The bird touched down late on a Friday night. We stepped out into cold and misting rain. A major I used to work for was there to greet us. He squeezed my hand so hard I winced.
Our chalk was the last one home. Rear Detachment had sensitive items turn-in streamlined. I verified the serial numbers on my NODs and my gat and loaded onto the bus.
We offloaded at a gymnasium and filed inside. Wives and girlfriends flanked us on all sides. Screaming babies. My hands began to shake. The whole process was over in moments. We formed up inside, snapped to attention, and were released.
Forty eight hours.
As soon as we fell out the tears started. Fathers meeting their kids for the first time. Husbands re-uniting with their loved ones. I didn’t say a word to anyone. I was out the door in seconds.
My duffel bags were at the bottom of a pile in the parking lot. Rainwater soaked them through.
There was no one to greet me. My soldiers had gone to their families. For the first time in twelve months, I was alone. I threw my ruck on my back, took a duffel in either hand, and started walking.
I didn’t make it far. A massive Dodge pulled up alongside me. The Rear-D first sergeant.
“Hey man . . . Get in . . . “
I paused a moment before tossing my gear in the bed of the truck. He dropped me off at the unit. I had nowhere else to go. The staff duty NCO took the government van and drove me to the 24-Hour shoppette. I hadn’t eaten in 18 hours. I got a bottle of Makers Mark and a sandwich roll. He dropped me off at the hotel on base, shook my hand firmly, and was gone.
I lingered outside to smoke a cigarette. A fresh pack of Lucky Strikes left-over from Kandahar. I didn’t mind the rain.
My gear landed in a pile in the corner of the room. I dug out the only civilian clothes I had, a pair of Adidas wind pants, and looked at myself in the mirror.
My face was sunken. I was lean . . . little bodyfat remained. I hardly recognized myself.
I tore the wax strip off the bottle with my teeth and threw the cap in the garbage. With nothing in my stomach, the first few pulls went straight to my head.
It was over.
The world was on mute. Nothing mattered. I wanted to sleep for a week. I took another pull. And another. I wanted to erase everything.
I collapsed on the bed.
I buried my face in my hands and wept.