I tore open the envelope addressed to me from my ex wife and pulled a note from it, it read; “Tracy, when you went to war in South West Asia you sent this and asked me to keep it safe until you get back, I kept it safe on my key chain for the last twenty six years, I thought you might want it back.” In the envelope there was a small, round, brass tag with the number “71” stamped on it. It was the tag from my gas mask.
In 1991 I sat huddled in a corner of a dilapidated underground parking garage in the dark, I was dressed in my chemical gear and mask, I hated breathing through it, I hated being in it, I hated the sweat that poured down my back as we waited for the all clear sign. We didn’t know that most of the Scud missiles that Saddam had sent to us were empty of or had very little chemicals in them, but we knew he had used chemicals in the past so we weren’t taking any chances. And the missiles were large enough to cause a lot of damage on their own. As I sat there having just gotten in country, peering out through the sand covered lenses of my mask, I thought about faith and I thought about my girlfriend.
Old dust and sand hovered in the air thickly, my lungs struggled to fill and I sat, waiting, tapping the small, round brass tag on the case on my hip for my gas mask, as if to signal to myself that I was still in control. This would be a regular occurrence while we remained in the staging area near Khobar Village, it happened while we were sleeping, and while we stood in line for breakfast. This was in 1991, long before there was a permanent U.S. base of any kind in Saudi Arabia, no Burger King, no imbedded media and no cellphones, hell they hadn’t even been invented yet. But there was the good ‘ol U.S. mail, we would send out letters to home, but getting mail from home was a disaster, I got letters that had been sent to me in the first few days of my tour from my family as I was leaving the country nine months later.
That night, as I lay staring out at the sky over the desert, I thought about times I sat on the front steps of my girlfriend’s parents house, in the cool Minnesota nights, the smell of fresh cut grass, staring up at the stars and holding hands and the smell of her hair as she lay her head on my shoulder. That was the safest I’d ever felt, back then I always felt safe in her arms, in the stare from her cool blue eyes. But things change, I changed. And when I returned home part of me didn’t, it remained there, buried in the hot, flea ridden, oil saturated, blood stained sand. Any innocence that survived my childhood was laid to rest there and despite that I wasn’t about to let go of the only thing I knew to be safe in my world.
It would be a quarter of a century later, almost twenty five years of struggling to make things work, to build a family and trying to be a husband and father my wife and children might be proud of. How many times I’d wished I was back in that filthy desert, not because I liked it, not because I felt safe there, not because I didn’t want to be with my kids or my wife but because I understood it there, I knew how to operate there, there was a sense of control amongst utter chaos that gets burned to a part of a soldier somewhere deep inside him. It’s sort of like sitting on the bottom of a swimming pool, looking up at the surface of the water knowing that you can only hold your breath for so long, that if you opened your mouth you might drown, that maybe when the hurt and the burning in your lungs grows too intense you might be too far from the surface to survive, but it’s that burning in your lungs, that sharp pain in the back of your head as the oxygen de-pleats that you senselessly crave, it’s like a long lost brother, a part of you that makes some sort of wickedly perverted sense. So you close your eyes and feel it, absorb it, caress it.