I had what is, sadly, a unique experience a few months ago.
I was flying from Houston to Orange County to see my aunt in September, and I sat next to a service member who was on a 2-week leave from Afghanistan. As much as I often hate the airlines, one thing I love his how they go out of their way to bring uniformed soldiers whatever they need, and this flight was no exception. The one caveat I have for that is that the movie was "Battleship," which was actually pretty good, but I'm not sure if that was something the soldier was interested in watching, given his circumstances.
I asked him where he was coming from and when he told me and I said, "thank you for your service," to which he replied, "thank you for your support." This was the first time I've had a conversation with a service member stationed in Afghanistan about what it is like.
He was about my age, from Orange County, and served his county by working in "civilian relations," which meant that he would walk the communities in Afghanistan (while heavily protected and armed) and interact with the locals. He said that it was quite a reality check the first week he was there when people started shooting at him. But for the most part his unit has been relatively unharmed, although he lives in constant fear. If I remember correctly he still had several months of deployment left. It took 3-4 days to make the trip from Afghanistan back to California, but as soon as he was out of Afghanistan, he breathed a sigh of relief. When we landed in Santa Ana, we both remarked on how odd it was to be back (It was my first time back in SoCal in 9 months).
I asked him about what his days are like over there, whether they get to watch much football (yes if they have a signal, that is an issue), what the food is like (he's happy to be home) and what he misses (a decent bed). His unit has a fantasy football team. He got a "Dear John" letter two months into his deployment and is still pretty mad about it; he said he might see her during his leave, but more than anything was looking forward to blowing off some steam in Vegas. He said that although they are not supposed to drink/party while on leave, there is an unspoken understanding that it's going to happen anyway, and that as long as they don't get themselves into trouble it's okay (although he has a number to call in case something does happen).
I also asked what he thinks about public support of the troops. He's frustrated; he feels like the county has forgotten about the troops who are still in harm's way, especially during the Presidential election and especially during difficult economic times. I told him that from my perspective, the candidates are not talking enough about Afghanistan, which is a shame, and so the focus is not on the troops, despite the fact that they are still dying over there.
[I hope now that the election is over that will change, but'm not optimistic, given all the name-calling that has been going on in the wake of the election. That's for another blog post that I will probably never write, but suffice it to say being called a brainwashed immoral minority woman that only wants to "take" from the government, does not represent "real America," and is lazy - is not fun. Anyhow ... ]
I asked if he intends to stay in the service after his deployment. He said he would like to go to college and work towards joining special forces. He wished that he had someone push him to go to college first instead of going right into full-time military duties. I think he felt like his life was put on hold.
Our conversation left a strong impression in me and was a "teachable moment." Part of me regrets not getting his information so I could stay in contact with him; but part of me thinks that our conversation was more powerful this way. He looks like me, is my age, and knows the same Orange County landmarks and high schools, and yet my daily life is so different than his. His family has to deal with the fact that he's over there and in harm's way 24/7, and carry on with their jobs and lives. Regardless of our country's policies over there, it takes a lot of courage on his part to do that job.
So, to him, and to his fellow soldiers and their families, I thank you.