Tuesday, February 14

Guerilla Romance

The first phone call was always going to be emotional. Not that we'd been locked away that long. Three weeks of pre-selection followed by roughly two months in basic training (the first being spent at the infamous "farm") was hardly a lifetime chronologically speaking, but man did it seem eternal for each of us 46 newly-crowned Legionnaires. The hierarchy finally caved, an evening at the regiment's foyer/bar being authorized. Beers and food items didn't interest us so much, however (although we didn't refuse them either!). Rather it was the tantalizing carrot in the form of the chance to phone home dangling invitingly before our twitching noses that caught our attention, like a rustling sweet wrapper to a spoilt puppy. International phone cards were bought by the truckload. We struggled desperately to remain in formation as we arrived before the doors of the foyer, the long line of pay-phones lying excruciatingly visible through the glass panes. The corporal ordered us to fall-out, and the manic surge ensued.

Queues quickly formed, but advanced at soul-destroying speed. The smiles and tears of the men before us enhanced both our anticipation and frustration. I rehearsed what I was going to say when someone picked up on the other end. The myths laid to rest, the anxiety appeased, the questions both parried and peppered, demanding every ounce of merited gossip from back home in my dear old Dublin town. When the connection was finally achieved, I felt such overwhelming relief. Relief at hearing my family on the other end. Relief at hearing their relief that I was safe and sound and thriving in this strange and harshly exotic environment. The health and well-being of friends and family quickly switched to the latest in politics, obituaries and Arsenal's progress in the league (actually, the last two probably could've been grouped together!). By the end, I was nothing short of euphoric. Most of the guys displayed similarly ecstatic demeanors by the end of their respective conversations. But not quite all of them.

We were crowded around the high round tables, beers scattered chaotically, all still lost in gushing conversation regarding our calls home when Sam arrived at the table. An affable Iranian, fluent English speaker and formidable Muay Thai instructor, his was one of the least expected resolves to crumble before our very eyes. But crumble it (and he) did. Now I've seen people cry before, sometimes from joy, mostly from distress or sorrow. But when the thumb and index finger of a single hand do that thing, that thing where they poke themselves so deeply into the eye sockets that one could believe they were trying to push the eyes themselves far enough back for the tears to dry before they even saw the light of day, THAT is a powerfully unsettling sight.

"My wife want's a divorce".

Silence, shuffling, uncomfortable looks towards our shiny leather boots or into the foam-filled abyss of the empty tankard, but nothing could enable us to fully connect with his pain. In hindsight, it seemed almost comical given the absurd setting and starkly contrasting atmosphere serving as backdrop. As shoulder pats and hair-rustlings were administered in the most non-patronizing way possible, the murmurs slowly climbed back to their previous levels as some dove in to the subject at hand.

"Sure what did he expect?" was the more popular shared opinion. 

Most nodded in agreement. Some shifted awkwardly, their own thoughts floating back across oceans to semi-forgotten promises and even further faded faces. Having myself cut all romantic ties before joining, I have to admit that I ended up snuggled cosily in the "Told You So" camp. Sure what DID he expect? The military lifestyle isn't exactly conducive to a healthy, lasting relationship. Or so I thought.

Well, three years on and not much has changed in my belief system. If anything, it's been further reinforced by some ill-advised dalliances with French girls prone to calling me up in the middle of the night demanding promises of fidelity. They might have been considerably less suspicious and eventually reassured had they seen the hairy 90kg snoring Russian spooning my frost-covered sleeping bag. In any case, I decided enough was enough. Rationale, cynicism, fear, whatever the underlying cause poking provocative fingers up through my sub-conscious to push mischievously on all the right (or wrong) buttons, the old "Célibataire" stamp on the forehead has never burned brighter than during these present times. Being a legionnaire is a double-edged sword in the dating game. Initially inspiring a sense of wonder and excitement in the opposite (and same, actually) sex, it gradually gives way to an aggressively terminal boredom caused by all the weekends lost to regimental service, the weeks spent in the field, the months overseas and the coveted holidays invested unequivocally in trips back to home countries. That doesn't leave much time for a Gallic partner-in-crime then.

Conversely, I still fling all my balls up in the air (ahem!), attempting a precarious juggling act involving desires for it all and promises of nothing. It can only ever take me so far. A long-term monogamous relationship appears the holy grail when considered from a blood-and-dust filled hovel half way around the world. The dream soon becomes the nightmare however as random house parties, nights out clubbing or sessions along the sun-soaked canal provide both ample opportunities to meet new girls and simultaneously grudging weights dragging us away from any risk of promiscuity. It might seem more a universal crux on the male of the species than anything particular to Legionnaires, but then our free time is so limited, so precious that a primal need to partake in anything resembling copulatory activity over-rides all other system settings. Better that no-one else remains in the picture to get hurt, n'est-ce pas? Or perhaps it is we who fear being hurt, getting that clichéd call or text from the significant other breaking the news. 

This isn't working out. 

I can't do this anymore. 

It's over.

Is it not better to avoid all that water-treading, the unfulfilled promises, the cancelled weekends and curt, regrettably ended late-night phone calls? Better to be single, free, alone.

Better, perhaps. But for whom…….?

Sunday, February 5

Powder Dreams

I miss Afghanistan. There, I said it. 

