Thursday, June 14, 2012

The End – “Good bye and thanks for all the fish” (Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, 1979)

Well it is here, the end of another deployment and my last one before I retire.  While I am extremely happy to see it come to an end, it would not be complete if I did not take the time to thank those people that made it go by a quickly as it did.  It just seems like yesterday that I boarded the Chinook helicopter out of Iraq in December.  Now I am packing up and waiting for the bus to take me to the last plane I will board as a soldier heading home.  There I will spend the next two years getting ready to retire after 20 years thus fulfilling a promise I made to myself to finish what I started.

First and foremost, I must thank my lovely wife Patty.  She has been there for me on all three deployments.  While most of the time she has railed loudly about how she wants each and every deployment to be over so we can be together, she has provided me the strength to keep going and finish this journey.  As I am not as a prolific writer as I would like to be, she has also been the editor of many of my papers and blog entries.  She will admit though, the amount of editing she has had to do lately has become less and less, I still rely on her to make sure I get my point across.  Thank you Patty and I am eternally grateful for you being in my life and the even though this journey is ending ours is just beginning.

Secondly, to my friends and mentors Nancy “aka My Girlfriend” and Kem Hauge, for the support you have given Patty and me over the last 8 years since we first met, THANK YOU.   You are two of the kindest and giving people I have ever met and don’t think I can ever repay you for it.  Our Friday night dinners and drinks are the one thing that we all could count on and look forward to each and every week.  From the food, to the martinis (oh the martinis – extra cold and dry for Nancy) to the conversations those are some of the best memories that carried my through this deployment.  THANK YOU THANK YOU.

Thirdly, to all my friends in National Guard units that I have had the pleasure of serving with thank you.  While we may not speak for a while, there is a special bond between people that have served together.  You understand what each has gone through during those times and the challenges we faced.  We can take comfort to know that we survived and made it home.  Your impact on me did not go unnoticed and I salute you and thank you.

Lastly, not all the people that have made an impact were positive.  All three deployments have had those individuals that had a negative impact on others and me.  While I am not going to name names I am sure if those people actually read this blog they may think I am talking about them.  If they think that then they are probably correct but you will have to ask me directly to know for sure.  However, they also need to be thanked.  Thank you for showing me what not to do.  Your lesson, while unknowing to you, was appreciated.

So this is it, the last entry in the series.  However, it will not be the last blog I do.  All that is left is the say “good bye and thanks for all the fish” - For Now.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Leave – Two types – One you want to take one that you hope to Never Take

Well it is here, time for my mid-tour R&R leave.  I am really looking forward to taking this break from the desert.  Right now the temperature is starting to climb as is my blood pressure but that is for another time.  While I contemplate my leave and how excited I am about it, I am also taking time to reflect the other type of leave I had to take during this deployment.

Most people do not know that the military offers several ways for soldiers to get a “break” from the mundane day-to-day effects of military life.  Being deployed does not change that; it just offers a little more complexity.  There is the traditional leave (civilians call it vacation), but the outcome is the same.  You get away and enjoy some much needed down time in order to recharge your batteries.  Just like everyone else you sometimes need a vacation from your vacation depending on what you do with your down time.  The other way to escape is with a “pass” Just like the days in High School, it allows you to take a quick respite from work and reset yourself.  I have been offered this several times but the areas that they can send me only offer a different base nothing really exciting so I have declined.  The outcomes are the same for both leave and pass, to get you away from your company for a quick break.  However, there are times that you did not plan to take leave or pass but have no fear the military has the remedy for that.  It is called Emergency Leave/Pass.

So what is the difference?  As the name implies something has happened that requires you to leave the area and address the emergency.  So what is classified as an emergency, typically it requires a Red Cross Message.  Basically someone back home has called the Red Cross to inform the unit that Soldier so and so needs to come home because something drastic has happened.  Well yours truly had one of those drastic things happened this deployment that required me to take Emergency Leave.  Most people reading this will know what happened so I will not bemoan the issue.  Suffice to say it is a message NO ONE ever wants to get.  It affects everyone in the company and even if you had a huge blow out with someone in the company early that day, this type of message puts everything into perspective really quick. 

