I would say. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
“Home.” In Afghanistan, home seems like a distant dream; a previous life. Seeing the stark and often harsh way of life here has earned my respect for the Afghan people. All the little things we take for granted, and only when out of our element do we truly realize what we have. Take heart, dear reader, if we are the guardians of our way of life, you are the sentinels. For it is YOU that lives the life back home that we want to preserve back home. We depend on you to live that life to the fullest. When we get back, things will have changed some, of course, they have to. But coming home on leave shows us that our beautiful country and wonderful way of life will still be there waiting for us, no matter the bleak, desperate and sometimes lonely moments we may have over here.
I had four months left in Afghanistan on my return to my platoon. I needed to get back to my platoon. On leave, I lay awake nights wondering if they were OK. Time to finish this deployment, people. Time to finish this war. The missions will continue, and the days will pass one at a time. Soon, though, finally, we’ll get on a helicopter for the last time—heading west to Jalalabad and Bagram and…home. And we think of you, America, always, and can’t wait for the day when we ALL come home for good to get on with this fantastic thing called, “The great American way of life!”
From the September 30 – October 6, 2009 issue.
Article printed from The Rock River Times: http://rockrivertimes.com
URL to article: http://rockrivertimes.com/2009/09/30/a-path-with-heart%e2%80%94afghanistan-part-12/
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