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Deploy by Darryl Halbrooks

When I turned on the TV I saw my husband’s face staring back at me. CBS was doing a special on the war, from the build-up to the invasion to the present. I saw Darin’s camouflage helmet, overly large on his thin, grime-covered face, a pack of cigarettes tucked into his helmet band. The first time I saw these shots⎯years ago on the evening news⎯I remember thinking, ‘you’re not smoking again!’ As if smoking would be the end of him.

The reporter stuck a mike in his face, asked him about the fierceness of enemy resistance, whether he and his men were ever afraid.
“Of course we’re afraid. If you’re not a little scared you’re a little crazy⎯and crazy we don’t need. But we’re here to do a job. It doesn’t matter if we’re afraid or not. The sooner we’ve completed our mission, the sooner we’ll be home.”

That was ages ago. He’s home now.

Since the box containing his personal effects arrived, I’ve been unable to look. Now I do. 

His wallet.

Pictures of me and Clark.

A snapshot of his childhood dog, Buddy. His backpack with his journal and the Army-issue fuel bottle he had cleaned thoroughly so that he could keep water in it. It was badly dented from its final battle, still half full. Interesting that the rangers didn’t empty it.

I open it and take a tiny sip, not wanting to relinquish the entire contents of this memorial. Darin’s lips were the last to touch this lip, or so I wish to believe.  Like a kiss postponed. Included in the shipment is Darin’s digital camera. The plastic battery compartment cover is missing, as are the batteries. The lens is broken and the camera is so mangled from its final encounter that there is some question as to whether its last moments could be reviewed. Regardless, I’m not ready just yet, to find out or to see what horrors might be revealed.

Darin had used this camera as well as a tiny webcam, to record images for his blog. Lots of the men did this. Darin taped the webcam to his helmet. One guy, Darin told me, taped his to the gun turret of his humvee.

A few months ago I made myself watch the PBS documentary on WW2. It was called “The War” as if this war is something less. Communications between home and the front took weeks in those days, if not months. Even in the first quagmire, even when my mother watched that day’s footage on the evening news as they gave the nightly body count, letters between my father and her were weeks in transit.

I could go on line right now and see Darin, come back to life. The URL is still bookmarked on our computer. I could watch and listen to him speaking directly to me and Clark⎯or track him and his buddies as they kick down a door in Fallujah. His hands would show in the grainy video, sweeping his weapon from side to side. His comrades would rush past him once more to kick in another door. His helmet cam would again show the smiling, dirt-covered face of one of his men, Dexter.

Dexter, in his desert fatigues, inverts his hands into a ‘who knows’ sort of gesture as Darin explains from behind the camera that they found the house empty. No insurgents, no civilians, no weapons. By the time they understood that this intelligence was faulty it was too late. Dexter was killed in the ensuing ambush. I wonder if Dexter’s parents have seen the video or could stand to watch it.

Darin had been back for almost a year after his last deployment. He was getting to know his son, born while he was a world away. It was always tough, the first few weeks ‘back-in-the-world.’ There were the night sweats and the sudden bolt-awakes. My eyes would open wide with fear, staring into the face of the man I love, the father of our child, who had me in a choke hold, ready to send me to my maker.

“It’s OK, Hon. It’s me. You’re home.”

On one of these occasions I managed to sooth him enough that we actually made love afterwards.

He always told me that when he was away, he was absolutely the most careful soldier in his unit.

“I always try to bring up the rear,” he would say.

Although it didn’t usually look that way in the blogs, I claimed to believe him.

Back home he worked at the base. Officers, career men like Darin get decent pay. Not as good as corporate types maybe, but we owned our own home and in a market like San Diego that’s saying a lot. When we lived in Georgia, it was hot, humid and muddy. Here, we had the beach, the seals at La Jolla, the park, museums, and if you felt like skiing, you could be in deep powder in a few hours.

We didn’t have enough for a standard down payment but as the loan officer said, “it’s not a problem.” The loan guy was former military and he fixed us up with an ARM, which as I now know, means adjustable rate mortgage⎯and did it ever adjust!

