Robert H. Paley is a Major in the U.S. Army and a member of the Ohio Army National Guard.
11 January 2009
Debrecen Airport, Hungary
Some scenes are universal, perhaps even timeless. Soldiers going off to war hug their loved ones desperately for what may truly be the last time, spouse’s clutch infants, girlfriends with tear-streaked mascara try to be strong, and little kids—somehow sensing the magnitude of the moment—all cling to their Soldier with such desperate finality.
Sergeant First Class Manuel “Manny” Perez was my right hand man, and he and I were charged with going to Afghanistan ahead of the American main body of infantry Soldiers to prepare for their arrival two weeks later. We had already said our “good-byes” to our loved ones in America while we were home for the Christmas holidays, and now my Sergeant and I watched as our Hungarian allies said their good-byes to their loved ones. We sat atop a mountain of duffle bags and tried to ignore the sad scene that was playing out before us, though that was nearly impossible to do.
It was hard enough the first time I went through it, and now I just wanted it to end so we could get on with the business at hand. Those thoughts were shattered by the uncontrollable wailing of one of the Hungarian Soldier’s mothers. Sergeant Perez and I glanced at each other, then looked away, fidgeting.
I averted my head towards my rucksack to hide the lump that formed in my throat. I was an officer, a Captain in the United States Army, and officers can’t show such emotion in front of their troops—especially not in front of foreign troops that we’d trained with through the heat and the cold of the past several months in preparation for our joint mission to Afghanistan. The wailing wouldn’t stop, and the futile, foreign words of the Hungarian Soldier trying to reassure his mother did not require interpretation.
Finally, the order came in Hungarian to “Move out!” and I gladly stood up, threw on my rucksack, slung my rifle and walked out of the terminal into the cold, bitter air, relieved to put that scene behind me.
Moments later, I ascend the ramp to the airplane. It is a civilian chartered jet, and the fact that everyone going aboard is armed with a rifle and a pistol had an irony all of its own. It was a visible reminder that this was no ordinary flight. There was no turning back now. As I reached the top of the steps, I paused one final time to breathe in the fresh air, then crossed the threshold into the unknown.
As I walked down the aisle toward my seat near the front of the plane, it was as if everything turned to slow motion. A Hungarian Soldier stood and said something that made the other Hungarian Soldiers laugh, but the laughter seemed muted and muffled. I placed my M4 rifle in the overhead compartment along with my small back-pack, and a flight attendant walked by and shut it. What was I doing here? I thought to myself. How did I get here?
I was thankful that the flight wasn’t full and I had a row all to myself. I sat down in the aisle seat and strapped myself in. I placed my hands on the armrests and took in a slow, steady breath. I watched as the flight attendant pulled the door to the airplane shut.
Suddenly, the finality of it all hit me like a punch in the chest. I swallowed hard and felt the muscles of my chest tighten around me, and my breath came up short. I closed my eyes as my heartbeat increased with each turn of the airplane’s turbine engine winding up, and the stakes became painfully clear to me.
I thought about my wife, Alison, whom I love with all my heart. We met when I was deployed to England and married just five years earlier. Pictures of the wonderful life we had built together flashed through my mind. I thought about my mother—my poor mother—who had seen my father injured during the Korean War and then nearly killed in the Vietnam War, now having to suffer through the worry of my own deployment. I thought about my older brother, Phil, who was my best friend—what would he do without me? And I thought about my sisters, Karen and Nancy, and wondered if they knew how much I loved them? And I thought about my nieces and nephews, who said good-bye to me at our farewell ceremony through tear-filled eyes. I thought of my childhood friends, and the friends who were like family to me. A great sadness and heaviness filled my heart.
“I don’t want to die,” I thought to myself, “I don’t want to die.”
Then, as if it were a well-spring boiling up from deep within me, I found myself shouting in my mind to God and anyone else, “I want to live!”
Everything I thought I was at that moment was crumbling around me—instead of courage, I felt fear. Instead of selflessness, I felt a horrible selfishness. Instead of a cool resolve, I felt doubt. I felt like I had been nothing but a big fraud my entire life—exclaiming the virtues of the American spirit, of self-sacrifice, and honor—and now that I was finally getting the chance to put my own life on the line for what I believe in, and to join the real heroes who sacrificed their health and their lives in our nation’s defense—I found myself wanting.
It was too much, I had to shake it off somehow, this is not who I was or—at least—not who I wanted to be. I unbuckled my seat belt, stood up, opened the overhead compartment and pulled out my small rucksack. As I closed the compartment, I sensed that someone was watching me. I glanced toward the back of the plane and saw Sergeant Perez. He, too, was in deep thought, and we nodded knowingly to each other.
I sat down, dug through the front pocket of my rucksack, and pulled out the 1978 “Eisenhower” silver dollar that had meant so much to me in the past. This coin was not just any coin. This was the coin that I gave to my late father when he gave me my first salute upon commissioning as an officer at West Point. It was the proudest day of my life. I clutched the coin tightly and shut my eyes.
Moments later, we were airborne, and I felt my heart rate begin to slow down at last. I held the silver dollar up and stared at the worn-out likeness of President Eisenhower on its face, and I noticed the date on the coin, still visible: 1978. That’s when it all began for me, when I was just twelve years old.
“I’m going to give this silver dollar to Daddy when I become an officer someday,” I told my mother. “When he gives me my first salute.”
“You want to be an officer?” my mother asked, surprised.
“I will be an officer!” I told her, with youthful certainty.
She nodded and smiled at me, then turned to leave my room.
“Mom?” I said.
She stopped at the door and turned back to me. “Yes?”
“I’m going to West Point.”
She pursed her lips and struggled to reply. “Daddy…will be very proud.”
I smiled as I thought about that day. Only now, looking back, did the significance of that day hit me. That was the day that set me on the course to live my life as a Soldier, just as my father had done for 23 years and spanning two wars. It was also the reason he had gone into the VA hospital, never to come out again.
The plane jolted as it hit an air pocket, and I looked out the window into the empty blackness. Below, I could make out the jet-black outline of mountain tops barely distinguishable from the night, and in the far distance I saw the skies flash with a far-off lightning storm.
If I had forgotten who I was earlier, the long flight to Afghanistan gave me the time I needed to remember. I was the son of a Sergeant Major, a two time war veteran who had ultimately given his life for our country. I thought about his headstone at Arlington National Cemetery, and all the new headstones that had since joined his since the attacks of 9/11. These men and women, heroes all, were my brothers and sisters in arms. Each of them had hopes and dreams and loved ones, too, yet they still went into harm’s way. I remembered visiting disabled veterans at Walter Reed Army Hospital, seeing men and women with missing arms and legs somehow facing their new reality with smiles on their faces, and telling me that they would “do it all over again” if they had too. This was the reality of the life that I had chosen, serving American Soldiers to the best of my ability—to the last full measure, if necessary—and that was the meaning of the oath that I took on the Plain of West Point when I was nineteen years old. This, I thought to myself, is who I am.
When the plane landed in Masir-E-Sharif, Afghanistan, I had come to accept my fate, whatever that fate may be—for I vowed that I would not dishonor my God, my family or my country.
When the door to the airplane swung open, I was a man at peace with myself.
As we prepared to leave “the wire” for the first time, a white sign with red lettering said in English and Arabic, “Use of deadly force authorized here.” I let the deep meaning of that sink in, and then I looked at the big, beautiful sky above and felt closer to my father in that moment than I ever had before.