I’m Not In Kansas Anymore!

The Wizard of Oz characters - the Lion, Dorothy, Scarecrow, and Tin Man

19MAR2011. If someone told me that I’d be moving AGAIN a few months after uprooting my entire life from Northern California (SF Bay Area, to be exact), I would’ve laughed hysterically…then cried. According to the Life Change Index, moving is a stressful event, so is a job change, marriage, death of a loved one, and divorce, among others. (Shit, I had experienced the first three in the last six months.) So much had happened that I didn’t have time to think, let alone process the physical and psychological impacts (but lucky for me, I’m quite resilient and these were not the worst life changes).

Arlington, Virginia was just starting to feel like home, even though I had virtually no family in the area. And yet here I was, about to board a plane for Kansas – a place that I associated with a red, sequined shoe-wearing Dorothy and her dog, Toto. That’s about all the thought I’d given Kansas – a state often referred to as a “flyover” one by those darn elitist East and West coasters (totally rude, I know).

[On the drive to the airport.] 

Husband: You’re so quiet, are you okay?

Me: Yeah, I’m fine…it’s just surreal. I hate that I’m moving again. I don’t know what to expect. I hope it goes well.

Husband: It’ll be great. What an experience! And you’ll be home before you know it. Just be safe, okay.

Me: I’ll try my best not to die or kill anyone.

I was lost in thought but tried to remain engaged in the conversation we were having. But my mind kept drifting. I felt somewhat numb, and the closer we got to the airport, the more anxious I became. At that moment, I felt alone. I was bothered that my husband was so laissez-faire about the whole thing. He was too calm as far as I was concerned. Why wasn’t he more concerned? (Clearly, he missed the part about a year-long deployment to one of the most dangerous parts of the world!)

Truth is, I wanted him NOT to let me go. I wanted a very different reaction. I wanted him to tell me that he couldn’t bear the thought of me being in a war zone and loved me too much to let me go. But instead, he was too supportive (did he just not love me enough to want me to stay?). Was it wrong that I wanted him to fight for us? We hadn’t even had time to nest properly as newlyweds. He wasn’t making me go, but it felt that way. (But let’s be clear, I made the decision to take the job, no one made me do it, so if I make it sound as if this was done to me, imposed upon me, it wasn’t. Plus, he’s not a bad guy. But I could feel the resentment building…)

As I said goodbye to my husband and made my way through security, I felt even more numb. The experience was akin to the one in April 2001: awaiting to board a flight to San Diego to attend my maternal grandmother’s funeral, who’d passed away quite suddenly. (Okay, maybe this experience wasn’t exactly the same. I wasn’t flying to Kansas for a funeral, but on some level, I knew this too was going to be a life-changing experience. I knew I’d come back changed in ways I couldn’t anticipate at the time.)

When I got to the gate, I called my mom. Her tone was somber as she asked about what I’d packed, and where I’d be staying once I landed in Kansas. She gave her usual talk about praying to God for protection and safety, remaining vigilant, not trusting people too quickly, and making sure I ate properly. In her mind, this was my flight to Afghanistan. I reassured her that I’d be fine and that this was just the first leg of the journey and that I wasn’t even sure I’d actually deploy.

She was very supportive of my initial trip to Afghanistan in May 2002 – a trip I took with a dozen other people including medical doctors, non-profit directors, and ex-pats – all with the desire to do some good for Afghans in Kabul. It was the Spring before the start of my Ph.D. program, and the initial trip just fell into my lap (how could I NOT go?!?!?!). My dad, on the other hand, was quite livid. He didn’t speak to me for days, but eventually, he came around.

Red high heels with red-and-white stripe stockings.

It was a short 2.5-hour flight to Kansas. Well technically, the airport was in Missouri and a third of the size of the airports I was used to flying to/from (San Francisco, Oakland, Dulles, Dallas Ft. Worth, Chicago, Boston, Dubai,…). It was the first trip where I wasn’t being picked up by family or friends. I was on my own. But hey, Missouri was not a foreign land and people spoke English…go figure!

The recruiters at XYZ Defense were quite thorough and had supplied us with tons of information before arriving for training. We had a posh setup – each of us had our own hotel room and a rental car. (Those joining the program a couple of years later had a very different set up: they lived in corporate apartments with 2-3 people to a room – single-sex of course, and were shuttled around in vans.)

As I boarded the bus to the car rental area, that feeling of numbness returned. It felt like I was watching myself from a distance – an actor in a movie. A movie that seemed intriguing and emotionally-suspenseful enough to maintain interest. The rollercoaster of emotions was now taking hold; with fear, anxiety, indifference, and sadness dominating. (What the hell am I doing? Wait, this isn’t so bad. See, the roads ARE paved. Am I really in Kansas? What if I die in Afghanistan? Well, I can always quit and go back to Virginia if it’s too much. Would that make me a quitter? Shit! Who cares, it’s better than dying.) 

On the ride over, I turned my phone on and called my mom. If nothing else quelled my anxiety in times when I was out of my comfort zone, talking to my mom always did. She was happy to hear that I’d survived the flight to Kansas.

I shoved my luggage into the rental car and headed to the hotel. To my surprise, it was a 5-minute drive, which meant that I probably should’ve picked a hotel closer to the worksite. But this place had a townhouse feel to it. It was a sprawling property with lots of trees, manicured lawns, BBQ pits, a pool, gym, laundry facilities, and meeting rooms. Each 2-story building was composed of a cluster of suites, and the 2nd-floor units all had balconies.

The front desk attendant was kind enough to help me with my luggage, carrying the heaviest one up the stairs to my 2nd floor suite (I gave him a proper tip!). The suite was pretty big and looked like a studio apartment with a full kitchen (not that I’m much of a cook, but still, I wanted the option).

Me: Thanks for helping me! One last thing, how’s the weather here?

Front Desk Attendant: Ask me in an hour. [Chuckling.]

Me: Wait, what? I’m sorry, I’m a bit dense, what does that mean?

Front Desk Attendant: It means it constantly changes. Yeah, it’s hot in the Summer and cold in the Winter, but in the Spring, we get lots of rain and tornados. So always have an umbrella, okay? Like keep it in your car, or your bag…you’ll be fine. It’s just water.

Me: Yeah okay. Thanks.

Once I got done wiping just about everything in my room with disinfectant wipes (yes, I’m THAT person), I headed to the nearest grocery store and stocked up on some water and snacks. It was Saturday afternoon, so I still had time to acclimate before I showed up at 0800 in the lobby on Sunday to fill out initial paperwork. But I officially started work/training on Monday, 21 March.

It had been a long day, and I was pooped. I wanted to get enough sleep before tomorrow’s meeting. I called my mom, then my husband, before I called it a night. I showered and plopped into bed, channel-surfed, said some prayers, and zonked out.