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Saturday, January 28, 2023

On Veterans Day, Reflections on a Long Flight Home from Our Long Fight

Dear readers,

I penned the following story, a yearly share among family and loved ones, while sitting in the cargo hold of a giant USAF C-17 on the way home from Afghanistan in 2012. Eight hours to Germany from Bagram and another eight from Germany to Fort Bragg provided ample time to try to put into perspective the mixed feelings of coming home from another deployment, my fourth of what would become seven.

On Veterans Day, one of my favorite holidays, we celebrate those who have worn the cloth of our nation. I have often felt that for everyone in uniform that there were countless patriotic souls at home who make it possible for us to serve and do so without recognition. As a slightly different perspective to the usual holiday sentiments, I offer this short remembrance as a way to help those courageous loved ones at home better understand our feelings as we make our way back to their arms. They are all too often as perplexed by our behavior as we are. Sharing our unvarnished feelings is my meager attempt at self therapy and to help those at home better understand us.

I also offer a special debt of gratitude to Homeland Security Today for the honor of sharing this with their readers. There is a unique and unbreakable bond between the U.S. military and the citizens they serve. It is my sincere wish that today’s share of this story helps to strengthen that bond every bit as much as celebrating my fellow veterans. On the list of things I believe makes our nation unique and strong is first our founding values, but a very close second is the shared bond of sacrifice between those in uniform and those who love and support us.

I wish everyone a joyful and reflective celebration of this cherished holiday.

With kindest regards,

Paul Cobaugh


March 11-13, 2012

It is difficult to describe the mix of feelings returning from Deployment. Somehow though, it is important to me that I leave some insight into these feelings for my children and God willing, one day grandchildren. After more than 10 years of war, I just want America to glimpse, not just my world, but the world of those serving their country and each other so very far from home. Maybe, just maybe this glimpse will help bridge the ever-widening chasm between the headlines of Afghanistan and the living rooms at home. What follows is my perspective of that glimpse.

I am currently sitting in a web seat, lining the sides of a cavernous C-17 cargo plane, the belly of which is fully a basketball court long, a two-car garage wide and high enough to accommodate the roof line of a two-story house. I share this space intimately with 52 other service-members of all ranks, skills, shapes and sizes, mountains of equipment and giant pallets of duffle bags. Every one of these 52 souls leaving Afghanistan harbor their own intimate feelings of elation and impending relief from the turmoil and brutal chaos of what war has become in the 21st century. Some of these souls are returning from deployments in the double digits and some like my INTEL assistant returning from her first. I am fortunate, it is only my 5th, although the second straight Christmas rotation in Afghanistan. It is a myriad of thoughts that occupy the sleepless and sleeping thoughts and dreams of the 53 of us. Let’s also not forget, the aircrew who are on God only knows how many of these flights the past 10 years.

The floor of this Cargo Giant is strewn with most of our numbers in a variety of blankets, sleeping bags or any other device soft and warm enough to offer some level of relief from the freezing and miserably hard metal floor of the cargo bay. Most are sleeping by virtue of the issued and requisite hand-out of Ambien while for the rest of us, sheer exhaustion suffices. Some have spent a year in Afghanistan while some of us 6, 9 and 4-month tours. These souls represent virtually every niche of American life. Some were raised with privilege and have acquired degrees from institutions whose pedigrees under normal circumstances would confer immediate and profitable employment. Then there are those of us with a smattering of educational backgrounds from less prestigious institutions or with no formal post high-school education at all, save military training. We are small town, big city, immigrant and other-wise. All we share in common is a commitment to an ideal and each other. This may be a simple concept to those who’ve never “been there done that” but it is an irrevocable bond and supersedes all else for those that have. For this reason alone, we are exhausted but content. Outside our community this is difficult to fathom, while inside it goes without saying. This is our plane, our world and for at least the 8 hours to Germany and then 8 hours to North Carolina everything is enmeshed in a temporary, grateful and tenuous peace.

We started this flight as do most flights in our community, in darkness. Oddly, we have become adept at darkness, part bat, part cat and occasionally referred to as vampires. It is now as normal to me while deployed as is daylight at home. We departed from a muddy, musty camp that has changed little, or more accurately, improved little in the ten years we’ve spent in this war. The plywood huts provided by Sea Bees are nearly as old as the war, never having been swept of the summer Bagram dust or having seen the mattresses turned on the transient bunk beds stuck in the corners of plywood cubicles with blanket doors that serve our erratic sleeping needs. I cannot complain though. They are dry, mostly warm and provide me access to washers and dryers and the chow hall across the street serving up some rendition or concoction that passes as a meal. I have had worse in many corners of this country as well as Iraq and a few other less than hospitable corners of the globe. Warm, dry and fed is as close to perfect as it gets until we set foot back on US soil.

We are approximately an hour from Ramstein and as I scan across the mass of bodies it is apparent the Ambien is wearing off. Slowly there appears more space between sleeping bodies to be stepped over to make way to the one bathroom in the front of the cargo space. Jugs or thermoses of water hang from one wall that help us recover from the relative dehydration of our 8-hour flight. We’ve been told we’ll have several hours in Germany. Not enough to leave the base but just enough to sleep on a different cot and shower in a non-temporary structure. It seems we obsess over sleep and food and maybe this is true but a soldiers’ needs are immediate and simple. Maybe this also is why we are so darn grateful for anything beyond simple. This being my 5th deployment I can say with certainty that everything beyond the basics at home will render me with eternal gratitude.

