I spent most of 2008 in Iraq. Despite the vacation literature I read before going over, Iraq was not exactly a garden spot. The U.S. was in the middle of The Surge and things were looking grim. Getting on the C-130 to leave Kuwait and fly into a war zone scared me to no end, but one advantage we had on that plane was that it was nighttime. Most people are scared of the dark; on that night I embraced it, partly because I knew that it concealed us and partly because it hid the emotions in my eyes that anyone would have been able to see in the light of day.
While in Iraq I was located on a base in the middle of the desert that had almost nothing on or around it. It was like the people who picked the location walked out into the desert, put up some fences, and declared, "Here's a base." Not to oversimplify, but it sucked. We got hit by sand storms constantly, there was a layer of dust on everything, and for most of the year it was stupidly hot. The only decent time to run in Iraq was after the sun went down because the tent that served as our gym, while air-conditioned, was a sweatbox during the day. Most nights I would head over to the treadmills at around midnight. I got used to nocturnal running, and after 15 months I started to feel like a vampire at the thought of running in the sun.
Every now and again I would run on the roads around the base. I don't think I was supposed to, especially not by myself and in the middle of the night, but I never asked permission so in my mind I took solace in knowing I was never ordered not to. I would wait until somewhere between 1 and 3 in the morning, walk to the road, and take off before anyone might see me.
Looking back on this, I was really dumb. We were in the middle of nowhere so I wasn't worried about getting kidnapped, but if I had ever gotten hurt the desert foxes would have found me before the sun ever came up. On top of that, being out in no-man's land didn't preclude us from getting hit with random bursts of enemy mortars and rockets. They were way too inaccurate to aim at me directly, but given enough time, I was worried they might get lucky.
Honestly, they used to have a TV in the chow hall that scrolled pictures of all the people who had been killed in our area as a memorial. Every one of those soldiers was as good or better at their job than I was at mine, and they had been trying just as hard to not get hurt. There was no reason that I wasn't on that TV with them other than luck. After a while I just felt like my time would come when it was my time, and nothing I could do would stop that. I didn't feel invincible; actually, I felt just the opposite. It was this sense of fate and inevitability that let me go out on these runs in spite of every reason why I shouldn't have.
Anyway, I would run the 11-mile loop of roads going around the base by myself, listening to my Ipod as I enjoyed the cooler desert nights. The desert is actually a pretty amazing place, and the landscape is beautiful, even at night. Some nights the moon would be so bright that you'd swear you were running with a light on above.
The best part of these runs, however, was when the nearby helicopters would take off and fly over my head as I went down the road. The choppers would go straight to the test fire range after taking off to test their weapons before flying a mission, and one of the main roads I ran down was parallel to this area. There are no words to describe how it felt to be running next to the area where helicopters were firing rockets and tracer rounds, having them explode close enough to my location that I could feel the concussion.
I kept up my night runs for almost the entire time I was in Iraq. I'm lucky that I never did get hurt; looking back, I have no idea how I didn't. I was glad when I heard the news that the U.S. had finally pulled out of the country, but oddly, there was a part of me that was sad to think that I would never run that same route again. I had put in so many miles over those roads, it hurt my heart a little to think I would never be welcome back to that miserable base in the middle of the desert to ever run it again.
I found peace with myself and my situation by making that run in the middle of a war zone. It was the only time while I was deployed where I felt like myself; it was the only time where I felt like I could let my guard down. I'll remember that road and the moonlight and the helicopters for the rest of my life, and I know I'll never have another run quite like it.