There Are No Goodbyes in the Army
Vela / DATE
The day’s heat had worn off by the time my husband was heading back to the barracks, and my bare legs were covered in goose bumps. We stood a few yards away from the tan buildings, where drill sergeants had perched themselves on cement steps, surveying the swarms of soldiers kicking up the South Carolina dust as they scrambled to make their 7:45 pm curfew. After two and half months of grueling training, this was their last night at Fort Jackson—tomorrow, in the half-light of early morning, they would walk single file onto buses and planes, leaving for wherever the Army wanted them next. Andrew was headed to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a huge, expansive base that was as flat as farmland and shadeless as the desert.
“I’m so proud of you,” I said, looking up at him. And for all the reservations and resentments I’d had about my husband joining the Army, I meant it. We had spent ten weeks apart, a stretch of time that for me was like a long, empty road, punctuated every so often by signs of life—the quick letters he scrawled on Army stationary, the three short phone calls he was allowed to make. I’d flown into Columbia from New York City, and we’d spent two days together, both ending at 7:45 pm, both shared with his family. The entire time had been colored by this cut-off point, by the shadow of its own ending.
I wanted to bury my face in the starched fabric of his new dress uniform, but we were allowed only one kiss and one hug goodbye, and so we stood across from one another, just staring. For a quick moment, he took my hand, and fingered the carved ridges of my wedding ring, still a novelty to him—we’d gotten married ten days before he left for Basic.
“I gotta go,” he said, hitching up his Army pack on his shoulder. “I love you.”
I watched him walk away, and I could feel the tears wanting to climb out from behind my throat. Fort Jackson looked gorgeous, like the Army had timed the soldiers’ departure for the most cinematic goodbye: The sun was setting, and his silhouette stood out in stark relief against the deep, red colors of the sky—the wide shoulders of his Army blues, his beret perched on his newly-shorn head. Just before he got to the barracks, he turned back and smiled. He looked free, like a boy almost. In the beginning, I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge it, but I could see it now: This is where he belonged—on a journey that would take him away from me again and again, to Army posts throughout the U.S., to the mountains of Afghanistan, to tiny Special Ops helicopters that flew, under cover of night, into parts of the world I’d never even heard of, to a world of select men I don’t think I’ll ever be allowed to understand. It wasn’t what I had planned, what I had thought would happen when I fell in love with Andrew four and a half years before.
“Bye,” I whispered as he turned back, and I stood watching until he disappeared into the uniformed crowd, unrecognizable from the rest.
Two years ago, when Andrew first talked about joining the Army, I told him, a little too fiercely, that I would leave him if he did. He spent the next year silent about it, but then, I began to notice the signs of interest stacking up: books about the Army sitting on his nightstand; numbers scrawled in pencil that indicated his run-time and the amount of push-ups he could do in a minute; a new obsession with military documentaries. He started talking about it again, and this time around, I backed off of the offensive line: I knew his interest was real. Suddenly, our apartment was littered with recruitment materials, his early mornings occupied by rigorous, self-designed trainings, and I was consuming books about the war in Afghanistan, reading memoirs by soldiers’ wives, even reporting on veterans’ affairs in my journalistic work. By the time he signed a Ranger contract (a division of Special Ops) at the end of the summer, I was rapidly trying to get up to speed with—and reconcile myself to—a world that my liberal upbringing had taught me to reject out of hand. Finally, in early December, we received a rough schedule of the next nine months of training, and then, at January’s end, he left. We had never spent more than a couple weeks apart. And not a day had gone by in the last four and a half years that we hadn’t spoken.
Several months before he signed, we got into a vicious argument about war. We were spending the summer doing forestry work in rural Ontario, living in a primitive cabin without electricity or running water. We had worked under the harsh sun all day, and had spent the evening drinking from a big bottle of vodka, soothing the day’s aches. By the end of the night, we were both drunk, the trees and rolling hills sloshing in our vision, the lake out front of our cabin a glittering blur.
