At long last we have arrived at Combat Outpost Lowell, but whatever relief I may feel at reaching our destination is tempered by knowledge of the certain danger we face here. Lowell is as far out as US forces go in this part of the world, and the degree of isolation faced by the soldiers here is something that anyone who has traveled here can attest to: my own experience in getting to Lowell certainly backs up this claim.
Our flight began, as many flights do, with a seemingly endless series of delays that stretched on for days. When at last the time came for our flight we approached the event with a bizarre mixture of cautious optimism and a sort of serene negativity: we were so certain that fate would again conspire against us that we treated any hope of actually getting there as extravagant thinking.
But sure enough, we found ourselves on the flightline at FOB Bostick, waiting for our helicopters to come in. The sun was just setting, and though we knew the helicopters would not be arriving until dark, we were hopeful that we would only be waiting an hour or two.
Five and a half hours later, as I stood listening to the sound of the helicopters echo across the valley floor, I realized how good I had become at waiting. The sun set and the moon rose, dusk-colored shadows cast by its silvery glow in the darkness. It is not until you sit in moonlight for many hours that you realize how bright it really is, how your eyes can adjust to the details and shades of its white light in ways that seem impossible by the light of day.
The stars that cloak the sky above are thoughtful; it is easy to lie on one’s back for hours and hours, picking out constellations and planets one by one, thinking thoughts that grow in profundity with each gathering second. A shooting star races through your field of view, a red smear that seems shocking when first glimpsed, but childhood touchstones are remembered and a wish is made. And then another streak in the sky is glimpsed, and another wish is made; the cycle repeats itself, again and again, until you realize with a start that you have run out of wishes, and are not sure what that says.
Like I said, these were thoughtful stars.
The helicopters came winging into the landing pad, kicking up a cloud of dust visible even in the darkness. As the helicopter’s blades scythed through the cloud a curious sight emerged: a static charge built upon the blades, and wide, white circles appeared where the helicopters set down, electric halos flickering in the night. I stared at them as we marched to the rear of the aircraft, exhausted but still aware.
We were crammed into the back of the chopper in a manner that cattle would find objectionable, but after the endless waiting were just glad to be aboard. We took off in darkness, and it seemed as though momentum ceased. We had no way of measuring motion or distance, we could have hung in the air a handful of feet away without ever being the wiser.
This made the landing at Lowell all the more abrupt, and as we stumbled out into the landing zone I stared at the enormous shadows that loomed over me. Mountains, mountains on all sides; Lowell sat in the bottom of a bowl, and the peaks overhead crowded the sky. I looked up at the sky, at the stars once more; from here on out, I would be keeping my head down.