I end wars. When I arrive at bases and conflicts, my job is to help close them, move them, go underground. My military experiences travel the circumference of war, seldom intersecting the dangerous center of the bulls-eye target. My first duty station closed more than two decades ago after we sliced a B-52 into pieces to satisfy a START agreement with Russia, and only two years ago I helped shutter the Transit Center at Manas in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan. I’m a one-woman portent of peace.

More than half of my military career has been spent attending graduate school earning degrees in English literature followed by tours teaching English at the Air Force Academy. As such, my war stories often spread into honeyed prose about poppies lining airfields and the taste of baby clams as the Mediterranean washes a nearby shore. I struggle to place myself as a writer amid the combat veterans who share tragic, violent experiences. Distant IEDs and impersonal bullet pings don’t add up to what I’ve long come to expect from trauma-hero-focused war literature.

My own deployed experiences seem gut shot with romantic moments of aesthetic beauty and philosophical musings, but I try to join Tim O’Brien’s idea that “a true war story is never about war. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory.” I may revel in the relative safety and absence of formal combat, but my own experiences are also romantic soft-focus scenes with friends and memories of a life that holds brief moments of refracted purpose. My war stories are, like O’Brien’s, brilliant in their gem-like quality. As he says, everything that’s worth anything is about love and memory.

Memories are malleable in all the best ways, and maybe this is what a true war story requires. To live a satisfying life, I only have to turn to my past and find a rosy haze disguising the worst of what I’ve been. I interpret my past—there’s nothing objective about it. In the light of shifting world views, imagining my story allows me access to a sense of consistency that forms a bridge between who I was and who I think I am.

Approaching the twenty-sixth anniversary of my commissioning in the Air Force, I find I’m adapting what I’ve done to span the chasm back to that young woman whose motivation to serve fell somewhere between seeing how cool her brother was and the paralyzing realization that, if she left the all-expenses-paid Air Force Academy where she followed that brother, she would need a plan. Today, I am that young woman who has served, with satisfaction, and who is still intending to get out when her five-year mandatory service is up. The thing is, that requirement came and went more than twenty years ago.

I’ve lacked a plan ever since, and my choice to remain in the military has long required me to determine and re-determine whether or not I made the right choice. When I wonder if my past matters, I know it does: my actions have filled a lifetime, but was the lifetime fulfilling? In my illusion of retrospect, of course it was, is, will be.


These meanderings around the art of memory are quite a bit more complicated than what I see as my real memories. If I return to Afghanistan in the winter of 2007-2008, I think, “Here is where my war story begins.” But, of course, in many ways I have always sort of hoped I was wrong, that my beginning was farther down the line. My reserve of war stories features authors such as Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, Brian Turner, Michael Herr, Dexter Filkins, Sebastian Junger, and the entire collection of Operation Homecoming. For the most part, these are the war stories I want to read, but most certainly I wouldn’t want to live them.

In 2007, while working as a strategic communication officer at the US Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, training for a marathon kept my mind off the confinement. On the compound, I could barely find a quarter mile for jogging, and if I wanted a “hill” workout, I had to take the pedestrian tunnel under Great Massoud Road, popping up not far from the old embassy and the new chancery building. A quick spin around a flat loop and I would not quite cover another quarter mile before I was back where I started. A little over fifty-two laps would give me that marathon. I never stopped feeling, with every lap, that each round was like the efforts of a nineteenth-century mill horse, the same as my career, leaning into the traces to find myself back in the same place.

The other option was a treadmill. As winter took hold that holiday season and locals began burning tires and coal for warmth, a particulate smog swirled under the pre-dawn street lamps, so thick I could feel the tendrils of it winding across my fingers. When I ran that small course around our compound, I held my breath passing the compound generators and their fumes, fumes that reminded me of a dirty cigar. After running outside for a few weeks, when I began hacking up thick globs of dark paste, I took my training indoors.

Other indoor long-distance runners have already learned the lessons I learned that winter: after an hour, the typical treadmill shuts off and requires a reset. A long run can require three restarts.

Treadmills went nowhere, but they meant I could run with Sam, a regular qualifier for the Boston Marathon. I loved running beside Sam, but by the second restart of the treadmill’s infinite loop, my time on this Escher-like device would drive me to find ways to ease the boredom. Pounding away, side-by-side, my brain ran away:

He runs much farther than me, but we end up in the same place.
He runs much farther than me, but we end up at the same time.
He runs much farther than me, but we run the same race.

