Today my brother leaves for Afghanistan. He is a Major in the U.S. Army, and he has eaten, slept, and breathed the Army since ROTC in school. I remember crying when we dropped him off at the airport for Basic Training, when I was still in high school, and I remember returning to pick him up later, his thick, black hair now cropped close to his scalp, every inch the soldier, and how a stranger in the airport offered admiringly to carry his bag for him. I remember the impact he had even back then, long before 9/11, walking through the airport calling me a butthead (our long-standing childhood nickname for each other), a combination of my brother but also something else mixed in now, something that made people watch him, something that made me want to point to him and say proudly, “That’s my brother.”
My mother is worried sick about him being in Afghanistan. We’ve already sweat our way through his extended deployment to Iraq. Call me childish, call me selfish, but hasn’t he risked enough?
Maybe I would feel differently if I had a grain of trust or respect for our so-called nation’s leaders, or if I believed any of this served a shred of a point, or if I felt in my heart our soldiers were utmost priority in Iraq, in Afghanistan, anywhere they are stationed, that they are more than decoys in political games of chance. But I don’t.
I called my brother last night. Neither one of us likes talking on the phone, so there were long pauses of silence, but I didn’t want to hang up. I joked with him to send me postcards, and we agreed to a family reunion when he is back in the United States next year.
I said, “Be careful.”
He laughed, and I shrugged. Futile, weak words considering the situation, but I didn’t know what else to say.
On paper, he is a Major in the Army. In my heart, he is the brother I thought walked on water as I was growing up. He is the one who let me hang out with him and his friends on the playground in elementary school and didn’t worry about it reducing his cool factor. He is the one who took me shopping for my prom dress and who made it clear that no strapless, low-cut, or short dresses were even going to be considered. He is the goofy one who always wanted the rest of us to be laughing, the one who made our oldest brother shake his head and tell me, “Don’t laugh when he does that. You’re just encouraging him.”
When I hung up, I just sat for a while, staring at the phone. He had seemed distant on the phone. Distracted. He had said that he doesn’t want to be away from his son and his wife, who have already left to stay with her family. His son, who is about 3 years old, can’t stand for him to be out of his sight.
I suppose my brother is getting ready to board a plane this morning, if he hasn’t already. When he was in Iraq, he liked to write to me and tell me about the giant insects and creatures and wildlife there, and he would promise to pack one up and send it to me. (Not that I wanted one, mind you.) I never got one, but just in case…I will be careful opening any envelopes he sends to me from Afghanistan.