A vehicle convoy en route to Bagram Airfield, January 2009.
Melissa Pritchard followed her restless heart to Afghanistan. What she discovered there was one young soldier who changed her life. A story of friendship, love, and war.When I was 9, I ran away. I was soon discovered a few blocks from home by a supercilious, sneering neighbor boy nobody much liked named Eddie. He marched me back to my mother but not before the shock of that short freedom, the vastness of the world, and the mixed mercies of people caring about me had all made a deep impression.
Now I was running again, this time from my own life. On the fifth anniversary of my father's death, my mother had suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed; she died ten months later, in April 2008. I flew to Hawaii that autumn and scattered handful after handful of my parents' mingled dust into the Pacific Ocean they had loved.
Death, I discovered, uncorks sentimentality. I made myself throw out the pair of shoes my dad had been wearing the day he died (what was I going to do? bronze them? wear them?) though I kept a lock of my mother's dyed, champagne-colored hair. I had locks of my children's hair, too—two daughters now with homes of their own, lives of their own. I was a professor at a large university, a published novelist, a successful, self-sufficient woman. But waking up every morning to a large, empty house was a new, unexpected shriving. I felt as if my skeleton were gone, as if I had been filleted, deboned. I was standing, but barely. Wearing an exoskeleton of books, accomplishments, and titles, I fled to a children's poetry project in the brothels of Calcutta, then to an all-women's medical mission in Ecuador. After that, who knew? I was drawn to places of suffering that surpassed my own.
I didn't think about any of this rationally. This was not self-awareness. I was simply an old, old child orphaned by death, a mother with unneeded mothering skills, an ex-wife with decades of memories, not all of them bad. A woman bereft, floundering, ashamed of her weakness, fearful for her future, beginning with the next five minutes.
It was January 2009, and I had managed to keep my next destination and assignment, as an embedded journalist interviewing female soldiers, a secret from my daughters. With body armor purchased online, military-issue winter underwear, notebooks, tape recorder, vitamins, stale PowerBars, and a nagging conscience, I arrived at Bagram Airfield, 47 kilometers north of Kabul, and sent a quick e-mail from the media operations office, letting my children know I was now in Afghanistan, under the protection of the U.S. Air Force. I would, I promised, be safely home in two weeks.
Pritchard arrives in Afghanistan, and joins a convoy of armored Humvees heading through the Hindu Kush
Photo: Courtesy of Melissa Pritchard