A Walk in Darkness…life after combat and the move to Europe…unedited…

Given that it was early morning by the time I found my bags, loaded it into our vehicle and made our way home, I wasn’t tired.

Once home, my children played in the living room while I put my gear away. My wife and children met me in the living room. We talked for a couple of hours and the kids dozed off to sleep. Then, my wife and I was alone.

“What happened over there?”

I started to answer, but she put her hand up and shook her head. 

“No. Don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.”

We went to bed, but I couldn’t find rest. About six in the morning, I slipped from our bed and curled up in the corner of the room and fell right asleep. 

I dreamt of war, of dead children, and of losing my weapon. Without opening my eyes, I patted the floor for my weapon. There was nothing there, and I bolted from the floor.

“Where’s my weapon! Dear God in Heaven, where…”

From the bed my wife whispered, “what’s going on?”

“My weapon. I can’t find it.”

My wife sat up and gave me this crazy look, her hair hung in her eyes, and she said, “baby you are home. You turned your weapon in last night.”

I looked around the room, and realized she spoke the truth. I wasn’t in Iraq; I was in my house on Fort Hood. She came over to me and sat beside me. 

“It’s okay. You’re not over there anymore. Whatever happened there, it’s over. Come on, I hear the television in the living room. The girls are up.”

“Yeah. Let me wash my face.”

I ran hot water over a tan washcloth and wiped my face and ran it over my bald head. 

“Whatever happened over there, it’s over.” I tried to believe her, but I knew the sins of my past would visit me soon. Heck, I hadn’t been home a full day, and they’d already shown up in my dreams. 

I walked into the living room and put on my best smile. My daughters played with each other, but when I tried to join in, my youngest hightailed it away for her mother. 

Life returned to normal, well as close to normal as it gets, and I came home for lunch every day. One day, I had turned on Tom and Jerry, when I heard the patter of small feet. 

My youngest daughter walked over and sat down next to me. She squealed at the antics of Jerry and pointed her chubby finger at the screen. I nodded and laughed with her. Elation flooded over me. I was no longer a stranger; I was her dad. 

Less than a month later, we loaded our small family on a plane and traveled to our new home in Germany.

None of us had ever traveled overseas before, so the entire experience was new. I tried to rest because I knew as soon as we landed, life would get hectic. 

My daughters and wife watched movies, while I dozed. I’d wake up periodically and catch them napping. After what seemed like an eternity, the captain came across the speakers telling us to prepare for landing. 

The stewards/stewardesses checked to make sure we had buckled in, and then sat down. Moments later, we landed and began to gather our carry-on luggage.

As we disembarked, two soldiers stood at the entrance of the terminal. 

“Hey,” one of them said. “Orders?”

I handed them to the senior of the two soldiers. He nodded and looked them over.

“You will catch a bus that will take you to your destination. It’ll get here in three or four hours. You’ve got time to grab chow. The bus will pull up right outside here.”

We bought some snacks and sat outside, and we took in our first sights of our new home. My family and I watched as people bustled to and fro in the busy airport. 

It seemed like any of the other busy airports I had landed at, with the only exception that people spoke in German. The hours passed by quick-like and soon we boarded the bus and started for the small town of Illesheim, located in Northern Bavaria. 

What they failed to tell us was that the long international flight, would end with a long bus ride to many Army posts before we ever arrived to Storck Barracks.

Two exhausted children later, we finally made it to our new base. The bus pulled in front of a tiny building. One lone sergeant stood outside of it and waited for the passengers to offload. 

“Are you Sergeant Freeman?”

“I am,” I said and extended my hand to him. “You are…”

“I’m your sponsor. I have squared you away with a house and bought you some groceries that should last the weekend. If you need anything, here’s my number.”

I was blown away by the generosity of this sergeant. Nowhere I had been before had this kind of reception. He nodded at the building and said, “let’s get you inprocessed.”

We took care of the majority of my paperwork and got me set up with what’s known as ‘German Headstart.’ It’s a two-week course to get you familiarized with living in a foreign country.