The conversation had started out innocently—we were talking about how he’d probably be enlisting soon. It had still felt a bit unreal then, this decision Andrew had made. I remembered him when we’d first gotten together—his long dark hair in his eyes, his barren San Francisco studio populated with endless stacks of books, NPR constantly humming on the radio, an abundance of mugs ringed with coffee scattered throughout the apartment. We’d both grown up in liberal Bay Area families—he’d actually spent the first eight years of his life on a commune. But he’d been an athlete since he was able to walk, someone who found the office workday existence an unbearable cage, and somewhere along the line he had changed, or, as he put it, discovered what he’d wanted to do all along.
“What is it about war?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Why do you want to go?”
“I guess I want to know what that’s like,” he said.
“It must be hell,” I said.
“No, I mean I want to know what it’s like to feel that loyalty, to care that much about the guy next to me.”
I nodded and then stopped suddenly. “But what about the man on the other side of your gun? What about him?” I slurred.
“People die in war,” he said, shrugging as he poured more vodka into his plastic cup. “It’s always been that way, and it’s always gonna be that way.”
“That’s a real comfort,” I said, slinging back the remains in my own cup, the cold alcohol warming my throat and burning my chest. I felt an irrational surge of hurt and anger, and even then, wasted and bleary-eyed, I had sensed that it wasn’t just about life and death in a war zone. It was also about us.
I wouldn’t let myself think it, but somewhere inside me was this question: Don’t you already know how that feels? Because, after a string of messy, nightmarish, and half-assed relationships, Andrew was the first man I ever felt truly safe with, the only man who pushed back when I tried to push him away. The one person I knew, in my gut, who would never abandon me.
I stayed at the Country Inn, a motel on the outskirts of Columbia, tucked away from the South Carolina strip malls and strip joints. There was nothing country about it. These edges of the city were in construction, and they reminded me, strangely, of roads I’ve driven down in Palestine’s Bethlehem, a place stuck in transition—where it’s hard to tell if something is being put up or torn down, a venture that that feels, either way, hopeless in its efforts. The Country Inn was located among a trio of other “Inns”: the Comfort Inn, the Day Inn, the Best Value Inn, all surrounded by empty lots that would probably be the foundations for more Inns, their only visible difference the names and colors of their signs. When I arrived at the motel, I was starving, and the only thing I could spot nearby was a Bojangles—yes, those still exist. I asked the woman at the front desk if there was a grocery story around, and she told me there was a Wal-Mart about a mile away.
“Wal-Mart sells groceries?”
She looked up at me from under her dark, greasy bangs, and raised her eyebrows. I thought it best not to confess that I’d never been to a Wal-Mart.
“Is it raining out there yet?” I asked.
“You’re not gonna walk, are you?”
I nodded. She looked concerned.
It was drizzling outside, the sky heavy, bearing down on me with its weight. Across the rubble of empty construction lots sat a memorial graveyard, startling green amid the concrete gray of the street. I had been feeling excited to see Andrew for weeks, unable to concentrate on work. But as I walked down the side of the main thoroughfare, I felt that excitement being taken over with an odd sense of foreboding. As much as I’d been dying to see Andrew, I didn’t want the next day to begin yet. I wanted to amble through the sidewalk-less streets of Columbia, getting lost in the endless aisles of Wal-Mart, returning to my Country Inn and laying on the bed, staring numbly at those horrible ceilings that look like hardened cottage cheese. Somehow, the last thing I wanted was for the day to be over and the next day to begin. Because tomorrow would end, and so would the next day, and then Andrew would be on a plane to Oklahoma, and I would be on one back to New York City, where my friends in skinny jeans would ask, “So, when’s he coming home?” And I’d have to look at them, puzzled, and say: “Never. He’s never coming home.” After these two days, he would finally be a soldier. And there would be no going back.