Almost ten months have passed since I returned to Europe, to France, to Ireland, to civilization, and yet little has changed, little has advanced. Like a slowly-souring relationship whose flame was anguishingly extinguished in a floundering, flatulent, apologetic breath, my remaining time here in the Legion holds no shimmering hope-filled horizons other than that final one, the edge over which I shall eventually trip and fall back into the rhythms and stresses of civilian life to replace those finding themselves evermore loathed with each completed day added to the archive of all things "Military Service". It seems rather unfathomable, given the desperation and relief experienced in the final few weeks of a grueling six-month tour in eastern Afghanistan. What on earth could I possibly miss?

For one, I miss the scorching sun beating down on my helmet as it peered carefully out over the length of my .50 cal, along a dust-drenched barrel stretching into barren valleys overflowing with emptiness. I miss the simplicity of a soldier's life over there. A soldier over there has two things to focus on; the mission and the downtime. The mission, no matter what it was, was a glorious thing, shepherding your senses into a neatly symmetric pen of controlled adrenaline, a list of objectives, radio codes, targets, routes, friendly and enemy positions, water, food and ammunition stocks and consumption, all compacted in to a blinking thought as the armored vehicle hurtled along dirt tracks and through irrationally menacing villages. The downtime meant a chance to enjoy the luxuries of washing underwear, shaving your head, exercising and perhaps watching a movie or two or reading the next couple of chapters of a book.

No more, no less. Simple. I maintain that Afghanistan was both the toughest and most rewarding time of my career in the Legion. Never have I felt so exhausted, strained, drained and detached from my friends and family back home. Simultaneously, I have never felt more like a professional soldier, a Legionnaire in the truest sense. A worthy price, perhaps, to justify these five years I'll have spent in the Legion. At the very least, I'll always have those six months to validate whatever amount of fucking around, time wasting and muddled administration gets flung like so many rotten vegetables at me throughout my service.

But does this make me a Legionnaire? Does this make me worthy of the famous Képi Blanc? Compared to some of the excuses for soldiers lining up for morning assembly, maybe. But compared to others, not even remotely. And so I'm lead to the question "Who IS worthy?". Who is worthy of championing, of newspaper articles and photos, of early promotion, of posthumous decoration? Does an entire platoon who comes into enemy contact a dozen or so times during an operational tour deserve to have each individual within its ranks receive the croix de la valuer militaire when, for others, it takes a life-threatening shrapnel wound from an RPG followed by immediate repatriation? Does a soldier, shot down unarmed during a morning physical training session, deserve the same accolades as one who went out in a blaze of bullets in the white heat of a fire-fight with insurgents? Or what about an avalanche; a detached sheet of snow and ice crashing down on the unsuspecting heads of a group of soldiers while out skiing in the Alps? Hardly Hollywood's depiction of a warrior's demise.

Then again, such events only depict how the life was ended, not how it was lived. Chef Simeonov was a fine superior, one of the first I encountered more than three years ago while trying desperately to grasp the basic concepts of skiing. Three years later and word of his death reached us as we were returning from our latest attempt at conquering the slopes. My technique was vastly improved from the last time he screamed venomously at me, outraged at the titters and giggles from onlooking girls as I snow-ploughed my way down one hundred metres of green-level slopes to avoid falling over. I'm sure he would've been pleased at my progress to-date. Gunned down while working out in his sports gear at a combat outpost in Afghanistan by an insurgent disguised as a member of the Afghan National Army, I guess he'll never have the chance to witness it now.

We didn't all return from the recent skiing trip, though, with some staying on in anticipation of the beginning of their team-leader course - a far more intense endeavour requiring a far higher technical level where skiing is concerned. I certainly wasn't ready to be included in that category. Sokol was, though. Sokol, with whom my American buddy and I spent two months negotiating the infuriating and physically shattering Stage Caporal. A young Polish guy with a ropey grasp of French yet an indefatigable capacity to smile through even the toughest conditions. He was the only fatality in a devastating avalanche a few days ago that hospitalized several others with shock, hypothermia and frostbite. Even if I had made a concerted effort to meditate over just how much I might miss him if he was gone, it wouldn't have brought my estimation even remotely close to the reality now that he is.

Perhaps there is no ideal way to go. Perhaps there is no solid definition of a true warrior, an exemplary soldier, un vrai legionnaire. Five years is an extremely long-term investment for the sake of six measly months feeling in any way adequate. But even if I'd never ventured over to Afghanistan in some feeble attempt at self-vindication, to capture some sense of purpose or the right to be called a soldier - a legionnaire - it wouldn't have mattered. If justification-through-association existed, then merely having known two brave souls in Chef Simeonov and Sokol would have rendered me worthy. 

I never fired a shot-in-anger during my time in Afghanistan, never took heavy fire or received subsequent injuries. All I've done is write blogs. Words, typed on a keyboard, instead of bullets sent charging forth from a flame-soaked rifle barrel. It all seems rather pathetic by comparison. Maybe that's why I miss the life over there so much. Maybe I'm still searching for that missing puzzle-piece, that which will allow me to leave the Legion proud of what I've done, proud of what I've accomplished. Maybe that puzzle-piece doesn't exist at all. 

Or maybe it does, but those rare few that found it are no longer around to tell us.