One of the easiest ways to transform silence into action, writing is an ever-growing industry. A genre of its own, travel writing, has not only increased in popularity, but has also diversified the kinds of stories writers are telling. There are travelogues, adventure stories, personal essays, destination and event specific narratives and of course, travel reporting. But as my own journey as an aspiring travel writer evolves, I recognize an important gap. Where are the travel stories inspired by public service? More specifically, where are the stories about military travel? Are they not to be included in the vast range of stories informing and shaping the way we journey and explore the world? As my mother divulged her military stories, I thought of the significance of military travel and the many reasons it should be incorporated in today’s travel writing. This is her story.
“Even now, we do not talk about that night,” my mom said as she sat back in the chair, remembering the night one of her best friends almost died. Though proud of her service and country, war left too many scars, silenced too many voices and took too many lives. “We had only been there one night when it happened,” she said lost in her memories. That night, she and her regiment had officially crossed international borders. She along with the rest of the soldiers were welcomed by a pitch black sky, cool, dry temperatures and swirling grains of desert sand. Amidst all the uncertainties of military travel, two facts were certain: the mission was Operation Desert Stormand the place was Saudi Arabia.
Silence encamped the bus as it traveled along dirt roads. The distant yellow moon watched in silence as well. No one spoke, but they all had similar thoughts running through their minds: this was war and the ultimate goal was to return home--unharmed, unscathed and undamaged. As they pulled up to a small, obscure metal and tin building, their commanding officer informed them this would be their primary shelter until they received further notice. Inside, the building, which looked like an abandoned warehouse, was separated by units. Surrounded by those in the communications military occupational specialty, she grabbed the mat inside her rucksackand lay down until she heard the sound of birds. Slightly startled, she looked up and saw the birds nestled in the metal tiers of the ceiling. One flew the length of the ceiling back and forth as if to let them know he was watching over them.
“And we have birds,” one of the guys joked, pointing up toward the ceiling as everyone attempted to settle in for the night.
“You better thank God for those birds,” an older gentleman said. “In Vietnam, we loved having them around. If one of them dies, we can all be certain there is gas in the air,” he said looking up at the small creatures. Once again, silence had her way as the overwhelming reminder of war resonated in each of their minds. Corporal Smith stretched out his mat and lay down, his elbows crossed behind the back of his head, supporting his neck like a make-shift pillow. “Yeah,” he said with his raspy voice, “we all should be very glad these birds are around.” Tired, he closed his eyes and went to sleep as the birds flew back and forth.
“Never thought we would end up here huh,” Michelle said, lying down on a mat next to my mother. They had been friends for years and joined the army together. The chaplain of the group, Michelle tried to end the night with some encouragement. “But we will be alright. I have a feeling, we will be alright.”
“We really need to get some rest,” my mom replied. “We both know we have to get up early in the morning,” she said turning to face her friend. “And yes, I am sure we will be alright,” she said resting on her back and watching the birds. As she closed her eyes, she prayed silently, asking God to keep them safe.
The first missile passed over the metal structure around 2:00 a.m., awaking everyone suddenly and fearfully.
But in a matter of seconds, the situation grew worse as sirens echoed throughout the building and the birds stopped flying. The loud, searing noise alerted every single soldier. They all knew exactly what was going on. Basic training had taught them the meaning of that particular siren: poisonous gas was in the air. Fear taunted everyone in the room as time ticked away. They had mere seconds to put on their suits and masks. Seconds between life and death. Grabbing her pants in a hurry, my mom moved hastily. With her pants and boots on, she yanked the chemical protective jacket out of her rucksack. Milliseconds passed as she grabbed the mask and prepared to put it on. There was no time to spare. Pulling the mask down over her face, she looked up and noticed Michelle standing in absolute shock. She did not move and her eyes, wide with fear, did not blink.
“Michelle!” my mom yelled as she continued connecting her mask. Sirens blared in the background. “Michelle” my mom yelled again, staring into the face of her best friend. As she finished putting her maskon, she shook her friend violently hoping the seconds ticking away would grant Michelle mercy. As she threw the gas mask over her friend’s face, the sirens stopped. The entire building seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.
“Clear,” the commanding officer said. “Everyone can remove their masks now.” The birds chirped as if nothing had happened, as if they and Michelle had not almost died a slow, painful and gasping for air kind of death. The air slowly returned to Michelle’s lungs and her heart finally decided to pump blood back through her veins. After about a minute, she exhaled. They stared at each other in shock. Without saying a word, my mom threw the gas mask off and stormed outside. Mixed with oil, dirt and grime, the air was not as fresh as she had hoped. Nevertheless, she inhaled gratitude and exhaled agony.
Hours passed as the two women tip-toed around each other. No words exchanged, just silent glances and random nods. Within 24 hours, the dynamics of their relationship had changed. Neither of them wanted the sun to set on their anger, but the right words seemed impossible to find. Finally, my mom uttered the only words she could think of, “from now on, we are sleeping in our pants.”
