I have a memory I reflect on occasionally and figured I would share it. Sometimes it just pops up like a video being played from pause and other times something someone says or does triggers it.
It begins while I was in AIT (Advanced Individual Training, vocational school for the Army). My friends and I were sitting around hanging out in the World War II era day-room (common room) when one of the drill sergeants came in and without saying anything, marched over to the TV, turned it on and motioned for us to gather around. We sat there watching the live coverage of Operation Shock and Awe. The start of the invasion of Iraq actually made me forget for an instant that I was a soldier. I was watching the tanks and personnel carriers, soldiers, and aircraft cross the border into Iraq and thought “wow, I can’t believe they are doing this, that’s so crazy” not remembering that I was part of the “they” who were now half a world away.
My drill sergeant allowed us to watch the coverage the rest of the day, but before he left he turned and said “pay attention to what’s going on, this is history and most of you are gonna be a part of it”. That memory is one of the clearest I can recall in my entire life so far. It leads into another memory and story that takes place two years later.
Being on the base in my home state every month, even with the elevated tension in the air, still didn’t convince me that I was going to be any part of the war. The Maryland Army National Guard, including me, are heading to New Orleans to help out in our own country and I was not too worried about what the rest of the country’s military was doing.
One Saturday towards the middle August 2005 I parked my car in the lot of our World War II era (almost all Army buildings come from this time period, or so it seems) aviation headquarters on Aberdeen Proving Grounds ready to plan out the day for the helicopters and the pilots that flew them. I walked into the building and started my day with a large black coffee when Sergeant Carroll came down to my one-windowed office area and asked if she could talk with me in her (windowless) office for a few minutes. My heart dropped, and reflexively, my head with it. Here it is I’m going to the sandbox; I could feel it. Her presence was that of a doctor knowing they need to deliver bad news and they subtly shift the obvious weight of guilt and sadness to the person it was meant for before any words are spoken. I hated knowing that so long ago, a drill sergeant of mine, could reach into my future and make his prediction a reality.
In her office I fell into in a worn-out, faded blue fabric chair that propped up many soldiers getting promotions, discharges, good news, and of course bad news. I couldn't breathe properly and thought that if Sergeant Carroll decided to act nicely to me (right before her news punched me in the face) that I was going to throw up.
“Cardamone, we got two taskings from 1st Army”
“Taskings for what?” I asked, feigning confusion, thinking it would change the answer I knew was coming. The pit in my stomach was now enveloping my toes.
“They need two 15 Papas for Operation Iraqi Freedom”
“….” Was all that wouldn't come out in hopes that this conversation would end if I just ignored it.
“Who do you think is competent?”
“…I’m sorry?” confusion edging out the horror
“Who do you think is competent?”
“…I don’t follow”
“You’re one of the best 15Ps we have, I trust your judgment and I’m looking for a consensus about character and abilities for some of the other soldiers”
“Umm…” I was really engaging now, the respect she held for me as a bright, judgment-doling soldier must be skyrocketing as our conversation progressed.
“Look, I’m not basing my decision on your opinions you can rest assured of that, but I am interested to hear what you have to say about the people you work with and who you think can hack it out there.”
“Oh” (brilliance, yet again)
“Well, honestly, Sergeant Carroll I don’t feel comfortable going over all that, I mean I know you said you aren't basing your decision off of what I say but obviously it holds some merit or I wouldn't be sitting here. I don’t really know who is best suited for this. I know who does a great job but so do you and I don’t want someone’s life being fucked because I said they are competent.”
“I understand what you mean, and I can see how that is difficult. Let me approach it another way, here are the two soldiers I have in mind…”
Here she showed me the names of the two soldiers she decided to send to war, meanwhile they were working two floors below me completely unaware that I was looking into the biggest part of their future before they even heard a whisper of it. I was uncomfortable at best. After discussing her decision and reasons she asked only if I agreed with them. I then explained that based on her reasons, I did agree. She thanked me and said I could get back to work now. Before I left I asked her something that I had been turning over in my mind since she asked me to weigh in.
“How come my name wasn't on your list?”
“You were, but you’re on the Katrina mission, you can’t do both.”
“Oh, got it, thanks.”
I floated back to the flight planning room. I couldn't go to Iraq, it was impossible because of the timing and a weight that I didn't know was there fell from my shoulders. I immediately felt guilty that I was happy Hurricane Katrina intervened in my life (obviously not happy about the actual). Then I was sad for my two colleagues who had no idea that there was no catastrophic intervention for them. Drill weekend ended and I took my time driving the 45 minutes back home, I enjoyed some music and thought about what I was going to eat for dinner. I got home and explained to my fiancee what had happened and she gave me a huge hug and I was happy that it wasn't a goodbye and good luck hug.
“Cardamone, it’s Sergeant Carroll. I have some bad news. Private Dirtbag* failed his drug test and you are going to have to take his place in the tasking for OIF.”
“What do you mean...”
“I’m so sorry to have to tell you over the phone like this”
“But I’m going on the Katrina mission...you said…you said last month that I can’t do both”
“We haven’t gotten official orders on Katrina yet and theater operations take precedent”
“Can you come to the base in the next few days? We have a lot to get done with you.”
“…yea…sure…so what happens now? What’s the plan? When am I…uh...going? I guess.”
“The orders take effect October twenty one”
“October 21st? October! That’s in four weeks! I am shipping out in four weeks?”
“Again, I’m sorry, I wish this wasn't the case but it is.”
The call ended as unceremoniously as it began. I sat there frozen. My fiancee was out and I had no one to freak out with. I called her and had her meet me at my parent’s house. When I arrived I explained what happened and we broke down together. The feeling I had looking into her eyes, and knowing the fear and uncertainty behind them, is still as vivid today while thinking back on it as it was at the time it happened.
The day came to ship off to Fort Dix, New Jersey and after some training there over to MCAS Yuma, Arizona to train with the Marines for four months and after that, Iraq, for twelve months. I met the Virginia unit I was going overseas with at their base. All the families were there and fellow soldier’s families embraced those that didn't have families present. We cried, shared stories, and made promises. It was a heartbreaking touching day that I remember with a strange happiness, uncertainty, and warmth. After some announcements and more hugging the real goodbyes were made with everyone as we made our way to the buses that would take us to the airport.
I would really love to have some amazing stuff to tell that makes this story an epic journey, or a masterpiece of a life that changed the world; but that would be a fiction. The story is not an epic it’s merely my own small journey. It did, however, allow me experiences, friendships, and decisions that most people will never know or be able to experience. I have some great memories from the time I got on that bus until the day I was lucky enough to come home. But those stories aren't what this is about. It’s about how a lazy kid who wanted to accomplish something ended up writing this as an OIF veteran, college graduate, father of two beautiful children, and still married to the woman who loves me as much as the day she was professed from outside the bus window as I left. The only twist I can to give this story is that my life turned out more exciting and beautiful than I could have imagined when I walked into that recruiting office over all those years ago.
*Not his real name. Also, the nicest one I could muster.