What’s the hardest part of being deployed?
This is almost always one of the first questions asked of me when I bring up my military background. As a Captain in the US Army who deployed three times to Iraq, it is a fairly easy answer: the last few weeks prior to departing the US.
I would get to the point where I just wanted to deploy – it always seemed like time stood still the last few weeks I was home and I felt like I was living on borrowed time. The quicker I left and arrived in Iraq, the quicker the clock would start counting down to my return. Emotionally, I found myself pulling away from those I was closest with as d-day got closer. I think I subconsciously believed it would be easier if I didn’t feel as close to my family. The goodbyes were the worst part – that last conversation with my husband, mom, dad, sisters while I was on “American” soil – knowing that the next time I spoke to them I would be in “harm’s way”.
Once the goodbyes were over, it often took upwards of two to three weeks to get from our base in the US to Iraq. The flight over was not direct and often took upwards of 20 hours – we stopped in Maine and Ireland on our way to Kuwait which was the forward staging area prior to our flight into Iraq – basically the last time to check weapons, equipment, and go over last minute guidelines. My time in Kuwait varied each time [from a few days to a few weeks], but I’d eventually make the bumpy, hot flight up to Iraq. [I was stationed at three different bases for each of my deployments – Tikrit, Taji, and Baghdad.]
When I eventually made it to my final destination, I tried to have the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality and put my family and friends out of my head as much as I could. If I dwelled too much on what my family was doing back home, all the special events and holidays I was missing, and where I was, I got extremely depressed. I forced my mind to believe that life back home had stopped and would continue when I returned.
Most soldiers who are deployed find a hobby to pass the time and clear their mind when they were not working. Playing video games, watching countless seasons of TV shows, training for marathons/half-marathons, losing weight, and reading were some of the more popular hobbies. Although my job [Division Targeting Officer] didn’t lend itself to having a lot of free time [working 7am-10pm was a good day], I did have the flexibility of leaving during the day for upwards of two hours to go for a run or head to the gym. Regardless of how hard mile repeats were or how long that day’s run was [my longest run was 22 miles], I viewed this time as a break because although I was pushing my body, I was resting my mind. With very little exception, I ran outside on the base regardless of weather conditions [sand storm, 120+ degree days], amount of work piling up, or lack of sleep because I knew I would return with a clear mind and happy heart.
When you are only a month or two into a 15 month deployment, it’s hard to not get down with how much time is left. So instead of using days or weeks, many soldiers used other means to count down how much longer we would be deployed – some were using how many Friday night DFAC [Dining Facility] dinners of surf and turf we had left [every Friday night one of the options in the DFAC was surf and turf], some of the males were counting the number of haircuts they had left, others used how many laundry pick-ups they had. I always created a few shorter countdowns [much like how I run a marathon!] – so I was never counting down more than a few months. And little things like finishing a bottle of shampoo/conditioner, face wash, or shaving cream made me extremely happy because it was a sign of how much time had passed!