“Yeah,” Michelle said. “We never know,” she said softly, her words trailing off into oblivion.
“But we can know how to put on this suit on,” my mom replied, getting up and handing Michelle a jacket and a gas mask. Michelle took the items in her hands. Smiling and whispering a quiet thanks, the women resealed their friendship. Determined more than ever to return home safely, they put the suit and mask on and off for hours until they had both mastered the skill in an appropriate amount of time.
“We will be alright,” my mom said, watching Michelle suit up and put on her mask in less than a minute.
“Yes, God has been watching over us already,” Michelle replied, taking off the equipment for what probably felt like the hundredth time. “Good thing we are only staying here one night,” she said while packing up her suit, mat, equipment and BDUs (battle dress uniforms). They had just been informed by the commanding officer that they would be moving to another disclosed location.
As the women boarded two separate buses, they promised to pray for each other. My mom boarded the bus with other medical specialists as they headed toward the Saudi Arabian and Iraqi border. Michelle, would meet up with other chaplains already stationed in the area. There, she would receive further instruction. As the two buses drove away, the night sky turned a bright fiery red as three missiles hit the metal building. The fire, blazing wildly, ignited a fire in my mother to stay alive and to speak up when necessary. Silence could and would not ensure her survival. Thinking about her most recent conversation with Michelle, she finished the conversation in the space of her own mind: yes, good thing we only stayed one night. He really has been watching over us.
Despite their role as medical specialists, none of the soldiers were ready for the chaos that met them at the Saudi Arabian and Iraqi border.
Maimed bodies, covered in blood, waited for medical attention. But there was no hospital, no medical clinic, no building at all. Instead, exhausting heat and countless cries for help stretched across an endless amount of sand.
“Gather the tents and move the bodies inside,” one of the senior specialists said. “Start with the women and children.”
As she helped to assemble the tents together, my mother moved towards a young Saudi Arabian boy. Tears gushed from his eyes as he sat alone. The cut on his forehead caused blood to stream down his face. His legs, twisted in an unnatural position, were covered in rubble. A small piece of wood was lodged in his left foot.
“Hello,” my mother said gently. “I am here to help” she continued, reaching for the gash on his forehead, but he retreated from her touch. Hearing him mumble in Arabic, she was reminded of the language barrier. As she attempted try to communicate further, her sergeant walked up behind her.
“An American young man has just arrived. He needs immediate attention. It is a possible amputation, but he is losing a lot of blood.”
“I will be right there,” she replied, grabbing the hand of the young boy.
“As Americans,” he said “we are here to provide immediate care for citizens of our country.” He looked at the young boy with slight disdain. “Remember why and for whom we are here.”
“But we are here to provide medical care,” she interrupted.”Sir,” she corrected herself, “Sergeant Nelson told us to take care of the women and children first.”
“This is war. Never forget that” he said. “Tough decisions have to be made.” Comforting the young boy while promising to bring him medicine, she headed into the tent where the young American awaited medical attention. But when she arrived, she found the tent full of specialists already at work.
“Sir, since this man is being taken care of, I would like to help some of the children.”
“We are needed here. This man could very well die and we,” he said emphasizing the word “we”, “are his family,” he continued. The young man squealed in pain. “It is our responsibility to ensure we have enough resources for people of priority.”
“Americans, right,” my mom questioned. Without answering, he stared at the scene before him. The young man choked on blood while the cartilage in his leg remained exposed to the dry air. As he cried out in agony, the beautiful Saudi Arabian landscape absorbed the pains of war.
The sun set quietly upon the make-shift hospital. Though the tents all looked the same, segregation was eminent. Iraqis were in one tent. Saudi Arabians were in another. Americans were given specialized care.
Bothered by it all, my mother told me she eventually went to talk to a chaplain.
“There is no real preparation for war,” she said staring straight ahead. “No medical training can prepare you for all the blood you see,” she continued. “I kept looking at those people, those so-called enemies and I felt for them, I understood their pain, but it was war.” Quieted by her own words, she hesitated for a moment. “I went to the chaplain because I needed to talk to someone. I did not want to amputate legs that did not need to be removed—even if they were the enemy. In war,” she said pausing, “nothing is as black and white as it seems. It is all gray and every decision haunts my memory. Is this right or is this wrong? Should I or should I not? The chaplain listened closely, but he did not say much.”
What he did say, was an opportunity for my mother to decide her own moral fiber.
“He told me I could file conscientious objector,” she stated. “He said it would exempt me from performing any kind of service that went against my own moral judgement.”
As if filing the paperwork was a disgrace to the American Army, my mother was assigned latrine duty. But ironically, she had more peace of mind as she was once again reminded that all human beings are essentially the same. “We all breathed the same air. We were all fighting to survive. We were all flawed.”
“Eventually,” she added, “I decorated the make-shift bathroom stall with cartoons from old newspapers. It was a time in my life I will never forget.” Though she never said it, I thought it as I imagined watching her paste cartoons around a toilet surrounded by palm trees, hills and distant mountains. We all bleed and we all laugh. Despite the inevitability of war, I hope one day, amputated morals can become whole.
