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Photographer John Love was embedded with the 804th Medical Brigade from Fort Devens as they prepared for and deployed to a yearlong assignment in Iraq. This is his firsthand story about that two-week experience.

Part seven

By John Love

It was Wednesday, Feb. 16. The 804th Medical Brigade from Devens and I had been on the plane for a short time and already, everything is starting to feel even stranger than it did already.

How could this be? I work for a weekly newspaper. I cover Little League games, town meetings and proms. How did I get here?

I think about the men and women on this ride with me. Maj. Jerry Parisella, who is a state rep from Beverly; Sgt. Major Donald Martin, who works for Verizon; Pfc. Joann (Pickering) McLaughlin, who only graduated high school in 2008 and would turn 21 on her deployment; Master Sgt. Edward Devise, who is trying to finish a criminal justice degree; and the rest of them on this airplane who have regular jobs and regular lives, just like I do. They signed up for the Reserves but they also have other lives. I was wondering if those on their first deployment felt as strange as I did.

We’re heading for Iraq.

I tried to take it all in stride as I sat on the plane in the wee hours of the morning. I did what I would normally do on a plane; I turned on the TV I had and watched one of the seven movies I could choice from, “Mega Mind.” Yes, I picked the cartoon movie first. I needed something to make me feel like this was not happening because everything just did not seem real.

We are on our way to Texas for the first leg of this journey to pick up another unit that will be traveling with us. After my movie ended, I felt I should try and get some sleep. I slept OK and woke as we were on our descent into Texas.

When we landed, they let us get off the plane if we wanted to, to get some fresh air. We could not go anywhere. The mountains we could see were not what I was used to but they had a beauty all their own. Unlike back home, it was not raining and there was no snow. It was about 8 a.m. Texas time.

Now, with a full plane, we took off to Chicago. I was no longer tired even though I only got a couple of hours of sleep. Maybe it was the two cups of coffee I’d had since we left Washington.

Breakfast on the plane was just OK: a cheese omelet or pancakes, which came with home fries, two sausages, fruit and two Danish.

After breakfast, I watched another movie. It started just before I turned my TV back on. It was not that bad so I will have to catch the beginning of it when I get home. It was about a boy that goes to a mental hospital for seven days, meets a girl… you know, just a typical love story.

Maj. Parisella sat next to me engrossed in his own movie. We had headphones so you could watch the movie without bothering anyone. He is such a quiet guy. If I had met him down at the Statehouse, I would never have been able to guess he was a major in the military.

Pfc. McLaughlin, from Ayer, seemed to be adjusting just fine. She has been asleep since the flight started. Maybe this was just her way of not thinking about it.

When lunch came, I wasn’t that hungry but I took it for later. It did come with chocolates; I ate those. The movies started again so I picked “Secretariat” this time.

At 12:30 p.m. we landed in Chicago. The cleaning crew is onboard to do some straightening up before we head out to our next stop. I’m still waiting to wake up from this dream I am in.

They also changed flight crews. As I talked to my mom on my cell phone for the last time till I get back, the crew started to hang up American flags all over the plane. Sometimes it’s the small things that can make all the difference in the world.

The hanging of these flags was just the most breathtaking sight. It felt so very cool that they were doing this for these deploying soldiers. There were small ones and big ones from the front of the plane to the back. I felt honored to be on this flight.

By 1:30 p.m. on that Wednesday, the flight taxied to the runway and by 2 p.m. we were in the air on our way to Germany. Still had not had a lot of sleep since Tuesday morning. I should be feeling tired but I am not yet. I know it will hit me and when it does I hope I sleep well.

I finished watching my second movie and had chicken for lunch.

To be continued.