Saturday, June 28, 2008

Emergency Leave

I was working on my Iraqi Media Report, gathering information and compiling it for the night's distribution, when Captain Edwards came up looking for me. He said a woman was on the phone looking for me. She said it was important. Edwards works in the Division Operation Center, a classified area. The only person who had the number to call there from the States is Heather, and she knows to call only if an emergency. I walked down the steps and hurried to the phone, my heart calm but my veins tight. I wondered if this was just an "I miss you terribly call."

"This is Staff Sgt. Sauret speaking," I said into the receiver.



"It's me."



"What's going on?" A tremble took over my voice.

She spoke calmly. Told me she had been at the hospital with IV sticking out of her arms. She was home now, recuperating. Then she explained that something terrible had happened.

"It's okay. I'm right here. I'm right here for you. It's okay. Are you okay?"

She started bawling into the phone, and I could hardly hold myself.

"I'm right here for you," I said, feeling like a liar because I was nowhere but away, far, far away, nowhere close to hold her or hug her.

I felt my chest pumping quick bursts of air, breathing fast and in quivers. I spoke as calmly as my lips would allow, but tears swelled in my eyes, and I had to clutch the desk in order to remain standing.

As I hung up, I turned with my eyes soaked and Major Spagel and Edwards looked at me.

"Sgt. Sauret, what's wrong?"

I couldn't speak. I could hardly hold my breath. I put my hands behind my head because I felt my lungs might collapse with the weight of my arms if I hung them by my side. I pulled Spagel aside, and all I could muster was a whisper. I told him what happened in one sickening phrase.

"What did you say?"

But he heard me. He had me sit down, and I think it was more for the shock the news brought to him than to me because I could have remained standing and never even known it. I felt I was swimming in a fog. I told him whatever details I knew.

"I'm sorry, I don't know what to say," he said.

I didn't know either.

"How could this happen?" I asked, not expecting him to answer. "How could something so ugly happen?"

"I've tried to understand things like that," he said. "At one point, when I was struggling with my faith, it was always the question of bad things happening to good people that made it hard for me. My wife and I, we had gone through some counseling and I spoke to our pastor long ago, and he said it's a matter of free will. I never understood that. How God can let bad things happen to his people."

"It's not God I blame," I said. "We're the ones who do this. We're the ones who defy God and do sickening, ugly things to our own."

"You should go home to your wife," he said.

"I just got here."

"That doesn't matter. We all love you."

Before I knew it, Spagel and 1SG Speaks worked on getting me home to see Heather. They made calls to the hospital and coordinated travel with the Red Cross. I was in so much shock, I just returned back to work because I didn't know what else to do. The hours slipped, and I took no notice of where they went. Before I knew it, my watch approached 2200 hrs. Spagel said a flight would leave around 0330, but now it was up to the Battalion commander to grant my leave as an emergency. Spagel posed my case before him, telling him that my wife needed comforting and there was no way I could do so from 6,000 miles away. There was always the option of using up my R&R leave and still go home, but doing so would mean I would not be able to plan a vacation with Heather this coming December. That would mean no trip to Italy or Hawaii depending on where we decided to go.

Either way I was coming home. I waited for the decision in a waiting room upstairs of the Headquarters area. We watched the Shawshank redemption, and it was the scene where Red realizes Dufrain has escaped prison. Then Red goes before the board to see if they will grant him reinstatement into the world.

Finally the Battalion commander called us into the office, shook my hand and granted me the Emergency Leave. The entire trip home was a blur because I was so emotionally spent, I slept through much of it. I traveled from Baghdad International Airport, to Ali al-Salem (in Kuwait), from there they checked my paperwork and a Sgt. 1st Class said they might not let me go because the commander signature looked forged. I didn't say anything. I just went through the process and prayed for the best. In Ali al-Salem, I was sent from one tent to another to get paperwork stamped and get my itinerary coordinated. Finally they gave me a Go.

A rampant dust storm had taken over the base. The wind was so strong that you could lean into it standing and you wouldn't fall. Sand and dust blew into my face, finding their way into the gaps of my teeth and past my sunglasses into my eyes. It hurt to keep my eyes open. I walked toward the tent where I would wait for my bus, and the wind was so strong I had to fight through it. Every step was a lurch of my entire body. I walked with my eyes closed because sand would just blow into them, and without knowing it, I banged my head against a sign in the middle of the walkway. It hurt like heck. Once I got to the waiting tent, I never left it until the bus came because the wind was so strong. I was amazed any flight would even go out in that weather.

I waited some six hours on a bench for a bus to arrive, taking me to the Kuwait City airport. The airport was huge, and everywhere I went I saw men in bright blue and orange uniforms with what looked like paper hats pushing carts and directing people. Men in white robes walked with their families. Some of the younger men wore contemporary clothing... T-shirts and jeans. Some women wore black shawls that showed only their eyes, while other women showed their faces and most of their bodies were covered, and others more wore tight fitting clothes that you would expect from western women dressing moderately. It was a culture in the midst of a mix.

On the plane I sat next to an old woman with deep groves in her face who spoke no English, but tried to communicate with gestures and raspy breaths. She was cute and I helped her with the tray-table or TV-monitor that pulled out from the arm rest. At one point she made gestures and I helped her with her blanked, pulled out the monitor and the table tray when at last I realized all she wanted to know was the time. I showed her my watch because I didn't know how to give the time in Arabic, and promised myself I would get a dictionary or find one of those Arabic booklets the Army gave us for the next time I traveled.

All the while I thought of Heather and tried to fight back the tears.