“I did what I had to do to survive,” my mom said. “We all did.”
“I used to walk the desert in my free time. Just to breathe and get away for a while,” my mother said when I asked her about her time in Saudi Arabia. “I really enjoyed walking the terrain at night. It might not have been the safest way to get some peace and quiet, but it worked for me,” she said, focusing on one particular evening.
Darkness took over the night sky. The temperatures dropped from 100 degrees to what felt like five degrees below zero, but that did not stop her. As if the pitch black sky welcomed her into its depths, she left camp with the approval of her commanding officer.
“I will not be gone long. Just want to clear my head,” she informed him. Grabbing her weapon, she walked into the darkness. After strolling for about two miles, she heard a noise. Her senses alerted, she stepped carefully across the sand.
The overwhelming darkness made her feel as if she were blind. Using her ears as her eyes, she proceeded onward, loading her weapon just in case. She heard the noise again; it was definitely footsteps. Whoever it was, she was ready for combat.
“Friend or foe,” she asked, her weapon pointed straight forward. There was no reply. A gentle wind caused tiny grains of sand to swirl around in the air. But then she heard it one more—footsteps, slowly advancing forward. “Friend or foe,” she repeated loudly, cocking her weapon this time.
“Friend,” the voice said. A tall man, appearing out of the darkness, stepped toward her with his hands up in surrender.
“I am with the fifth brigade of the U.S. Army, Operation Desert Shield working in conjunction with Operation Desert Storm. Sergeant Darrius Franklin.”
“Sorry, sir. Private First Class Gilmore, Medical and Communication Specialist assigned to Operation Desert Storm,” she said lowering her weapon, but not her suspicions.
“It is dangerous out here. Where is your squad?”
“About two miles southeast sir,” she replied. As the tension eased, they began to talk. She told him about the kinds of the incidents that occurred at the make-shift hospital, how “enemies” were sometimes given medicine that would result in their death, how race, culture and ethnicity came into play.
“War,” he said slowly, “brings out the best or worst in people.”
“That is why I went to see a chaplain. I felt numb, cold and distant, but I did not want to be that way.” Pointing toward a church just a few miles north, Sergeant Darrius Franklin continued encouraging my mother.
“We all seem to forget sometimes, that too often in life, attitude determines altitude. The way we see the world,” he said “determines what we see.” After talking for a few more minutes, he headed back to his unit, reminding her that she had the power to make her time in Saudi Arabia memorable or horrible.
The cool breeze helped my mother relax as she headed back to her camp.
She thought of Michelle, hoping that she too had meet people like Sergeant Franklin. Walking up towards the make-shift hospital, she was more than grateful for the private conversations and moments that helped her through the day.
“I am not sure I will ever return to Saudi Arabia,” my mother told me, “but I will never forget the place.
The sand has this magical way about it. It is mesmerizing to say the least. When I remember my time there, I think of the call to prayer playing loudly in the midst of war.”
“It is a special kind of place. I wish I had experienced the entire country before the war began,” she said quietly, pausing in between words. As she described the place from her memories, she fed my desire to go without even knowing it.
“There are two life lessons from war,” she said interrupting my thoughts. “The first is that anyone can lose everything in a matter of seconds, so cherish it all: the good, the bad and the ugly. The second is to never forget the first.”
Though I have never been in war, I have felt its repercussions. I am reminded of them every time I travel overseas because my mother and I rarely see eye to eye when it comes to travel. An explorer by nature, I am more than prone to hop on a plane and visit some of my favorite places in Central America, Asia and the Middle East.
My mom on the other, hand is cautious, almost always preferring to travel domestically. Life, of course, has taught us different lessons. As Kenneth Burke, writes in Language as a Symbolic Action, we view travel through various terministic screens. Where I tend to think of travel as a term that brings objects, cultures, and people together, her experience in the military has shown her that the same term (particularly when mandated by the government) can unfortunately, rip cultures and nations apart. But as we grow older, we learn to look through each other’s viewpoints from time to time. I learn the significance of a woman’s voice sharing her military stories. She sees the beauty of the world through pictures of my adventures. Together, we cross borders—rhetorical, geographical, emotional and intellectual borders. We also cross literary borders.
In The Best American Travel Writing, Jason Wilson writes that he hopes the anthology shows readers “love as well as fear and suffering and travail,” because that is what travel does: it opens our eyes to the full depth, height and width of our world. With opened eyes, we see more clearly, understand with greater awareness and love beyond borders.
Military travel is life-changing; it is full of stories that see the world from a different lens. This same lens can help create a more civil world and simultaneously, more civil writing. Through war, my mom was reminded of the universality of humanity in a broken and divided world. But she also encountered the kindness of strangers. Those memories, etched in her mind are the kinds of stories Wilson references. They are memories full of the best elements of travel writing: unforgettable people and lessons in unforgettable places.
Whether she knows it or not, my mother’s travels, though mandated by war, inspire me to travel write—forever memories passed on from one generation to the next.