Life lessons the Afghanistan war taught me

By J. Mark Jackson
Sunday, May 30, 2010; A17

Late last year, after eight months of service halfway around the world, I decided to take stock of myself: I had not been monitoring my stock portfolios and investments closely. I was not current on the machinations of the faltering economy or what the health-care debate meant for my insurance. I had never heard of the finalists on any of the reality shows.

Was I unenlightened and out of touch with reality? Perhaps, by a conventional definition of being connected, informed and up-to-date, I was woefully ignorant.

I was deployed in Afghanistan, and that combat sabbatical taught a completely different regimen of vital knowledge. I have learned:

-- Although soldiers are predominantly young, virile men, cut off from feminine wiles and charms, what they miss most is food. But having said that . . .

-- Megan Fox is to Afghanistan what Betty Grable was to World War II.

-- When you look into the face of a gravely wounded soldier, your eyes fill with tears.

-- With some imagination, the sling seat in the gunner's turret of a Cougar combat vehicle can seem like a rocking chair.

-- Sometimes it is better to stay on radio watch than freeze in your sleeping bag.

-- The bulk of soldiers would relinquish their birthright for one ice-cold beer.

-- I dread the specter of death but do not fear it.

-- I am capable of performing acts of brutality but don't.

-- Although all Americans are born equal, all boots are not.

-- Having a culture different than America's doesn't mean there is something wrong with that culture or that it is not as good.

-- When heated and liberally seasoned with Tabasco, all MREs are good.

-- You don't feel the effects of a battle until the day after. Then you are swept with feelings of anxiety, anger, thankfulness and a profound weariness. A hollow sense of shock descends. It passes, mostly.

-- Afghan food, although prepared in a way that would make a state health inspector faint, is tasty. And . . .

-- The vast majority of soldiers get sick on American, not Afghan, food.

-- The Afghan people are a giving, warmhearted group.

-- The Afghan children are absolutely beautiful, with their hopeful smiles.

-- Nothing is more important than family. Nothing.

-- When Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz" said, "There's no place like home," she was spot-on.

-- Soldiers still flock like pigeons when mail arrives.

-- Notes, packages and letters from Americans we don't even know warm our souls to the core.

-- Pictures and letters from a first-grade class make our sacrifices seem worthy.

-- The Afghan people deserve better than they have gotten the past 300 years.

-- The M240B machine gun is a wonderful weapon and never jams.

-- The Afghans are tough as nails and extremely resourceful.

-- Mortar and rocket explosions are much louder at night. So is machine-gun fire.

-- American soldiers are here by choice. They want to make a difference for Afghans and provide security for the folks back home.

-- This war is necessary and worthwhile.

-- When you are cut off, out of fuel, water and food, it feels even worse than it sounds.

-- There is no risk too great or mission too dangerous for the U.S. soldier if the goal is to retrieve a missing comrade.

-- Narcolepsy is rampant in the military. No place is too uncomfortable to sleep.

-- When a roadside bomb explodes, even if you know it is coming, you still jump.

-- When I look at my right sleeve and see the 101st Airborne combat patch and the subdued American flag, I am stirred with pride.

-- The first thing you say in a firefight is: "What the hell was that?" This is quickly followed by: "Where the hell did it come from?"

-- You never know how beautiful a sunrise is until you don't know if you'll live to see it.

-- I am always incredulous when the bullets stop whizzing past and no one is hit.

-- American FRACU (Flame Retardant Army Combat Uniform) uniforms fade to dingy, mottled beige and are made of papier-mache.

-- Life for Afghans is an inexact science.

-- The MRAP is a fabulous, mine-resistant vehicle. It gives its life willingly so our soldiers do not have to give theirs.

-- Normally hard as tungsten and cold as sleet, a soldier will cry at a memorial service for fallen brethren.

-- The Afghans laugh at us behind our backs, too.

-- The war will not be won or lost in a conventional definition of victory or defeat. Stability is the ultimate goal, not notches on our national battle flags. We win when the Afghan people win, and not before. It is up to them, not us, when this war ends. We will persevere as long as they persevere.

The writer, a major in the U.S. Army Reserve, was in Afghanistan from April to December 2009.

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