The Closer I am to Fine

Sunrise

It’s been awhile…a month from when I wrote this….plus two weeks to reflect on it before sharing. Time here is…disorienting. I was recently talking with an Australian commander who will be redeploying soon and I thought he capture it perfectly: “Long days and short weeks.” That’s deployment in a nutshell.

A colleague, and someone I also consider a friend, blessed me with the opportunity to read his memoir. Each chapter starts with lyrics from a song. It adds a connection that I have found so impactful as the reader. The lyrics serve as a bridge to his story. And so I have a bridge….I’ve discovered I walk around singing the Indigo Girls song, Closer to Fine, “There’s more than one answer to these questions pointing me in a crocked line. The less I seek my source of some definitive, the closer I am to fine.”

Being deployed makes you realize, with such clarity, how important relationships are…with your family and friends, with Mac and my boys, with my work-family/friends…with those who we’ve become “static-cling” to here. But what I’ve also found is how important my “relationship” with myself is while in “this world.” Some call it routine (and it is truly routine) but it’s more than that. It’s finding what centers you or calms your thoughts and feelings. It’s the inner dialogue you have with yourself: reminding yourself the importance of eating well, sleeping, exercise, hobbies, etc. It’s being honest with yourself on what does fill your cup back up. What is genuine to you and what your “trying-out” to see if it becomes a part of you. I’m 56 years old and I find I am learning more about myself than I knew I needed to learn.

Sure, little pleasures go a long way. I bought myself some silk poppies and a white pitcher/vase for my room. I found a sturdy, functional shower caddy so I don’t (and my roommate doesn’t) have to keep shampoo etc on the floor of our tight corner shower (I’m not complaining…I get to say I have a shower I share with one person!). I recognized long ago that I need “alone time” to unwind from always “being on” for everyone else. What I’ve found here is I need “alone time” from me and my thoughts and feelings more than anything else….so I’ve been practicing meditation and yoga.

And all that is really important, but I’ve discovered that my needs aren’t always so “purposeful” or deliberate. I’ve come to a realization that “this Carolyn” has to be different, and in a way that “isn’t me.” I have found that sometimes, reaching back to those I love…and friends that are an important part of my life…takes a lot of energy. I feel selfish by electing not to reply to an email or Facebook friend request. I know and understand it is important to those at home to hear from me as it is for me to hear from them, but keeping up with those connections can sometimes create a paradox…I look forward to that contact and then when it comes, I find a lack of “emotional energy” to respond back. I’ve had to learn to accept that if it doesn’t “fill my cup” to reply and reach back, I need to say that’s OK.

For those of you who have deployed, I know you understand. For those of you who had to navigate significant life-challenges, you likely understand since often controlling your contact and sharing that story is, well, very personal or private. Maybe that’s the space I’m in….

And so the Indigo Girls song starts back up in my head….”I’m trying to tell you something about my life. Maybe give me insight between black and white….”

All is good, I wouldn’t change my decision to be here.

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Dog Years

Time in this deployed world is in dog-years. Tomorrow starts my 7th week and it feels like I’ve been here a year. Everyone and everything is moving so fast…it’s like the time-lapse before the Netflix show House of Cards…the sun rises and sets and days keep changing and you keep racing about from one intense situation to another. You lose track of what day of the week it is, you lose track of what time of the day it is, you can lose track of yourself if you let it. And in this time-lapse place you have to manage the situation of the moment while remaining focused on the “long term” priorities that must be done before your time is out…leaving what you inherited better than how you found it and helpful/useful for those who follow. Because when your time is up…you go off on a plane and the next guy jumps into the time-lapse universe because your out….and their in.

And then you talk to family at home or read about happenings on FaceBook and whoosh…you get pulled back to the world you know, but your just looking in. Seeing Mac for the first time on FaceTime this weekend did that to me…I’m looking in and talking to him…across the world. And then when you “hang-up” …zoom, your back in this universe.

Most of us deployed at this base arrived in the last 4-6 weeks. For me, I knew 2 other people before I arrived: Brian from my home station Hanscom, and my Commander (we worked together at Hanscom several years ago). But that’s it. For many to most military members, they deployed here with folks from there base or Guard unit. They have connections and relationship that are life-jackets. I really understand now why those “UTCs” are used by the military. (“UTC” is a Unit Tasking Component…actually I don’t know if that’s what that acronym stands for. But I can describe it…a cells of military folks who deploy with the skills and knowledge to support the mission.) Not only does this trained military team come out to pick up where the last rotation of folks left out, but they also know each other, and support each other, and even if they don’t work in the same area, they connect and hold each other up.

