We were sailing into the sky, the loud buzz of the plane engine beating against the air. We flew over a vast desert that stretched in front of us. My god, it was beautiful. My colleague, a lifetime adventurer, leaned over and asked, “Aren’t you going to miss it?” He knew the answer, and I do. Every day I miss that life.

Those moments—flying over the desert, landing in the vastness—I remember as vignettes, snapshots. There’s no way to prepare yourself for life in the military, no way to know what it’ll be like not to shower for long periods of time or to eat exclusively MREs. We built with carpentry, concrete, and sandbags, and I reached a new level of exhaustion. I’d routinely pass out during lunch after eating an MRE while the group watched Weeds. We’d hoisted a Toughbook laptop onto the wall and at night we’d watch movies and television together.

Our first night in Afghanistan had been nerve-racking. The valley was blanketed in snow, and we’d barely gotten to our mud house. But the weather had provided some form of safety; the Taliban spent the winter dormant in Pakistan. We slept in a single room probably meant for one family that night. The smell of everyone’s feet was rancid.

Our first morning there, a Kiowa chopper flew low over us and nearly into our Afghan living compound and the pilot leaned out, gave us a thumbs up, flashed a big shit eating grin, and gave a disbelieving shake of his head. He probably thought we were nuts for being there when we were and he was probably right. Except it had been briefed up the chain of command that our site would be occupied by a certain date.

In a strange way, this mud house and these living conditions are the reason I joined Special Forces, and what I had wanted to do. Think of a bathroom—now instead of a toilet, there’s a hole that opens up into the room below. To poop into a room of poop while at war is the essence of Special Forces: to make due with very little or nothing.

I’d never done any of it—living in a mud house, doing carpentry, laying electric wire—before deploying to Afghanistan. I grew up in suburban Maryland, between D.C. and Baltimore, in a town called Columbia, Md. It was like coming of age in Pleasantville. Not exactly the place where young people learned to shoot, kill, or build. They weren’t skills I’d thought about needing or wanting, and in the world where I grew up they certainly weren’t considered skills essential to manhood. The Army was a rude awakening, but I adapted quickly.

In Afghanistan I’d patrol on a gator we’d strapped a handheld mode 60mm mortar to—and I loved it. I’d imagine that if I hit an IED, I would’ve soared in the air and turned into a green mist, just the color of the gator. I remember the excitement and sense of adventure and danger, and I miss it.

But I know the job is about the people in the rear view mirror—the ones you were with and the ones you hopefully helped. I had the added pleasure of sharing my time there with people born into a different culture in a different part of the world, with whom I had so much in common.