Goodbye Afghanistan ... finally

By John Toth

I’m writing this in advance because that’s how weeklies are done … in advance. But if everything goes according to plan, yesterday, Jan. 3, my younger son, Bobby, left Bagram Air Force base in Afghanistan and is now somewhere in the former Soviet Union waiting to fly home.

It’s been a long six months, dear readers. I know that we are lucky that it has only been six months. Some assignments are longer. The Air Force, however, rotates in and out every six months.

Bobby is a medical technician, soon to be a part-time college student while he continues to serve our country at the Keesler Air Force Base hospital in Biloxi, MS. For the last six months, his group’s mission was to treat the wounded flown to Bagram and prepare those severely wounded for the flight to Germany, where they can receive long-term treatment.

I remember the day he told us he received orders to ship out for six months to Afghanistan, and I must admit that I wasn’t the happiest camper in the world. I thought that my parents, who made it through WWII and a revolution, were going to be the last ones in our family to see war, and then my son was preparing to fly straight into it.

I’m not much of a war person, although I realize that they are sometimes unavoidable. His girlfriend, Brooke, also in the Air Force and based at Keesler, posted pictures as Bobby put his bags on the bus and posed with her and other friends. Behind those smiles was the realization that for six months life would be totally different for both of them.

Often, it’s easier on the one being shipped out because they stay busy in a war zone. Those left behind start counting the days on day one (which is a very long and empty day). In the beginning, those six months seem like eternity.

One nice thing about war zones (if you can call anything nice over there) these days is that it’s so easy to communicate. Bobby and I messaged on Google and Skype almost daily. There is a limit as to what he can say, but we just talked about stuff. Nothing major. Just the daily stuff.

War the way he saw it is not as dangerous as it used to be, but you never know what can happen in that crazy country. The Taliban can infiltrate a base with a suicide bomber, or a shooter, and just start killing whoever is in the way.

Almost every time we talked, I told him to be careful. “Do your best, but don’t let your guard down. Don’t make a mistake.”

The running joke was that the Taliban seems to have a thing for the laundromat on base because they blew it up. I told Bobby to stay clean. Every now and then when we talked, he hit the deck. A rocket landed too close for comfort. Those things make a lot of noise when they explode.

Anyway, each day we talked, the easier it got. We both settled into a routine. After a while I started thinking that he is in no great danger. He didn’t go out on missions, and the rockets shot into the base seemed like they were shot at random. All he had to do was not be where they landed.

If we didn’t hear from him for a day, I e-mailed him asking if he was O.K. He almost always e-mailed right back saying he was fine, but busy.

So what does a soldier do on his days off if he cannot leave the base for six months? He gets Internet service. In Bobby’s case, he went cyber shopping and found some great deals. He also worked out at the gym, watched TV and played video games.

One of his friends posted some pictures on Facebook a month or so ago of his group hanging out around one of the hangars. It was a pleasant fall, sunny day.

They were messing around, hamming it up for the camera. Most of them were about the same age as Bobby, in their early 20s.

It made me feel proud that Bobby is part of this group. These kids (kids to me, anyway) have an important job, and they do it well every day. Behind those youthful faces are the serious soldiers who put themselves in harm’s way.

The pictures also eased my mind a little about his surroundings. Bagram is a massive base with about 30,000 people. It used to be an old Soviet base, abandoned when the Soviets pulled out. We moved in and built it up.

I turned on the TV one day and saw that President Obama landed at Bagram. I emailed Bobby asking him if he got a chance to go to the hangar where the president was speaking.

A few hours later, I got a reply. “He missed a chance to meet me,” Bobby wrote. “It was my day off.”