So here I am getting ready to go on leave and realize that I will also be seen as “lucky.”  Why?  Because I will get to leave the desert twice in the deployment, however I don’t feel “lucky” at all.  I am grateful that I get away twice because being my last deployment the less time I spend in the desert the better.  However, going home for my rest and relaxation is bitter sweet.  I know that my wife and friends will love having me home and I will be busy.  I have a wonderful leave planned but know that there is still a dark cloud over my head.  All because of my emergency leave.  I try not to dwell on what happened but others in the unit do not give me that luxury.  Comments that are said either to me or behind my back when people don’t think I am listening resonate their true feelings.  It is like I was given something that everyone should have but the truth is you can have my emergency leave and I will take what was lost from you and see if you feel the same.  My guess is that you would not want to trade with me but I could be wrong (not likely).  So this leave that I am about to take will truly be a Rest and Relaxation leave.  I plan to have as much fun as possible and not think about the desert or what awaits me upon my return.  I do know that I am thankful that the military has an emergency leave policy and that I was able to see how efficient that policy is executed when fellow soldiers that truly care initiate it.  For those that think I am “lucky” I would beg to differ.  If you never have to use emergency leave in your career then you are the lucky ones.  If you want proof ask anyone that has had to use it.  Most would have like to have never received the Red Cross message tell you to come home.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Groundhog Day Effect – it happens to all deployed soldiers

There are many surprising similarities between the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day and each one of my deployments.  To define the Groundhog Day effect you have to know the movie.  Every day Bill Murray’s character wakes up on February 2nd in Punxsutawney, PA where he is a reporting on Punxsutawney Phil coming out of his hole to predict if there is going to be 6 more weeks of winter.  In contrast, in my own life there is no actual groundhog to determine if there is going to be six more weeks of this deployment.  But I assure you – there will be six more weeks and every day will feel like Groundhog Day.

Eerily similar to the movie, each day I wake up to the same music (not Sonny & Cher) and to the same exact routine, surrounded by the same exact sights, sounds, people and routine activities.  No matter what I do, I will wake up each day and it will be Groundhog Day.

I’m not alone.  The Groundhog Day effect is a stark reality for every deployed solider regardless of their specialty and we all know it.  In fact we all joke about it because let’s face it, if you can’t keep a sense of humor over here than your deployment will get the best of you.

So how do I fight the Groundhog Day Effect?  By doing the same thing that Bill Murray did; finding things to do that distract me about where I am and for how long.  This is a lot easier said than done – but not from lack of effort by the US Army.  We are all provided ample opportunity to combat the monotony every day.  The question becomes whether or not you personally want to take advantage of these opportunities or would you prefer to muddle through Groundhog Day – every day. 

It has been my experience over the last three deployments that no matter how much we try to prepare soldiers for the repetitive Groundhog Day Effect, vast majority do not heed the warnings and end up being a victim of boredom.  Why?  Because they spend their entire deployment glued to their Xbox 360, PS3, or whatever gaming device that they own and brought with them.  While this provides a temporary distraction, gaming ends up being just as cyclical as watching Punxsutawney Phil and it does not defeat the Groundhog Day Effect.  Some soldiers try sleep as a strategy, but alas this is also an ineffective defense because it only delays the effects.

So what are the symptoms that you are becoming a victim of the Groundhog Day Effect?  Everyone reacts to this effect differently but some commonalities that I have experienced are:

1.    Irritability at the littlest thing – like a shoe being out of place

2.    Overtired – Getting too much sleep will do this

3.    1,000 yard stare – an emptiness in the eyes

4.    The feeling of going “stir crazy” – this is due to not leaving your living quarters

Take charge of your own life and learn what you can do to effectively fight monotony.  The key is variety of distraction and engagement.  If you step outside your comfort zone every day, and find new things to do, you will find that time moves more quickly.  Here are a few strategies I use:

1.    Engage in community (try Starbucks for a start).

2.    Get out your quarters every day (DFAC does not count). 

3.    Attend an MWR event!  Enjoy a concert and remember that you may never get the opportunity to see some of these performing artists again and its FREE. 

4.    Take in a movie also FREE and first run movies are common.

5.    Blog – keeping in mind OPSEC (loose lips people!)

6.    Take a class.  Learn something.  Make use of your time on deployment

All of these outlets allow you to mitigate the effects of Groundhog Day and who knows maybe just maybe you will forget for that you are far from home and missing you family and friends.  At the very least, you’ll walk away with some irreplaceable experiences.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Lines of Succession: An issue that spans ALL generations

Christmas is over for 2011.  And while folks back home are contemplating what they will purchase with their gift cards, I remain in Kuwait with the National Guard.  I have a lot of down time right now.  But rather than waste hours on video games, I have spent much of my disposable free time quietly contemplating my career and the lines of succession within my unit.

It’s only recently that I have been placed in a leadership role.  Until then, I never gave the next generation of leadership a single thought.  With my retirement date approaching, I am wondering if I have done enough to prepare the younger leaders to take my position when I leave.  In order ensure that they are ready for the challenges ahead, I have been asking myself two questions:

·         What haven’t I done to ensure a smooth transition to the next generation of leaders? 