I can name on two hands the simplest of concepts that I am in reverence for when first returning home. To most Americans they are trivial at best and eccentric or crazy at worst. Most of my colleagues share these precise eccentricities. Though I will not name them all, a few are things like; real silverware, a hot shower without shower shoes, a choice of recognizable and quality food for dinner, waking in your own bed and knowing where you are, driving off of your property without a full contingent of armed and wary colleagues while constantly being in contact with those that will rescue you in case the trouble you are seeking materializes into more than the expected. Life without the incessant noise from helicopters, planes and generators is also quite high on my list. Hell, more simply put, just plain old fashioned quiet and privacy is always near the top of my list of luxuries.

We are oddly perplexed when those on the U.S. end of a cherished phone call express overt frustration at the supermarket being out of their favorite wine or salad dressing. It’s not jealousy because we chose our fate, but more of just how detached most of America is from the mud, misery and danger of our day to day existence. It’s not that they don’t care and we are certain of their gratitude, but how would it be possible for them to really understand? As a matter of fact, by this point in this war, we are often just as confused by what we’re doing “in country” as what most Americans are doing at home. Surely, someday politicians will apply real common sense regarding the human, financial and moral treasure we’re hemorrhaging so far from home. In the mean-time we just soldier on.

As we draw nearer Germany, those of us who’ve made this journey before start to conjure in our minds the expectant smell of moisture in the atmosphere nurturing the long missed green of trees and grass. Slowly, the pairs of boots lining the sleeping bodies once again find the feet they belong to. Having just spent months with boots on our feet for an average of 16 hours per day or more correctly the nights which we work, removing your boots and sleeping 8 hours straight is a gift from the God we’ve all sought for protection every minute of every day since we stepped onto Afghan soil. Across the expanse of the fuselage I notice two soldiers in uniforms every bit as dirty and disheveled as mine cheerfully exchanging a Snickers bar for Skittles from the box lunches we were provided. I seize on this thought and manage the coup of exchanging my Snickers for my teammate’s peanut M&Ms. So much joy to be had in a simple treat. Yes, this subtle sign of pleasure is a good indicator that we are drawing further and further from war. Cautiously, but more regularly now we start thinking ahead to breakfast in Newfoundland when we land for fuel and the almost unbelievable thought which is the first foot on the North Carolina tarmac after landing at Fort Bragg.

My basic story-line is little different than the other 52 souls rising from the less than inviting floor of the aircraft to reassemble their belongings. We all return to lives, families and the individual details of each. There are though, hidden and unspoken highs and lows regarding all that we’ve missed while gone. My past 5 months have been a special kind of hell between war and the nightmares of all that can go wrong at home while away yet again. This is a different story though and the details irrelevant to the point of this essay. As the Ambien wears off, we all start to allow those details to once again seep into our consciousness. Focusing on home while deployed is a dangerous preoccupation and a disservice to your brethren in arms.

Relief is now giving way to gratitude and can be seen most visibly in more open smiles, jocularity and a subtle lightness perceptible to only war weary veterans. My thoughts here always turn to the youngest amongst us. How will they explain their thoughts and feelings? How do they explain the ill placed tears to their friends and family’s? I, after all my deployments still have no answer to these questions. We all find our own unique mechanisms for coping. Most are like me though, not wishing to burden those at home with feelings incomprehensible to them. I cope by locking away my feelings until I step into Texas and find my way to a little 5-acre plot of land my heart has deemed safe. There is where I will let down, cry frequently and hard. I will also smile, bask in the sun while committing myself to ‘work therapy’ outside. I will listen to music differently by allowing myself to divine the meaning of lyrics and soaking up the pure unadulterated beauty in a movement of Beethoven. There is no beauty in war save the camaraderie of extraordinary colleagues and friends. Beauty is for the home-front and there alone.

These are the rapid-fire thoughts and feelings as we prepare to put our feet down on friendly soil. These thoughts merely scratch the surface but must suffice. The complexity of the thoughts of homecoming like any intense feeling must be experienced to be accurately perceived. I write here now only as a contribution to my own self therapy and so that those I share this with at home, may have a better understanding of what their loved ones are thinking and feeling.

Finally, I’m looking forward to removing the earplugs insulating me from the incessant drumming of the big C17 engines and returning my sleeping bag to the clips on my backpack. Peace is very near now and I want to be ready. I want to drink it in, ensure the youngsters do the same and turn my thoughts to home. Blessings and gratitude are the feelings that prevail… finally.

Paul Cobaugh
Mr. Paul Cobaugh retired from the US Army as a Warrant Officer after a distinguished career in the US Special Operations CT community, primarily focused on mitigating adversarial influence and advancing US objectives by way of influence. Throughout his career he has focused on the centrality of influence in modern conflict whether it be from extremist organisations or state actors employing influence against the US and our Allies. Post military career he was offered and accepted the position of Vice President at Narrative Strategies, a US based Think-Do Tank which specializes in the non-kinetic aspects of conflict. He has also co-authored, Soft Power on Hard Problems, Hamilton Publishing, 2017 and Introduction to Narrative Warfare: A Primer and Study Guide, Amazon, 2018

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