This post was originally published on https://goteamduncan.com. It has been edited from it’s original form.
I have been through five deployments to the Middle East, Iraq or Afghanistan. This story relates to one of these deployments (2009-2011 approximately 13 months), though it could have really been from any of them. They all end up similar to each other.
Most of the time I was as safe as anyone could be there. I was grounded to a compound outside the largest city in the province. It held all the typical traits of the area, namely swampland, lots of sand, clay, and, when it rained, foul smelling mud. It was home to those of us tasked to advise and assist the local security forces on how to improve their skills, take ownership of their lands and people, and make a better life for themselves.
It was also the oldest and most well known smuggling routes in the country. Not a place where real estate speculation is on an upswing, I assure you. The compound also housed many local nationals who, like us, were trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. They sacrificed their time and relationships to put themselves in harm’s way, just as we did. We shared our cultures with each other, awkwardly at times and with a level of mistrust creeping in at others. Nonetheless, we lived and worked together in the midst of the trash, the smell, the filth, and the flies. We made the best of a situation in which the average person would have said, ‘forget this place, there is no hope!’
Over the year, I experienced what you could call ‘seasons.’ Some days it was 130 degrees or more, others, I was donning my fleece jacket to ward off the cold. The rains came, sporadically at best, but as overwhelming torrents that flooded the entire area, turning everything into standing ponds of water or slick, disgusting, pigsty-style slop. Hail even graced us with its presence twice (the closest thing to snow we saw that far south). Average, comfortable, ‘nice’ days were simply not in abundance, though they did come on occasion.
When they did come, it was without warning. Often, I didn’t notice them until I got an awkward feeling that something was different. I became keenly aware that it was quieter than normal or there might be an invigorating, fresh breeze that transported me back to times when I was surrounded by nature and beauty. Images and feelings from the farm where I grew up snapped into my mind—the inner calm that always followed a warm, breezy day on the lake, laughing and telling stories, sipping a cold drink and watching the animals enact their playful rituals during perfect Spring and Autumn weather.
Even when these days refused to peek out from behind their shroud, Mother Nature had her way of subtly letting me know that she was there and that she understood. Amongst a backdrop of dirt and debris, the uncommon butterfly flitted around, sometimes taken by the breeze to wherever it may end up. Even the occasional ladybug would allow itself to be seen, nonchalantly landing on a sleeve then buzzing away just as casually.
All of this happens around you, too, regardless of where you live. I have come to believe that they happen as a test—a test that asks:
Have you lost yourself?
When was the last time you looked past the cement and glass?
When did you last open your eyes to what goes on around you?
These things are there. They can calm you—even put a lingering grin on your face. Children see them all the time. Maybe it’s time we allowed ourselves to learn from them for a change. Things of beauty are there. Open your eyes and listen to what they are saying.