Most sane people would think the choice to leave Afghanistan after a year and a half is a no brainer. For me it’s the most emotionally taxing decision I’ve ever had to make. There’s one simple enough to say, but incredibly hard to explain, reason.
Leaving Afghanistan is leaving him, 1st Lieutenant Daren M. Hidalgo…behind.
Afghanistan holds the worst moment of my life, the moment I found out the boy I had spent the past 4 months spending every moment he had on KAF together was killed, but it also holds all the best moments…every moment I had with him.
When I leave this place I leave the Dutch PX that he was convinced I was confused about because there is a Deutsch PX as well. I’ll leave the front desk where I first saw him. I’ll leave the boardwalk bench where we got caught being on a “date” by his soldiers. I’ll leave the chair outside my old mod where we sat for hours one day just talking. I’ll leave the DFAC where we first had a meal together and the spaghetti sauce was so watered down I wouldn’t eat it so he was worried I was anorexic. I’ll also leave the parking lot that’s now become a motor pool where we first talked about our families, friends, jobs, and dreams for the future.
Last summer I met a soldier who had just been blown up, a wounded warrior. We became close friends and shared a lot. I was there through his painful recovery - physical, emotional and mental. Not knowing it at the time, but looking back now, I can see that that soldier was my chance, the chance I never had to nurse Hidalgo back to health.
Just a few months ago one of our friends got blown up and was life flighted to the hospital here on base, Role 3. We went to go see him and I held his hand as he lay in the bed. I tried to joke to cheer him up, and watched him get awarded his Purple Heart. That friend was another chance, the chance I never had to visit Hidalgo at the hospital.
See by going home now I thought I’d run out of those chances. But I know through my work, I can still get them. I can hopefully work for Wounded Warrior Project or continue with USO and still get a chance to be there for someone like I dreamed I could have been for him.
When I was planning my vacation for this winter my friend Erin and I decided to go to Australia. Then I realized the dates, we’d be gone during the first anniversary of his death. I immediately didn’t want to go. I wanted to be in Afghanistan for the anniversary. I wanted to be where I knew him. Where our memories lived.
Besides a few of my coworkers, everyone that knew him was gone already from this god forsaken country, so why did I want to be here? Erin has lost someone she loved dearly out here too, so I figured she would at least understand me and my dark day and be there for me, so I went.
Here’s the thing… in a hotel room in downtown Sydney, Australia, thousands of miles from where I had met, known and loved a boy, I could still remember his big ass grin, hear his laugh, and see his face at all of those places we shared.
As horrifyingly hard as it is for me to admit it, his memory lives in me and I know that. I just don’t think until now I was strong enough to realize it.
After he died I slept every night with, as weird as this sounds, a knife he gave me. I clutched it so hard I got on a blister on my hand. During the day I wore it in my pocket. Gradually the questions about the knife got too annoying and prying, so I began just keeping it in my bag. If even one moment went by when I didn’t know where it was, I panicked. It was all I had of him. The first time I left, and couldn’t take it on a plane I was petrified of how I would react without my security blanket/knife. I got through it. As time went on I began just storing the knife in my drawer. I still know exactly where it is, but I now know exactly what it is.
It is an object, not a memory. Afghanistan is a location, not a memory. The memory is in me. It’s the way I feel when I think about him, and the smile I crack through the tears when something reminds me of him.
That’s where it is, and that’s where it will always be.
Here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;
which grows higher than the soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart
I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)
-e e cummings