We all know the United States is at war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we know about actions in the vast waters off Somalia. But, in my experience at least, there aren’t many military personnel on the streets of Rumford, or Portland and Providence, for that matter. The wars and the men and women who are fighting them seem remote, unreal.

In airports, of course, lots of the military come and go, but most spend their between-flights time in the USO: “Attention, all military personnel, the USO is on Level One, and it is open 24 hours a day.”

One day last week, we – the wait-challenged – were at Gate 10A in Chicago’s O’Hare. Two and a half hours down and another hour and a half to go until our departure. Jim was off for another coffee when a soldier materialized before me. A soldier, wearing Army boots and fatigues and handling a color-coordinated duffel that looked like the maximum 50 pounds. The specialist swung it easily off her back and onto the floor, then plopped herself down beside me.

This is a soldier. She’s about the size of Honey Bun from the 1949 musical “South Pacific.” She’s pretty, too, and very young.

Where are you serving? Will you talk to me about it?

“Well, you can ask me questions, sure.”

(Where to begin?)

“Lydia” was on her way back to Afghanistan where she’s been stationed for the past three months. She’d had two weeks of leave and was returning to duty from her home in Green Bay, Wis. For a year, 2005 to 2006, she served in Iraq. Lydia is a helicopter mechanic, maintenance crew chief for the brigade colonel’s bird, an AH-64 Delta Apache.

The colonel’s name is imprinted on the side of his craft and Lydia’s is right underneath. Lydia was two weeks out of high school when she enlisted five years ago. “I was afraid of college,” she said, but is now working toward a bachelor of arts degree.

“I can’t imagine living a civilian life, working a job I don’t like for health insurance,” she said.

One of her brothers is in the Navy, the other left the Navy. “Now he’s on unemployment.”

Lydia is aiming to become a commissioned officer.

Spring is Afghanistan

The very last snow is melting away here in the River Valley. Spring is coming here, and in Afghanistan, too.

Afghanistan: beautiful and mountainous. “I have a 360-degree mountain view,” Lydia said.

She prefers the climate, four seasons, to that of Iraq: “It’s just hot. It rains, and then it’s hot again.” But the base in Iraq had more to offer, two swimming pools and a movie theater.

How big is the base in Afghanistan, I asked.

“Pretty big,” she answered.

Lydia lives in a a B-hut. Eight, 8- by 8-foot rooms. There’s a port-a-john nearby and indoor plumbing farther away.

Do you ever get to leave the base and look around?

“No way. The Army spent too much money training me to take that risk,” she said

But every Friday evening a carefully screened group of Afghans come into the base and set up a bazaar with “all kinds of things, rugs, pottery, trinkets the Russians left behind. Gemstones are really cheap. For $200 I could buy an emerald as big as my thumb.”

Hard to get your mind around it: We’re picking up the mail in Hanover, or sitting in the dentist’s chair in Mexico, or buying fresh fish in Dixfield while 10 hours and some 6,700 air miles away, Lydia is headed for bed in her B-hut on that Americana base in Afghanistan. How many personnel on the base? “Oh,,” said Lydia, “a lot.”

Their purpose? The Taliban: “We’ll get ’em.”

Linda Farr Macgregor is a freelance writer who lives in Rumford. Contact her: [email protected]

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