by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & The Early Birds & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & inally, by late October, the 101st Airborne got its orders to take over, and the Idahoans in Charlie Company knew the birds were coming -- the big twin-rotor Chinook helicopters that would start them on a journey home.
They were ready. Not counting mid-tour leave, Charlie Co. had six days off all year, Michael Kish says. It was like working a never-ending green chain with patrols, raids, heat, bugs, chaos and craziness.
"The guys felt beat," Kish says.
"Near the end of the tour, it got weird," Kevin Kincheloe says. "We had a bunch of people leave early with medical issues. I lost nine guys in second platoon [out of 28]; and the turnover date for the 101st kept getting bumped back and bumped back. And our mission tempo picked up again at the end -- guys felt fried and betrayed and nervous."
Nobody wanted to be the last casualty.
Kish was told the helicopters would arrive in the evening and he, like many in the company, wanted to come to grips with the past year. He searched for a way to say goodbye to a place that was steeped in his sweat, adrenaline, fears, triumphs and blood.
It was important to say goodbye in just the right way.
Kish, a happy warrior eager to show the National Guard to be just as high-speed as the regular Army, had been tempered by injury and death. His journals reveal the complexities: "Cannot help but to feel a bit liberal on the war," he wrote at one point. As First Sergeant, he felt the weight of 100 soldiers on his back, and to keep them safe he often had to play bad cop to the company commander's good cop.
"I always had to be the jerk," he says. But he also came away believing there is at least slim hope for the future, believing the Idaho soldiers established some small toehold.
Although quite different politically, Kincheloe is equally as complicated a figure as Kish and was also seeking time to reach terms with his departure. He opposes the war in Iraq but -- and here is a nuance here few war opponents seem to understand -- believes in the military and takes seriously his oath to serve his country. He was among the first to sign on for the deployment and was an excellent field soldier.
Kincheloe is less sanguine about the future, seeing the task force's insistence on largely fruitless home-invasion raids as turning the local populace against the Americans while doing nothing to defeat the insurgency.
But he, like Kish, made friends in Iraq, and that complicates everything.
* * *
Their separate reveries didn't last. An officer burst in on Kish to say the Chinooks had been moved up to 10:40 am. It was already quarter-after. Kish ran to tell the platoon sergeants and, even as he was leaving their quarters, heard an unmistakable sound: The Chinooks were already circling to land.
The soldiers jammed gear into their packs and raced to the landing pad. They were gone in minutes.
Kish and Kincheloe each wound up at the rear of the helicopter, sitting opposite each other and watching the landscape reel past through the open back ramp.
"A year of memories went flying by in that 15-minute flight," Kincheloe says.
Kish makes reference to the moment in his final journal entry:
"We loaded onto the birds and Kinch and I sat at the back ramp. We lifted off and McHenry disappeared as we banked hard left. I felt a little sad to know it would be the last time I would see it. Especially saying goodbye in such a rush and not getting time to take a last look and leave on my terms. As we flew, the land looked pretty and so unharsh; as it often feels rough when you are on the ground. We flew over villages I knew and ... the feeling of bittersweet grew. This was a place where so much happened in such little time and I learned so much and grew so much older.
"Iraq is ... a piece of me not many will understand and I am leaving friends behind. I look back and want to believe we did well. ... it may be years to truly tell. ... For us, home is the next real stop and rebuilding and getting to know my wife again is the objective.
"I have dreams sometimes of IEDs and death, I hope my wife understands and she is not scared of it. Time heals, so does love.