·         What more could I have done to ensure that the new leaders are the next subject matter experts?

The good news is that I believe I have given the next generation all of the training and information they need.  Recently, I have adopted an advisory position, rather than active participation in any training.  I am available to answer questions they may have but I will no longer create any training plans or events.  I have faith that the information that I have given them was correct and to the Army standard.  It is now time for them to take initiative and become the leaders they aspire to be.

Many of the younger soldiers have come to me and asked when they will be promoted.  I usually ask the question why they want to be promoted. The most common answer I get is that they want to be “in charge.”  I would rather hear them tell me “they are ready for the challenge of leadership.”  Rather than give these young soldiers more information to process, I need to help expand their perspective to help them to see what leadership really means.

Time will tell if they are ready for succession.  I only hope I have done everything I can.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas in Kuwait - Just another day on the calander

December 25, 2011:  A (Holi) Day in the life of a soldier

If all goes according to plan, this will be the last time I will wake up Christmas morning as a deployed solider. 
0530:  Morning begins with an early wake-up for a 5k Christmas Fun Run.  Soldiers typically poke fun at just how much “fun” a run is – comparing it to “mandatory fun.”  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it was actually fun.  A number of the participants showed up in festive attire and many folks got creative with their costumes. 

< 0600:  Moments before the run was kicked off, something really interesting happened that very few people will ever witness.  It was a few minutes before 0600 and everyone was milling around waiting for the run to start.  We all knew that reveille was only seconds away but you wouldn’t know it by the amount of chatter that was going on.  Then the first note starting playing and in unison everyone turned toward the flag and rendered the morning salute.  You could have heard a pin drop at that moment.  Coincidently, in order to face the flags we had to turn to the east and we also watched the sun beginning to rise over the camp.  It was really quite a sight.  Sort of a Kodak moment and not a bad start to the day!
0629 (and a few seconds):  I crossed the finish line.  Not a bad finish for an old guy J.  The run went off without a hitch and at 0640 the last person crossed the finish line and it was over.  Time for a shower and breakfast.

1700: One of the things all deployed soldiers look forward to during the holidays is the food.  The cooks do a really nice job with the Christmas meal but you are still being served just like you were in high school, a la cafeteria style, and eating your meal off a plastic plate with disposable flatware.  There is one notable difference about Holiday meals.  Our holiday meals are typically served by senior staff.  I can’t speak for everyone, but I for one, enjoy the nod of thanks for our hard work and sacrifice.

I know that the cooks prepared our Christmas meal with pride and the soldiers will eat it not knowing what it takes to put this kind of meal together.  In fact, I am sure that most of the soldiers could care less and think that it is the least the Army can do seeing as they are away from their homes.  Only a few of us will appreciate the hard work it takes to put it all together. 
1900:  Back in the tent watching a mini-series that one of good friends has been watching surfing the internet just trying to pass the time.  Thank goodness for the internet.  It allows me to keep my sanity during the many hours of down time.

2200:  Lights out.  Overall, I will conclude that aside from brief interludes of happiness, the “Merry” in Christmas will be absent for me this year.  But I take pride in the work that I do, and joy in knowing I am one day closer to home.

SunSetting a Career – A Reflection of an Army National Guard Air Traffic Controller

The start of my air traffic control career began back in 1989 when I enlisted in the Massachusetts’s Army National Guard at the age of 20.  I did this for one main reason: money for school.  What I did not know is that the decision to join the National Guard was going to lead me into a career that can be compared to the setting sun at Camp Taji.

On December X, I boarded a Chinook helicopter and lifted off over the base I just closed for the last time.  The setting sun shrouded by a layer of dust as we flew towards it and it hit me that this was a symbol for my ATC career.  I looked out the back door of the Chinook at an empty aircraft parking lot that once was overflowing with what seemed like every helicopter in the Army fleet.  The old control tower lights were turned off --something that had not happened in the 10 years since the Army took over the base after the fall of Saddam.  The tower operated on a mandatory 24/7, 365 day-a-year schedule since that day.  It was a surreal feeling knowing that I was the final Army Air Traffic Controller to make the final transmission releasing the C-17 Globemaster to Departure as it roared past the tower on its way to bring that last of our equipment to Baghdad and onto Kuwait.  I had just closed a tower that had an operating tempo that most National Guard Air Traffic Controllers were lucky to experience once in their career.  I was able to have that experience twice.  It hit me hard as I begin to realize that my days as an active controller in the National Guard were beginning to close much the same way Taji Tower was closing.  No longer would the sunrise to signal the midnight shift was almost over.  Nor will the sunset indicate that it was time to get ready for a steady barrage of air traffic that would last into the early hours.  No.  This final sunset was the last one I would see in Iraq and as an active controller in the National Guard and I intended to enjoy every minute.  My ATC career has always been a sharp contrast of boredom and excitement.  I have had the opportunity to travel to lands that most will never have the chance to visit.  Being an Army Air Traffic Controller has been a series of every emotion imaginable: extreme pain, anger, happiness, pride and disgust.  All of it leading up to this last image of a sun setting.  This is a moment that I will most likely never forget. 

