Saturday, October 06, 2012

Mission Complete

My Afghanistan deployment is now over.  I'm back at home with Janis and the dogs, getting settled into  normal life again, and letting my body clock get readjusted.

I spent a week in Kabul to out-process.  I'd been told that it took three or four days to do the scavenger hunt of finding offices and getting things checked off.  The Embassy works 5-day weeks (unlike the field), so add in a couple of non-working weekend days, plus an extra day or so to account for weather delays or unexpected events.  So I arranged for a week.  As it turned out, there were no delays and for field people like me, most of the items on the scavenger-hunt checklist were not applicable.  In about two hours on the first day, I'd done 90% of what needed to be done.  It felt great to turn in my body armor, satellite phone, a BlackBerry that never worked properly, and a few other items.  That left six days to do ... well, a lot of nothing.  I set up some meetings to fill people in on Kandahar issues, more to have something semi-productive to do than anything else.  Otherwise, I hit the gym, visited with friends, and caught up on some reading.

Our Public Affairs people got wind of the fact that I'm an artist and have been drawing Afghans during my deployment.  Sensing a potential PR good-news human-interest story, they arranged to do a video interview with me.  This turned out to be a lot of fun.  We talked on-camera about who I was, what I'd been doing, the drawings, the Afghan reaction to them, and so on.  Then we corralled a young female British soldier nearby into sitting for me while I sketched her.  It was a bit unnerving to have the unblinking all-seeing eye of the video camera looking over my shoulder while I drew.  Knowing how often drawings are complete failures, I was nervous, but we got lucky and it turned out pretty well.  I gave the young lady the drawing when done and she seemed pretty pleased with it.  The next day, I saw a rough early cut of a portion of the interview.  They're still working on it and it will be posted on YouTube when done.  I will post the link here when it's available.

Kabul weather was unbelievably perfect during my week there.  It was cool in the mornings and evenings, meaning long-sleeve or even light jacket temperatures, and perfectly warm (mid-70's) during the day.  But not all was perfect.  About the midpoint of my stay, I ate something that just did not want to go away.  It sat in my stomach for at least three or four days, even into the trip home.  I finally had to go visit the doc, since I did not want to spend 24 hours trapped in airports and airplanes while feeling queasy.  They gave me some antacids and that helped.  Turned out that quite a few people at the Embassy suffered the same thing.  The DFACs strike again!

Finally, though, everything was done.  I'd turned in everything that needed to be turned in, spoken to all who needed to be spoken to, and it was time to go.  A driver took us from the Embassy to the Kabul airport.  This trip was a bit tense as there was a bombing targeted at an Embassy vehicle on that route a couple of weeks earlier, but this trip went off without a hitch.  Getting through the check-in and screening process was the usual pain.  We loaded up into a Safi Airlines Airbus that clunked and banged during taxiing like an ancient Chevy panel truck.  Not very confidence-inspiring.  The flight to Dubai was uneventful, though.  After more screening at the Dubai airport, I found my gate and met up with a couple of my co-workers from Kandahar who were going out on leave.

At midnight, we left Dubai for the 14-hour flight to Dulles.  I normally can't sleep worth squat on planes and this trip was no different.  Nothing like dozing off and on in 10 or 15-minute stretches, waking up with a terrible crick in your neck, looking at your watch, and realizing you've still got eight hours of this to go.  Ugh.

Dulles immigration wasn't as bad as it normally is.  We were maybe the first flight of the day to hit the passport control section, so we were processed pretty quickly.  United misplaced my checked bag, but found it after about 15 minutes, and I cleared customs and re-checked it for home.  Then I cleaned up as best I could, changed shirts, and headed downtown to the State Department.  As always, I am SO GLAD that I don't live in DC anymore and don't have to put up with that traffic every day.  Unbelievable.

Checkout from the State Department went well and quickly.  In less than 3 hours, I'd filled out forms, completed a required stress interview with a shrink, collected a variety of helpful information sheets that will never be read, turned in my badge and CAC card, and out the door.  No longer a State Department guy.  Unemployed.  Digging it.

I had some free time, so I did one of my favorite things: went to the National Gallery of Art to get inspired.  And walked into a showing of George Bellows' paintings.  You know Bellows' work if you don't know the name: he did the paintings of the turn-of-the-century boxers pounding the crap out of each other.  I was completely blown away, much more than I would have expected.  I've seen his work in ones and twos before, but seeing so many all together, and how they related, how how superbly painted they were, just knocked me out.  He is not an Impressionist, but he has their loose brushwork that suggests far more than it defines, while making you believe you're seeing more than is really there. Fabulous work.  If you're in DC, go see this show.  I would have bought the catalog, but it weighed a ton and I was already carrying a full backpack, so decided against it.  I'll probably order it, though, so the postal system will get to carry it rather than me.

And then it was time to head back out to Dulles.  The trip out there was uneventful.  Check-in was a pain (always at Dulles) but not as bad as it has been.  United loaded us into a tiny little jet for the trip to Charlotte.  I had a window seat and spent the whole time looking out the window at MY COUNTRY. It was green, with farms and towns and roads busy with trucks and cars.  The blue sky merged with haze on the distant horizon and then merged into the blue-green of the hills and rivers.  Marvelous!

As always, my flight arrived at one end of the Charlotte airport, while my next flight departed at the far other end.  But it was cool to stroll through the busy terminal and people-watch normal Americans in their natural environment.  No body armor, no M4's, no checkpoints with bored Afghan soldiers.  Nope, just regular old Americans, young and old, dressed-up and sloppy, talking on cell phones, checking departure schedules, or wandering around aimlessly.  It felt great to be one of them again.

And finally, the short hop to Asheville.  I sat next to a very interesting lady and we had a great discussion about my job, her job, art, Asheville, travel, and a host of other things.  Then we landed.  I gathered up my backpack and headed out the door.  As usual, Janis was waiting over in the check-in area with Soozzee and Indy.  These two dogs have done this so many times, they knew what to expect.  They spotted me and came running.  Followed by Janis.



Debbie of Boise said...

Welcome Home. You are a darn good writer, as well as sketch artist. I hope you keep blogging. Glad you made it home safe.

Kathi McClenney said...

Welcome Home!! It's been so interesting to read your blogposts and see your artwork,thank you.