Tour of Duty Tourism (by Kerri Mullen)

A very wise therapist once told me that all family visits should be legally limited to no more than three days.  Three days is enough to enjoy, to reminisce, to wonder why they aren’t staying longer.  Four days and you know exactly why.

Michael’s been here for seven days now, sharing my 37 square meter apartment.  It’s not a tiny place – Berlin isn’t New York – but it’s still a small space for a 24 year old brother and his slightly neurotic 26 year old sister.  When I walked into my apartment, there used to be a weird burned coffee smell coming from the kitchen.  Now it smells like booze, man body odor and man body wash.  My own odd stink has been completely engulfed.

He’s here, and it hasn’t been so long.  It’s now May and I last saw Michael when all of our family did, at Christmastime, before he was deployed in February.  He received his leave from Afghanistan quite early and decided to come to Berlin to crash with me for a couple of weeks instead of going back home.  A free trip, he reasoned, and he could come to Europe for the first time, and so he did.  And now he’s here, and his clothes and laptop/camera gadgetry really don’t take up that much space, but it seems like they now physically dominate my apartment the way that thinking about him, over in a war zone, used to dominate my mind.

I tried to explain it to him, and he’s tried to explain it to me.  Why do you disapprove of me being in the Army, he asks.  Why did you join the Army, and what is it like, I ask.  We both start and stop our answers, shaking our heads in a way that makes us look like siblings even though none of our features look alike, and say that it’s hard to explain.

Michael Mullen is a Specialist in the Army.  He’s on leave, visiting me in Berlin, where friends and acquaintances come from the US, Germany, Israel, Spain, Bosnia, Canada.  All of them ask about what it’s like over there.  He tells them all, “It’s not as bad as you think,” and then either they ask more questions or they don’t.  Some questions he’s had include: Are there any Spanish soldiers where you are?  How did you get here?  Can I buy you a beer?

And the beer has been plentiful.  I greeted him at the airport with a bottle of Berliner Pilsner, because I can – you can drink anywhere you want in Berlin, almost – and because it kind of sums up how different it is to live here and to be stationed there.  Also, it was a beer, and it eased the first moments when I saw him, badly sunburned and skinny, heavily muscled and red-eyed from 72 hours of helicopter and airplane travel.  And since Michael is not allowed to drink while deployed, the time he’s spent here on leave so far has been a bit of a bender.

I’ve faked sick both for classes I teach and for classes I must attend, but how often am I going to have the opportunity for my little brother to visit me on leave from being deployed in Afghanistan?  I hope it’s just the one time. He’s been talking about re-enlistment, and at first I thought he couldn’t be serious.  But he explained that it’s a practical decision: Currently, Stop Loss is still in effect, but will be phased out completely by 2011.  When that happens, it means that after soldiers do their tours of duty, they go home and finish their active duty (a total of three years, in my brother’s case) and then have five years of inactive duty.  As long as there is no Stop Loss program in place, that means Michael gets a regular job, maybe starts a family, anything he wants to do.

But there’s a chance that Stop Loss could be re-established.  At that point, Michael could get deployed back out to Afghanistan, or wherever, and instead of receiving daily training for his job, he would maybe be able to train once a month if he were lucky. The majority of those who are called back in, or stop-lossed, are drawn back into National Guard units, which meet up monthly for training, but they still maintain normal civilian lives.  That’s when guys get killed, he says.  When they stop training so rigorously, but they have to go back.

This was one of the first things he explained to me, along with some basics on hierarchy and what’s a unit, what’s a battalion, what do you do over there, where do you live, etc.  And I don’t know whether stop-loss logic is military spin, trying to get him to re-enlist, or a real risk management strategy, a lesser of two evils.  Probably both.

He’s out right now with friends of mine, at the bars, determined to be doing something, meeting someone, seeing something, every minute he’s here.  He’s practicing the Spanish he’s forgotten in the three years since he majored in it at college, before he dropped out.  He’s asking me about German girls, and German guys, and how people meet people, and how they talk to each other.  What do they think of American soldiers?  What do they think about the war in Afghanistan?  It’s so different here, he says.  It’s so different there, he says.  It’s hard to explain.  It’s good to have him in front of me, at least trying to explain.  It’s good to have him here.

(Kerri Mullen)

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