We slept in these dorms that were containers. Modular units, shipped over, all the same inside. A lot of the guys I was with were reservists, a little older, so they had older kids. A lot of them had pictures of their families and drawings up on their walls from their children. I had a little snapshot of Kate that I taped to the wall, but the wall got hot during the day and after awhile the tape didn’t stick. I’d come back at night and it would be on the floor and I’d spent five or ten minutes trying to press it on just right so it would stay up there, right above my head. After awhile I gave up. My mother had her whole class make me cards, which were really just stick-drawings of people and rabbits and dogs and notes that said things like “Thank you Corporal Tillery!” or, “We miss you! Come home soon!” Which of course I didn’t know anyone so how could they miss me. But I was glad to have them. The container didn’t have any windows, so taping them up on the wall above my bed made it feel like I had windows.
In the mornings in the summer I’d step out and the sun would strike you. You forget, you’re up high, the light is different. It’s a pretty barren place, Afghanistan. Like the desert. People think North Dakota is like that, empty and barren, nothing in it, but you haven’t seen anything until you’ve been to Afghanistan. Some days I’d get out and in that harsh morning sun, I’d look at the burned hills and mountains and think, “We’re fighting over this? Let ‘em have it. Maybe the reason they live up here is nobody wants it.”
I was just on the base most of the time, until the end. Parts of it were old, but so many more soldiers were coming in they had to build on it. Somebody told me it was built by the Americans, after World War II. Then the Soviets had it. Then after the attack on New York, we took it over again. You’d think we’d learn something by being there so long and still not controlling anything.
The base is so huge, it’s like a city, practically. People come and you can buy things there. They try to cell you cheap stuff, like copies of movies, or computer games. One guy had things he would unwrap from old cloths. He had a big ceramic vase, or an urn, I don’t know what it was. Painted in blue, Chinese. He said it was old, some dynasty I never heard of. He insisted I buy it. I thought, “I don’t even own a bed, not really, and he thinks I should have this vase.”
At night planes and helicopters flew in and brought the bodies of soldiers, brought them in from around the country where units were fighting. They’d ship them out from there back to Germany and back to the US. We had to line up along the roadway and salute as they passed. Whenever the planes came in they’d ring and you’d have to get dressed up and go out. I’d have been working all day, fourteen, sixteen hours, and trying to catch a little sleep and then we had to go out and stand there. It made me feel lucky that at least then I didn’t have to leave the base. Of course it made me more frightened later when I had to go out. I’d stand there and think about the guy, or the woman, who was passing. Think about their family back home. You sent them off and now they’re not coming back. Just a folded flag and maybe a medal or some nice words that probably lost their feeling as they passed along the chain from the unit back to whoever it is goes out to tell people their son or daughter is dead and their whole world is fucked now. In the winter it was freezing when we were out there, standing with snow pelting us in the dark. But we had to stand there and salute anyway. Most of us were glad to do it. You have that feeling, “I’m glad it’s not me.”
Back in Chicago some people asked me if it made me wonder what we were doing, was it worth it being there. It didn’t. Standing there, saluting, watching the bodies, freezing when it was winter, I didn’t think about much of anything except that I wanted to go to sleep. And I was glad it wasn’t me so I could sleep. The only times I wondered what I was doing was when I stepped out of the container in the morning, into that harsh sunlight, and looked at the dead hills and the barren country and think, “What are we doing in this godforsaken place?” It was just in the morning.