- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A couple of years ago Matt Mabe got out of the Army and went to Columbia Journalism School. (OK, so he’s not great at picking an industry with a future.) Then, as he began to look for a job, he was recalled involuntarily to active duty.
So now Capt. Mabe is heading back to Afghanistan. Here is the first of what I hope will be many of his reports over the next year. For a guy who has just effectively gotten drafted-after having done his duty-he is surprisingly chipper:
Four months have passed since I received orders recalling me to the Army; it’s been nine weeks since I first reported back for duty. I’m writing to let you know that my pre-deployment training is finally complete and that this weekend I will board a plane bound for Afghanistan. I’ll spend the next year as part of an infantry battalion training Afghan military and police forces in the mountainous eastern provinces that border Pakistan. I’m falling in on a tough unit, and I believe the mission will be personally very fulfilling.
At this point, I’m just eager to get started. My re-entry into the service has been a whirlwind of activity and travel so exhausting, it almost seems designed to make the thought of deploying desirable. My reintegration kicked off with two long weeks of in-processing and classes at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Once that was complete, the Army bused me 18 hours to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, where I spent three weeks brushing up on critical skills in my branch specialty (I’m a combat engineer). Then on May 9, I flew to Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, to round out the final training and evaluations that were necessary to make me eligible for deployment.
I’ve readjusted quickly to the rhythm and oddities of Army life: the pre-dawn wakeups, the forfeiture of all privacy and the crude, peculiar lingo that only soldiers can discern. In the absence of reliable Internet access, I’ve spent most of my free time at the gym, buried in a book or tinkering with the gear that will accompany me to the desert. I also have had ample time to get to know the fellow soldiers with whom I’ll be serving. Among the most interesting reservists I’ve met are a former cyclist who at one time competed alongside Tour de France regular George Hincapie, a newspaper editor-turned-winemaker-turned-historian and a young female prison guard with horrific tales from the high-security Missouri prison where she works – all great material for my journal.
The last few months haven’t been all hard work, either. Right before reporting for duty in April, I went on vacation with my girlfriend, Molly, and our families. We did Mardi Gras in New Orleans (my home) and Spring Break in Boston (Molly’s home). In March, we even managed to squeeze in a two-week, impromptu trip down to Argentina. We stayed in Buenos Aires for a few days, then rented a small car and drove north to the foothills of the Andes and the wine regions. It was the perfect getaway. Just last week, I was granted a four-day pass to New Orleans to say final goodbyes to my parents, my sister and Molly, who flew down from New York amid intense reporting for her book. Their support through all of this has been extraordinary.
Now on the eve of war, I can confidently say that my conscience is clear. After two years studying and working as an aspiring journalist, I’ve come to realize that much good may result from this temporary interruption in my life. As an Iraq veteran, I’ve always considered myself a fortunate, front-line witness to that war during what I believe is a watershed moment in our nation’s history. And given how much I’ve been shaped by it personally, I now feel strongly compelled to see firsthand the unfolding challenges in Afghanistan.
Thank you for your continued support and encouragement throughout this time. I hope to be able to send updates more frequently once I get settled in Afghanistan. Until then, I will be hoping to hear from you very soon.
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images