Last night in a war that isn’t mine

It’s time to leave. I know that, but I don’t know how to do it.

Those who never fell in love laugh at those who have, thinking they would be too strong for such a thing. Until it happens to them, of course. And then you think the thing that has happened to so many others is only yours, and no one else has ever felt this way before.

Falling in love with a country in a war that isn’t yours is like that first blinded embrace against which all others pale.

And I don’t know how to leave.

How do I look her in the eyes and say I’ll never see you again?

How do I walk down her streets and away from something that drew me harder and truer than anything ever has?

It isn’t my war to fight, I know, and that’s what they say to me. They say it’s time to come home and that my life is back in the other place and that I don’t see things clearly. But what could be clearer than this?

They say things like I care too much and I’m too attached and I’ve stayed too long and they talk about responsibility and real life and living the way I’m supposed to.

They say these things and in the thinking part of me I understand. But thinking isn’t how true things happen.

Truth happens walking back in the middle of the night, high on wine, after dropping her off at her doorstep and kissing her good-bye and feeling the weight of everything gone and the before and the after mixed in the now as you walk through squares and along streets that are full in the day but empty in the night and it is only you and you have the whole world all for yourself. And the world inside of you, too.

Anything seems possible then. You dream bigger and walk lighter and feel happy and fearless and wish that you could stay forever in this moment.

Maybe that’s why love and war twist and tangle the way they do.

Those two things have the power to erase yesterday and tomorrow and make you want today more.

To find a person, or a cause, that is more important than you is the highest thing a soul can do, after all. And once you have done the one you can do the other with ease.

And when you find a reason to live that’s stronger than the fear of dying, well, that also makes the leaving harder to do. That’s why warriors fight harder and love harder than anyone else.

And that’s why I fell in love with Ukraine, and her. And that’s why it breaks my heart to leave. If I had forever left to give, it would be for her and here and this.

So one more drink, just a little longer. Time to walk back soon, but not right now. I’ll say good-bye and cross back over, but not quite yet. It’s still tonight, and her and here and this is still all mine.

This is, and forever will be, my war.

Dangerous Places

             I spent one more day in Mariupol before deciding it was time to leave. The Poseidon Hotel, which for a week had been a beehive of foreign journalists, had emptied and the place seemed oddly abandoned. I felt that same sense of abandonment as I walked through town and along the Sea of Azov’s beaches the day after the cease-fire. I slowly realized that abandoned is probably how this place usually felt.

        The train left at six and I had the day. I had lunch at a café by the water, and it was only about two by the time I finished eating. With nothing left to do I started to order beers and write.

        I slowly felt the inner tension of the past few days unwinding within me. But the coils would tighten again at the slightest imagined muffled thud. Even the rising sound of the wind blowing through the leaves piqued my senses.

        Was that a rocket, a mortar, a tank firing? Was it happening again?

        I was still very much in that state of mind.

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This isn’t my war: An excerpt

Note: I’m currently writing a non-fiction account of my time in Ukraine as a war correspondent. Following is an excerpt, detailing a battle in Mariupol last September in the days leading up to the first cease-fire, which was signed Sept. 5.

I sat on the terrace of the Georgian restaurant, one hand wrapped around my beer, which I sipped often. I was going through the beer quickly, and had quite a few as the night went on.

Out in the distance, toward the black void in the direction of Donetsk, there was a storm. It had arrived. I could hear the thunder and see the flashes of light. Yet, unlike the squalls of my youth in Florida, these phenomena were not evidence of an accident of nature, but testaments to the choices of men. The flashes and thunder were made by the clash of soldiers and their weapons.

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A Ukrainian city on the brink of disaster breathes a skeptical sigh of relief

MARIUPOL — The sounds of war began yesterday afternoon as a whisper. Today the concussions of artillery and rocket fire rattled windows in Mariupol.

It seemed for a while that all was lost, and the pro-Russia rebels were poised to break through the Ukrainian lines and overrun the city. People were packing as much as they could into their cars and fleeing. Restaurants were shut down. The streets grew empty.

And then, as if ripped straight from the pages of All Quiet on the Western Front, the sounds of war went silent. A cease-fire had been signed.

Passing drivers honked their horns. People cheered in celebration and strangers hugged each other. It was like New Year’s times a million.

In Minsk, Belarus — more than 700 miles north of Mariupol — Ukrainian and Russian politicians reached a deal to stop the fighting. And then, in an instant, armies of young men stopped shooting at each other.

The absurdity of war.

Tonight I’m back in that same seaside bar from a few nights ago. It’s another beautiful night with an easy breeze. I’m drinking beer again, and the same awful techno covers of American songs are on the radio. It’s as if the last few days are imagined.

But I can’t stop thinking about what tonight could have been like.

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On almost dying in Afghanistan

“Do you want me to grab you a can of Blue Monster?” Sgt. 1st Class Jeff Martin asked me as we left the Afghan National Army’s war room and stepped outside.

“Hell yeah,” I replied. “I love those things.”

We exited the joint U.S.-Afghan tactical operations center, known as a TOC, through a cypher-locked metal gate, which led out to the small U.S. Army camp attached to Camp Maiwand — the Afghan National Army’s compound at Forward Operating Base Shank.

Martin and I snaked through the jungle of plywood barracks, called hooches, passing by a reinforced bunker built as a shelter from Taliban mortar and rocket attacks.

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Brothers in arms

My little brother and I together at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

My little brother and I together at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan.

BY NOLAN PETERSON

It was time to say good-bye. We both got out of the truck and circled around back to give each other a hug. It was hard to see his face in the dark black of night — they keep most of the base blacked out after the sun goes down as a defense against Taliban rocket and mortar attacks. But I could see his silhouette, and I could hear his voice.

We embraced. The hug was a little tighter, and it lasted a little longer than usual.

He pulled back and placed both hands on my shoulders like he was holding me in place, making sure his words found their mark. He told me to be careful, reminding me to not be a hero.

He started to say something else, but then he stopped, and that’s when I noticed that he was crying.

“I’ve seen a lot of people get really hurt out there,” he told me, talking through the tears, not letting them affect his words. “Just be careful.”

“I will,” I said. “It was special seeing you today, you know. I’ll always remember it.”

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?” he said, working now to push his words through the tears. “When you realize you’re living in a moment that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”

He hugged me again.

“Be safe.”

I told him I would, feeling a wave of guilt wash over me for some reason. And then I hugged my little brother one last time before we parted ways.

The next day I loaded onto a CH-47 Chinook helicopter for a flight out of Bagram Air Base to a forward operating base in Khost Province, near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. For the next two weeks I would circulate among various U.S. forward operating bases (known as FOBs) as an embedded journalist with U.S. and Afghan military units, writing about the war on an assignment as a war correspondent for United Press International.

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