I had learned to adjust to the silence, to the emptiness of the apartment, had learned to forget the urge to call him at the end of a hard day. The sudden pain of him leaving – like a quick, deep cut – eventually scabbed over, a fragile covering I had trained myself to guard with constant vigilance. At all costs, I avoided letting the world scratch at it. But I knew these two days would rip it off entirely.
First, a guilty admission: I have watched all six seasons of Army Wives. The Army post on the show is pristine, shaded by the willow trees of Charleston. The show is, more or less, a sanitized version of Army life, and I expected Fort Jackson to feel different—realer, grittier. But it, too, was strangely perfect, an oasis within Columbia, an orderly expanse of fields and forests, the lawns in front of the newly-painted officers’ homes as shorn as the soldiers’ heads.
Family Day came first, the day before Graduation Day. We had about nine hours to spend with our soldier, imprisoned on post. The families gathered in bleachers at the training field, and many of the women in the stands had already purchased and donned Proud Army Wife and Proud Army Mom sweatshirts, sitting with straight-backed confidence in the bleachers, holding small American flags and rocking their children back and forth in strollers or on their lap. I looked down at my plain, blue dress, my Poetry Society tote, and felt profoundly out of place. How had they learned so quickly to look like they belonged here?
Everyone sat expectant, with undisguised eagerness like dogs waiting for kibble, as a Colonel delivered a brief speech. I have zero memory of it, except for the last line:
“Now, you can give your soldier one kiss and one hug, and no more after that.”
“What?” said Fassinia, a Brooklyn Army wife I’d split a cab with from the hotel. “He’s joking, right?” Her Brooklyn accent curled around her words, and made me feel at home. I laughed.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think the Army jokes about these kinds of things.” I rolled my eyes as though I were shrugging it off, but understanding was settling in me now like slow, wet cement.
“All right, folks,” the Colonel said. “Go find your soldiers on the field.”
They were lined up in formation across the grass, and I couldn’t find Andrew among them. Instead, he found me, a huge smile on his face as he hugged and kissed me.
“I’m really sorry,” Andrew said as he pulled away, and I could tell he was afraid that the news had bruised me. “They just told us last night: ‘that’s a 1.4 second kiss, soldier. Nothing pornographic.’” And nothing that even resembled affection— no hand-holding, no putting our arms around each other’s shoulders, no touching of any kind. I was crushed.
“It’s OK,” I said. “It’s not your fault.”
He looked trim and strong in his dress uniform. In reunion scenes like this in movies, the soldier picks up his wife, and spins her around, gives her a long, lasting kiss as he returns her lightly to the ground. That moment is what I’d been waiting for these past ten weeks, but the Army had quickly, efficiently taken that vision away from me. Andrew looked around the field, on edge, checking to see if any Drill Sergeants were watching him closely, making sure to salute officers as they passed, on high alert to a world that was more or less invisible to me. And that, I think, is when that feeling started gnawing at me: he’ll never again quite be mine the way he once was.
They say there are no goodbyes in the Army. This is meant to be a comfort, a guardrail against the fear that overwhelms us when a loved one gets their orders. “See you soon,” they say, that impossible promise like a small, weak night light in the dark that reminds us: you will see them again. Or at least, you hope like hell you will.
But as my life is slowly, systemically overwhelmed by the Army and its whims, I see the expression as a way of getting at a complex truth you can’t quite grasp but can feel in your gut when you first see your soldier in their uniform: there are no goodbyes in the Army because there are no true returns. Underneath the pride I felt as I stood looking at him on that open field was something else, an unsettling question that blurred the world around and inside of me: Is he ever coming back to me?
“You want to meet my Drill Sergeant?” Andrew asked.
He brought me over to a tall, broad-shouldered man with crystalline blue eyes. When he smiled as he shook my hand, I could see that his front teeth were snaggled.
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Davenport,” he said, and I had to keep myself from laughing at the title. “I hope you have patience, because where he’s going, you’re going to need a lot of it,” he said, referring to the long, rigorous Special Ops training. “We’re very proud of him.” Out of 1,200 soldiers in training, Andrew was one of the six honor graduates from Boot Camp.