As a civilian, your on your own. I’m lucky I came out here with Brian and I know my commander, but that’s two out of the whole base. So you bond up quick. You learn to trust and become trusted fast. You hold on like tentacles that a vine sends out to climb a trellis. And you grow…fast with that rising and setting sun and lightning speed mission.

I’ll be here for 3.5 dog years and I’ll be leaving a pack of folks that will always be a part of me.

Aerial Acrobatics

An amazingly beautiful day. Just eating outside under the sun shade having breakfast and being entertained by a fighter jet running practice maneuvers overhead. My omelet had some help digesting with the gut vibrating G-force rumble overhead (you literally have to plug your ears). Warriors practicing their skills for the many missions they run day and night. That’s what you hear and read about in the news (and a lot lately!)

A Month Ago…

The week before my last night at home, I would climb into bed (usually pretty exhausted from all that had to be done and the rising tide of emotion) and say to myself “I’m going to miss my own bed and miss falling asleep next to Mac.” But that last night, after last minute triple checks (which still didn’t catch that I left my uniform cap in the dining room…thanks Morgan for finding it!), I never really slept. My heart and mind were racing. When the alarm went off at 4:40am I was glad to get out of bed and make coffee.

It was great to have Mac and the boys at the gate before flying off on the first flight of my deployment. While sitting there I felt it gave me a few more precious moments with them, but what I realized as I began my day of travel to Norfolk, that being with them at the gate was the bookend to feeling grounded and connected. A feeling that truly resinates as I write this entry just over one month later. I was in transition…I was traveling away from everyone I love to a big unknown. Not just an unknown of people, but an unknown of what to expect, what to do, and how to be me.

I claimed my bags at the airport and went to the USO lounge to wait for the shuttle. Everyone there seemed to know what to do…where to put your bags, what was available as snacks, when the shuttle might come. Some were doing homework, many playing games on laptops or iPads, some sleeping. I sat down and started writing. I was now a part of a group of people and culture that….well, I thought I knew; the “one percenters” that I have devoted the last 25 years to supporting. I sat in the USO realizing prior to today, I was looking through a lens. I really didn’t know the world of those who wear the uniform. How is that?…when I’ve helped them being effective parents in this world of military service…when meeting with them after their loved one has died. My goal as a Mortuary Officer has always been to support grieving families and “wrap them in blue.” I sat in the USO lounge realizing I entered the Looking Glass and found that “Air Force Blue Blanket” … and the purple blanket (all our uniformed service members), only to discover it is a fabric with yarns and weaves I simply didn’t understand.

I vividly remember my conversation with Mac when I was in Norfolk. I told him that this was the weirdest trip I’ve ever taken; it was a feeling of stark transition and that I felt lonely. Lonely in a way that was not sad but…disconnected. His reassuring words and brought me back to the “why of it”. That this will be an amazing experience, one he is proud of and wished he was able to share with me.

One-plus months later…it feels like a lifetime ago that I traveled through the Looking Glass. I’m here, I wear the uniform. I’m proud…and challenged…and working my butt off to support our one percenters in a way I have learned and been trained to be and do. May my blessing be a gift to all who serve us.

The Color “Sand”

Benjamin Moore lists 48 paint colors with sand in its name and another 14 with desert. My landscape for the next six months will not have that many hues to view…only a few shades. Oh, and it’s abundant! Sand and dust is everywhere: vehicles, the soles of your shoes, signs (which you can barely read), your glasses, outdoor tables and chairs, the pool deck (which makes for quite slippery surface!) and solar panels.

Working & Living in Boxes and Sun!

Every blessed day you have with the person you are replacing is spent learning, orienting and trying to capture as much as you can to offer some kind of continuity from one rotation to another. But of course, the events of the day continue, so your spin-up is also dealing with solving problems, casting nets of solutions, and keeping the commanders informed. Fast paced, no doubt. It kind of like playing net in doubles tennis in a match that doesn’t end.

Surprisingly, in the first week here, I found I wasn’t too tired during the day. Chad (the great guy I replaced) had a nice balance of “in the office” and out-and-about/around base transition plan. Walking about was hot…and in the sun. Daily temps with dew point were at least 100 degrees. The office is basically an air conditioned container like building. No windows, metal door, A/C and florescent lights. In fact, all the buildings are like that, some larger but all boxes and rectangles. So even though it’s hot, folks are out under the shade canopies mid-day, picking up wi-fi. At night, the “campus” is full of people socializing, playing corn-hole (a big bean bag like game), watchingTV or attending one of the programs my squadron provides. That’s regeneration…getting folks to unwind. It’s also an essential coping mechanism since we all live in boxes and most with a roommate.

