I am going to Afghanistan.
When I was still in uniform, preparing to deploy as a citizen-soldier of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team (B.C.T.), 34th Infantry "Red Bull" Division (2-34th BCT), even friends and family with little familiarity with the military could make sense of my pending departure. They could tell themselves I didn't have a choice in the matter.
They would have been wrong, of course. There are always choices.
When you choose to become a U.S. soldier, you take an oath. You pledge to defend the U.S. Constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic. "Duty, Honor, and Country"? Those just come along with the territory. As a bonus, when you enlist in the U.S. National Guard, you gain the additional opportunity to serve your neighbors in times of "natural disaster and national emergency."
You affirm that choice every time you leave everything--your family and friends, your civilian job, the comforts of home--to run either toward the sound of guns, or to the call of sirens.
It's hard to leave that Minuteman mentality behind.
I am now retired. I no longer wear camouflage, or the shoulder-patch American flag that comes with it. Without the easy cover and concealment of a government-issued identity, how are the people I love supposed to make sense of my going to Afghanistan? After all, don't I have a choice now?
I'm 40-something years old. I'm not an overly brave man, and anything but a risk-taker. I originally wanted to deploy to Afghanistan, not because I was important or critical to the mission, but because I thought I could do a small and unique Army job very well.
Someone had other ideas, however. I dropped off the deployment list only a few weeks before Mobilization-day. Yet, God and Uncle Sam each work in strange and mysterious ways. Sometimes, they must even talk between themselves, to better coordinate their efforts.
I have been extremely lucky and blessed in the past 18 months or more. So has my family. First, we prepared for a deployment that never came. We learned a lot--emotionally, spiritually, legally--in the process. After reassignment within the Iowa Army National Guard, I stayed in uniform for a few months. I was assigned to regularly visit and assist my unit at Camp Shelby, Miss. and again at Fort Irwin, Calif. Instead of being separated from my family for the better part of 12 months, I've mostly been able to sleep in my own bed, live my own life, write my own words. In these months, I've been a parent to my kids, and partner to my wife. I am a lucky man.
Not only that, but I've been able to witness the life of the Red Bull here at home: send-off ceremonies and temporary homecomings, funerals and fund-raisers.
Back December 2009, I started the Red Bull Rising blog because I wanted to be able to someday explain to my children--Lena is now 6, Rain is about to turn 4--why their daddy left them for more than a year, and what he and his fellow citizen-soldiers did on their behalf.
While my family and I sought to recover from the shock of my non-deployment, a fellow mil-blogger observed that my new role should be likened to "bard of the brigade." I should find ways to explain the experiences of citizen-soldiers and their families, and how they relate to a larger picture.
I decided that I should go to Afghanistan, not as a citizen-soldier, but as a citizen-journalist. Here's the quick story-pitch: "Middle-aged Midwestern Boy meets deployment. Boy loses deployment. Boy goes to Afghanistan anyway."
Uncharacteristically, given my obsession with secrecy, I set this trap for myself: I told people ahead of time I was going to Afghanistan. I said the words aloud, but not too loudly. I said them to my wife. I said them to my peers and friends. I said them to my leaders and my readers. They all listened. Quietly. And let me work things out for myself.
Whenever chances came along to back down, to slide right, and to be overcome by events, I had all the right people asking what they could do to help get me downrange. A couple of them even taunted me, although they didn't mean to. One of the best ways to get me to do something, however, is to tell me that I can't. "You aren't going to make it over there, are you?" It takes a village to deploy a soldier. Or a writer. Trust me, every jab and push helped.
So, at an age most men live lives of quiet desperation, I have chosen to be a man of my words. I still have some Red Bull stories to tell. I need to illuminate why we did what we did--soldiers, families, the U.S. National Guard. I owe it to my buddies. I owe it to our wives and husbands. Most of all, I owe it to our kids--and the world we intend to leave behind.
I am running toward the Sirens' call one last time. One more Pamplona moment, chasing the Red Bull, looking for some answers, trying to sift between ground truth and the usual barnyard excrement.
I am going to Afghanistan.
In fact, I'm already there.