NPR logo Essay: Wedding Proves Dreamy Escape From Iraq

Essay: Wedding Proves Dreamy Escape From Iraq

Nate Rawlings With His Parents i

Nate Rawlings with his parents at his close friends' wedding in Birmingham, Ala., this summer Courtesy Nate Rawlings hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy Nate Rawlings
Nate Rawlings With His Parents

Nate Rawlings with his parents at his close friends' wedding in Birmingham, Ala., this summer

Courtesy Nate Rawlings

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In keeping with the Army tradition of assigning acronyms to absolutely everything, the program that sends soldiers home midway through combat tours is called EML — Environmental Management Leave. Most soldiers refer to it by its Vietnam-era name: R&R.

During my two tours, I have had soldiers schedule their "Rest and Relaxation" for a variety of reasons — the birth of a child, holidays, high school graduation. This tour, I scheduled my leave for a somewhat less common obligation: to serve as a groomsman in the wedding of two of my best friends.

To simply call Josh and Miller "friends" would be to shortchange them severely. Josh was my college roommate and rugby teammate and Miller was one of my best friends throughout school. During my toast at their rehearsal dinner, I tried to explain that, because of who they are and their stalwart loyalty, they have been key players in some of the most poignant moments of my life.

They were waiting for me at the Newark Airport when I returned from Army ROTC boot camp, emaciated and with a freshly shaven head. Miller threw her arms around me, tears in her eyes, and shouted, "I need to feed you!"

Josh and Miller were with me for my last weekend in Texas before I shipped out for my first Iraq tour; they did not let on that they knew how I labored to hide my fears and uncertainty because I just didn't know what would happen in the coming year. When these two lovely souls asked me to be a supporting actor as they began their lives together, I put in my request for R&R — even before we deployed.

The wedding was gorgeous — an early-evening event in a beautiful church in Birmingham, Ala. Josh and Miller asked me to wear my military dress uniform, and they even allowed me the honor of walking Miller's mother down the aisle. At the reception, an army of tuxedo-clad gentlemen and ladies in floor-length gowns sipped cocktails among perfect flower arrangements. I spent my evening enjoying fine bourbon, answering a myriad of questions about Iraq and hugging old friends.

By midnight, a low fog had descended on the warm, soft Southern evening, shrouding the fairway outside the club. Only a large American flag lit by spotlights could be seen from the back veranda.

During the remaining two weeks, except for a quick trip to Chicago to see one of my favorite bands, Rage Against the Machine, I spent most of my time with my parents, my sisters and our dogs. I went to see my 88-year-old grandmother every day and listened to her remark at how "motley" our uniforms had become — a far cry from the crisp tan and browns her husband wore in World War II.

When the time came to return to the Atlanta airport, my family walked me to the terminal. In each of the four times I have said goodbye as I left for Iraq, I have held back tears, trying to remain stoic for my parents' and sisters' sake. This time was the hardest. My mother squeezed me with all of her might for 15 seconds and then they slowly walked away, down the long corridor, stopping every 10 feet to wave and blow kisses. When they reached the lower platform, I waved and forced a big smile until the escalator finally carried their outstretched hands below the level of the ceiling. I stood at the top of the stairs for a few moments; after 2 1/2 weeks of being surrounded by the people I love most I suddenly found myself completely alone in the world.

Fourteen hours after our plane left Atlanta we touched down in Kuwait. The monitors informed me that the local time was 6:55 p.m., and the temperature was 111 degrees. "Welcome home," I thought.

I had slept for about two hours over the Atlantic, caught a half-hour catnap in Germany while we refueled, and got another two hours' sleep on the way to Kuwait. I soon found myself in the same gravel and sand courtyard at the same Air Force base where I had stood 18 days earlier, eagerly awaiting my flight home.

An army of gray-utility-clad soldiers guzzled water and moved amongst the sand and gravel pits as they discussed America's performance in the Olympics. By midnight the sun had loosened its vise grip and the air began to cool across the flat, brown expanse. In the distance by the camp's gate, a large pole bearing the American flag lit by spotlights could be seen from the sand dunes.

Delirious from the sporadic sleep, I decided that the past 18 days must have been a dream, and this harsh, nasty place was my waking reality. To test this theory, I closed my eyes and allowed myself to remember my favorite moments from the past two weeks: walking the dogs with my parents, while we discussed my sister's engagement and politics, catching up on old friends' lives over beer, and dancing with a beautiful girl at the wedding reception. Opening my eyes to the dust and sand of Kuwait, I decided that these memories were certainly dreams and that my former home existed only in my mind. This was my reality now, and would be for most of the next year.

The transference of reality from the place and the people I love to the place I am is not easy. It takes constant reminding that for the time being, while I am here, I am not a part of the lives of those I love and miss so much. My short stay in the place I used to call my home was good for my soul, but now I am back in Baghdad, back amongst the garbage and filth, amongst the heat and grit, and this is the only reality I will know.

The transference of realities lifted from my shoulders the guilt of leaving those I love behind, and allowed me to replace it with body armor, ammunition and 75 pounds of extra gear. The transition complete, I was again able to do the business which I have been charged to do.

The day's patrol done and my soldiers momentarily safe yet again, I allow myself a moment to close my eyes and see the people I love in the place I used to call home. That place exists now only in my dreams, and it is a place I dream about every day.

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