According to the memories I have, and those of my family, it was the beginning of August when we arrived. After two weeks of training to live in Germany, I reported to my unit in the middle or end of August.

Just in time to find myself promoted to E-5/Sergeant. Not only was I living in a country where I had no previous experience, I worked in a brand-new type of unit with no previous job experience. 

And now, I had to learn the job, and learn how to lead troops who knew I had no idea what was going on. On my first day in the unit, I was called into the Platoon Sergeant’s office. A tired looking man sat behind the desk and waved me to the seat.

“How are you doing, Sergeant Freeman?”

“Um, I’m making it, sergeant.”

“Tell me what you’ve done prior to coming here.”

I laid out my experience as succinctly as I could, and he nodded. 

“Do you know the first rule of leadership, Freeman?”

“I guess not, sergeant.”

“The first rule is to make a decision.”

“Okay,” I said. 

I was getting flustered with this conversation because it seemed to go nowhere. Besides rubbing my nose in the knowledge that I had never done this type of work; I couldn’t see a point.

“Most of these people around here can’t make decisions, because their afraid of being wrong. Don’t be that guy, Freeman. Decide and stick to your guns.”

“Even when wrong, sergeant?”

“Especially when you are wrong. It’s not going to kill you to make mistakes.”

I nodded and finished our meeting. Then, I set out to be the best buck sergeant I knew to be. Everything was fine until my first field problem with the platoon.

Grafenwoehr Training Area was the site chosen for this field problem. We set out the Forward Arming and Refuel Point, and I learned as I did it. 

But that wasn’t enough for some folks. A round robin type of training event, to call it impromptu is an insult to spontaneity, was called to show up the new sergeant. I knew the purpose of this training event, and it made me angry. Instead of confronting me with their hatred, they went out of their way to show me how I didn’t fit in, and to make matters worse, they did it in front of the lower enlisted.

I watched as soldiers changed nozzles, opened and shut valves, and then one of the more loud and opinionated sergeants, called me out in front of the lower enlisted. 

“You’re just one of the joes until you do it. I don’t care what your rank says.” 

The section sergeant snickered, the lower enlisted howled with laughter. I flashed crimson, my temper skyrocketed, but I kept my mouth shut.  

Then, I showed them I learned my job. Even with me showing them I understood the job, it wasn’t enough to keep them off my back. 

From day one in Germany, my stress grew exponentially. To make matters worse, that night I backed a fuel vehicle into another and damaged both pumps in the trucks. 

Even now, I am embarrassed about it. People rushed out screaming and cursing, and then my section sergeant (the one who snickered earlier) put me at parade rest and cussed me a blue streak. In front of the lower enlisted. My temper continued to rise, but I kept my tongue. 

“That’s enough, sergeant. I’ll take it from here.”

My platoon sergeant stepped out of the shadows and motioned for me to sit on the berm. My section sergeant was livid, but he had no choice but to head back to the tent.

I sat on the berm and waited for my night to get worse. The platoon sergeant came over and sat down beside me.

“I’m proud of you, Freeman.”

“Are you kidding? I just destroyed two trucks, my section sergeant…”

“Cussed you out? Yeah, I know. He’s biased, but he didn’t see what I saw.”

“And what did you see, sergeant?”

“I saw a man make a decision, and he didn’t throw his troops under the bus. Not even when you could have blamed them for the mistake.” 

He got up and left me sitting there on that berm. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a defining moment in my career. 

“Make a decision, and then stick by your guns.”

Those words became my creed, and I followed it until my last day in the army. By the end of the field problem, I had earned my troops respect, and even those who hated me had to admit that I had an aptitude for refueling aircraft. 

The army is different in Europe. I reckon because there’s so much to see and do. Every weekend was filled with some type of fest, castles to explore, and nothing was out of driving range. 

I was about six months into my contract for Europe when we received orders to deploy to Iraq. My platoon and I became serious about training for warfare. Once again, I prepared myself for another foray into the fires of hell. 

This time with an unproven group of non-combat soldiers, and this time it would be for fifteen months.

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