[Reprinted from the New York Times by permission of the author]
At an outpost surrounded by blast walls and scrub brush, I huddled in an auditorium with two dozen other airmen to watch the Super Bowl streamed via a jerry-built cellphone Wi-Fi connection.
“We probably have a worse broadcast than Kandahar,” said a senior airman after images of troops at one of the largest NATO bases in Afghanistan flashed on the screen during the national anthem. Others cheered at the sight of military members backing up the singer. Several in the room stood as the music played.
Many laughed at the comment since we weren’t serving on the Afghan frontier. We were safe at Camp Anderson-Peters, an Air Force compound in the middle of a military training facility just outside San Antonio, within view of multimillion-dollar homes that some said belonged to the singer George Strait and several Spurs basketball players. As students in the Air Force’s 10-day Combat Airman Skills Training, we found ourselves in a sort of limbo — neither at home nor war.
For some, the training served as the last stop before heading overseas. Others would get a few days or weeks at their home bases before beginning their tour. Most in the class had deployed before, if not multiple times, but this would be the first for more than a few.
Regardless, the simulated deployment offered the first tangible sign that we had hit the pause button on our lives back home for the next six to eight months.
The Super Bowl fell midway through the course on small unit tactics, communications, land navigation, combat casualty care, convoy operations, threat awareness and weapons, all taught by a cadre of noncommissioned officers with countless deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. “Our goal is to teach you so you’re able to do what you need to do downrange so you come home in one piece,” they told us on the first day.
“No Air Force flyover, just Army helicopters,” said a staff sergeant as we watched the pregame festivities. “Budget cuts.”
A few laughs hinted at the reality that nearly all of us were vulnerable to the possibility of losing our jobs as the Air Force looks to cut 23,263 people in the next year. Those being forced out could get the news while still deployed.
A collective “Awwwww” rose from the crowd each time the stream halted and buffered. One airman yelled, “Don’t use the microwave, man, it’s jamming our signal!”
Ranking from junior enlisted to full-bird colonels, and even Defense Department civilians, we represented a cross-section of the service with jobs including pilot, bandsman, intelligence, communications, public affairs, engineer, scientist, mental health and chaplain. Clad in a mix of camouflage and physical training outfits, with M-4 carbines and M-9 pistols, we ate hot dogs and hamburgers, drank water from Camelbaks and watched the game on a screen bookended by an American flag and a display of fake improvised explosive devices.
Just yards from our makeshift party, floodlights illuminated a flagpole and a stone memorial bearing the names of eight airmen who had completed similar training at the camp in previous years and died serving in Iraq. Many of our instructors knew one or more of the fallen. A few had been with them when they died. One instructor said, “I’ve got 15,000 miles of Iraq convoy time, been blown up six or seven times.”
We represented bases and hometowns from across the globe, and many of these airmen were in elementary school when the war in Afghanistan began.
“Who are the Red Hot Chili Peppers?” a young female airman first class asked during the halftime show.
“That song was huge in ’91,” said a major.
“Oh, that was before I was born,” the airman replied.
After halftime, the crowd started to thin out. They moved on with their night into cold tents to sleep or Skype with loved ones in a sort of preseason scrimmage of trying to stay connected to their families in the months to come.
For the uninitiated, this offered a preview of expeditionary life, and for the veterans, a reminder of spending time away from home, of lugging weapons, wrestling body armor, living communally, having minimal privacy, eating mediocre food, having to obey dozens of rules and worrying about the unknown. Anderson-Peters even mimicked forward bases in that it had contractors working around the camp.
When the Denver Broncos scored their first points, in the third quarter, the commentator’s words resonated: “This is the first of many two-point conversions required,” and “they have a long, long, long way to go.”
In the midst of the American drawdown in Afghanistan, after more than 12 years of war, we could be among the last United States forces headed into the country. We’re headed overseas against the current. We have a long, long way to go.
After Budweiser’s “A Hero’s Welcome” commercial, a senior airman said: “What’s with all the military commercials? It’s like they’re trying to make the war cool again.”
These words ricocheted in my head. To me, they acknowledged that our Afghanistan odyssey drones on in the background of our national dialogue. They underscored that a vast majority of Americans have no connection with the military, especially the 37,500 service members still serving in Afghanistan. They argued that commercials, tributes and ceremonies were no substitute for a meaningful conversation about the war. They showed that young Americans who joined the military after 9/11 know that their country isn’t really paying attention.
As Peyton Manning hung his head and skulked off the field in a shower of blue and green confetti at the end of the game, I couldn’t help but think of the cleanup crew at the Meadowlands. I pictured hundreds of uniformed workers rushing in as the crowd flooded out. In my mind, I watched them struggle against the garbage of the thousands who came for the big game, made a mess and just walked away when time ran out.
Brandon Lingle served in Iraq and Afghanistan as a public affairs officer. His nonfiction was noted in “The Best American Essays 2010 and 2013,” and he is an editor of War, Literature & the Arts, published by the United States Air Force Academy. He is an active-duty Air Force major stationed in California. You can follow him on Twitter. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, Department of Defense or United States government.