I never really finished talking about the end of my shortened deployment to Afghanistan. There wasn't much time to tell it as it was happening - there was an annoying mixture of "hurry up and wait" that tended to squeeze out all but the most vital activities and an access to the Internet that was spotty at best. Nevertheless, I feel that there are a few things that should be recorded even at this late stage of the game.
Since our aircraft had already left for home, we found ourselves in that odd grey area between work and non-work. We were no longer doing the mission, but the work areas needed to be disassembled and the tents still needed guarding, lest they be picked over for everything from office supplies to flatscreen TVs (by other offices, not random thieves). Being at work didn't bother me too much. I had access to tea and the MoraleNet (a network for non-official activities such as Skype and social media) which made the time pass faster than hanging out in the hooch all day.
My big frustration was that the powers that be made every effort to get all the aircrew on the aircraft redeployment flights so they were touring the Med while we were still living in the AOR. While there were some mission related purposes for this, mainly in allowing all of them to get some flight time and events to maintain currency, I don't think it was the best way to do it. Since the opportunity to redeploy on our own aircraft is pretty rare nowadays because the aircraft is small and short legged, I would have liked them to offer the opportunity to some of the junior non-flyers who may not get another chance. I treasure the times I was able to deploy/redeploy "on the iron" as it is really a chance to see the world and bond with your messmates, esp. compared to a 24 hour endurance ride in a metal tube filled with weary soldiers, pensioners and the occasional screaming child. Alas, I'm still not king.
One side effect of all the hours on tent watch was I missed an opportunity to visit the bomb yard. One of the people with us was doing ordinance work and was able to get tours of the facility. While I would have liked to see it, I'm not sure what I would have done when faced with the opportunity to participate in that peculiar tradition of signing the bomb. Often people will come back with pictures of themselves having chalked some slogan onto the side of a Mk 82 - which seems a little childish and barbaric at the same time. I'm not sure what I would have done - "fly well, strike true, and spare the innocent" would be wordy, even in Latin. Not a worry now, I expect.
One ceremony I did participate in was the "dignified transfer of remains," when the body of an ISAF member is loaded onto an aircraft for the last flight home. These happen at random times ("But of that day and hour no one knows...") but usually with a call for participants to provide an honor guard. I resolved to do at least one of these before I went, but only had the opportunity to get to one when we were finished flying. While I glad I went, I'm also glad I don't have to do another.
The ceremony itself is a strange mix of personal and impersonal. There are a lot of people there, in two mass formations of hundreds of people on either side of the path from the vehicles to the aircraft. After the arrival of the high ranking officers and representatives of the various countries, the remains arrive. They're brought to one end of the formation, then the coffins (more like 8 foot long aluminum ice chests to preserve the remains until they reach Dover) are carried between the formations to the aircraft awaiting at the other end. There's also a narrator issuing the orders over the loudspeaker, as well as reading a short biography.
While I didn't remember the soldiers' names, I was able to recall enough of the information that I could look them up on icasualties.org with little trouble. I didn't put the names here because I don't feel my thoughts are worth much to their friends and loved ones so I'd spare them having this entry come up on a web search. As I suspect is often the case, many of the honor guard are from the fallen's unit, which means the emotions are even higher. The bodies are carried at a brisk pace, as opposed to the current fondness of slow marching at funerals. Once they're aboard the aircraft, the people are dismissed to the traffic jam of vans and buses heading back to their little slice of the war.
After that was the usual alarums and excursions of getting people home. You're given a large checklist and have to balance off the fact that you don't want to turn in useful stuff before you have to, but also don't want to wait until the last minute - lest the paperwork keep you from the aircraft. We had to wait until pretty much the last aircraft that would get us to our rotator - the flight that would take us back to BWI. This meant being at the transit point only long enough for some interwebs, a shower, some food, then off to another set of hoops to jump before the long ride home. Even with the near miss with Customs (first delayed by a power outage, then I had to dump the bug goop, but the lava lamp survived inspection) and the ribbing for having too many bags, it was pretty painless.
BWI brought me back to the usual welcome home greeters, plus a small group of friends willing to come out and welcome me back, which was great. Going home to a house plunged into the third world because of a power outage was not - but that is another story...
I still haven't gleaned any insights that would tie the whole thing together - I'm not sure I ever will. I've deployed to a war, one where the dangers were real for me, if slight. Whatever else I might be, I'm still mostly an office worker with an odd dress code. I'm still uneasy with being "the face of war" to whole sections of people that might never have a veteran of any stripe in their social circles. Like many veterans, I tend to discount my experience because I can look at all of those who had it worse and have an inkling of just how worse it can get. I'm glad I did my bit and we'll see if I have to do it again.