I’ve been asked many times what my daily life is like here, and what’s different about deployment compared to real life. This place really does seem surreal sometimes, with so many aspects of life back home completely eliminated from the equation. So here you go – things that make deployment different from real life – the good and the bad.
1. No more cell phone dependency. The other day while my crew was eating in the chow hall, my roommate pulled out her cell phone, and I remember staring at her in disbelief – what in the world was she doing? It then struck me how common that action is at home. I resisted the smartphone movement for a lot longer than most, largely because people who own them treat it almost like an extra appendage. They never go anywhere without it, often carrying it around close enough to their heads to hear the ringer or the vibrate or the reassuring computerized voice of Siri telling them which direction to turn or which foods cause insanity or that everything in their lives will turn out okay. I finally gave up and sold my soul to the technology movement, and had started to feel naked without my phone. I checked my email and my Facebook not just constantly, but obsessively, and didn’t even realize how glued to my little two-inch screen I had become, until . . . the Internet was suddenly unavailable. What? No 4G? Not even 3G??? How will my life go on? But . . . it did. When I saw my roommate pull out her phone at lunch that day, I realized how refreshing it has been over these past few months not competing with text messages and Skype conversations and constant googling of random facts that our technology-saturated brains cannot retain. I hope I can keep this friendly distance not only from my phone, but my computer and Facebook and every other part of modern life that prevents me from simply being where I am.
2. What day is it? I’ve had a few busy weeks or months at home when this sentence comes out of my mouth and I actually mean it – I’ve lost track of which day is which and which end is up and where I’m supposed to spend the next five minutes and the five minutes after that . . . But here, all of us utter this phrase on a daily basis. Actually, I have no idea if it’s daily. Maybe it’s twice a day, maybe once every other day; I have very little way of really knowing. Without the date/day display on my watch, I would be wholly lost. Time warps while deployed; words like “yesterday” and “dinner,” “morning” and “weekend,” lose their accepted connotation. It’s perfectly normal to spend all night working on homework or reading, see the sun come up, and say, “Well, bedtime!” The first meal of the day is breakfast, even if it’s 7pm. We’ve started labeling things in relation to flights rather than actual 24-hour periods, creating words like “yesterflight” to give some kind of time perspective. I frequently ask the question, “Is it morning or night for you?” at all times of the day. Planning anything with people outside our own crew must involve consideration of others’ sleep schedules – “When are you going to sleep?” There is no right or normal answer. Every week we shift flight schedules by four to six hours, which means landing after a twelve- or fourteen-hour day, only to stay up for another six to eight hours to begin the grueling Circadian rhythm shift. At home, finding someone asleep in the middle of the day usually means he’s lazy; here, it’s just a fact of life.
3. Planning life around bathroom breaks. Sometimes I walk around this base and think that ten different agencies must have designed it without consulting each other. Some buildings, like my dorm, have well-built, clean bathrooms with (usually) functioning indoor plumbing and hot water. Other buildings, like my squadron and the chow hall, are hardened, permanent buildings but lack bathrooms entirely. Then there are the tents, like the ones used for the gym and the library (no, not camping tents – think MASH), that would be better suited for a short-lived stay in this country (rather than twelve years and counting). There are port-a-potties scattered throughout base, along with portable trailers lovingly referred to as Cadillacs, plus a rare number of indoor bathrooms; this is pretty much the order of preference, from least to most desired. While our squadron doesn’t have an indoor toilet (still a mystery that I’ve yet to solve), there is a warm, reasonably clean bathroom across the alleyway in the hangar that most of the girls make regular use of. There have been days when I’m sitting at the squadron, about to depart for a BX run to kill some time, and find myself thinking, “Well, I don’t have to go to the bathroom very much right now, but after I walk down there I’ll probably have to go, which means I’ll have to use a port-a-potty while I’m there . . . I’ll just try to go now.” I feel like a little kid on a road trip whose dad keeps telling her, “At least go try, because you won’t get a chance later.” I orchestrate my trips to the chow hall, where there is no convenient bathroom, to fall immediately after a departure from the hangar or my dorm to prevent the call of nature from hitting me in the middle of a meal. A fair amount of tactical dehydration occurs as well – there aren’t a lot of options if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of an 8-hour flight with a cargo compartment full of Army troops. I didn’t say there were no options; the options just aren’t necessarily ideal, especially for girls. The trick is finding that sweet spot where you don’t become parched, but also don’t have to use the restroom every hour.
