The commute to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune was short, but once inside, I had five miles of live ordinance range to cross to French Creek, home of the 2nd Medical Battalion. Along the way I passed the gas chamber, where twice a year we donned masks in a toxic environment to ensure readiness. When I parked in my designated space, my car sat nose to nose with an armored personnel carrier captured during the Gulf War, now displayed in front of our headquarters building. Every part of my daily journey provided a reminder we were in the warfighting business.
As chaplain, my job was to ensure the warfighters were ready to do their jobs. In early January 2003, amid rumors of war, I visited the Commanding Officer for guidance. A straight talking, honorable man with a great sense of humor, he got right to the point.
“If the Iraqis deploy a chemical or biological agent anywhere in theater, our unit will provide medical care for the Marines exposed to it, thereby contaminating us.” He looked right in my eyes. “Anyone exposed to such an agent could not return to the US if doing so would jeopardize the health of those back home. Chaplain, I am telling you this because it will be your job to help our personnel understand and cope with this reality should it occur.”
“So, Sir, we would stay in theater until we are no longer contagious, or we’re dead?”
“Yes. I don’t know how one gets prepared for that, but just do it. Oh, and here, I made you some foo-foo coffee. What do you think of this flavor?”
“It’s better than your tasking, Sir.”
With the holiday leave behind us, and an uncertain timeframe for deployment, our unit got right to work. Every shop in 2nd Medical BN, from admin to transportation, prepared their area of responsibility to go mobile. For the Command Religious program, this meant filling our allotted containers with the items on the inspectable packing list: Bibles, Missalettes, kippahs, Korans, altar cloths—all the things necessary to supply a variety of faith groups for worship. We also packed board games and cards.
After work each day, I focused on getting myself ready. A natural list maker, I started there. Personal items to pack, mail, bills, important papers, funeral, close up the house – I tried to think of everything. I began with what, as a clergywoman, I knew best, funeral planning. I gathered my dress blues, white alb and woven stole and drove to the dry cleaners.
“Special occasion, Chaplain?”
“I’m deploying soon. To Iraq. For the war.”
The dry cleaner took my uniform and robe, tagged them, and walked to the back. When she returned, I handed her my stole. “You didn’t get this one.”
“Looks like you’ve worn that a lot. The woven pattern is beautiful.”
“It’s my favorite.”
“Lots of parishioners hugged you on the way out of church while you wore it, didn’t they?”
I took a deep breath. “Yes, many.”
“If this is what you are choosing for your burial, how about we not clean it? Let’s leave all those hugs right where they are.”
I took it home and hung it in the closet, where I would soon hang my cleaned burial clothes. Then I attached a bag to the hanger. In it, I placed a list of the hymns and scripture readings for the service and a copy of my resume to help whoever would officiate. I also enclosed a handful of photos to display in case it needed to be a closed casket.
At the end of the week, my boyfriend, Ken, arrived from Michigan to help.
“Where’s your gear list? I’ll get started on that.” A Naval reservist, he knew the drill.
I showed him the pile of stuff I had been issued. “If it isn’t here, they didn’t have any more. I don’t know what to do about that.”
“I’ll check military surplus stores while you’re at work.” He picked up a pair of pants. “Men’s XL. These won’t fit you.”
“That’s all they had left at supply.”
“Go try them on, and tomorrow I’ll take them in for you.”
We spent the next two weeks alternating between dating and preparing for war.
“It should be me going, not you. What kind of country sends a middle-aged woman to fight the enemy?”
“I’m a New Yorker. I have an attitude and I know how to use it.”
“Have you ever fired a gun?”
“I’m a non-combatant. I’m not permitted to use a gun.”
“This weekend I’m taking you to the range. You need to be familiar with a weapon, if for no other reason than to know how to unload one. Or if things get ugly and you decide to forgo your non-combatant status, you could.”
The following week, I went for my pre-deployment medical screening. I failed it. The lump on my breast that medical had been monitoring for two years had gotten larger. The doctor said based on the quick growth; it was probably cancerous. In his opinion, I needed to address the issue immediately. I told him the medical unit needed a chaplain. Against his advice, I presented the findings to my CO. “If we are likely to die from chemical or biological agents, what difference would it make if I have breast cancer?”
With a promise to see the doctor as soon as I was back in the US, the CO signed off on my screening. Then he made us coffee.
“How you doing with all of this?” He leaned back in his chair and took a sip.
“About as good as you are.”
“Sorry to hear that.”
A few days later I came home from work with news. “15 February.”
“I have news, too. My reserve unit is being activated that same week. Sigonella, Italy.”
“Can you stay until I leave?”
“It’ll be tight, but yes.”
