After two months embedded in Afghanistan and 19 days in a hospital in Kuwait, I was packing to return to the States last week. I was practicing the out-with-the old-in-with -the-new approach.
I threw away nearly everything I’d worn in Afghanistan. My three Hane’s men’s v-neck white t-shirts were irrevocably dirty. I tossed one pair of torn pants and kept the other though they’d grown too big (not a bad thing.) I’d toss them when I could replace them. I’d already lost my favorite wool hat that I purchased at the Farmer’s Market in Newport, Oregon in the fall 2010 when my brother visited me from Germany.
Next, I packed the sweet Donna Karan party dress I’d purchased especially for the !st Battalion, 5th Infantry Regiment ball. I added a couple new dresses and several pair of new shoes, including a gorgeous pair of Michael Kors heels, again for the ball. (Thanks to Sarah for the shopping excursions and encouragement to “Just try it on.”) After wearing trousers, dirt and body armor, I was looking forward to putting on heels, skirts and dresses again.
When I had everything packed, I looked in the closet and discovered my sweater. My friend Jeanene had given me the sweater in Oregon a few years ago. I always seem to be in denial about the cold and don’t dress appropriately. She bought it for a few bucks at Good Will.
It’s not an attractive piece of clothing. It’s beige, bulky and tattered with holes. It makes me look eight-months pregnant when I wear it.. But it’s warm, made of a blend of wool and silk. And it was so cold in Afghanistan, I wore it all the time.
I wore it on every patrol under my body armor. At the end of my first month-long embed, Spc. Valerie Cronkhite, a medic and member of the Female Engagement Team, remarked that I’d been lucky. She noted that I’d been out on many missions and traveled significantly in Strykers and helicopters and hadn’t had any contact: no small arms fire, no IEDs. We had returned safely from every trip, every patrol. Her comment stuck with me.
On my second embed, the weather warmed and I continued to wear the sweater…at first, out of habit.
One day at Khenjakak, I was putting on my gear for a patrol with 3rd Platoon, Charlie Co. It was hot. I decided not to wear the sweater. I put the body armor over my t-shirt and left the Khenjakak Resort. I took about three steps and stopped. It didn’t feel right, not wearing the sweater. I didn’t want to risk the run of good fortune–not just for me, but for all the soldiers I was accompanying on patrol. It was a strong impulse…so I turned around, returned to the tent and put on my sweater.
I would not have thought I was superstitious. I remember covering the civil war in Liberia and the soldiers wore “gris-gris,” decorative bands of twisted hemp that they said made them bulletproof and invisible. I thought they were deluded…and dangerous.
I had talked with many soldiers about things they carried and rituals they might observe before patrols. (Inspired by one of my favorite books, “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien.)
Sgt. Robert Taylor, of 3rd Platoon, C Co., often carried a Vallon and took point on patrols. He repeated a specific prayer he created before every patrol. Spc. Mazzole Singeo, of 3rd Platoon, C. Co., also carried a Vallon. He said he told himself every time that he’d come back safe and he’d bring his soldiers back to their families. And he did.
Soldiers carried photos of their loved ones. One had a locket with his girlfriend’s picture. Another wore a grandmother’s cross. They carried tokens from their loved ones, tucked in a pocket or wore them around their necks.
I carried photos, too. Of my niece and nephew, so I could look at their bright smiles on the dark days. A photo of my mom holding me as a newborn, to feel all that beaming love when I felt alone.
And the sweater, go figure. I could not let go of that sweater. I tried to leave it in Kuwait. At the last minute, I stuffed it in my duffel bag with the body armor. I tried to ditch it in Oregon. Right now it simply feels wrong, ignoble, to abandon the sweater when it had served me so well.
In the end, when it’s came to following in the soldiers’ footsteps in Afghanistan, I became very superstitious. I’m keeping the sweater.
And, of course, I know it’s not the sweater that protected me. Life wrapped her arms around me and blessed me.
And the soldiers of the 1-5 took responsibility for me and shouldered that burden with good humor (most of the time.)
They took me along with them and brought me back, every time.