Saturday, June 10, 2006

The First Day

I wrote yesterday morning about the fact that the day to leave had finally come. Well it came and has gone. What a day it was. We woke up to dark clouds, rain and thunder. Poor Thor, our dog, was not very happy. He hates such storms. I let him into the garage but had left the door to the house ajar, so of course he went right in and tracked muddy paw prints all across the kitchen floor. As we drove to Salt Lake, to the Air National Guard airport, it was raining. It seemed somehow fitting.

As we arrived at the base, it was still raining. We were ushered into a hanger where a huge American flag was hanging. We were able to take our picture in front of it, the only problem was, it was so far off the ground that it wasn’t really in the background. Oh well. It looked nice. There were lots of folding chairs set up, but not enough for everyone. We were told to be there by 9:00 a.m. We made such good time that we got here 20 or so minutes early. As we watched people come in, some were very brave. Others were weeping openly. It was hard to watch some of the families, especially those with young kids and babies. I watched as dad’s held close their infant daughters. I watched as young sons clung to their father’s legs. It was really heart-breaking. I was grateful that my own boys were old enough to understand what was happening and that they weren’t overly emotional. I don’t think I could have handled that wave of emotions.

After a while, the hanger doors were opened and we could see a couple of Air Force planes sitting on the tarmac. At first I thought that we were going to flying to Mississippi on a cargo plane. However, after a while, a passenger plane pulled onto the runway and parked itself in front of the hanger. I breathed a huge sigh of relief knowing that we’d be flying in some measure of comfort. However, at the same time, the arrival of the plane brought with it a sense of separation. I realized that this was the plane that was going to be taking me away from my family. That was hard. I think it was hard for a lot of others as well as I started to see more teary eyes.

Fortunately, instead of emotionally losing it, my boys started to get silly. They ganged up on their poor father and started tickling me. Can you believe it? Here I am, a distinguished Lieutenant Colonel, getting ready to leave for Afghanistan, and my boys are ganging up on me and showing no respect. It was fun.

Finally the time arrived. We were told that we had 10 minutes to say our goodbyes. That was hard. How can you put into the words you feel when you hug your children and your wife for the last time before leaving for the unkown. That was hard. I think I caught a glimpse of what the early missionaries for the church must have felt.

We got into formation. That was hard, looking at the sea of faces looking back at us with tears in most everyone’s eyes. We got the command for “left face” and the first column of soldiers began marching out. The sea of people parted and we began marching through the column that had been created. Suddenly, someone began clapping. Then someone began cheering. Eventually, the whole group of people were clapping and cheering. I lost it then. Tears welled up in my eyes. They were tears of sadness as well as pride. It’s hard to explain. Of course I was sad to be leaving my family, but I felt a sense of pride at being able to go and serve my country as well as serve the people of Afghanistan.

As I was in the last group to leave, I had time to watch those around me. Some had flags that were being waved. One lady had a sign that said, “We (heart) our soldiers.” That was a hard one to see. For some reason it really brought the tears to my eyes. There were other signs expressing love and pride for their soldiers. It was really moving to see.

I kept searching the crowd for signs of Janae and the boys but I couldn’t see them. I knew they hadn’t left, but was getting concerned that I wouldn’t be able to see them. It wasn’t until I had left the hangar and was half-way to the stairs leading up to the plane that I heard Luke’s voice shout out “Dad.” I turned and saw him waving to me over the heads of the people in the crowd. He had the camera up and was trying to take my picture. I really lost it then. I didn’t break down and sob, but my throat was choking and eyes were watering. I could finally see my family looking back and me waving. Even now, I’m still really emotional about that moment. That was pretty hard.

There was a greeting line of dignitaries shaking our hands before we went up the stairs to the plane. The governor and his wife were there. The TAG (The Adjutant General – general of the Utah Guard) was there. General Wilson, my boss was there – he is not coming with us. He’s an emotional man and he was very emotional at that time. He shook my hand and then gave me a hug and thanked me for my service. Again, that brought tears to my eyes.

It was then my turn to walk to the stairs, onto the plane. That was another really hard experience. As I got to the top, I turned and looked back at all the people and waved. I could see my family waving back. The tears came and I had to go inside the plane before I really lost it. As I found my seat, I chose one on the side of the plane so I could see my family one last time. I called Janae on her cell phone and got to say goodbye one last time. As we finally left, I had to put on some music to try and take my mind off things.

After we had gained altitude and people could begin to move around the cabin, a spirit of joviality began to creep in. You could hear jokes being told and people laughing. I think all the sad emotions and stress we had been feeling had finally been vented and we were able to move on. I must admit, I began to feel a little better. Of course, it still wasn’t easy leaving but it seemed less traumatic.

We flew into Gulfport Mississippi and took a bus ride north about 70 miles. Camp Shelby is in the lower center of the state. We’re near Hattiesburg, for those interested enough to look on a map.

After we got here, we were taken to our barracks. We had been told that we were going to be living in tents, in order to prepare us for Afghanistan so when I saw the open-bay barracks, barracks that were air-conditioned, I suddenly felt better about our living accommodations. Then, my team leader took the other LTC and myself aside and told us that we were going to be staying in the DVQ (distinguished visitor’s quarters) and not to take our stuff into the barracks. We were then driven a quarter of a mile or so away and dropped off. As I collected my key and began walking towards my room, my spirits lifted. As I unlocked the door and turned on the light, it was like walking into a motel room. There was a double bed, fridge, microwave, TV, two desks and best of all, a private bathroom. It’s almost obscene the great living conditions the senior officers and senior enlisted get. (LTC and above as well as E-9 and above are living here.) The only drawback is that this doesn’t feel like we’re deployed. It only feels like an extended annual training. I’m sure that will change, eventually.

And now, finally a story about the “red-headed step child of the command” – me. We had to load our gear on a semi-trailer on Wednesday. We were told to bring one of our duffle bags with us and the list had certain things to put in the bag. Well I got the “great” idea to go ahead and put both bags on the trailer so I wouldn’t have to carry it on the plane with me. Boy I thought I was smart. For some reason, I had the delusion that the truck would get there in two days. Where was I ?

Well, after the truck had left, I came to the realization of my ways. My “great” idea finally came back to bite me in the butt when we were told last night that we would be having a mandatory PT (physical training) session this morning. Of course, my PT gear was in my duffle bag that was on the truck. I was able to get to the PX (post exchange – convenience store) and buy a pair of shorts and t-shirt, but no shoes. Well I was not to be allowed to get out of PT so I was told to appear in my shorts, t-shirt and combat boots. Needless to say, I got plenty of ribbing for that one and probably will for the next little while.

Anyway, this has been a long entry and I’m sorry for the length. I’m sure I could have written more but didn’t want to bore you too much with a lot of details so I’ll stop here.

The internet cafĂ© is across the parking lot from our quarters so that’s a nice benefit. I’ll try and keep this updated as we go through training. We have all-day briefings tomorrow – Sunday, June 11, 2006. They start at 7:30 a.m. and go until 5:00 p.m. Not a fun day. Monday is our document/medical review day. After that we get into weapons training and who knows what after that. I told you that I was going to stop so I finally will.

Hopefully from my “epistle” you’ll be able to understand all the pictures.

Thanks for reading and have a great day.


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