This past Friday I was invited to a BBQ by a friend of mine from the sniper community. It was a going away party for his unit, which is soon deploying to the same general area of Afghanistan that I operated in a year ago.
In all honesty, the event was pretty difficult for me to handle. This was a unit that I had the opportunity to join for the deployment but obviously opted not to. I don't regret that decision in the least, however, standing on the sidelines and watching these guys drink beers and talk about what they were about to do was hard. No matter what my situation in life from this point on, it will always be hard for me to watch guys prepare to go off and fight the same fight that I have trained for. I didn't know everyone that was there, and even after being introduced to every last one of them, I couldn't recite more than two names, but for the next seven months each one of their faces will be scanned into my memory, and every time that I check the papers on base, I'll scan the photos of our casualties, hoping that I don't recognize one.
There were a couple of things that made it particularly hard. The Marine that invited me is a good friend, but more importantly someone that I respect on a professional level as highly as anyone in the sniper community. He greeted me at the door with a huge grin, and when I asked him what the grin was all about, all he could get out was that he'd just found out he was going to be a father. This is a three time combat vet, a hero of the battle of Fallujah, who has been trying to have a child with his wife for about 3 years, of course fate decides to inform him his wife is expecting only days before he goes on his fourth deployment, to arguably the worst and most dangerous area in the world. Don't think he let it get him down though. Between having me recount stories of Taliban firefights to his teams and pounding Coors Light, he was sneaking away with his sloppy grin to pick his wife up with a hug. Knowing where he was going it was hard to watch. His wife, obviously not ignorant of what her husband was about to embark on, refused to let the obvious 800 lb gorilla sour the mood. I wondered where she got her strength.
Later in the evening he would corner me and tell me that I had been one of his favorite students. He said that last year he read about what myself and my platoon were doing in Afghanistan, and that he'd 'allowed himself to believe that we were having success because we learned something, anything from what he had taught us the year before'. Almost with embarrassment, he said that he convinced himself that we came home alive because he had the chance to impart his acquired knowledge from prior deployments to us. He asked, over and over again, for me to reenlist and go instruct at the school house. He told me that I had the ability to save lives, that I should go and pass on the knowledge and lessons I've learned.
I smiled and laughed a little, shrugged off the seriousness of the talk, and, with something nearing shame, swallowed the lump in my throat and told him, "Eh, I don't think so man, I think I'm going to get out."
I don't know what the next chapter of my life holds, but I do know that I'm ready to move on from the Marine Corps. I will never regret joining, and I will take the lessons I've learned with me wherever I go, but I know that there's something else out there for me to move on to (I just have no idea what it is yet). I'm sure I'll live with a lot of 'what-ifs', what if I had volunteered to go back to Afghanistan (the what ifs in this case are probably mostly negative), what if I had reenlisted to instruct at the school house, or what if I had made it a career. The only what if I wont have to wonder about is what if I'd gotten out after four years, with all my fingers and toes.
I wish these guys all the best. I pray they are as invincible as they claim, that they've been trained as well as I was. I pray that they tread lightly and never make that step that goes boom. I trust that they'll shoot straight and true, that they'll take the fight to the Taliban. I hope that they all come home, consciences clean. Almost everything in me worries for you, but a small part of me envies you. Good luck.