Don't be fooled by my excitement. Only I can be allowed that particular luxury at this moment in time. In twenty four hours I ship out for what will indisputably be my final overseas tour with the French Foreign Legion. When I return in four months' time, only a further ten months will separate me from the looming civilian world. Life - as you know it, and as I shall too, once more. So far on my little Legion adventure I've travelled to the Republic of Djibouti in east Africa and, of course, Afghanistan. Contrasting climates, on-the-ground situations, different colleagues owing to the inevitably impacting turnover of personnel in our unique "family", have all contributed to the wonderful diversity which I initially sought out by signing up. The final foreign excursion sees me whisked away to the jungles of French Guyana in South America. The next four months will be spent undergoing acclimatization to the tropical climate followed by immediate immersion in foot patrols through the rainforest in an ongoing bid by the French Armed Forces to disrupt, undermine and eventually eradicate the gold-smuggling trade currently rampant in this minuscule equatorial nation. While not quite child's play for an Afghanistan veteran, it's certainly not the most straightforward of missions. Let's be perfectly clear here: machete-wielding gold smugglers don't scare me one bit. But malaria and giant spiders…………that's a different kettle of bananas altogether!
So back to this excitement then. I guess I felt it before and during the four months in Djibouti, I certainly felt it in the build up to Afghanistan, climaxing (if you will) on the ground over there in what was undoubtedly the highlight of my entire military career. And so it rears its welcomed head on the eve of my departure to French Guyana, completing a rather unlikely trinity of overseas missions to speckle my acceptably eventful five-year-stint in the Legion. These overseas missions give one the opportunity to focus SOLELY on work - "le boulot". No distractions, no sense of returning to work on a Monday only to immediate realign one's sights on the forthcoming weekend. In fact, no sense of weekends, Mondays, time in general. There is only the mission. It's finished when it's finished, the next one comes around when it comes around. No structure, no clocking-out time. No time. Only time. I can't wait.
The closer I get to the end, and the more I reflect back upon my time spent in the Legion, I find it increasingly more difficult to decide upon my presence here in France these past four years. Has the Legion been the ultimate adventure from which my weekends in Paris have provided steady civilian reprise? Or has the Legion mutated in to some painstaking obstacle-ridden gauntlet at whose completion my sacred weekends await? The answer - I've come to realize - is a bit of both. Life at regiment is mundane. There are no two ways about it. Life overseas is awesome. It's THAT simple. Of course with the current worldwide economy slump combined with the looming end to combat operations in Afghanistan, opportunities to stretch the legs in foreign climes are rapidly reducing, alarmingly almost out of sight on the horizon of any current-serving Legionnaire. A career of confinement to interminable training camps in the French countryside beckons for those arriving at the gates of this fabled institution and, as a result, many decide to pack their bags and do a runner soon after being accepted. In the past two weeks our company has had five or six deserters, all deciding that slumming it in the mosquito-ridden mud of some uncontested jungle is not the glitzy, glorified image of war heroism that transported them on fluffy dream-filled clouds all the way to France. I don't blame them for the clouds that carried them here. The same clouds brought each and every one of us here. But once those clouds burst, and the naivety rained down in shattered shards of fun-house mirrors, the choice is either made to plough on regardless, or turn around and scurry for shelter. Either way, you get pissed on along the way. I guess it's just a matter of stubborn pride then.
Among those recent absconders were several cases of "young love"; a beautiful seductress discreetly pulling them back across oceans from a signed, dishonored contract to a warm bed and fresh struggle to make ends meet. Personally, my problem has never been the inescapable charms of a woman, rather the romantically suicidal escapades encompassing as many women as possible. Hence my division of loyalties while here in France: the job, the wage, the hierarchy on one hand, and the sheer chaotic emotional randomness of forty-eight hour blasts of freedom in arguably the greatest city on earth. It can all get quite exhausting, requiring the cushioning sanctuary of AT LEAST one week back in the comforting, steady rhythms of regimental life. I need a break, and that's where the Guyane tour comes in. Four months without distractions, no clubs, no pubs, no deliberations over which shirt to wear, which cologne to mist around my meticulously maintained beard, no flirtatious touches, no winks, blinks, thoughts to over think, nothing. Just the jungle. Just a rifle. Just the man in front, the man behind, a one-way trail and focused mind. The levels of concentration that rendered me firmly in a perennial adrenaline zone throughout the tour of Afghanistan await me once more. Perhaps not to the same profoundly draining and perversely euphoric levels, but of a similar strain nonetheless.
I won't deny that my time on French soil is primarily preoccupied with my hedonistic, passive-misogynistic rampages through magnificently lit Parisian streets for two days a week, as many weeks as my schedule allows. But once those coveted overseas tours come around not a single troubled, confused soul simmering beneath their Kèpi Blanc hesitates to shake out their distracting, suddenly irrelevant thoughts and switch focus to the job at hand, the dream finally approaching realization. This is what brought us here, what takes us there. Life, for now, gets put on hold, as the dream takes a hold of us. The ultimate awakening rushes towards the horizon, into view, the slow-rising sun creeping towards the afterlife as another darker, redder star slowly sets on this grand adventure. One final sleep awaits, however. One last chance to close my eyes, pull moist, camouflaged fingers over soft, flickering eyelids and dive one last time down the rabbit hole.
The jungle is calling. I'll see you all in the morning.