ser·en·dip·i·ty [ser-uhn-dip-i-tee] -noun
1. an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident.
2. good fortune; luck: the serendipity of getting the first job she applied for.
I’m sweating despite the snow on the ground. I’m at the wheel of my humvee, silently begging the platoon leader on my right to stop the banter that gets us through most long missions. The missions are routine now, a year into a 16-month deployment to Afghanistan, but I still hate this drive.
A photographer from a national magazine rides with my infantry platoon up into the mountains of Eastern Afghanistan, in the Omna district. At some point during the trip — as we inch up the vertigo-inducing, narrow switchbacks, hugging a road that ascends three thousand meters from the valley — the photographer snaps a photo. I don’t talk to him at all during the trip.
Going to Omna always made me nervous. Going up was fine, I guess. Coming down involved wearing night vision goggles to navigate a muddy and slick road when there was always something. I wasn’t sure if I’d really checked the brake fluid, or changed the batteries in my goggles. A mistake meant my squad would descend the few thousand meters to the valley very fast, for the last time. Oh, yeah, we could also get shot at. I am a bad driver.
Months later, the photo I never gave a second thought to is published. It shows an Afghan man on a motorbike looking down through the magnificent, scary panorama at the humvees snaking their way up towards Omna from the wide valley of Paktika province. My folks buy a few copies of the magazine for my scrapbook and we all go on with our lives.
I’m behind a desk at Fort Monroe, Virginia, counting the days until I get out of the Army and wondering what I’m going to do after I take off my uniform. I’ll go back to college, I guess, but I need something else, some plan, right? I’m well-educated, well-read, and in-shape — but utterly devoid of any useful skills or qualifications suitable to long-term employment.
I can walk all night through mountains wearing 80 pounds of gear. I can shoot a grenade into a window at 300 meters. I can set up a radio that broadcasts encrypted messages off a satellite. I can speak, read and write some Pashto, an interesting and nuanced language (though my vocabulary contains little poetry and much violence).
“When my three-year enlistment expired in 1967, I was almost completely ignorant about the stuff of ordinary life, about marriage, mortgages, and building a career,” Philip Caputo wrote in his Vietnam memoir, “A Rumor of War.” “I had a degree, but no skills. I had never run an office, taught a class, built a bridge, welded, programmed a computer, laid bricks, sold anything, or operated a lathe. But I had acquired some expertise in the art of killing. I knew how to face death and how to cause it, with everything on the evolutionary scale of weapons from the knife to the 3.5 inch rocket launcher.”
I don’t even have a degree. I do have a set of wings showing that I graduated from Airborne School.
I wonder if I could get my old job at Lowe’s back, selling toilets.
My web browser wanders and I end up on Gizmodo, with an article called “Ask a Pro: How to Shoot (and not get shot) in a War Zone.” Some photographer is answering questions. I’m skeptical but I read on.
The guy sounds legitimate, and I see that reflected in his packing list, which features things like zip ties, zip lock bags, tape, and batteries. It doesn’t include crazy gizmos or expensive, trademarked, patent-pending outdoor gear worn mostly on New England liberal arts campuses. He has a website, www.lightstalkers.org that serves as a community for other people who travel and work in places that don’t have a ministry of tourism. Or tourism. His name is Teru Kuwayama, and yeah, I realize we’ve seen each other before on the road up to Omna. My platoon leader was from Flushing, Queens and that’s one neighborhood over from Teru’s. Small world.
After four combat deployments, my brother is killed in a helicopter crash in Germany. I post a note on Lightstalkers mentioning this. I am overwhelmed by the empathy and compassion in the notes I get back. Teru writes:
We didn’t know it then, but I was embedded with Matt’s platoon in Afghanistan. Only years later, during a random stateside conversation, did we realize that we’d been a humvee apart in a small convoy that snaked it’s way through the mountains along the Pakistani border.
In the small world that is LS, I don’t doubt that some of us have crossed paths with his brother, or strapped into his blackhawk at some point during the course of those four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
all my respect to the Farwell family – and thanks for getting us home to ours.
Teru is now my friend. I go on Facebook and make it official.
I’m in Arkansas, back in college.
Teru is about to go to Afghanistan for some crazy-long project he got a grant for. This project, Basetrack. There are some visa problems. I know some people, and I know the military bureaucracy and the lingo. I volunteer to help. One thing leads to another and pretty soon, over Facebook chat, Teru asks me what my schedule is like in January. Would I like an all-expenses-paid trip to Musa Qala, Afghanistan? He offers me all the MRE’s I can eat and says I can borrow some of his body armor. It’s a weird conversation. I’m sold.
Now I’m writing for www.basetrack.org. Monica, our lead writer, and I exchange phone calls and emails daily. She corrects my grammar. I burp and offer to send her cold weather gear and tourniquets. We help each other out.
Balazs and Tivadar, two photographers from Hungary, travel to Afghanistan with Teru. They suit up and head out with the Marines, carrying iPhones and cameras rather than rifles. At night they come back and curse the satellite phone and its 1995-era uploading speeds. I curse David Hasselhoff being voted off “Dancing with the Stars.”
Basetrack continues to grow and evolve. We all learn. Patient phone calls and emails from David Gurman and the rest of the web team help me empathize with what a senior citizen taking a library’s “Introduction to Computers” class feels like. They’re based in California and Utah. Sadika coaches us on Central Asian geopolitics. She’s in D.C. We have a funky little crew.
We’re getting to know some of the Marine’s family members via our Facebook page. I do pushups and now add one more for Chesty Puller. This whole thing is new to everyone. It’s exciting and I’m glad to be a part of it.
A few years ago on those switchbacks up to Omna, though, I couldn’t see all that. I just saw the twists in the road.