Monday, July 11, 2011

And so it ends.

The pizza oven was completed as Killjoy and Company were winding down their tour at FOB Farah. The Chief's Mess, which hosted the pizza oven as well as a barbeque grill (lovingly crafted by Chief Hammersmith from a discarded fifty-gallon drum), became the focal point of a series of going-away events -- evening barbeques and pizza nights -- in advance of departure.

I told Killjoy that the Civilians would be happy to cook for one of the barbeques ("Team Civilian is all over this"), and then got called away to Herat and ended up leaving the whole thing in the hands of our USAID and Agriculture team, with nothing to guide them but a crumpled up meat-request receipt from the chow hall.

USAID still hasn't forgiven me for this.

In the end, the vast majority of the prep work and cooking was done by Petty Officer Cinnabon, the enthusiast culinary specialist who replaced Petty Officer Frying Pan from way back when. (Cinnabon had a tendency to sweeten everything he cooked -- his pizzas, made lovingly on MRE days before the pizza oven was completed, were more like a pepperoni-strewn dessert than lunch. "The key to a good chicken marinade," he told me once, "is brown sugar; it counters the acid in the grapefruit juice so the meat doesn't get bitter." He paused in thought for a second and then added, "Actually, I put brown sugar in just about everything." This much I know is true: his cinnamon rolls were legendary).

I basically refused to acknowledge that the team was leaving -- or abandoning me, as I put it -- and continued to pretend that they'd be with me until the end of my tour, sometime around early August. But then the new team started showing up, and it was hard to ignore the fact that every evening it seemed like there was another "one last" event for the PRT -- one last poker game with the officers, one last game with the enlisted, one last dinner at the Italian chow hall, one last trip to the Governor's. The end was drawing near.

And then, almost without warning, I was driving people to the airport for their final flight out of Farah. The team was divided into three groups -- three chocks, they say -- and the first one left early, more or less as soon as the new team arrived.

The military flight system makes saying goodbye an awkward and repetitive process. "I might be leaving tomorrow" is a near-constant refrain amongst people close to departure, caused by the seemingly random cancellation and reallocation of flights. But chock one made it out eventually, and my hopes that chocks two and three would be delayed were dashed when they stepped up their departure times, pushing up from a July fifth or sixth departure to leaving closer to July first or second.

I took pictures at the airport as each chock was departing, documenting the elation at heading home and the boredom of sitting and waiting for the first of a thousand flights to get back to the States. Mostly I used the departure hall as a chance to photodocument the entire team, one by one, lest I missed any of them over the course of the tour. I shook a lot of hands, and wished everyone well on their way back to the States. It was sad, but the awkward uncertainty of whether they'd actually be leaving made it less emotional than it might've been otherwise.

And so it was that I said goodbye to Commander Killjoy, whom I've been almost attached at the hip with since his arrival in Farah. As I told him the night before his scheduled departure, when I cornered him in his office to shake his hand and give him a pair of State Department cufflinks -- I couldn't have asked for more in either a partner or a friend for this deployment. He and I shook hands one last time on the airstrip, before the air force announced the arrival of their flight and pushed me and USAID out of the terminal.

The abiding memory of his departure, though, will be from the Awards Ceremony held a few days before his departure.

I had made it clear early in this deployment that I was willing to read and edit anything the military wrote -- intel reports or analysis pieces, emails to headquarters, employee evaluations, awards and commendations, whatever. "God made the military for many reasons," I said more than once, "but the proper use of semi-colons wasn't one of them." I read things piecemeal throughout the tour but the brunt of the work came in February, when they dropped off a stack of nominations for bronze stars, Navy Achievement Medals and other awards -- one for every member of the command, it seemed -- on my desk. "If you do all of these," Petty Officer Hindsight told me, "I'll put you in for Warrior of the Month."

(Petty Officer Hindsight was the PRT's constantly cheerful Admin officer with a habit of Monday-morning quarterbacking everything I did. He reveled in the idea of being nicknamed Hindsight: "what you SHOULDA done…" said in his light Oklahoma drawl, was his standard opening line).

I find editing to be soothing in a zen sort of way, and having a hundred or so commendations to work through was actually kind of fun; I cranked through them in half a day, passed them back to Hindsight and then went on R&R. I forgot about the Warrior of the Month thing entirely.

And so, five months later, I was caught off guard when they called my name at the PRT-wide awards ceremony, held just before the final departure of Killjoy and Company. Petty Officer Moonshine, whose baritone speaking voice had left him type-cast as the awards ceremony EmCee, called me up with a command of "State Department, front and center, doubletime!" The award, read in its entirety, was apparently a labor of love that took three people -- Petty Officer Hindsight, Petty Officer Moonshine, and Commander Killjoy himself -- days if not weeks to write. It is easily the greatest award that I have ever received.






Professional achievement as Provincial Reconstruction Team Farah's resident Master of the English Language and all things superfluous from February 1 through February 28, 2011. If wars could be won with ink, foes slain with the precise application of commas, comrades shielded by the eradication of dangling participles, and the disenchanted masses enthused by the transformation of dysfunctional phrases into self-sustaining sentences, then [Dakota] would be granted a place in the pantheon of American military heroes. However, since this is not the case, he is instead recognized as PRT Farah's Warrior of the Month for February 2011. His expeditious and near perfect editing of 94 command awards ensured their smooth and timely progression through the military approval channels. If not for [Dakota]'s selfless dedication to the team, three times the number of man-hours would have been expended while producing inferior results. [Dakota]'s accomplishments reflect great credit upon him, and are in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Navy.



Becky said...

That is one awesome award. It must be hard having everyone leave.

RMealer said...

Way better than a Purple Heart.

Anonymous said...

This is excellent. I only wish I had such an award to tuck in my meritorious honor frame.

Sandy said...

Amazing Award! Amazing stories!
"Give us more!" the people say.

saucypan said...

You are a credit to Strunk, White, and all notable wordsmiths of yore. Huzzah!

Anonymous said...

I'm clearly a bit of a mush, as this post gave me a little lump in my throat. I can't imagine a better way in which to honor you. Very nice.

Anonymous said...

I'm clearly a bit of a mush, as this post gave me a little lump in my throat. I can't imagine a better way in which to honor you. Very nice.

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