I learned quickly after Chad left and I was on my own that if I didn’t get out a walk about in the fresh air and sunlight my bio-clock didn’t have any cues it was time to go to bed. I’d get back to my room, take a shower and have some reading time and no matter how tired I was I couldn’t sleep.

So I’ve learned to stroll to where I’m going, I don’t pick up the phone, I grab my cap and walk to who I need to talk to. The hot desert sun is just what your bio-clock needs when you live and work in little boxes!

Day 1: School of Fish

The day I left Norfolk Naval Station to start my journey here I really felt really out of my element. It was the first day I was wearing my uniform “in public” (I wore it one day at Hanscom but…that’s a familiar environment. The lodging front desk lobby was really crowded with men and women in uniform. I knew “my mission” (the flight I was departing on) was large so and show-time was 10:45. I checked out and went out front to wait for the shuttle. There was lots of folks waiting. So I decided it to go into “school of fish mode”‘ … follow the group and I”ll get to the terminal. Of course, I’m the strange looking fish. My uniform has no rank which confuses the hell out of the military. Some wore ABUs like me and others going to Afganistan wore the desert battle uniform. We were a mix of AF and Army…and then there was me, the “DOD Civilian”. A van pulled up but it wasn’t a shuttle. It was a taxi seeing who needed a ride. A bunch of folks took it; I waited with the rest of “the school”. It was getting late, another taxi pulled up, the one (female) Airman who called for it stepped out. I jumped up, asked if I could join her and off we went. Sometimes the school doesn’t know what to do.

I’m sure glad we split the taxi, the line to get into the AMC (Air Mobility Command) terminal was 50 yards long. Again, the looks. Was it my lack of rank? Was I out of uniform? (I was, my boots are sand and they are only authorize when I get into Southwest Asia but I wasn’t going to get another pair of sage boots just to wear there and back. Heck, I’m a civilian…I hoped that that would work!). Mac and I wondered if tying my donut travel pillow to the outside of my pack would be authorized. I felt good when I found that there were all sorts of colored ones…at least mine was black.

The terminal entry had baggage screening, just like any airport and then…what school of fish do I swim with? There was a stunning amount of people, several waiting areas and a dining hall (cafeteria). I picked the one that had a smaller crowd. I logged into the wi-if but that was a bust…100s of people doing the same. My phone was working so I got out a few text messages out to family, Lt Holler and Mr Hayes. Maj Green (my commander at my deployed base) sent a text wishing me safe travels and letting me know that I would see him tomorrow. Tomorrow? I was expecting the trip from hell. Brian (my co-worker who left for our deployment 10 days before me) followed the same itinerary as Mr Hayes: Norfolk to Bangor Maine to Iceland or Ireland, Ramstein Germany and then then Qatar. Then he had a 3-day layover at the base there. I was ready and packed for it but…”tomorrow”meant I likely had a different itinerary. I was shocked that this massive group of people were fitting into one plane flying to Kuwait with a few hour layover/transfer and right into my base. Really? Cool! But what kind of plane takes so many people….a Delta Chartered 777 and being an officer rank equivalent, I road in the business class seat. Amazing! My own seat; a pod-like area with a seat that had ever position you would need to include a lower back massage and horizontal/prone position. We got hot towels to freshen up with, three meals (airplane food that wasn’t so bad) on this 12 hour flight. How’s that for a contrast to four stops and at least 24 hours of travel!

At the end of the flight, one of the guys across the aisle from me finally said “DOD Civilian, I’ve never seen that before.” The guys in the other surround seats chimed in to the inquiry and finally the ice was broken.

I was the second person to walk out of the plane, down the stairs, into the Tarmac at Kuwait international Airport…on the Kuwait Air Force and USAF portion of the runways. The sun was warm and shining brightly and it was pretty hot but not as bad as I expected. Then again, it was only 8:30 in the morning. We walked a ways to a holding room where I sat and started this journal entry. A first the room was full of energy and chatter, people plugging in their phones, some texting, but most crashed…those donut pillows came in handy.

I sat in a sea of Airmen and Soldiers, about half heading to bases that wear my uniform, the other half to bases and places that require combat uniforms. I’m still a fish, blending in, ready to follow instructions and the school when it’s time to board our next flight…I said to myself “I bet it’s not the 777 but…I’d find out soon enough.