“Do you want to introduce me to your friends?” I asked Andrew after the Drill Sergeant stepped away.
He looked torn for a moment, like he wasn’t sure which direction to take me. “No, I just want to get out of here,” he said, “and be with you.” We walked away from the buzzing masses, out into the parking lot behind the bleachers. It was full of cars, but eerily empty of people. His family would be meeting us in a couple of hours.
“There’s a lake on the other side of the base, with a gazebo and little café,” he said. “Let’s go there.” I could tell he wouldn’t be able to breathe freely until he was far away from this field, and even then, he’d be on watch for Drill Sergeants roaming the base in their civilian clothes, just waiting for the new soldiers to slip up.
We were starting out for the lake, walking along the dirt road that led out of the parking lot, when an old couple in a Lincoln town car stopped and rolled down its passenger side window. A tiny woman with grey, curly hair peeked out.
“Do y’all need a ride somewhere?” she said. We looked down at the map of the base we had. It was at least a few of miles to the lake.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Andrew said, in a voice that sounded new to me, touched with a Southern accent. He opened the door for me.
“We’re definitely not in New York anymore,” I said under my breath as I got in.
All told, Andrew and I had just three hours of unreality together. The next day, after the pomp and circumstance of the graduation ceremony and a celebratory lunch with his family, we retreated to my hotel room falling into a kind of amnesia: we let down the guards we had honed while apart, and revisited the sweetness of beginnings—the kisses were like the first we had; the conversation free and wandering, like we had just moved in together. The time had the rare, trusting quality of falling in love—I felt, in those three hours, like the clock stropped, like we had created our own world, and we’d spend a lifetime together living in it.
Out on Hilton Field that morning, the air had been brisk, the metal bleachers cold beneath my thighs. The graduates had just marched onto the field, and mothers, husbands, and wives were all armed with their digital cameras and smart phones, wanting to capture everything. The ceremony began with an invocation, during which I clasped my hands and looked down in respect, but did not close my eyes—I could pretend prayer, but only to a point. In the background, the distant gunfire of shooting practice punctuated the Chaplain’s words, an unsettling sound that reminded me of the central conflict I saw in the Army, the one I could never wrap my mind around: how God and violence can be such easy bedfellows.
After the Chaplain finished, the 1,200 soldiers, pin-straight in formation, recited the Soldier’s Creed. They spoke in unison, but there were so many of them, the volume so great, that the words became a blur, a wall of sound that filled the field and pushed against the audience like a wave, like a force of violence itself. Inside my stomach was a strange, unnamable feeling: was it intense pride mixed with guilt, a realization that I hadn’t quite come to terms with what Andrew had signed up for? I only let myself graze the edges of these thoughts.
Later that evening, after we’d said our goodbyes at the barracks, I went out for dinner with Andrew’s family.
“You are handling all of this with such grace,” his aunt said, laying out her linen napkin on her lap. I nodded slowly, feeling my insides curling inward, like a flower closing its petals. As I stood watching Andrew leave that evening, the tears filling my eyes as I tried to stop them, I felt more bonded to him than ever, and yet I also a felt an aloneness so complete I could tell it to no one, not even Andrew. His mom’s boyfriend approached me from behind and put a hand softly on my shoulder, an offering that made me feel like I might break open inside. Was this grace? Underneath the thin shell of my strength were fears I didn’t even know existed, anxieties so huge and complex I couldn’t even access them myself.
And just then, at the dinner table, my cell phone buzzed in my lap. It was Andrew. Something in my chest jumped. In ten weeks, this was the first time I’d seen his name come up on my phone. I excused myself and stepped away from the table, out onto the sidewalk in front of the restaurant.
“Hey baby,” he said, and something inside me released, the industrial streets of Columbia falling away, the only reality his voice close in my ear, a sound that wasn’t going anywhere, that was realer than the chill in the air, the cloudless sky, the cement beneath my feet.