One Year Ago Today

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Emmanuel Saridakis
  • 107th Fighter Squadron
On a recent morning, at my kid's soccer game, another parent engaged me in a conversation about how much more different this fall's foliage was than last year's. I had to humbly admit that I could not make the comparison. Last year I spent the fall and the holidays deployed to Afghanistan with the rest of the 107th Fighter Squadron. She started asking the typical civilian questions: What was it like? Did I miss my family? Was there much action? What do you do when you aren't deployed? I answered as simply as I could without going into details, many of which were flooding back into my mind. I've been home from Kandahar for less than a year, long enough for my time there to become a memory best forgotten for those who worried every day that I was gone. I could see their relief when I returned. Life could continue. But in quiet moments, their relief brought me some guilt. Maybe they assume I was as overjoyed to be home as they were to have me home. Maybe they assume if I could do it over, I never would have gone. But I actually miss Kandahar. I miss OEF. I certainly miss flying combat in an A-10. And I have a hard time understanding why.

I'm glad to be here, to have put away my desert uniforms, to wake up in my home. I worry about soldiers who are there in Afghanistan still, and I wish they weren't. Often I hated being there, when the frustrations and rules of engagement were mind-bending. I questioned my role in the coalition mission and whether good could come of it. I wondered if it was worth dying or killing for. The ugliness I occasionally saw disgusted me. But combat twists and shifts how we navigate our lives, casting light on dark areas that for most people remain unexplored. And once those dark spaces are lit, they become part of us. At a party long ago, long before my first combat excursion, I listened to a Marine tell a woman that if she carried a pistol for a day, just tucked on her person and out of sight, she would feel different. She would see the world differently, for better or worse. Weapons empower. She disagreed and he shrugged. He saw no use arguing the point; he was just offering a little piece of truth. He was right, of course.

I've spent countless hours in combat taking in the world through a bubble canopy or a targeting pod, watching life below me unfold. Women hanging laundry in their courtyard. Men going about their daily grind. Children playing in the streets. I've watched this and hoped that someday I would see that our coalition presence had made their lives better, a redemption of sorts. But I also peered at those scenes waiting for someone to do something wrong, to commit a hostile act, so I could do the weapons-related part of my job. When you strap on an A-10 with the intent of killing, you step onto a very strange and serious playing field. Every morning someone wakes wishing you dead. That's not bloodthirst; that's just your profession. And as an A-10 pilot, you have a very impressive toolbox. You can fire the Avenger cannon or drop a 500 pound bomb, and if that's not enough, call in other aircraft, or helicopters, or whatever. The insurgents have their skill sets too, turning crowds of innocent people into scattered flesh, Humvees into charred scrap, infiltrating and killing on coalition bases. You're all part of the terrible magic show, both powerful and helpless.

Mankind is drawn to war and that is no surprise. How old are boys before they turn a finger and thumb into a pistol? Long before they love girls, they love war, at least everything they imagine war to be: guns and explosions and courage. When my friends and I played war as kids, there was no fear or sorrow or cowardice. Death was temporary, usually as fast as you could count to ten and jump back into the game. And today's young men are just slightly older versions of those kids, still loving the unknown, perhaps pumped up on dreams of duty and heroism and the intoxicating power of weapons. In time, war dispels many such notions, and more than a few people find that being freed from society's professed revulsion to killing is really no freedom at all, but a burden. Yet even at its lowest points, combat is like nothing else. Our culture craves experience, and that is war's strongest suit. War peels back the skin, and you live with a layer of nerves exposed, overdosing on your surroundings, when everything seems all wrong and just right, in a way that makes perfect sense. Those airfield rocket attacks and airborne moments of excitement can fry your nerves, but you want them all the same.

For those who've been there, this is the open secret: War is exciting. Sometimes I am in awe of this, and sometimes I felt low and mean for loving it, but I still love it. Even in its quiet moments, war is brighter, louder, brasher, more fun, more tragic, more wasteful... More of everything. Today the war was distilled to moments and feelings. But the memories, good and bad, are only part of the reason war holds its grip long after we have come home. War is urgent and intense and the biggest story going, always on the news stations and magazine covers. At home though, relearning everyday life, the sense of mission can be hard to find and even harder to explain. Supporting the warfighter is our number one mission. At times the people of the 107FS are the warfighters. The rest of the time we are preparing for combat and long for the call to deploy again. How do you casually explain that to a soccer mom?