I walk down the busy make-shift street, dragging my feet at a sluggish pace. My freshly pressed uniform smothers me. The harsh rays of the sun beat down on me from directly above. I'm not quite used to the heat. Other Soldiers I don’t know rush past me, nodding a quick greeting before carrying on. Just like me, they are here for their loved ones – their wife, their child, their mother, and their friends. They are who they fight to protect. I study each face, praying silently for their safety.
I reach my destination; a small lounge near the bath houses. The walls are a deep beige canvas, held together with steel bars heated by the sun. It’s a little more crowded than usual, men playing a game of pool and enjoying drinks. I see a group of women laughing over a tabloid magazine I recognize as last month’s issue. In a dimly lit corner I see a group of men and women, still in their dusty uniform, standing out from the rest in the building. They sit around an unbalanced table in metal fold chairs, barely speaking to each other, eyes cast to the ground.
Greetings are simple, but warm. I can feel their stiff tired muscles when we share brief embraces. Two empty chairs are open and I find my place within the group.
Stories are shared. We all know them. Memories of peaceful times at home fill the air around us. Swimming at the lake side cabin. Jumping over the summer campfire. Skipping classes to go snowboarding. We push fake smiles to our faces as we remember these times; they all seem so far away now, so childish.
I glance at the last remaining empty chair, knowing its own story.
Tristan loved snowboarding, I say.
All eyes focus on the empty chair.