Darin was a bigger person than me, and I don’t just mean his size. When we toured the USS Midway, which now lies at anchor in the harbor here, Darin shushed me when I bitched about tourists complaining about the cost of the ice cream sandwiches or the tight quarters they to squeeze their fat asses through.

“This is what we fight for,” he would say. “So American citizens can enjoy their freedom and a beautiful sunny day on the Midway.”

“So if we weren’t dying in Mosul and Fallujah,” I said, “that fat guy over there wouldn’t be here stuffing his face?”

“I bet that guy,” he pointed to the fatso in his Ohio State T-shirt, “is probably a vet. Look at how he’s reading all the names on that plaque.’

“They all read the names on the plaque,” I said. “Just like they’ll read your name twenty years from now. They’ll lick their cones, and shake their heads, and say, ‘what a waste,’ or ‘can you remember what that war was about?”

Darin just laughed.

“Are you kidding?” he said. “Twenty years from now, Clark’ll probably still be over there. Right little buddy?”

“That’s not funny,” I said.

I have to admit hoping that after the Dems won back the majority, they’d do something to get us out of Quagmire II, as I call it⎯never to Darin’s face. But here we are. And what’s worse, this endless war isn’t even much of an issue anymore.

It’s the economy stupid.

And it is. Even to us.

Our house dropped twenty-seven percent in value and since our mortgage readjusted from fifteen-hundred a month to three thousand, we’d have to either file for bankruptcy or allow the bank to foreclose. With gas up one-hundred percent in two years I couldn’t afford to drive to a job, let alone pay for daycare and food.

Darin was sitting at the kitchen table with a calculator and about twelve opened bills.

“I hate to do it but we’re going to have to max out one of the cards to pay these. We really can’t go into bankruptcy. I’ll lose my security clearance.”

I didn’t say anything. Bankruptcy or loan default are prime reasons for the military to drop clearances, the theory being that financial problems are temptations to sell government secrets. Darin sat with Clark on his lap, bouncing him up and down, holding his tiny hands with rough and ready fingers, almost the size of Clark’s wrist.

Darin never said what I was thinking: ‘This is the thanks we get?’

By the time Darin’s orders came for his third deployment, we were both ready if not eager for it.  Daily, I could see the sense of duty and guilt play over his face. I knew that in part, it was guilt over the fact that he was here, enjoying life in sunny SOCAL while his men were on patrol, and in part guilt over the extra expense his very presence here was costing us. With Darin back in theater⎯Afghanistan this time⎯it would mean one less mouth to feed.

“Fuck this,” he said one day, about three weeks before he was to ship out.

Darin was usually careful with his language around Clark. Even though Clark was only ten months, we wanted the first words out of the child’s mouth to be ‘mama’ or ‘dada’ not ‘fuck dis’.

“Let’s take a vacation.”

Under the circumstances a vacation seemed extravagant but it’s hard to deny someone who’s about to put his life on the line for a third time so we packed up our car, a 1986 Oldsmobile station wagon, handed over to us by his mom after his dad passed away, and headed off to the mountains. What Darin didn’t tell me was which mountains he had in mind. We took the high road out of Yosemite, stopping at each overlook to enjoy the cool, unpolluted air on the east side of the Sierra. The air on the western side was opaque with smog from LA, the central valley, and San Francisco, turning the higher elevations into an ugly brown soup worse than Tinseltown itself. But here on the east side it was pristine. We picnicked by an alpine lake where wildflowers bloomed in a green meadow. Darin watched with obvious longing as a gaggle of Harley riders throbbed into the parking area. On the rocky slopes of the red-brown peaks, gleaming snowfields dazzled.

After lunch we climbed back in the car and continued down the mountain and out of the park.

“Where are we going?” I asked. “I don’t want to go down into the desert. I thought this was going to be a mountain vacation.”

“It is,” he said. “Trust me.”

