“Don’t want to send them home dirty.”

the fold IIImage by beccaxsos via Flickr

Air Force Reserve
Major Richard C. Sater
was activated for a one-year tour of duty in support of the war on terrorism in May 2003. He was initially assigned to 4th Air Force, March Air Reserve Base, California. In September 2003, he deployed to Afghanistan for seven months in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, assigned first to Combined Joint Task Force 180 at Bagram Air Base; and later to Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, Kabul. He kept a journal during the deployment, from which the following is extracted. On the civilian side, he has been a college professor of English and the arts and a classical music announcer for a National Public Radio affiliate station.

Notes from a JournalAfghanistan, 11 Sept 2003-7 Apr 2004
was published in War, Literature & the Arts Journal (public domain material). Richard C. Sater is currently a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

28 Nov. 2003: SPIN

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan—

Usually I spend as little time as possible in the laundry room, stuffing things into two washers and then bolting for forty-five minutes. This night, as I mea­sure soap powder and wait for the tubs to fill, a gentleman comes in—tall, lanky, generously mustached, with sad eyes the color of hazelnuts—with three bags of laundry. Small ones, with little in them.

He wears a desert-tan flight suit, the two-piece kind, with no markings on it, identifying him by not identifying him as special-forces air crew. I introduce myself. He gives me a single name: Diz. I don’t ask for more, not wanting to put him in a position of not wanting to say more. His words colored with British, he says he is an MH-53 gunner. I extend my ignorant sympathies to him for the crash, and he shakes his head, disgusted.

“It was a re-supply mission,” he says. “Not even a combat sortie.” Had the crash occurred during a combat mission—even if the helicopter had been forced down by enemy fire—he would not be as troubled. One can make peace with such things under war. But such cost for an ordinary re-supply mission insults all who fly and fight.

Three colleagues lost. Friends, perhaps, at least brothers-in-arms. And somehow or other, the task has fallen to Diz of doing the laundry of these three, prior to sending their personal effects to their families. “Don’t want to send them home dirty,” he says.

I listen, since he seems to want someone to. He tells me a little about the deceased crew members. One was divorced, he says; one was a recent father and another had teenaged children. Through wash and rinse and spin and tumble dry, I stay with him, each of us sitting on the edge of a dryer, our feet hanging down. The air smells of fabric-softener sheets; the rhythmic click of buttons and the soft thud of damp clothes turning underneath us punctuate his story.
Carefully, he folds his three bags of clothing, mundane socks and undershirts, some gym shorts, uncommon only because they’re forced to bear the weight of wasted potential, of the price extracted for freedom to endure. Courteously, gravely, we shake hands. I would like to meet him again, I tell him before he departs, and he says the same. But we will not (one of the less remarkable costs of deployment, though such things will empty one’s pockets eventually).

And he goes.