Sometimes I look at a sunset and I think about Afghanistan and I cry.
Before I deployed I spent a lot of time reassuring family and friends that I was going to be safe. I explained how I would spend most of my time behind a fence on a Forward Operating Base (FOB). That I would be doing desk work and that I was more likely to die in a car crash in the U.S. then from the Taliban in Afghanistan. And honestly all of that stuff was more or less true in the end.
The first week I was there a rocket hit the motorpool and killed two people. One of them, a Lieutenant who I knew in passing and who had likely told his wife and family similar things, had literally been signing paperwork before it hit and he died on impact. The other died later from injuries. Several others were wounded. A call went out for blood donations over the FOB PA system. A few hours later they announced the flight line ceremony for the body.
The ceremony involved soldiers lining up on the dirt runway behind a C-130 creating a corridor that extended back toward the base. Everyone would stand at attention as an ambulance brought the flag draped body from the tiny field hospital to the plane. Each soldier saluted as the body passed them and then went back to attention until it was on the plane. Then everyone would march off of the runway and the plane would take off to deliver the person to their family. I often questioned the wisdom of so many standing out in the open in a large group but we rarely had more than one rocket attack in a day (a fact I didn’t know at the time).
I stood facing the sun, standing amidst strangers because I barely knew anyone in my unit. I didn’t have sunglasses, they aren’t allowed at ceremonies, but the sun was already sinking so it didn’t really matter. It wasn’t a spectacular sunset. It was the kind where the day just seems to fade away, the colors bleeding into grays that got darker and darker until it was all black.
In the distance I could hear kids laughing and yelling as they played soccer in the village just outside the FOB. I was struck by how strange it was that they were so close but how separate our worlds were. Later I would meet some of these kids, go to their schools, talk to their parents, give them soccer balls, but in that moment I had no idea that mission would become part of my deployment. They were just this strange soundtrack to this even stranger experience. Standing on this foreign soil feet, arms, neck and head locked in place staring at the sunset and waiting for the body to pass.
When my arm came up to salute the call to prayer began to sound from the village mosque. I have always found it a beautiful and poignant sound; a singing invitation to commune with God. It felt both out of place and exactly perfect somehow. I would learn later that the call to prayer couldn’t always be heard on base, only from certain places and when the wind was just right. It brought tears to my eyes as I dropped my hand and continued to hold my body at attention; eyes fixed on the sinking sun.
I should have been thinking about the dead Lieutenant but I didn’t know him well enough to think of much. Instead I thought about how I couldn’t remember the last time I took the time to just watch the sunset. I don’t mean just glance at it or spend five or ten minutes admiring it and taking a picture or two but really sitting and watching it disappear on the horizon like I had been forced to do standing and waiting for his body. I thought about how in my life I would only get so many sunsets and how it would be a shame to miss so many of them because I was too busy.
Sometimes I look at sunsets and I think of that evening in Afghanistan and when I do I make myself pause and watch. Even if it’s not especially beautiful, even if I am busy, I make myself notice it. And sometimes, just like that day, I cry.