I had a camera with me, but I didn’t want to disturb the peace with even the smallest ripple of movement.  Even with 20 soldiers in the aircraft, there was no sound except for the sound of the twin rotors and the wind.  I took the opportunity to just sit back in my seat and watch the base get smaller and smaller as we flew away.  No fanfare, no bands, no pomp and circumstance, just the cool air from outside rushing in with the smell of the JP-8 from the exhaust.  It was blissful.  The flight was uneventful, thankfully, and we touched down in Kuwait after our three-hour flight.  My legs sore from not moving, but I did not care.  My mission was over and my ATC career was in its final phase.  Unlike my brethren that crossed the Iraq/Kuwait border to the fanfare of CNN and other news agencies hailing the final troops have left Iraq, we set down on the airfield collected our gear boarded the bus and went to out tent. – alone with our thoughts.

My career has allowed me to achieve successes that I did not think possible when I enlisted.  Obtaining a Control Tower Operators (CTO) license was a “pipe dream.”  I would be lucky to get a few tactical ratings during my career.  During my first seven years, this looked to be true as the state and federal government were not spending any money nor were they engaged in any warfare.  So at the age of 27, I left the National Guard and decided to focus solely on my civilian career.  That all changed on September 11th.  Nine days later, I re-enlisted back in the National Guard as an Air Traffic Controller with my Massachusetts National Guard unit.  A year later, I had to transfer to the Maryland National Guard but was only there for a few months when I went on my first deployment, Kosovo and my first CTO rating.  Since then I have achieved 2 more CTO’s as well as tactical ratings on all of the Army ATC equipment.

Because of my skills and abilities, I have also had the chance to serve in several management roles within ATC, culminating as Facility Chief in Taji, Iraq, one of if not the last, Army Airfield in Iraq to close.  Overall, I have had a good career in the National Guard but it has come time for my own personal Army sunset.  It is time to  turn the unit over to the next batch of 20 something’s and see what kind of career they are willing to make for themselves.  Will it be filled with all the ups and downs that I experienced or will it be something completely different?  One thing is certain – their sunset will happen too.  Just not today.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve in Kuwait – My Last one away from home I hope

Today started just like any other day.  Up early, to the sounds of reveille followed by the elongated version of the Main Title from Patton (look it up on iTunes – catchy the first time you hear it but getting old hearing it every day).  This was followed by the long walk through the desert sand to the dining facility for my morning breakfast which has not changed in the past 2+ months.  Then off to the PX to spend some of my hard earned money from this deployment.  The only problem was there was nothing I wanted/needed to buy.  We had a police call, basically picking up other peoples trash, this morning but like a lot of things around here, there were two different start times disseminated so I missed it.  But I don’t think I really missed it if you know what I mean.  All of you Office Space fans will know what I am referring to.

Of course I knew what day this was when I woke up but it just does not feel like Christmas Eve when you are sitting in a tent with about 40 other guys and you are about 4000 miles away from home.  There are no Christmas smells in the air and the smells in the air are for another time.  There is only the prospect of a mediocre Christmas Eve dinner tonight in the same dining facility I had breakfast.  The highlight tonight is a concert by the rock group Puddle of Mudd followed by a walk back in the desert night air to the aforementioned tent and my top bunk.  Where there will be no Christmas tree to light no presents to wrap and place under the tree, and no cookies and milk to put out for Santa.  Nope just the thought of when the hell can I go home and get back to some resemblance of a normal life. 

This is how a lot of soldiers, to include me, will spend Christmas Eve this 2011 in Kuwait.  Away from home in a tent and the only thing I can think about is the soldier’s version of Twas the Night before Christmas, Google it, I did just like I do every year.  The poem reminds me while I don’t like to be deployed for the holidays that I signed up knowing that there will be times that I will have to sacrifice holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations so that others may sleep in comfortably.  It is what we do as soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.  We put others safety and security ahead of our own comforts.