At 0300 the day after Valentine’s Day, Ken made breakfast while I got ready. For a few minutes, we shared a meal like people who could do this together every morning. Then I took a slow walk through my house, looking not at my belongings, but at who I was and wondering who I would be if I returned. Don’t think. Just do. Don’t think. The words propelled me back toward the front door.
“I’ll stop back here after you leave and make sure everything is closed up correctly. Don’t worry. I’ve got this.” Ken opened the door for me and I walked out into the darkness.
Before the sun rose, we were on the base. Soon, others from my unit arrived. Most formed tight circles of family and friends on the parade field. Near us, a young mother buried her tear-streaked face into the soft yellow blanket wrapped around her infant as she wept. Her young husband’s eyes were wet as he stared. He would soon care for their child alone. Across the way, siblings teased their deploying brother as proud but worried parents tried to look cheerful. Several couples stood locked in embraces, swaying as if to music. My assistant kissed his wife’s pregnant belly. He swept his toddler into his arms to hold him close.
A few people had no one to lament their departure. One, a Chief, walked by on his way to check on the buses.
“Are you here by yourself, Chief?”
“Don’t worry about me, Chaplain. I said my goodbyes at home. I hate these public spectacles.”
Ken shook his head. “He’s lying. He looked down when he answered. Sad, he has no one to see him off.”
“If it weren’t for you, I’d be alone, too.”
“But you’re not.” He held me. For a moment, I closed my eyes to capture his embrace. Then I looked into his eyes.
“Will we ever see each other again? I’m going to Iraq. You’re going to Sigonella. We don’t even have each other’s deployment address.”
“You have my Leatherman. Don’t worry. I’ll find you. I want it back.” Ken paused. “The buses are here.”
The chief gave the fifteen-minute warning. Around us, the small circles got smaller as families said last goodbyes. Too soon, the order came for our unit to muster in rows and for family and friends to cross to the other side of the street. I could hardly breathe as I complied. Among the crowd of faces trying to be remembered smiling, I found Ken, and he found me. Suddenly, a little girl broke away and ran for her father in the formation.
“Daddy, don’t go.”
If we weren’t crying before, we all were now. Once the cherub was back with her mother, we marched to the buses.
As we did, the crowd sobbing at the curb raised flags and signs in a final salute. The last people we saw as we pulled away were a mother and her two sons running alongside, waving all the way to the intersection. I passed a box of tissues around the bus. On the way to the armory, our driver started a movie. I don’t think anyone actually saw it.
The stop at the armory lasted several hours. Then a bus broke down. At 1215, with bag lunches on our laps, we finally exited Camp Lejeune for the drive along Freedom Way. Familiar, now unreachable, sights passed like a dream: The K-Mart that never carried what I needed, the place I bought my blue couch, China Garden with their great fish soup, the Swansboro Historic District, home to the Elvis-themed café, and Flying Bridge Restaurant where just last night Ken and I ate lots of oysters. We arrived at Cherry Point for our flight in less than an hour and lined up to pass seabags and ALICE packs from the buses to the loading area. We sat for two hours on the hangar floor, waiting for scales to arrive. I weighed in at 152 lbs. without gear and 244 lbs. wearing it.
At 1800, I gathered those who wanted to share in worship for a short devotional service. Soon after, a two-story 747 arrived, and we boarded. The flight crew had decorated the cabins with red, white and blue crepe paper, small flags and handmade patriotic posters wishing us well. Once over the Atlantic, they tenderly served us a good, hot meal, cheesecake and decaf. As the trays were cleared, a flight attendant made an announcement: She would be coming through the cabins with paper, envelopes and pens for us to write a letter home, in case we thought of what we should have said after we left or just had one more thing to say. She would collect them in the morning and would be pleased to mail them at her expense back in the US.
Just before we nodded off for a much-needed rest, the pilot addressed his passengers: “You might have noticed a bit of special treatment from the flight attendants. Unlike civilian flights for which our crew is scheduled, flying you to war is a job for volunteers only. Everyone working this flight is here because we want to be. We know the job you are about to do will be difficult, and this is our way of thanking and honoring you for your service and your commitment. Me? I volunteered to be your pilot because I took this same flight in 1968, only mine landed in Vietnam. So, get some sleep. You’ll need it.”
Settling into my seat to take the pilot’s advice, his words filled my drowsy mind. The same flight. I guess that’s right. The journey between home and war is the same flight, no matter the destination or the generation. Its way is marked by endless preparation, the kindness of strangers, the care and help of friends, the sacrifice of naivete and the myriad losses of relationships and opportunities. We say goodbye to all we know, wondering if we will return, wondering, if we do, who we might be then.
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