The Night We Go Home
Z. S. Diamanti
Every one of us stood rigid with a fixed salute, never taking our eyes off the truck. Our brothers.
The wind carried a gentle breeze over the high desert on that mid-summer night. It was a small relief—and a fleeting one at that. It caressed our faces, gritty with sweat and sand. This was the night we’d been waiting for. This was the night we’d finally leave Afghanistan.
It’s a sober process. Your duffle and your rolling gear bag are thoroughly inspected. And by thoroughly inspected, I mean the men in the departure inspection zone take everything out. Everything. We were taught to roll our clothes when packing in order to fit more inside. Shirts, socks, underwear—everything is ripped from its neat, tight-packed niche and laid bare upon tables. It reminded me of when we were in boot camp and Trainee Ropp was dumb enough to hide a Snickers bar in his rolled up skivvies. The TI made him eat his hidden contraband and run until he puked. But here, they weren’t looking for Snickers. The inspectors were more concerned with dangerous contraband.
Soldiers have this bad habit of collecting souvenirs. Inspectors check for Afghan blades made with ivory handles. They check for live munitions and shell casings rolled up in shirts. They check for grenades or pistols shoved into extra pairs of boots. And once they’re done, they tag your bag and walk away while you feverishly begin rolling everything back up. The duffle doesn’t sit right anymore and you can’t quite get everything to fit the way it did before.
After we were cleared by departure inspections we were shuffled out to the tarmac. There’s a common saying in the military: “Hurry up and wait.” And we were at the “wait” part. There was a large square enclosed by yellow paint designated as the waiting area. There we found a spot to set our stuff down and take off our body armor. We were only going to be there for a few hours. Many tried to sleep, in vain. Most rested their head on their rucks and stared into the night sky. I was among them.
There it was.
What they don’t tell you is that the last couple of weeks at war are among the worst. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You can see it. You can taste it. You can almost smell it over the burning plastics and tires. You might just make it home. Then, paranoia adds to the onslaught. You start to pray every few minutes of every day, “God, just let me make it through today.” You don’t sleep anymore. And then doubt adds insult to injury with each explosion. You think, I can’t believe I’ve made it 7 months. And now 6 days (4 days, 3 days, 2 days) before I go home I’m going to die. But this night was our night to go home.
“Gear up! Stay in place!”
No one hesitated. We each gave up our last ounce of comfort and donned our body armor and helmets. Not that they would protect us from a direct rocket, mind you, but it’s what we were trained to do. We were also trained to seek cover, but beyond this point in the departure process there was no cover available. So, there we lay in full gear, completely vulnerable, stars above, and rockets laying down an incorrigible bass in the background. Stifled cries and whispered prayers filled the air between booms. Whoever thinks that a soldier doesn’t cry is fooling themselves. God, please! We’re so close. Not tonight. Not like this.
Eventually, the rockets ceased. We made it through that one.
“We’re going to get back on track now! We’ll be getting you guys on the plane here in a little while. But first, we have two distinguished leaving out on the flight you are supposed to leave on. If anyone would like to be placed on a later flight, please see me immediately.”
Not a soul moved.
By “distinguished,” they meant that two fellow soldiers had fallen and they would be transported out of Afghanistan with us. No one requested a later leaving date. I cannot say that it was entirely one thing or another, but I can say that there was a mixture of terror at the potential of staying longer and possibly dying, and a sense of duty and devotion to honor these brothers who didn’t get to go home to their families alive.
So, we waited.
No one took off their gear. After our rocket incident earlier in the night, it seemed just as well. The night continued with the heavy, perpetual sighs of the C-17s. One of those was being prepped for us.
And then they came.
The truck drove slowly between yellow lines on the tarmac right in front of our square. Every one of us stood rigid with a fixed salute, never taking our eyes off the truck. Our brothers. They would be locked in place at the front of the plane before us. Again, muffled cries. We stood there long after they had passed from view, waiting for the “At ease” command. But no one cared. We would have stood there the whole night. The quiet of that night still haunts me.
A little while after it was time to load up and haul out. Silently, we marched to the plane and were guided to our seats in the cargo hold. There were few lights, mostly to the front. All of our duffle bags were tied down on pallets at the back. It felt like everyone on the plane was holding a collective breath, as if we might need that breath to carry our transport out of that broken and shattered place.
No one said a word, save for the aircrew, preparing for takeoff.
It was then that I looked up. There were mirrors at the front, obviously used by crew during flight with cargo, but from our point of view as passengers, the mirrors displayed only the reflected images of two flag adorned coffins. Our brothers. Was this some sign that while they were gone, they were still with us? Watching over us?
When we reached cruising altitude, the roaring all around us faded. No one spoke. No one moved. We all knew that we had a long way to go. But we were finally going home.
✽ ✽ ✽
Z.S. Diamanti is an author of short and long form fiction. His stories have most recently been published in Gathering Storm Magazine, Fiction on the Web, and Literally Stories. He went to school for far too long and has far too many pieces of paper on his wall. He is a military veteran of OEF and pastor. He and his wife reside in Colorado with their four children where they enjoy hikes, camping, and tabletop games. You can reach him at @zsdiamanti.