It was a Saturday night. I was about fourth or fifth in line at the gas station. It was roughly 9:30 p.m. so it was busy. I glanced left down the row of registers. There was an old man buying two cartons of cigarettes. Behind him were two girls dressed for a night out on the town. The brunette had on a black mini skirt with knee-boots and a velvety-blue/purple sleeveless blouse. It was real shiny. The blonde wore black stretch pants, a halter top and heels. They looked pretty dolled-up and ready to go somewhere fun. I wore a fresh pair of trousers and my jacket. They were fashionably in the Desert-Combat Uniform color. It complimented my desert tan boots. I glanced right and noticed at the end of the line was a young private and corporal dressed similarly. Both had the exact same look on their face, one that I imagined I wore as well; eyes focused low almost to the floor, shoulders arched slightly forward as if the weight of some unimaginable load was being bore. A blank stare with lips tightly pressed. I focused back on my hands. I held a bottle of water. My eyes caught the impulse rack as I took a step forward in line. I guess I’ll buy a candy bar or something, better do it now while I can. I picked one out and went back to staring straight ahead. The man in front of me looked to be about twenty-two. He had on baggy pants and a basketball jersey with a ball cap turned around backwards. His purchase was a bottle of liquor. This is a typical Saturday night for the Fort Lewis gas station. I glanced back at the two girls thinking to myself that being on the military post, they obviously were someone’s wives or daughters. Or they were themselves soldiers. Whoever they were, they were of age to at least go out and party the night away. And they sure as hell weren’t going to Iraq tonight. Either way, whoever they were, they were the last pretty thing I saw before I left.
I paid for my purchases and walked out into the crisp dark October night. I got back into the pickup truck of the guy who was my ride – of which I still don’t remember his name. He was a friend of a friend doing me a favor. Everybody else I knew was either already gone, getting ready to go, or didn’t leave for a week yet and so they were on vacation. My best friend in the world and room mate (also named Matt) being the latter. He had left me alone in our place to go back to Pittsburgh with his fiancé DeeDee. His unit, 1-24 Infantry wasn’t in the chute to deploy for another two weeks. We spent some nice time together but come my deployment weekend, he had to go back to Pittsburgh to be with his family. That’s really the place people should be at that time. So through the grapevine a friend of a guy at work swung by my house and picked me up just after nine. I had already sold my truck and was making final arrangements packing up at our apartment that weekend. Matt would finish the rest when he got back, right before he too would deploy. We made our way to the Troop area and he dropped me off. I thanked this total stranger for the ride. “No problem, just take care and be safe” he replied. I got my bags from the bed of the truck and did my best to wave as he pulled away, being weighed down by a backpack, carry-on pack and a duffle bag around each shoulder with one still on the ground at my feet. I did my best waddle/drag over to the back door of the Troop and a few soldiers helped me drop my things. I went and reported in. The atmosphere was calm. We had known for months now that we would be deploying to Iraq. And all the training and the preparation up to this point still didn’t make it seem any more a reality than it did tonight as we loaded the baggage trucks. People stood around and talked. Officers issued out orders, NCO’s carried them out. Checks and re-checks were conducted. A detail loaded all of the duffle bags into a large truck and it took off. I helped load the bags myself- regardless if I was a Lieutenant now I still enjoyed doing regular enlisted work. Working with my hands soothes me. It is something that I have direct control over, like I am my own boss.
Families stood around; wives, children and girlfriends all chatted the night away with their loved ones. I being single and with my only family still back in Pittsburgh decided to just lay low and let the rest of my coworkers and soldiers be with their loved ones. I sipped from my water and ate my candy bar. Thoughts of all kinds danced through my head. What was most fresh on my mind was that it was Saturday, 2 October. Not more than seven weeks ago Matt and mine’s best friend and brother-in-arms was killed by a roadside bomb. Neil, Matt and I all grew up together and had been good ‘old Pittsburgh Boys all of our lives. Best friends and brothers for life, we all followed our childhood dreams- we all joined the Army. We all went to college, and we all had become Officers. Neil was the first of any of us to deploy and he had been in Iraq when Matt and I received deployment orders; that our brigade would also join in the War on Terrorism and head for Iraq. By our informal count he was just thirteen days shy of returning home. He had volunteered to go on one last patrol with the unit he was replacing to help them and impart his final knowledge, and a 122mm artillery shell strapped atop a light post killed him instantly.
He had already seen some of the harshest fighting of the war and felt nothing but concern for Matt and I (being in the Stryker Brigade and he being a tanker with a heavy-armor brigade from Fort Riley) and expressed to us his worries, and tactics and lessons he learned to us in emails and letters. He was also three weeks shy of his 25th birthday. The funeral; the thousands of mourners that came out to pay respects; his widow; his parents who were so close to Matt and I that we considered them extensions of our own families – all flashed over and over again in my head as I stood in the parking lot. A young man in the prime of his life with absolutely everything going for him; gone in an instant. When they lowered the coffin into its place at Arlington I realized that I hadn’t seen Neil since his wedding, which was well before he deployed to Iraq. It had been almost two years even though we kept in touch by email and phone. But even being so long, I would never see my friend again as long as I walked this Earth. A few giggles and some sounds of kids being kids reminded me that I was not alone, and in fact was back from my memory of the past few weeks, and was at Fort Lewis now. I was also in the way of the busses that were now beginning to pull into the parking lot.
The Troop First Sergeant came out and gave the order to fall in. Men kissed their wives and hugged their children. Boyfriends kissed girlfriends and held them tight. The awkward few single soldiers such as myself mulled around and made their way past the couples transfixed on each other to the formation. Now is when the tears began to come out from what previously had been only a distant and far away imaginary thing – like something might have been wrong and this was all a terrible mistake; it’d get called off. It was time to go. Nervous laughs were replaced by shrieks and wails of sadness. Wives broke down as their husbands walked off with stoic solid faces that streamed tears of their own as they tried to act like they weren’t crying as well. As a collective whole, Charger Troop kissed their loved ones goodbye and fell-in. We loaded the busses and with heavy hearts and a solemn sense of the duty that lay before us. Amidst all the cheers, the shouts and the tears we drove off for the airfield.
In 78 days, 11 years ago, I left for my first deployment to Iraq;
In 28 days, 11 years ago, my best friend Neil Santoriello was killed in Khalidiyah, Iraq