On the Regarding War blog, soldiers, veterans, and journalists will share their stories from Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones. It will feature personal stories and opinions from those who have first-hand knowledge of past and current conflicts. Those at home directly affected by a family member serving in the military will also contribute. The blog is meant to be a place where ideas are exchanged and experiences are related in an effort to gain a better understanding of the realities and effects of war. Share your thoughts, raise a question, and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
Across the Longfellow Bridge, spanning the Charles River from Boston's Beacon Hill, is the Kendall-MIT "T" station. At night, the lights on the Red Line cars coming over the bridge give the illusion that the train is flying over the river into Cambridge. It's one of the few sights that brings a smile to my face after a long time away. A clear sign: I'm home.
The station is 13 blocks away from my parents' apartment, and I usually make the stroll in about 10-15 minutes. On this particular day, I walked a little slower. I felt out of place in the blue jeans and hoodie sweatshirt hugging my body. The soft fabric and solid colors felt different on my skin from its typical cage of digital camouflage and fire retardant cloth.
The station was empty, but surely not void of fun. Inspired by students at MIT, it's the only train station I know that has wonders of mechanical engineering hanging from the ceiling, fully operable by stranded MBTA passengers on the platform. I fiddled around with one of the handles, causing a pendulum at the center of the train tracks to strike a suspended xylophone. The metallic harmony resonated through the station. I couldn't remember the last time I had felt this sensation of being completely alone, being on my own. I sighed in delight.
"Attention passengers, the next Red Line train to Alewife is now arriving," came over the speakers. The rattle of the silver train cars brought with them a cold river breeze into the station. I stepped into a car, grabbed a metal rod, and began the journey to Harvard Square. As the train descended into its tunnel, the internal lights dimmed and gave way for the most ridiculous ad placement idea known to man. Lining the walls of the Boston Red Line tunnels are hundreds of flat screen HDTVs, each playing the same commercial. The train zooms by at 40 miles an hour. The effect is a surreal flip-book commercial showing off the latest in Chevy Malibus and Florida orange juice.
I began shifting my weight with the rhythm of the train car. To either side of me were young Harvard students dressed in baggy sweats, texting away on their iPhones and this new thing called an Android. I tried my best to hover my eyes over their new technologies to get a glimpse of the electronic euphoria awaiting my redeployment to the U.S. My intrusion was unwelcomed; the two students gave me a suspicious stare and shirked me away. I walked across the aisle of the train and sat down on an empty seat, again finding myself in solitude. A happy couple sat off to the rear of the car, taking snapshots of themselves bundled in their warm winter parkas. The flash from their cameras lit up the train.
"Entering Harvard Square, doors will open on the left." A seemingly normal journey on the train came to an end. I beat the two Harvard students to the door and walked onto the platform, panting.
My heart beat raced with the rhythm of a high-speed train. My neck twisted rigidly like an owl as my eyes hunted for an exit. I needed to get out. I folded my arms across my chest, trying to contain the heart pulsating out of my ribcage. C'mon now, deep breaths kid... wheew...
I finally found my escape to the streets of Harvard Square. A cloud of cigarette smoke filled my lungs as I stood against the brick lining of the Square, trying to listen to my body. What the hell just happened here?
The truth is that, after eight months in Afghanistan, even such a simple trip on the Boston metro triggers severe emotions that have become my default reactions to key stimuli. While a third party viewing my actions sees the preceding story, my mind saw it like this:
From Kendall Square, the train descends into the dark tunnel. The lights go out. A flash from TVs outside the train cars grips my heart and throws it into my stomach as I am reminded of the flashes of muzzle fire from late-night missions in Zhari District. The dark tunnel and illuminated commercials give an immediate sensation of high-speed travel down Afghanistan's Highway One. My mind goes back to Kandahar. I lean forward in my hatch and hug the train pole.
Holy shit, cell phone! The guy next to me is typing away on his mobile — and there's two of them, in the same car. Is this coincidence? What the hell is going on here? How do I simply stand still when the Taliban's primary means of communication is in use right before me? Is it a satellite phone? Who the hell is he talking to?
Wait a minute, you're not in Kandahar, you're in Massachusetts. You're not in Zhari, you're in Cambridge. Chill the fuck out, Rajiv.
I leap to the other side of the train car, have a seat, and bury my eyes in the heels of my hands. I'm given a double take from the other passengers. That student from Harvard was still on his cell phone. I think of radio-controlled IEDs. I think of the thousand terrible things I've seen done with a cell phone. God, I just want to get off this train.
FLASH! My eyes close as I braced myself for the shockwave. I bring my hands to my ears, hoping to feel only the reverberation of a distant blast. But nothing comes. I see the flash in my peripheral vision. I know it is there. I turn around to see the couple taking pictures of themselves in the dim light. The flash is quick and eye-grabbing, like an IED blast at night. Wait, didn't I just see that guy on the cell phone? A radio-controlled IED? I'm going to kill that guy. The rhythm of the train tracks pats my eardrums like the rotors of a medevac bird hovering overhead. I have got to get off this train.
"Entering Harvard Square, doors will open on the left." This is ridiculous. I need to come back to earth. I storm out of the train, panting.
Even with a week of leave under my belt, my eyes continue to operate with a filter. There's the perception of the reality around me, and there's the programmed response left behind in my logic from another life. What do I do when something like a cell phone, which would trigger an immediate kinetic response in Afghanistan, is now in full saturation back home in the United States?
I stood for nearly 10 minutes at Harvard Square regaining my senses. The wind continued to beat my face, reminiscent of rotorwash from the dozens of medevac birds I've seen take off in the past eight months. The cold air froze my face and lips to stone. I was frigid. I didn't want a hug. I didn't want to talk. The only thing I craved was a sense of normalcy. Whether it was moving from West Point to the Army, from the East Coast to the West Coast, or from America to Afghanistan, I have been out of my element for the vast majority of my military career. I miss feeling at home. I miss feeling... normal.
I don't have PTSD. I am not crazy. But I'm not the same. I don't want to come back from Afghanistan completely unchanged, but I long for a feeling of comfort. I want to feel normal. I wondered for a moment if the only way I'll ever feel a sense of normalcy again is if I go, well, back to Afghanistan. Maybe I need to go back. Maybe I want to go back?
I pushed off the brick surface of the commons and walked toward John Harvard's Bar on a narrow alleyway from the Square. I didn't know what the past few minutes had implicated for the rest of my R&R leave — or even the rest of my life.
The night was young. Handsome men and beautiful girls were crowding Boston nightlife, and I had a circle of friends waiting for me inside to toast my safe return. But I didn't feel right. After a rather rough ride on the Red Line, I wasn't thrilled about walking into this bar knowing my friends were all going to ask, "So, what's it like over there?"
1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, served as a platoon leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan