Active duty Navy Sailor Ed Klonowski is an outdoorsy guy. He grew up in the country in a family that hunted and fished and watched birds. So when he was deployed to Iraq, those were the kinds of things he missed.
"I was deployed in 2008 and early 2009 to Western Iraq, pretty close to Iran," Klonowski said. "I was an electronic warfare officer in the United States Navy but serving in an Army unit, the 2-7th Cavalry. Iraq, when I got there in June, is like pulling your cookies out of the oven, but you never close the door again. You just have that dry blasting heat in your face and you just don't feel like doing anything but finding a place to sit down."
Iraq has a pretty diverse topography. Klonowski was in the southwest, which is a vast, flat desert and he says the conditions there were really hard to get used to. The heat and sand that went on as far as he could see. He said the sand was so fine it was like dust, and it just got everywhere. He said he still finds it in drawers. And the wildlife he saw was different, too, and that was something that really hit home. As a kid, Klonowski watched birds with stepdad.
"My stepfather really gave me a love of things that fly," he said. "His top two interests were birds and airplanes."
He said he didn't see many birds in Iraq. And there were times he felt like the outdoors in his corner of the country seemed empty.
"I didn't see a lot of just anything," he said. "Here you can look around and you're going to see life everywhere. There, you just saw the dirt and you looked up and you're waiting for some kind of bird, sign of life, and it was just us: our guys, in sand."
When Klonowski was overseas, there were a few times his base was in indirect fire, but for the most part he was lucky. He never personally engaged in active combat, and he had a lot of time to think about how he was living his life and what he wanted to do when he got home. This quiet relationship with his surroundings is something Klonowski brought home with him. He uses nature now as an escape.
"I think part of that reflection that you get to do over there, and it's different for everyone, but for me, I take more time now in places that I think are beautiful to really contemplate what I'm seeing and take time to be in the environment and appreciate everything," he said.
Klonowski still has 14 months until his service ends. He doubts he'll be deployed again—these days he's mainly working with military computer networks in Baltimore. And he's also training for the Pittsburgh marathon. He picked up running in high school, but never really took it seriously until now. For him, it's contemplative—like his time was in the desert—and it's an experience he really wants to feel. To notice what's happening in his body and around him.
"When I train," he said, "I see people with their iPods and they're in their own little cocoon. They're out there in the environment and they're running and they're getting fit, but they're not hearing anything except their tunes. I don't run with anything in anymore, because I want to hear what's around me. I want to hear whatever it is—whether it's a boat in Baltimore harbor or birds up in Mercer County or just the wind in my ears."
He tells me these are the kind of simple sensory pleasures a lot of us take for granted. But not him, not anymore.