4. Innovative meal preparation. To be perfectly honest, our chow hall is decent. Not great, not terrible, but decent. Think back to your high school cafeteria options, usually containing a healthy bar that was palatable, a fried food bar that was the primary culprit in obesity amongst youth, a few samples of desserts, and a variety of drinks. Now, imagine eating there as an adult, after you’ve been cooking for yourself or eating out for years, maybe even decades. And eat there three times a day every single day for four months. It’s safe to say the food gets less and less awesome as the days drag on. My rotation also got the unique opportunity to experience a chow hall contractor shift since we’ve been here; I learned that when morale is a primary concern, it is better to never give than to give and take away. I once listened to a fifteen-minute rant about the lack of cheese in the chow hall; it wasn’t even good cheese, just standard, processed, chemically enhanced shredded cheese, and yet its absence might have been the end of the world for this particular friend of mine. Most of our chow hall troubles are due to the simple difficulty of shipping food here; sometimes weather or higher priority missions delay our food shipments for a few days, sometimes weeks. We always have enough to eat, but this might mean a lack of cheese, or milk (powdered – we don’t get real milk unless a crew gets lucky enough to go to Kyrgyzstan and brings a load back), or chicken breasts. The routine of the meals combined with the blandness over time have led to desperate measures for some of us to stomach a full meal’s worth of calories. One night at midnight meal (I think it was supposed to be breakfast for me . . . though I can’t be sure), I ended up with French toast, a salad, and some sweet potato tots . . . I stared at the eclectic combination for a few minutes before shrugging and spreading some peanut butter and jelly on the French toast. We have to make the most with what we’ve got here – and if that means creating a semi-homemade fruit salad as a side dish to the plain pasta with olives that was the only thing I could stomach from the selection on a given night, well, so be it.
5. This place is crawling with gym rats. I’ve always made fitness a priority and enjoyed killing myself in the gym or on the bike or around the trails. For those here who have never been overly enthusiastic about exercise, I’ve found that there is no better motivation than utter boredom and no other source of entertainment. The gym is never empty; I’ve spent my fair share of time there at 2am and never have free reign of the place. There are all kinds – musclemen who arrive just after work, still in their fatigues, looking like their biceps might rip their tiny T-shirts at the seams; Crossfit gurus flitting from exercise to exercise; slightly overweight military and civilians looking better suited to jeans and Polo shirts than physical conditioning gear who wander around the gym like lost puppies until they find the elliptical and take refuge in its familiar, not-too-strenuous rhythm. I’ve found myself spending two hours in the gym on fly days, and four or more on my days off; I love exercising, but at home I would consider this a colossal waste of time. Here, well . . . what else am I going to do with myself? Watch another movie? Because that’s certainly more productive than gym time. Except it’s not.
6. Well . . . I guess we’ll go to Ops. This is another phrase that has become a regular part of my vocabulary. Maybe I’m averse to spending my free time at work because of my time at the Academy, where I was forced to be at work for twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week (that might be an exaggeration . . . just go with it), but I find no enjoyment in showing up to work early and leaving late and putting in time on the weekends unless it’s absolutely necessary. I like donning my feminine clothing (or sweatpants) and heading out to dinner with friends (or eating ice cream on the couch with my dog), not chilling in my flight suit chatting about low level tactics after normal working hours. When I have days off, I take them, and see no shame in it. The military tends to breed an attitude that work is life, and those who take post-mission crew rest (days off after longer out-of-town missions, the equivalent of business trips) or free passes are slackers or don’t care as much about the mission as those who spend fourteen hours each day at the squadron. Since graduating from pilot training, I have scorned this attitude, giving work my all when it’s time to work, but allowing myself the rest and rejuvenation that comes from a rich personal life, something that isn’t possible if work is life. I’m continually bewildered by those who spend excessive amounts of time at work, basically giving themselves to the Air Force and saving nothing for a life outside of the military. Here, though . . . this is my confession . . . I spend most of my free time at work. I put on my uniform, buckle my gun holster around my waist, and trudge the couple of blocks to the squadron, where I find many of my coworkers doing the same thing. Crews (especially those with girls since we aren’t allowed in opposite sex dorms) utilize the squadron as a meeting place, where there is a TV with two rows of stadium seating and a DVD player, Internet access, even a Keurig downstairs. Someone once asked me why I was spending my time at Ops (the squadron) during my day off, a question I occasionally pose to people at home. Deployed, this question is bizarre, and I almost found myself at a loss for words. What else am I supposed to do? Go to the gym again? I’ve already spent four hours there today . . .
7. Daily life takes less time. I don’t have to pick out my clothes every day, or decide how to do my hair, or cook, or clean, or run errands. As much as I miss my dog and am looking forward to having her with me again, I don’t have to feed her or take her for walks; I don’t have to factor drive time into every plan I make. Cleaning my room takes five minutes, since my space is only about 5’ by 5’. Laundry takes even less time – we’re not even allowed to wash our own clothes, so every few days I stuff everything into a mesh bag, hide a small and illegal detergent ball in a sock, and walk it to the tent where I throw it in a bin and pick it up three days later, mostly clean (I’ll still be throwing away all my underwear and socks when I get home). I have read seven books since I’ve been here, finished a masters thesis, completed Squadron Officer School, and checked off an aircraft commander preparation program mandatory for all copilots. I’ve found time to write and call home, read magazines (they’re like books for people with ADD – short and full of random topics), and watch my favorite TV episodes. Oh yeah, and I fly every other day for twelve hours or more, and spend an average of three hours each day at the gym. It’s amazing how much time we spend at home on necessary but mundane chores.
There are some very obvious differences between real life in the States and surreal life while deployed – Dari words on every sign, guns hanging from every coalition force member or civilian on base, and the wide arrays of tan that dominates the landscape. These are expected, even by those who have no experience with deployed locations. It’s the other alterations to daily life that have been so bizarre, and have made me acutely aware of the things about home for which I ache that before I might not even have noticed.