It is December 31st, 2009, and, of course, I’m travelling.
I’ve got a long connection in Denver Airport. It is New Year’s Eve and I don’t have my family, and so I decide to take a seat in the closest Airport bar.
I drudge into the bar, with its modular sports-themed decorations. I sit at the bar itself and order a drink.
And then I notice the next guy over. He’s a soldier in uniform, obviously being moved someplace. I wonder where he’s going. And then I see his name – Howitt.
My name is Howitt.
I think for a moment and decide it’s enough to start a conversation.
“Howitt,” I say out loud, letting it hang.
The soldier turns.
“It’s just odd,” I say, “My name’s Howitt too.”
“That so?” he asks and returns to nursing his beer.
I order a beer. I try again.
“Where you headed, Howitt?”
“I’m deploying to Afghanistan,” he states, matter-of-factly.
“Not an easy task,” I say.
“No,” Howitt states, “There are a few risks.”
I stare at my drink – the conversation seemingly dead.
But then the soldier speaks. “Have you been to Afghanistan?”
“I have to admit, that’s a strange question to ask a civilian,” I answer, “But yes, I have. How’d you guess.”.
“You had a look when I mentioned it. It seemed familiar. Why’d you go?”
“My company,” I say, “We design and sell high-tech textile manufacturing equipment. Somebody thought it might be a good industry there – so they sent me over to make a few contacts and see if we could push some business.”
“Did it work?”
“No, not really,” I say, “I think I could’ve sold a few lines, but they wouldn’t have been used much. The infrastructure isn’t there to take advantage of what we’ve got.”
He nodded, “That they don’t.”
“Have you been?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says, “I live and breathe Afghanistan. I’ve done two tours, this’ll be my third. But even when I’m out-of-country, I spend my time there in mind and spirit. It’s the new Army way.”
I nod. I’ve heard of it – something about preserving and continuing to use local knowledge.
“I gotta ask,” I say, “Do you see any risks of returning again and again.”
“It’s war, buddy,” he says, “There are risks.”
“Oh, no,” I say, “That’s not what I meant. Take my business. If we stick a representative – from sales or support or whatever, someplace – they end up seeing things more like the client than like us. This can lead to some strange outcomes. I was just wondering if you have similar problems in Afghanistan.”
“Oh, sure,” he answers, “There are a few bad apples – and keeping them in one place tends to enable them to harvest the local fruit. They get caught selling weapons or turning a blind eye to opium or covering for their local friends. But it isn’t all that common. The Army is doing a pretty good job of watching it.”
I nod, it makes sense.
“So,” I ask, “What do you do?”
“I’m a soldier,” he states, “But I speak Pashto and I know the local culture. So I tend to work as a liaison with local Shura councils, but I also do some local intelligence work.”
“Funny,” I say, lightly, “You don’t look Pashtun.”
“I’m not,” he answers, “I learned during my first tour. I’m good with languages and I’m good with people. It took a while for the Army brass to realize how useful people like me could be – but I’m in pretty high demand nowadays.”
“Interesting,” I say, “It kind of worked the same way for me. I pick up lots of languages and I’m very good at reading etiquette. I’m actually my company’s regional sales chief because I can speak both Cantonese and Hindi fluently.”
He nods his head in respect. “Do you enjoy your work?”
“Some days,” I say, “But mostly, it’s just a paycheck. Well, I own part of the company, so it’s also an investment too”
“What else do you do?” he asks.
“I hang out with my family and I give to charity,” I say, “It’s a cliche, but I really believe a man is defined not by what he has, but by what he gives.”
“Same here,” says the soldier.
“You have a family?” I ask.
“Yes, I do,” says the soldier, “I’ve got three kids. But I go so long between seeing them, I’m not really sure they’ve got me.”
I nod. I know how he feels, although at least my trips are shorter.
“Its gotta be hard – leaving your family behind and being in such dangerous situations.”
He dips his head a few times in agreement, “Hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
“Is it worth it – hurting your family and risking your life for that cause?” I ask.
He looks at me. “Yes,” he states, “Yes it is. The world is getting smaller and smaller. And you just can’t ignore the problems of a country like that – or it’ll come back to haunt you. There are always gonna be crazies, but you can’t let them go and incubate in entire countries.”
I nurse my drink some more. “I can kind of see your point,” I say, “But to take an abstract concept of death for a cause and to actually, concretely, put yourself in harms’ way for it – that I can’t imagine doing.”
“You don’t realize what you’re doing the first time you do it.” says the soldier, “But once you do it that first time, you can imagine doing it again. It isn’t easy – and you skip all the arguments when the shit is hitting the fan – but you can still get things done. And there’s more than just danger and death. There are things to be proud of.”
“So what have you done recently that you’re proud of?” I ask.
Howitt smiles. “There’s a game we play,” he says, “We walk into villages. And I’ve got these sound boosting headphones on. And I can hear everything going on. But, of course, none of the locals realize it. At the end of the last tour, we were heading through town when I heard people talking about the bad guy’s waiting for us. I told the team and – without a shot being fired – we were able to totally surprise them. I saved a lot of lives – not just American.”
“And you?” he asks.
I think for a moment, “Nothing like that, I say. When I started my career, everything was about advancement and money. But I got past that when I realized one day that I had everything I needed. I’d made a lot of money.
“I wanted to give money to charity. But I realized that you can’t just give it away – because people have to earn something for it to have value for them. They really have to earn it to grow from it. So I spent years thinking about the rules behind my charity. One of the biggest is that I’d give for acute disasters, but not for chronic problems. It was working pretty well.
“And then, last week, I came across this homeless young man. What with the economy and all, he was facing some hard times. But I could see this fire in his eyes. And so I asked him to give me a quick pitch. I was surprised when he did – but he did. He pitched me on this business he wanted to start, but clearly couldn’t launch. And so, right there, I wrote him a check for $100,000. And then I walked away. I’m pretty sure I changed a few lives there.”
Howitt was impressed, “It must be nice to have that kind of money to spend.”
“It’s a path I’ve chosen,” I say, “I work to create so that I can share. It’s how I contribute.”
He rolls his glass in his hands, “I can see that,” he says, “Well, in that case, I’m doubly impressed. You took the effort to earn the money and then, when the time came, you were willing to give it away.”
“I guess,” I say, “But I’ve gotta have more respect for you. I spread around a fair amount of cash around, but you risk your life for others.”
“Two sides of the same coin,” he says, “Two sides.”
They call my flight. so I stand up and extend my hand to Howitt, “It has
been a pleasure and honor to meet you.”
Howitt reaches across and grips my hand solidly. “Likewise,” He says.
And then in some strange way I realize that I’m shaking my own hand.
Howitt is me and I am Howitt.
We’re the same man, we’re just two sides of the same coin..We’ve made different choices, but somehow we’ve each ended up in the Airport Bar.
“Jim,” comes a voice as a hand gently taps my shoulder.
“Yeah,” I mumble, tired.
“Jim,” repeats the voice, “It’s 2010.”
I open my eyes. I look around. And then I realize which path I’ve taken.