By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
Before the interview begins, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Rick Breen takes a moment to greet the office cats.
Most people do, but there’s more to this than the average greeting. He picks up the all-black one with six toes and holds her for a minute lingering in the small pleasure not granted during his time in the Middle East.
“You’re the first cat I’ve held since before I left,” he tells her, wanting her to understand the significance of the role she’s playing in his re-acclimation to “normal” life. It’s a life without the constant presence of humming generators, rumbling convoys and aircraft spinning up or down before and after flight.
“The silence is strange,” he said.
Breen spent the past year at Udairi Airfield in Kuwait. His last trip home made headlines throughout the state. He surprised his son, Lukas, at his graduation from McNary High School in June. Breen traveled more than 11,600 miles in a whirlwind trip to take part in the ceremony. Lukas had no idea his father would be waiting to greet him as he crossed the stage. A video of the reunion has been viewed more than 50,000 times on YouTube.
While the trip granted him the opportunity to take part in a momentous occasion in his son’s life, he knew he would be going back and the he didn’t allow the respite to sink in the way it otherwise might.
This time he’s home for good and it’s a wholly different experience.
An officer with the 168th Aviation Battalion, Breen’s orders to deploy came in December 2010 and he left for Kuwait in February 2011. It wasn’t until he arrived back at Ft. Lewis and drove out of the base with his wife, Peggy, and Lukas, that everything he’s seen in the past year began to sink in.
“When I was out of the gate and on the freeway was when it hit me, it’s kind of a dream because mentally I’m still over there. You’re going from full-tilt boogie to normal,” Breen said, a week after his return. “Driving is a strange sensation. I’m not breathing diesel in an armored Humvee.”
His deployment was mostly uneventful, but nothing, Breen said, could have prepared him and his colleagues in the Washington National Guard for what they experienced overseas.
“Nothing prepares you for 125- to 130-degree heat, even training in 105-degree heat,” he said.
From his first night in Kuwait, he said he knew nothing was going to be normal. The mercury was still hovering around 120 degrees at 11 p.m. and they were handed weapons as they deplaned and started the journey to Udairi Airfield in the desert. The camp is about two hours west of Kuwait City, the nation’s most populous area.
Training, he said, felt like a walk in the park by comparison.
“The wind is 30 knots and you can’t see but 20 or thirty yards in front of you,” he said.
One of the more difficult aspects was remembering to keep hydrated.
“If you were sleeping, you weren’t drinking, but otherwise you had water with you. Coffee drinkers, like myself, had double the intake. We constantly had water in our cargo pockets, in our hands or within reach,” Breen said.
In the isolation of the desert, water had to be trucked in and there were a few times when Breen had to make the most of stashed reserves to compensate for the lack of drinkable fluid. Despite the increased intake, he lost 21 pounds during his year of deployment.
Breen spent most of his time in the camp tending to the mechanical needs of a fleet of Sikorsky UH-60D Blackhawk helicopters and fixing weapons that weren’t responding well to the desert conditions, but he got time off the base to claim needed parts at other bases and camps.
Of what he saw, the most memorable aspects were the trash and the smell. With precious little infrastructure and high winds, the Udairi fences doubled as collectors for blowing debris and bottles. The further he got away from the camp the worse the smell would get.
“The government pays foreign nationals and some of the native population to go out into the desert and put up a tent where they’ll raise goats and sheep,” Breen said.
Camels and goats are often victims of the heat and the effort it would take to dispose of them isn’t worth the potential threats to human health in sweltering heat. The smell of death hangs thick in the air, Breen said.
While moments of levity were infrequent, Breen formed a bond with two of the desert dogs that hung around the base.
“Anybody that’s deployed overseas like that wants something that reminds them of home, some connection to normalcy because everything is abnormal. It’s something that’s stable and predictable,” he said.
Last year, when a soldier was bitten and later died of rabies after trying two intercede in a fight between to dogs at another camp, an effort was made to purge the camps of the animals, but Breen and fellow soldiers managed to protect the two that had become the most reliable companions. They’ve since been adopted by families in the U.S.
As he was preparing to depart and head back to home, Udairi Airfield itself began to change. What was once temporary was becoming more permanent.
“Tents were being replaced with metal buildings, wood flooring was being replaced with concrete pads and I saw the first trenches being dug for what looked like pipelines,” he said.
All the construction added to the noisy racket that hung around the encampment. Now that he’s back, he finds silences unnerving.
“You’re always waiting for something to happen, but I’m discovering I’ve become a lot more patient and willing to let things happen on their own time,” Breen said.
He’s spent the last two weeks reliving the year he missed through a satchel of papers Peggy kept for him. It includes photos, letters and paperwork from Lukas’ final months of high school and transition to college at Pacific University.
“The problem is you miss everything, get togethers, holiday, birthdays … everything,” Breen said.
Of all those, there is one that is quite raw.
“I missed not being able to take Luke to college. That was a big step and it was painful to miss it,” he said.
He takes more enjoyment from silences than he once did. Lukas got to spend a recent weekend at home and Breen breathed it all in.
“It was great to sit and talk with him, sit and listen to him, and sit and look at him,” Breen said.
Breen’s advice for families going through the pains of deployment is to lower expectations.
“Normal is gone and it no longer exists. Skype and e-mail and phones are all intermittent over there and it won’t likely be what you expect. Stuff is down all the time. Normal ceases to exist. You can’t just call up and ask what color a room should be painted or what shop the car should go into,” he said. “Mail is still the best way to get in touch. And it’s good if you can put yourself in each others’ shoes.”
The problem with distance, he said, is that it amplifies everything: “Bad news can debilitate you and good news becomes great news.”
He’s got a few more days before his deployment officially ends, but he’s eyeing retirement from the Washington National Guard. He might return to teaching, but he’s most eager to delve into some custom woodworking projects.
Regarding the mission and deployment he is decidedly concise, “I’m a soldier by choice, and I’m glad I was there, but I’m glad to be done.”