As we wound our way down and out of the Sierra, I could see a large lake sprawling across the desert floor. We pulled into one of the turnouts and hiked down to the shore to investigate the strange formations growing out of the water. Mono Lake. Darin had always wanted to see it.
Let me tell you, it’s nothing to write home about⎯except for one weird feature⎯ the Tufa towers.  These strange formations, the signs told us, are the result of the mixture of fresh water bubbling into the lake from underground springs, salt and alkali. The lake is a million years old and during each year of its life becomes ever saltier and ever more alkaline than the ocean.

We left the towers and the lake and headed north with the Sierra dominating our western horizon, rising from the desert like a set of glistening dentures. That night we stayed in a motel in Nevada, a lonely outpost in the center of nothing that had a casino in the lobby. After Clark was asleep, Darin went down to the casino.

“Be careful,” I said. “I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night and find that you’ve blown our life savings.”

“What life savings?” he said. “ Besides, I’m the most careful guy on the force. Remember?”

I awoke and looked at the digital display on the clock. 3:17. Darin was asleep beside me. When I lay back down my face brushed something papery. Three one-hundred dollar bills.

We drove all the next day, pulling into Jackson, Wyoming late that night. The following day we drove on to Yellowstone for what was, for the most part, a great vacation. We saw geysers, bubbling caldrons of blue-green water that boiled up out of the earth from the underlying volcano there. We passed vast herds of buffalo, and full-antlered elk lying in the shade of sparse trees. We stopped at every bear-jam or moose-jam until I actually grew weary of all the natural wonder of the place.

“I want to get out of this car,” I said. Let’s go for a hike.”

We were in Yellowstone’s northeast quadrant. Darin had passed through this emptier part of the vast park on his Harley many times before we met. We had gone there to get away from the crowds, many of them Europeans or Japanese or Chinese, here to take advantage of the weak dollar.
America on sale.

At the trailhead warnings were posted. Do not feed wildlife. Carry your trash out. Do not leave the trail. The earth’s crust here is so thin you could break through into the scalding planet below your feet.

We hiked.

We saw a badger.

We saw elk. We saw more elk.

We ate our lunch under a tree. I didn’t want to leave that place.

Ever.

I was not looking forward to the long trip back, to the pressures of mortgages and food and fuel and to being alone for another twelve to fifteen months. I wanted out of the service. I wanted out of SOCAL. I was pretty quiet and so was Darin, perhaps thinking the same thing.

On our way back to the car, he stopped, thinking he saw something.

“You go on. I’ll catch up in a few.”

He took off, disappearing over a green rise, the ultra-blue enveloping him like a nimbus. That’s the way I will always remember him.

After the funeral, with its shock-to-the-system⎯first there’s the jolt of grief that fires through you with each volley, then taps, then ⎯after the crisp salutes, after they fold that flag with too-practiced precision and hand it to you, you sob next to other sobbers. Your little son is too young to understand anything except the beauty of it all. Then you go home to the empty house that you must surely relinquish to the bank.

Now, a full year after my husband’s passing, I summon the courage to slip the chip from his digital camera into the slot in my laptop. There are old scenes, some familiar to me from the blog. Little kids with their hands out on the streets of Baghdad, the interrogation of a skinny, dark-skinned man wearing a white turban, shots of a baseball game between officers and enlisted men.

At last, pictures of me at Mono Lake, smiling, holding Clark beside one of the tufa towers.

The arch of antlers in downtown Jackson.

Old Faithful.

Then a picture of something brown, a lump in the green distance, surrounded by all that blue sky. In the next shot the lump is closer. It’s standing, sniffing the air. Two smaller lumps, resolve themselves into cute, furry cubs. The next shot is blurry. Something large and brown is moving, very fast in the direction of the observer. The picture is out of focus from the camera’s motion.

My guess is that in the final shot, the camera went off on it’s own, perhaps as it bounced on the caldera’s surface. In that final image on the chip, only a bit of green is visible. Mostly it’s blue. The horizon is nowhere to be seen so that you have no orientation to speak of and in the lower right hand corner⎯something shaggy.

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