The flight stretched across the ocean and lasted 14 hours, landing in D.C. From D.C. I waited a few more hours and took a short connection to Pittsburgh. Once we landed, I came out the gate and drifted down the escalator. I saw Heather sitting quietly on a bench, staring ahead. She wore a loose Sunday-type dress that hung from her shoulders and a pair of jeans. Her short hair curled taut around her face. I walked toward her without saying a word. I had traveled in civilian clothes so she stared at me for a long few seconds before she realized it was me. She burst out of her seat and launched herself against my body and hugged me. She quivered in my arms, and it felt so good to hold her.

We talked a little in the car, and toward the end she said she wanted to put Saturday's events behind her. We had ten days to spend together, and she didn't want to talk about what happened any more. I said okay.

We drove toward her parents' house and I watched the hills rolling past us as we skimmed through the highway. It was so weird to be back so suddenly, in such a rush. It almost felt like I never left Pittsburgh... like I was never in Iraq.

I thought about the ten days the Army had granted us. Ten days felt like they would be an eternity then. What would we do with all that time? How many hours could we hope to fill and not waste away? Ten days were too many I thought. I should have asked for five. Five days might be okay, I thought. After five, we might come to the realization of how awkward it was for me to be back.

I told myself again and again that I was not here for myself. I was here for Heather and let her know I came to support her.

During my visit back, we drove out to Gettysburg and stood in awe at the sheer vastness of one of the Civil War's most stunning battlefields. We went out to eat dinner almost every night, caught a few movies, attended church, visited our Pastor at his home and later had dinner at my best man's house, James and his wife, Nicole. At church, several people told me how much they'd liked reading my blogs and emails, and I was touched by their compliments. It meant a lot to me knowing people read my words, and even more to know they actually enjoyed my writing. It was strange because these were only emails and blog entries, yet they too had some literary value. Every person I shook hands with said they were praying for us, and I never knew how to respond. Prayer was by far the greatest act of support we could receive, and I had nothing to give in return. I had already been praying for the sake of the Church and its members, but it would sound cheap to give that a response. So I just smiled back and said thank you.

The most memorable evening was the dinner we ate over James' and Nicole's house. Heather and I brought some pasta and chicken to cook, and after dinner, James pulled me outside for a walk. That gave a chance for Nicole and Heather to talk, but also for me and James.

You know those movie scenes you watch where the screen switches back and forth between the way women talk about guys, and the way married guys talk about their wives or how guys talk about women in general? Your typical conversation would show the women complaining that their husbands don't nurture their needs or listen, and the guys would complain about sex and wanting to be left alone on Sundays.

My conversation with James was nothing like that. Rather, we spoke tenderly of our wives, and of our duties in our household. James reaffirmed my role as a Christian man, and encouraged me to remain strong and loving with Heather. I spoke my worries and my fears and my frustrations as a young married man-- young both in age and in marriage. The main challenge has been that even though Heather and I have been married for 6 months now, we truly spent only a full month or so together living with one another. I spoke with James of my insecurities as a man, and of my wanting to do right by my bride but mostly right under God who is sovereign over our marriage. If I am to stand firm on principles, it's not for my own sake or for my own benefit, but only as an effort to stand strong on God's righteousness and none other.

It was really odd keeping an ear and hearing the way we were talking. No other 23 and 26 year old guys would talk this way about their marriage. I found it a little humorous, because I knew that if I were to copy our dialog and use it in one of my stories, there would be no way any reader would deem the conversation "believable" and yet we spoke so sincerely and with such humility. The difference, I felt, was that we were Christian and we saw this world under different standards. We as Christian men, seek manhood not in our control over our wives or in our financial standards, but in our sacrificial love towards our brides. This is not to say I'm a perfect husband, nor a great one... in fact; I feel that I'm still a very poor husband under many Christian standards, but I knew then that Heather and I had our problems just like any other married couple, but that we would move forward.

When we returned to the house it seemed Heather and Nicole, too, had had a good conversation. Somehow, I found that night as a kind of turning point for the better in our marriage, and I saw that my coming home on emergency leave had turned into a blessing in giving strength back to our young marriage.

Thursday night, Heather and I drove back to the airport ready to say our goodbyes, and when we came to the ticket counter the clerk told us the flight was delayed, so even if I caught the later flight I wouldn't be able to make my connection to Kuwait until Friday night. My options were pretty straight forward... either catch the flight anyway and spend 24 hours at the airport in D.C. or stay home for another night.

Heather cried with joy. She could hardly contain her smile. We celebrated by grilling two big steaks (though Heather's looked minuscule compared to the gigantic T-bone I picked for myself), with corn on the cob and baked potatoes. Rain thundered down on us, but the grill stood under an awning so we didn't care. We devoured our meal and I shared another night with my wife.

We finally did say our goodbyes the next day, and on my 12-hour flight back to Kuwait I would sleep for long stretches of time, and wake up thinking I was laying in bed with Heather. I would reach over to my right, only to whiff at an empty isle between rows of seating. I fell asleep again, and when I woke up this time I almost grabbed the thigh of the guy sitting to my left. Luckily I stopped myself just in time.

I'm now in Ali al-Salem, and the heat is immeasurable. Coming out of the Kuwait airport, I thought the heat might suffocate me. I had forgotten how dry it is. And only 11 days had passed since I was last here. It has definitely gotten hotter. Even though I was gone less than two weeks, it feels like months have slipped away since last standing in this heat.

Back in the desert, surrounded by tents, I felt a kind of sorrow and loneliness that I didn't expect being so powerful. I paced the base for hours, from one end to the other, thinking of ways not to miss Heather. But the truth is that I do, and I do, and I do. I miss her terribly, but I'm glad and thankful of having been able to spend this time with her and I hope to cherish it as we both move forward in our marriage.