I recently spoke with a veteran who had just finished his final tour in Afghanistan; he was preparing for graduate school and looking forward to a life after the Army. He commented that I’d been over there early on in the war, and I joked that I once felt like I had almost missed it.
As I listened to his stories, I secretly hoped that his words could somehow take me back over there again, maybe collapse the space between the Afghanistan he saw so recently and the one I remembered so distantly. Through his stories, perhaps, I might reclaim the memories that have faded over time. I listened carefully for the Afghanistan I too remembered.
As he talked, my mind drifted to the day that I’d watched the flag-draped coffin of a fallen solider being loaded into the belly of a C-130. I stood in an empty space along the Kandahar flight line, watching the plane taxi down the runway and lift off into a clear morning sky. The plane quickly disappeared over the rugged mountains along the horizon, and soon I felt hollow and helpless. The pain of that dead soldier’s sacrifice was so immediate that it felt heavy and moored within me, like an anchor line had been knotted to my sadness and thrown over the side.
For many years after that day, in my mind, I would return to that empty, hollow place along the flight line and stare out at the distant mountains. The rugged peaks stood far off in the distance, like sentries along the horizon, making everything seem tiny set against them, even a massive C-130 sitting idly along the flight line. And in that hollowness, somehow, it felt like those mountains were holding a falling sky in place, as though the sharp peaks kept all of the more broken parts of the war from crashing down on top of me.
Selfishly I believed the mountains would protect me, that somehow they held every shard of that shattered sky from falling on me. And yet, the sky eventually fell, and I lost two good friends in Afghanistan: Jeremy Wise and Sean Carson.
Years later, I have come to realize that even though I’ve been living my life back home, in the United States, somehow no matter how far I travel away from that time or place in my life, I left a piece of myself in Afghanistan forever. I once heard someone describe depression as the act of holding too tightly to the past, and anxiety as the act of holding too tightly to the future. When I write down everything I remember from my time over there, it’s as though I am closing the door on some of my grief and maybe even on some of the ghosts of my past.
I want to imagine a future where the war no longer sits so prominently in the front of my mind. A future where the grieving for dead comrades feels less immediate in my heart. I want to imagine a future where I have moved forward, let go of the past, and stopped worrying so much about the future.
As a veteran, I believe I write so I can move forward and let go of the past; conversely, I believe I write so I’ll never forget my past. For me, writing is this strange, paradoxical act of remembering something in order to try to decide whether it’s worth forgetting. I write to remember Jeremy Wise and Sean Carson. I write their names down so I will never forget them or what they gave on my behalf. Simultaneously, I write so I am able to move forward with my life, to feel less alone, to feel less hollow along that flight line.
Nothing about my past, the death of friends or the war has ever been easy for me. But I write it all down anyway. Often, after I have written it all down, all of it feels less difficult than it once did. And that is enough for me.