That’s when the hours spent on the treadmill made me a hamster. I wanted to run faster and finish sooner, but the goal was measured in time, not distance. If I ran faster, I would be training harder, and my body would be fitter for running distances. But I wouldn’t finish sooner.

Much like the dull repetition of each day of my office-job deployment.

My headquarters job meant that I had few connections with other units throughout Afghanistan. I had almost no reason to travel. I wasn’t quite a Fobbit, someone who seldom left the confines of my secure little compound and not at a forward operating base. But the problem with this compound was that there was a half-mile of roads between the Embassy and Camp Eggers that allowed public traffic. So we were never quite as secure as we sometimes felt.

We wore full battle rattle, the turtle-shell-shaped vest and plates that brought a waddle into anyone’s step, with a wobbly Kevlar helmet to top it off. We wore it in our up-armored SUVs on the half- mile route to Camp Eggers. My battle buddy and I shuffled down Great Massoud Road for a hundred yards, passed through two or three security checkpoints, and turned into the ISAF headquarters (or the International Security Assistance Force). Every move we made was outside the wire, because the embassy compound walls were the lone wire we had.

I developed a routine rivaling the movie Groundhog Day. Twice each week we met at Camp Eggers. Full battle rattle. Once each week followed the press conference at ISAF. Full battle rattle. Then, once every week, the combined communication meeting across from ISAF and outside checkpoints. Full battle rattle. Thursday evenings, office movie night (no battle rattle required. Just the physical training sweats and always the 9mm). Otherwise, I scanned the news, wrote my summaries, and did my best to hold boredom at bay inside the thick walls behind the tall perimeter fence that fended off the outside world.

I had arrived on this deployment determined that I would make the best use of my personal hours locked up in this time capsule.

I was going to write.
I was going to sketch.
I was going to create.

I am still struck by the way that the creature in my mind can be creative, hunkered down in my brain’s walls the same way I hunkered down behind the embassy walls. I kept my head down. Just hold still and keep moving forward through time.

The one person who might have inspired me to keep any kind of record is my maternal grandmother. Grandma Liz, whose morning Tai Chi practice makes her toes “eagle claws to grip the earth,” wanted me to keep a journal. Perhaps I recognized that my Grandpa Bob didn’t speak about his WWII B-25 Mitchell bombardier experiences. My newlywed grandmother wouldn’t have asked him to tell her. She couldn’t have imagined his six-foot-three frame crammed into the glass bubble at the bottom of a bomber, anti-aircraft fire headed for him first. He wrote letters. They didn’t mention the puffs of smoke so visible through the glass at his feet. That threat, he said, in the single time any of us recall him talking about it, made his sphincter clamp like that might keep the shrapnel out. She asked me this time. So the creature in my mind emerged from under its rock to keep an account, like a clerk recording numbers in columns, without totaling them.

I bided my time on a threshold I couldn’t have identified at the time. Brian Turner describes how he didn’t know if he would be killed. Cooks were killed, he said. Supply clerks, too. “I didn’t know,” he said. He didn’t know when death might come, but at least he managed to write.

Like Turner, I didn’t know if I would be killed, but unlike Turner, I doubted it. I knew I was safe inside the compound walls. I knew someone might try to enter the stadium (famous for the Taliban retribution against sinners and lawbreakers, and just fifty yards behind my “hooch”) to lob a grenade or a mortar round into the compound. But I knew that explosion was unlikely. Maybe as unlikely as the death of one of Turner’s cooks. Retrospect makes the absence of violence expected, but only because it didn’t happen.

Despite being watched over by fierce Nepalese guards known as Ghurkas, I knew some form of violence waited and watched for an opportunity to penetrate the embassy walls and create chaos. The US Embassy was the Golden Goose.

I swung on a pendulum constructed in my mind where vigilance, on the one hand, was necessary because something could go wrong, and apathetic exhaustion, on the other hand, reigned because I was pretty sure nothing would go wrong.

O’Brien keeps whispering somewhere in the back of my mind: “You’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead.”


I felt the “whump” of the explosion in the center of my chest, and I knew what to expect. O’Brien had prepared me. So did Turner. And Wolfe. And Wolff. And all my writers on reserve. I felt like I already knew from war literature that the explosion was far enough away, although I couldn’t say how. For now, I thought I was safe, even as my Conex living quarter walls flexed like a soda can in the sound wave and the strident alarms broadcast across the compound. I also knew that the explosion could just be the beginning of something, so I did as I was told and hunkered down, my meager 9mm ready, light in my hand. I sat waiting for the “all-clear” and pulled my laptop down into my hiding position to send a group email with the pre- coded message I had arranged with my family: “It’s a good morning in Kabul. I miss you.” They would know that, at this moment, I was safe.

