The first time I met him he was wearing shorts that were actually torn off army pants, a Hawaiian shirt, and combat boots that came up mid-calf. And it was July. I immediately knew he was a character but I didn't know just what an amazing guy he was.
Ten years back Nels had gone through a very rough fight with testicular cancer and won. Not a year after the cancer was gone he took on a pine tree while skiing and lost. He completely shattered his pelvis and couldn't walk for some time. He takes hit after hit, and what would make most people feel cursed made him feel lucky. He just kept telling us how lucky he was. He is inspirational.
I think one of my favorite memories of Nels comes after Todd and I were dating just a few months. Todd and I were talking about getting married and when Todd left the room a surprised Nels decided to take me aside and ask me "my intentions". I was immediately endeared to him for looking out for his "little brother".
A few weeks ago Nels departed for his second tour in Iraq. Nels has been a in the National Guard for over twenty years and is now a First Sargent in the Infantry. If there is anything he loves as much as his friends and family, it would be his country. He is a consummate soldier and has been asked numerous times by his superiors if he would be an officer, but he has refused. He wants to be in the trenches as an infantry man with his brothers. He feels he needs to be there making sure the younger soldiers under his command are safe.
Nels posted an entry on his Facebook account the other day that gave us an intimate look into what life is like in "the sand box" the second time around and going on 40 years old. I know we all appreciate our soldiers and the sacrifices they and their families make for us everyday, but I thought this brings the images of those sacrifices to focus. I asked Nels' permission to post this today, and he gave me the okay. I know it is a bit long, but take a minute to read it. He is an amazing writer and a amazing guy.
28 APR 2009: I just flew into Kuwait, and boy are my arms tired.
We had a 4 day pass starting last Sunday night. Most of the guys with wives or steady girls had arranged for them to come down. Those of us that are orphans were left to raise a little hell. Most- all, really- of the people at my rank are married, and therefore had better things to do with their time. Younger guys really don’t want their Platoon Sergeant watching over them while they are on their off time. In any case, I ended up meeting some Brits in El Paso learning the newest bits of the fine art of shooting down airplanes. They lamented the fact that there aren’t many countries with airplanes worth shooting down any longer. But if you are ever in need of an ad hoc drinking buddy, find a British soldier.
I couldn’t find a room in El Paso after the one night I had reserved, so I went out exploring New Mexico. I was ready to get back to base after the second day. And not just because New Mexico is dull, even though it is. It’s a bit hard to explain, really. We were focused preparing to come over here. ‘Mission’ was all we had been doing or thinking about for the past two months- and in the outside world, everything kept moving. I became conscious that I was standing straighter, talking shorter and a little more serious then the few people I saw. I’d listen in on conversations in diners and bars, and was more than a little confused. Any way, I was just ready to get on with it.
I got a tattoo, cause it seemed like the right thing to do while in Roswell, and called some of my guys to link up. We went to a nice little Texas Bar called “Whiskey Dick’s”, it was as classy as it sounds, the kind of bar you see in movies about Texas. My boys all felt about the same way I did. “It’s weird out here, let’s go.” So the guys with families said goodbye, and we orphans resigned ourselves to being sober for a year, and we reported back to duty.
From there, the automatic pattern takes over. We liken it to the forced road marches that we do. You stop thinking, because thinking just makes you more aware of the dull ache, and just put one foot in front of the other. So we pack, and do paperwork, and ensure that everything is ready to go, clean and check weapons again- and you do it all on autopilot- form up, shot records good, stand in line for chow, stand in line to draw your rifle back. And the next thing you know it’s time to board the airplane.International travel is never fun. But the Army…
Wake up at 6 am (26 APR Texas time- 2 PM Iraqi time) to make sure that bags are ready to be inspected at 10 (6 PM Iraq), dogs sniff and check bags. Each man’s gear weighs about 250 pounds, spread between two big, standard issue duffle bags and one large ruck sack. Bags are loaded onto trucks, driven to airport, tents cleaned and turned in, guys walk shoulder to shoulder through the compound to ensure no trash clutters the desert. Wait for the bus. Get on the bus. Count heads. Count weapons. Count sighting devices. Count night vision. Verify everything is correct. It is. Go to holding area. Place carry on bags in neat little rows. Dogs sniff, and we are good. Wait for Colonel, who we’ve never seen before, to give send off speech. Yawn. Wait for Colonel, who we’ve never seen before, to tell us that we are the best he’s ever seen and how we have trained so hard that he is certain there is nothing we can’t do. Roger. Board the airplane, a civilian DC-10, and wait to take off. Plane off the ground at 5 PM (1am 26 APR Iraqi time) Fly to Bangor, Maine, because that is where all these flights go to refuel before leaving America, and experience one of the coolest traditions about deploying courtesy of the Bangor VFW, Legion, VVA and their auxiliaries.
