The release papers were waiting on Jim’s desk when he returned at 15:30 hours from what would be his last patrol in Kandahar. Every soldier knows that one day that same letter will show up on their desk, but not a single one will talk about it. Jim heard often about how anticipating that day would keep your focus away from the job at hand. Everyone in that dusty hell-hole had heard the stories of the soldiers that were within days of receiving that letter but never went home. Jim was very determined to not be one of them.
Jim had first arrived at this camp almost exactly thirteen months ago as a young, wide-eyed soldier eager to step out from behind his dad’s shadow. While growing up he had heard all the stories about his dad’s days in Vietnam and how he had fought an invisible enemy from the bowels of a hot sweaty jungle with little more than his bare hands and his wits to keep him alive. A father’s tales depicting his own young manhood begin to lose their effect on their sons by the early teen years and his own father’s tales of heroism had grown quite stale by the time Jim had his first high school dance.
It only took 3 days in this god-forsaken place for Jim to lose his given name. While practicing with his sniper rifle, the stock slipped from his shoulder and the scope used his right eye socket to stop the recoil. From day 3 onward Jim was known to everyone in his camp as “Shiner”.
Oddly enough the heat and dust did not bother Shiner like it did many of his fellow soldiers. It was annoying to be sure, but somehow waking up for the morning patrol seemed easier for him when the heat of the day could be felt in the air at 06:00. But everyone at this place has his or her own aversions and for Shiner it was the smell. At home his mom cooked meals that you could taste from your room. In the early mornings before hockey practice, the smell of buttermilk pancakes with cinnamon and syrup would make its way down the hall and under Jim’s bedroom door like an invisible ninja. No matter how tired Jim was, that ninja would grab him by the chest and drag him to the breakfast table.
Here in Kandahar, when Shiner went out to patrol the streets and alleys around the city, the stench of the life and death around him were so foreign to his consciousness that they would never leave him alone. No matter how much he washed his uniform, the minute he put on his equipment the smell of this place permeated his pores and became a constant reminder of how far away from home he was.
Shiner read and re-read the papers that said he was going home. His eyes wandered from the paper, he took in the empty room around him, and an unexpected tidal wave of sadness washed over him. He walked to the door and saw the hive outside was alive with activity. He knew that the prescribed movements he was witnessing all around the yard were no longer going to be his daily routine. The 06:00 walks that were 98% boring and 2% adrenaline filled fights for your life would soon be replaced with endless, useless exercise at the base. The late night discussions with his buddies about the meaning of life, of girlfriends long ago lost, and of battles won and lost, would all soon be nothing more than stories for his own future son. But most of all, he knew it was the brothers that he would be leaving behind who never had the opportunity to get that same letter he now held tight in his hands that was causing the tightening in his gut.
When his plane was 78 miles down range from home he could start to see the outlines of familiar landmarks. The hills where he and his dad used to go camping stood out from the tapestry below, but they looked so much smaller than he remembered. The rolling hills in the distance were where his dad would take him to ride the motorcycle that mysteriously showed up on his 13th birthday. This was the same motorcycle his mom threatened to drop on his dad’s head if he ever got hurt while riding it. Before those thoughts were extinguished, the city where he grew up was coming in view when he arched his neck just right. The view from the air of the city seemed exactly as it had thirteen months ago, but the emotions that the view from the window were imparting on him now could not have been more different.
As the plane taxied to its final destination at hanger 12-A, Shiner noticed for the first time the anticipation that was brewing in his fellow soldiers regarding the family reunions now just minutes away. Many of the soldiers had wives or husbands that were waiting in the greeting area dressed in their finest clothes. Many of the waiting spouses had young ones in tow. Some of the babies were so young they would now be seeing their returning parent for the first time. A million different stories accompanied by hugs and kisses were waiting at the hangar. Soon a crescendo of emotions and tears would be released.
Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, the outlandishness of the occasion, or just the fact that no girlfriend, wife or child was outside that door waiting for him that had Shiner so calm and unemotional about it. He knew everything would unfold for him the way it was supposed to be.
Shiner instinctively knew his dad would be in the back of the room acting stoic like it was no big deal. His dad had always demonstrated how a man is supposed to act. So when his dad put him in a bear hug and then started crying in front of everyone, well it was just embarrassing. The ride home wasn’t nearly long enough to shake the image of his old man making a fool of himself in front of all those people. When mom saw the car pull in the driveway, she cried out her son’s name and ran out to his waiting arms. When mom embraced him, the battle-hardened young man finally broke down and shed a few tears of his own. For just one brief moment Shiner was Jim again. It felt good.
After mom’s sumptuous feast was consumed, Jim’s dad prodded him to head out to the back porch where many evenings of his youth had been wasted. Now, here he was on his first night home from war, and all his dad wanted to do was to relive those days. Nothing interesting had ever happened on that porch for them to talk about then, so there was very little hope for a different result on this day. Not only was he trying to re-live the days of his youth, the old man also wanted him to re-hash every detail of his last thirteen months in Kandahar. Shiner wanted at least one night to try and forget it.
His safe return from an ugly war should have been one of the best nights of Shiner’s life, yet the chill in the air was no longer contained to only the autumn evening’s breeze.
Thankfully, before long one of his Army buddies arrived at the house to save him from a night of endless melancholy. After the two young bucks said their goodbyes to Shiner’s family and headed for the car, Jim felt a lump in his throat when he looked back at the house and saw his mother through the window busying herself by washing the aluminum off the bottom of the cooking pans. When he glanced to the side of the house he saw his old man slowly heading for the back porch, his limp seemed to be much worse than he remembered.