Just a few days later, I would meet the people that explosion was intended to kill. I worked for the highest ranking Air Force officer in charge of all the Air Force people in the city. We drove in a convoy out to Kabul International Airport so we all could shake the hands of the survivors. Commend their bravery. They had the eyes described in the war writers’ stories: unfocused, distant, a tightness over the cheekbones. One of the four airmen told the general how the suicide bomber stared him in the eyes as he drove towards them on one of the two routes we took to Camp Eggers for those twice- weekly meetings.

Ineptitude kept the airmen alive. The bomb was packed to blast down instead of out, killing the driver and the road beneath him, but not the Americans he hit with his car.

It took four hours for the “quick” reaction force to leave the confines of the nearby camp, less than a football field away, so the four airmen had to form their own cordon, guarding the explosion site until the investigators could arrive. When she shook the general’s hand, the captain fixed him with furious, arctic eyes.

Six months imagining edges, drawing mental boundaries of war.


In 2013, I deployed to Kyrgyzstan, far from the confines of the US Embassy compound in Kabul.

My first time through at the Transit Center at Manas in Kyrgyzstan, I was literally transiting as I flew into and out of Afghanistan in October 2007 and April 2008. To save money, the military would pre-position hundreds of thousands of pounds of body armor and other equipment in the country, just a few hours’ flight from Afghanistan. Not hauling the heavy plates to and from the United States saved on airplane fuel.

Now living there, when the smoke from the nearby garbage disposal site for the city of Bishkek lifted and the wind blew away from us towards the mountains, that postage-stamp-sized center made my heart ache—bursting with unnamable joy. The Ala Too Mountains raked a high desert sky with icy spires. Forty miles away, when the wind blew the air clear, their foothills seemed to have toe-holds in the edges of our perimeter fence. There was a separate section of our base, Frunze Forest, intended as a buffer between the living quarters and the edge of the perimeter. Entry required signing in and out on a damp clipboard full of papers before opening a pedestrian gate in the chain-link fence. There, I ran for a half hour without ever retracing my steps. If I turned around and did the second half of my run on the loop backwards, it felt new again. I relished trees that changed color in the fall, pheasants that darted across the sandy path with shrieks of alarm, and the opportunity to move somewhere as opposed to the tight circles and treadmills I found in Afghanistan.

This deployment was a luxury: Frunze Forest, two alcoholic drinks each day, two places to see month-old movies on large TV screens. Because we were the transition center for people coming out of combat zones, we were set up to help them decompress and get ready to return home. We came in late on Saturdays and had all of Sunday off. Amenities made the deployment a pleasure, but time was a problem. Even running every day, I felt like I was biding time: a fat hamster lolling on an unmoving wheel. It was easy, but I wasn’t home.


Still, when I have to fill out the post-deployment questionnaires now, the answers I give belie the perceived comfort and security of my experience.

Were people from your base killed on combat missions? Yes.
Did you see a dead body? Yes.
Did someone threaten you with a gun? Yes.


Because we were in a friendly country away from threats of IEDs and terrorists, the deaths were unexpected.

One month to the day after I arrived at the Transit Center, my phone started blowing up with texts and calls. Of course it was a Friday, right at the end of a duty day. Accidents have a way of happening after duty hours and headed into weekends.

My interpreter, twenty-year-old Aidai, full of earnest good will and very little practical experience, phoned me to say that all the media were contacting her asking if a US plane had crashed. They easily knew how to reach me, because I had played host for a media day for local news outlets a week earlier. Many spoke decent English and, as I rode with the Vice Wing commander to the crisis control center on the other side of base, it seemed like every one of those reporters was calling me.

Of my twenty-two years in the Air Force, at least eleven were spent outside of public affairs, and none of them involved work as the public affairs officer at a base with an active runway. But some parts of my training never went away. “Tell them that we are looking into the rumors of a crash and that, as soon as we know anything, we will put out a press release. Until we know what has happened, we cannot answer any of their questions.” I knew that, by Air Force standards, I should have a press release out within an hour if the crash was one of ours.

Soon we learned that Shell 77, a KC-135R tanker, had crashed just inside the border Kyrgyzstan shared with Kazakhstan. It was Friday. Aidai had been working a public-affairs trip in town and had no way to return to the base. The wing commander’s advisor who did all of his translation and interpretation was already gone. My Russian-language website operator, Ishmael, was still on base, but his skills were slow and careful. He volunteered to stay and translate for me.

