"I'll be seeing you, America"
The day September 14, 2005 started very early for me. Those of us in Angel Company who resided in the barracks had decided to spend our last night in America drinking. Anyone who ever served in the infantry knows that infantrymen drink like fish. Hours before our first formation, men were running up and down the hall screaming their favorite country songs and high-fiving each other with strong drinks in their hands. Everyone was drunk and pumped for our endeavors to begin. I stumbled by one room and witnessed a buddy of mine drink a shot of dish soap on a dare. Another soldier was head-butting his entertainment center to show how tough he was. At one point, some of my buddies and I chased each other around the hallways with knives and slashed away the last set of civilian clothes we wore. I was practically naked all night but for the shredded shorts I wore, which looked like the Incredible Hulk himself wore them. What a sight we must have been in the barracks. Here we were, the pride of the 101st, drunk, naked, and drinking dish soap, hours before being sent into a combat zone.
Around 3 a.m., the ceiling light in my empty room flickered on. Still feeling the effects of a lot of alcohol, I scanned the room while the light burned my half-opened eyes. A blurry image came to me of my closest friend in the platoon, Specialist Ryan Avery, standing by my door giggling. I was completely naked on my bare mattress, remembering the time a few hours before when we ripped and shredded the last pair of civilian clothes we owned.
Avery was not the most typical New Englander I had ever met. Born and bred in the backwoods of New Hampshire, this man's neck was as red as Superman's cape. At twenty-three years old, he had already served time as an infantryman in the Marine Corps before he joined the Army. He was a man of many practical talents and that was what I loved the most about him. Avery and I were inseparable during off-duty time. I learned so much from him. He knew it all when it came to liquor, beer, hunting, automobiles, guns, engines, and fixing things. Yes, in that order.
"Conklin, get up. We got a plane to catch," Avery said, before he walked back out of my room.
I uttered nothing more than mumbles. Naked, I crawled out of bed and attempted to adjust to the light that felt like the sun directly in the eyes. I put on what would be my uniform for the next year, which was our newly issued Army Combat Uniform (ACU). You know, the uniform whose camouflage pattern blends better into gravel stones than into anything found in a desert environment. I moved slowly because I still felt a little drunk. I grabbed my assault pack, my rucksack, and one duffel bag, which were all packed to the brim. I shut the light off in my empty room and walked through the hallway to find other zombie-like comrades looking the same way I was feeling.
I walked across the street, from my barracks to the company area, where we dropped our gear and waited for the first formation of the day. No one was really talking much. Most married soldiers spent their last seconds with their wives, while the single soldiers dealt with hangovers and couldn't bear the sound of their own voice.
My platoon, First Platoon, had thirty-five soldiers in it. Angel Company consisted of four platoons. During our first formation in the early morning, my company was all present except for one: Specialist Aric Hilmo. Soldiers were looking at me because I'd been drinking with him hours prior. I knew his drinking was out of control and figured he had probably passed out in his room at some point. He usually was the last man standing when we drank.
I ran across the street to the barracks and found him just like I had envisioned. He was an apparent victim of the clothes slashing, because he was lying spread-eagled and naked on his bed. The morning had just started too quickly and too early for me.
I dressed him as if he were a flexible mannequin. The entire time, Hilmo's eyes were shut while he mumbled anything but English. A few moments passed before others from my squad showed up to help out. Two soldiers escorted Hilmo across the street while I carried his bags. Our squad leader, Staff Sergeant Jimmy Poston, did the normal protocol and tried to discipline him in physical exercises; "smoking" as it was called. That only resulted in Poston being shown what Hilmo had had to drink hours prior. Poston eventually gave up and returned Hilmo to the squad. We had to supervise him long enough to get him and his bags on the plane.
As the sun rose over the Fort Campbell skies, we collected ourselves and our gear and headed back across the street to do a final formation behind the barracks. Families and friends all gathered to hug and kiss their loved ones off. Others, like myself, who had no one come down to wish us luck, either sat in silence and took the whole situation in or called home one last time on cell phones borrowed from people gathered around. Avery and I just sat there together and kept an eye on a napping Hilmo.
It was a surreal moment for me. I tried to take the whole situation in. Seeing fellow soldiers say good-bye to their small children who were too young to comprehend the situation was a little depressing. Private First Class Brice held his wife ever so tight. Specialist Taylor Edwards was trying to convince his mother that he would come back just like he did after his first deployment to Iraq. This was my first deployment and I felt every emotion imaginable. Eager, scared, anxious, curious, gloomy, you name it. Your mind just goes crazy at a time like this. My hands were sweaty, my muscles twitched, and I tried hard to hold back tears. Minutes felt like hours, but soon it was time to board the buses that filled the parking lot in front of our chow hall.
We left our formation in single-file lines and walked toward the buses. Families cheered and yelled with several tears shed on their faces. I was glad my family was not there. I could barely hold back seeing other families, and I just knew I would be crying if my own was present. So, as if this emotional baggage was not enough, and still suffering with a hangover, we crammed into a bus that was too small for all the equipment we were wearing. My personal luggage consisted, in part, of helmet, body armor, weapon, assault pack, and tripod bag for my machine gun. No one was comfortable while we wedged our bulky bodies together in order to fit two to a seat.
The trip from the barracks to the airfield was spent in almost utter silence. Taylor, a twenty-three-year old specialist from North Carolina with a keen love for redneck activities and nicotine, was about to embark on his second tour in Iraq. I plopped down next to him in what was left of the open seat that he occupied.
"Man, that was tough." he whispered. "I cried."
"I don't think anything less of you, man," I said straightforwardly. Not another word was said.
When we arrived at the airfield, we spilled out of the crowded bus. Once inside the main building, we all had to sign a lot of paperwork, and I knew what none of it was. I just signed my name and went on my way. We then had to sit around in the building for a while, which seemed to take forever. For some people, like Hilmo, the time was very short, for he was next to me sound asleep. I wondered if he knew that he was actually about to board a plane bound for overseas. Major General Thomas Turner, the commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division, managed to give us one last speech before we left. Apparently, we were the first infantry element to leave from the division. My company alone, along with some other attachments, stood before Turner as he recited words of encouragement, which were not really reassuring at all. He just reminded us of all the bad stuff over in Iraq that we were sure to encounter. Perfect timing. His words hit me like bricks. Because of my bad hangover, I almost passed out from standing at the position of attention.
The time finally came when someone from the aviation unit began calling out names in alphabetical order. When my name was called, I sounded off with an unenthused "hooah," picked up my stuff, and filed out of the door onto the large, open airfield. I was greeted by the refreshing, clean air of Fort Campbell. The air was crisp and pretty warm for September. Both were conditions I was about to miss.
As I neared the long single-file line leading into the plane, I tried to take everything in one last time. This was when I kept reassuring myself, Surely this will not be the last time I will smell this air, or walk on U.S. soil. I was convinced that I would make it back home, but it still was an eerie feeling. Slowly those steps got closer and closer. I was staring at my feet the whole time, just admiring the ground I was walking on, even though it was just the tarmac below my boots. It was a tough sensation to part with the soil of my native land, to know I was going to walk into a very foreign country to fight a war. I took the cards I'd been dealt and kept walking. As I got to the steps, I gripped the railing, took a breath, and then stepped onto the stairs leading into the plane. There was no looking back, only ahead. I whispered very softly to myself, "I'll be seeing you, America."