Every soldier needs to leave the aircraft as it gets fueled, so you walk into the airport. The Bangor Veterans Organizations greet every flight of deploying or returning soldiers at the exit. If you are deploying, they say “we’ll see you when you get back”, when you come home they say “Glad you made it home safely”. We got there at 11 PM local time, and there were about 20 people to shake our hands as we walked into the airport. They ensure that the food counter is open 24 hours a day, and you can order their specialty, a Lobster Roll. They have been sold out the other times I’ve been there, but this time I got one. It was delicious. Even at $10.50, worth double that. The veterans come around and talk to guys, let them use cell phones free of charge and take photos that they will email to loved ones for you. To be honest, I am getting a little choked up thinking about it. It is a marvelous gesture, this small community of veterans, in a small community in America, working as hard as they do. There were 2 WWII vets there, they must be 90 years old at the youngest, who came down to the airport at 11 PM, to pat us on the back. “Hey fella, I’ll see ya when you get back!” “Thanks for being here, sir, you don’t know how much it means.” “Yes, Soldier, I do.”
Back on the plane and fly to Leipzig, (used to be East) Germany. Greeted by a guy who appears to have a skunk on his head with horizontal stripes shaved into it. Have two hours in the airport- go to the gift and refreshment shop, see some very odd T-shirts and ‘Swiss-Cannabis Tea- for quick relaxixed feeling’. PVT Martin, we are not in Kansas anymore. Today’s Germans are so different from the old farmers next door.
Now the journey gets a bit rough. 260 Gis +/-. Sweaty, farting, confused and tired, get back on the plane at about 4 PM local. 5PM Iraqi. Not sure what day it is anymore. It doesn’t seem like the sun went down. Get to Kuwait city at 10:45 PM. It’s stuffy, but not hot when we get off the plane. Now for the pain. Get onto something like a bus, but smaller. 40 men per bus, with weapons and bags digging into ribs and kidneys. Ride to an area where we all have to get off and wait. Count heads. Count weapons. Count sighting devices. Count night vision. Verify everything is correct. It is. Go to holding area. Drink some water. Smoke- Thank GOD! Get back on the bus. “It should be about a 2 hour ride” 3 hours later, everybody and their brother has a bladder filled to bursting point. Get off the bus, stand in line for porta pot (there are 6 for 260 +/-, and don’t dare use the sand). 5 minutes, line has moved once, get back on the bus. Get off the bus, ahhhhhh, relief. Unload bags and move them to tent in 35 minutes- quite impressive, really. Go to asinine briefings- in one, we actually heard a woman say “Kuwait is a dangerous place- really” Uh, no it’s not. Last incident was 2004. Two questions pop into my mind: “Is this really your sum total job in the Army?” And, “is that smoke I smell?” The answer to the latter is no. Because I don’t have a nose in my ass.
We walk outside the briefing tent and the sun is up. It was 0600 28 APR Iraqi Time (10 PM 27 APR Texas time) We have been travelling for 29 hours, up for 43? Really have no idea what day it is. It doesn’t matter. Ground Hog day number 1. It feels hot, but we know worse is coming. It was probably in the high 70’s, was pushing 100 for a high. It will get much hotter, so we are a bit relieved. Jet Lag starts to kick in. I resolve to stay awake and sleep tonight, maybe that will help to get over the change. I make a lousy optimist.
The effect of being here takes a while to set in. Kuwait, still only in Kuwait. There is dust in the air, the distinct smell of freshly pumped porta-pots and ‘black water’. (Black water is the stuff that drains out of the showers and picks up its own sweet/rotten odor) Iraq will smell worse; it has the added tinge of burning and rot. There is a good reason that you don’t see many posters for the Middle East in your local travel agent’s office. It kind of sucks here. It is an uncomfortable place to be.
The smells take many of us to a place we had hidden. We have become good at using one another for stress and anger relief. We, a couple of us, talk over smokes about feeling the anger rise up. There is no specific cause for the anger. It is just the emotion in the background. It is a feeling that comes with being aware of everything all the time, knowing that people want to kill you, knowing that you need to be ready to kill them, being here, ignoring the heat, cursing the smell, knowing that your life is on hold for another year, wondering how some things might have turned out if it wasn’t for this war. Angry that it isn’t a ‘real war’ any longer. Just angry. I don’t know what causes it, but I am angry. I was angry. Many of us are angry. I guess it’s a good thing, too. Sometimes it works as a tool, anger. WOW, I’m tired.
I talk with some of the older guys. I was here with some of them before. Another guy has come to us since we got back last time. He did 2 tours in Fallujah with the Marines when it was a bad and deadly place. Another, younger, guy did 15 months humping up and down the mountains in Afghanistan, where the fight was much different and more personal. We share stories, most we have heard and told before, but they are retold. They are stories of narrow escape, of gallows humor, of disgusting and revolting things that have happened. We have been training now for a year, so there is not much we haven’t heard. But we laugh as hard as we ever have, and that is how we cope, I guess. Our own little grunt support club.
I will go to sleep soon after typing this, and visualize fishing. Casting, really. And all will be right with the world.