In one hour, we were supposed to develop a bi-lingual press release and coordinate it through the US Embassy whose operations had already ceased for the weekend. My sim card died and, with it, my cell phone—an archaic little item that required me to re-learn T9 texting skills. My base email address wouldn’t send to the embassy, and no one else had their email addresses.

My colleagues at the Air Force Press Desk at the Pentagon were beginning their Friday duty day to news of the crash. They were banging down my virtual door for a press release. Friendships were strained as the man from the Pentagon, who had been my boss a month ago, begged me to get that release done. I insisted on holding out until the Kyrgyz people could be informed at the same time as the US media and public. We needed the Russian translation. Two hours later, I released a press statement that told the world the terrible news about the crash and our search for the three-person crew. Photos of the site promised the search would be futile.

I didn’t expect the grief, the pain, the loss that accompanied those photos. I had passed through the dining hall with that flight crew. Two days later, when the flight crew’s families and friends provided pictures for our memorial service, I saw familiar faces. Some irrational part of me thought I could just look in the more remote corners of the base, poke my head into a darkened movie room, and see these three young faces turn and say, “You were looking for us?” Every person I encountered in that Air Force wing felt the absence of these three young airmen. I couldn’t help but think that we felt the casualties even more because we operated from the peaceful edges of war. Tragedy seemed so out of place there.

Cell phone videos of burning, falling pieces of aircraft were all over the internet. In a clash of cultures still difficult to comprehend, cattle and sheep herders captured footage of people riding horses through the wreckage, stepping through the debris. People stood on the whole tail section. Straightaway Kyrgyz police responded and the US sent forces up from our base to form the expected security and begin a search as well as an investigation.

No one expected that the Kyrgyz would insist on controlling the site. Contrary to the unique agreement between our countries, our host country formed a cordon around the debris, keeping in our first responders and keeping out the rest of the people sent to work the crash.

The phone woke me.
“Colonel Frazier, they are pointing guns at us.”
“Where are you now?”
“On the bus.”
“Are the weapons pointed at you?”
“How far away are the guns?”
“About a quarter of a mile up the hill.”
This wasn’t supposed to happen in Kyrgyzstan. We were far from war.

I wasn’t the only one who felt the strain. I once caught a glimpse of our wing commander, in his office, his face a silent scream, hands pulling at his hair, forehead knocked against the desk. His anguish matched everyone’s pain.

We wanted to give proper honors to our people and return them home now, but we were having serious miscommunications in our attempts to retrieve the dead airmen.

Language barriers and cultural differences create these moments. The problems resolved quickly, in hindsight. But in the moment, each minute stretched into eternity from within the now tiny confines of our small patch of America, in Kyrgyzstan.

The drive from the crash site to base was more than three hours of poor roads and unpredictable traffic. When the remains of the crew entered the base they passed through an honor cordon: hundreds of American troops lined the road—ready to salute the fallen. I joined them, staring at the night sky, feeling so alive in the pain and the grief and the knowledge that we weren’t dead. Three shooting stars streaked across the horizon. Two blazed out in the lead and the third was a fraction of a second behind. What else could they be but the crew? Tyler and Tori, the pilots, and Tre, the boom operator. In that moment, nothing about that idea felt too romantic or too stylized. It only felt too true.


Each week we would travel forty minutes by a contracted surrey to a meeting with the Embassy officials on the other side of Bishkek. On occasion, we would take these surreys for official business that happened in the city. The trip took us from the airport outside of town where our center was co-located with the commercial runway, through the modern city. Boasting a distinct air of grandeur in its long Erkindik (Freedom) Boulevard with giant elm trees and extended pedestrian parks, people played chess and ping pong, walked along the parallel sidewalks or lolled in the shade. We could forget that fifteen minutes earlier on the ride, we had passed an entire family journeying along the highway on a flat cart with rubber tires pulled by a donkey while Mercedes Benz SUVs rocketed past.

People call them third-world countries. Filled with first- generation drivers, the traffic adventures on the heaving, paved road were like a video game: careening cars seemingly convinced they had extra “lives” to spare. Most trips featured near-fatal games of chicken against large, lumbering cargo vehicles refusing to make way, lurching down the wrong side of the road.

The dead person I saw was a man slumped half in and half out of the open passenger door of a smashed van. Our car followed the traffic through the wreckage. His seatbelt held him in, but didn’t hide the blood-soaked clothing and sagging, finite posture. The track suit was unzipped to just above his protruding belly, accentuated by his angle and his head lolled out the door. The Kyrgyz police could have been American cops in the way they half-turned away, waved on traffic, avoided looking at the drops pattering off the dead man’s fingers.


Eleven months later.

We were leaving the country and the crash site, but we still wanted to mark the location. One of the dead pilots had an infant son, and he might want to find the place where his mother perished in service to her country. We formed a small detail to sink a marker at the site. The marker was a simple tube of concrete, made heavy and long so that future removal would take more than hand labor. The top was flat, a disc of metal inscribed with the coordinates of the crash. We dug a hole and dropped the marker in. Our drill spiraled through loamy, dark earth, spilling out worms, and we placed and leveled the marker.

I photographed the brief ceremony to document the event and location.

Kyrgyzstan, that spring, was a rich fare of poppies and sunshine. Late snow and early rains made the swelling hills verdant in new green grass. The razor-sharp mountains set a purple-bruised vanguard over the undulating hips of the foothills. In the far distance, a herd of horses grazed, pricking ears in our direction.


Marker placed, on our return we drove near the border to Kazakhstan which was just on the other side of a short, barbed wire fence not a half-mile away. This crash was only a mile the other way: so close to being an incident in a country where we had no military agreements. I couldn’t imagine the difficulty in securing a crash site there.


In the surrey, we saw guards use the two-finger wave to stop. Our security detail lead, Elias, kept us going but the smaller pick up behind us stopped. I felt the shock wave of the AK-47 shot at the same time as the boom. I thought of the IED in Afghanistan

Wait. This is Krygzstan. Wait. We didn’t do anything wrong. Wait. There is no recalling a fired shot. Wait.

From the back of our surrey, Taisha, our lawyer, reported that no one seemed hurt.

A guard came forward and pointed his AK-47 at Elias, now out of the van. I had been trying to view the memorial photos on my camera. I tilted the lens from my lap towards the incident unfolding in front of me, snapping what I hoped was evidence I wouldn’t need.

The horror that my friends might be shot, right now, funneled my attention to the guard’s finger on the trigger, muzzle inches from Elias’s belly, safety off. Elias towered about a foot taller than the Kyrgyz guard. The bullet would have ripped through his intestines, a kidney, maybe his spine. Elias looked irritated as if this moment were a delay.

Later we learned that the shot was just a warning, a guard’s request for a few bottles of water and extortion. They got the water. We didn’t offer money.

On the road again, our talk quickly died down. Nothing had actually happened by real combat standards. We plugged an iPod into the surrey sound system and retreated into ourselves to the acoustic guitars and wailing singers. Left to the vibration of life, the exotic scene around us appeared, then flashed by—vibrant.

Halfway back to Bishkek, we passed a 70s era playground with ducks on springs and black plastic swings, two children ran and pushed a merry-go-round while a third leaned back off a pipe on the equipment, shiny dark hair flying, eyes shut tight.


My memories of these experiences find singularity in a background of decent beds, warm showers, and clean uniforms. My war stories don’t feel like “real” war stories to me, because my experiences don’t match the genre I’ve been reading and teaching for so many years.


Before dawn on June 6, 2013, the final three hundred Americans from the Transit Center at Manas gathered at the dining facility before marching the half-mile to the flight line over Kyrgyz International Airport’s back roads. My job was to capture the still photographs—running ahead, kneeling, finding the creative frame. People strained under their massive backpacks, stuffed animals wedged into the straps, pillows lashed on. One lieutenant colonel strolled behind, rolling her carry-on bag over potholes in the tree- lined street.

When I captured the last photo of our commander boarding the C-17, I pleaded with him to come back down and be the last person to actually board the aircraft. Not one who invested much in ceremony, he just told me to get on the plane. The door closed behind me.

I propped my green combat boots on the sand-colored front loader chained to the cargo hold floor. Rubbing my bruised knees while the force of takeoff pressed me down into my seat and to right, I tried to lean back against the hull. Craning my neck to the porthole window, I saw that we were banking just over the empty tents and buildings that made up my home for the last fourteen months. On the horizon, I saw the Ala Too mountains disappearing in our wake.

MaxieJane Frazier

MaxieJane is retired Senior Military Faculty from the United States Air Force Academy and an author/editor. Her writing has been published in The Willa Cather Review, The Routledge Companion to Literature and Food, as well as anthologies of critical essays. A graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars, she is currently working on a novel and a military memoir.

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