Posts Tagged ‘deployment’

I recently returned from R&R from Afghanistan. I took leave at roughly the halfway mark instead of at Christmas as originally planned. It was a good decision as I don’t think I could have waited much longer.

“R&R” is military-speak for Rest and Recuperation Leave. The Army gives 15 days of non chargeable leave for all those deployed for greater than 9 months. For those who were here during the 15 month deployment days, they got 18 days of leave. Those who are only here six months don’t get R&R. The Army is the only service that routinely deploys service members for a year. As such, 95% of those going on R&R are Army.

The Army will pay for a round trip ticket to anywhere in the world you want. All you do is say where you want to go and they give you the itinerary – as long as your paperwork is in order. Your leave doesn’t go into effect until the day after you arrive at your final destination so altogether it takes you out of the game for almost a month. It is a pretty generous program.

Getting home took several days, but was not as big of a hassle as people make it out to be. I left Jalalabad around 2300 on a Thursday for a quick flight on a C-130 up to Bagram Air Field (BAF). There we received some middle of the night briefings on where we would be staying (tents), where the dining facility was (by our tents), what to do with all our gear (carry it with you), what we had to do tomorrow (turn in weapons), and when we needed to show back up to try to get a flight to Kuwait (early tomorrow morning).

The R&R tents at BAF were in pretty rough shape. No showers, port-a-potty’s only. That tent is a public health outbreak waiting to happen. On top of that, they put the male R&R tent right next to a set of really nice barracks for the guys living at BAF.  You could see the steam coming out of their indoor bathrooms in the morning.  The Pat Tillman USO however is pretty classy – a nice western style building with free wi-fi, free coffee and snacks. It was a nice clean place to hang out while waiting for a flight. After almost 24 hours in BAF, I boarded a C-17 for the flight out of Afghanistan.

It took about 4 hours to get to Kuwait. We landed at  Ali Al-Salem Air Base, an old Kuwaiti Air Base that looked like it had taken a punishing back in Desert Storm. After that it was an hour bus ride to Army Life Support Area, Kuwait. Kuwait was much nicer than Bagram, Afghanistan. They had showers, actual toilets, and clean tents to stay in. I spent one night there then boarded a contract civilian aircraft for a flight back to the states. We had one stop in Ireland in the middle of the night to refuel and stretch our legs. After that it was on to Atlanta and then off to my final destination. There were no awkward welcome celebrations in Atlanta, no cheering crowds, no firetrucks showering the “Freedom Flights” like people said there would be. Just a simple briefing and that was it.

Seeing my wife and son again for the first time in six months was amazing. My son had grown so much since I left. Now he was using real words, running at full speed, and could actually answer questions and  follow simple instructions. He was a little leery at first, but I could tell he remembered me. My wife was more beautiful than I remembered. The time at home was great and I was surprised how quickly I forgot about Afghanistan and how rapidly I adapted to civilian life. It was a much, much needed break. I needed the downtime to re-asses my priorities in life and do some serious thinking about where I am headed.

Looking back on the first half of this deployment I can see how I have changed as a person. The past six months in Afghanistan have left a mark on me (I’m not sure if it’s a stain or a scar, but either way its permanent).  Although I feel like the same person I definitely look at life, the Army, and dentistry a little differently. I have seen some things and places I never thought I would ever see as a dentist. I am more skeptical and less trusting in others -even those in uniform- than I was before I came here. I have learned some very important lessons in humanity and the human condition. I almost forgot how awesome America is. We are not a people or a nation without flaws, but we are still the best country in the world. After seeing the life of the average Afghani, I have nothing to complain about. I’m an American citizen. As are my wife and son. That means a lot more to me now.

So I’m halfway there. I was happy to be home but a small part of me was excited to return to Afghanistan. I’m ready to finish the job, return home for good, and put this behind me. R&R was awesome but I dreaded having to say goodbye again.

***UPDATE***

I’m back in Afghanistan. Seven Months down. Five to go. Saying goodbye to my wife and son was harder than I expected. A six month PROFIS deployment to a place with a bunch of other dentists seems like a good deal now. A year is just too long to be this professionally isolated. I say that fully understanding that for most soldiers 12 months downrange followed by 15-24 months at home-station has been the norm for years. But for a dentist six months is just about right. In six months you don’t lose too many clinical skills. Trying to do quality dentistry in a sub-standard “Expeditionary” Dental Clinic for a year is really stressful. Now I’m starting to worry about my professional skills when I get back. I haven’t prepped a crown in over a year. I haven’t completed a root canal in 8 months or so. My back is really beginning to bother me because my dental chair here doesn’t recline properly so I have to lean over too much. I’m starting to do things I would have never thought of doing in garrison because when you have seven sick call patients, a broken chair, a failing suction system, an aching back, and no one to help out, you start thinking: “You’re all alone buddy. Find a way.”

This next five months or so is going to be challenging. Am I even going to be a good dentist anymore after this? I hope its like riding a bicycle and that when I’m back in garrison, all my skills will come back naturally. I hope I will remember more than I have forgotten.

More importantly, I hope I don’t forget all the lessons I have learned out here. It is easy to forget the bad when you get back to the good.

Back in June my buddies and I decided to spice up life at JAF by growing mustaches. Combat Staches if you will. Our mission was simple, but dangerous: To grown the most combat effective lip sweaters allowable within regulation 670-1. We had no idea how far this would go.

It started out small. Me and about three other guys in the clinic just stopped shaving our upper lips. After a few days the sprouts were visible and growing. A week later we all had acceptable staches. A few days later and the male medics in our Aid Station started growing them too. Then the orthopedic surgeon in the FST. Then the veterinarian. When it was all said and done, the Aid Station looked like a scene from a movie from the 1970s.

The fallout was pretty minimal. We were all prepared to be accosted by a whole host of First Sergeants demanding to know what we thought we were doing. As a precaution, we began carrying a copy of the regulation in our pockets “just in case.” Suprisingly, no one said anything disparaging about them. That’s not entirely true. No one officially reprimanded us for growing them. A lot of individuals in our brigade made disparaging comments about our appearance daily. I just got used to it, but the pressure was too much for some.

Our physical therapist lasted a week. The medics didn’t last much longer. The preventive medicine officer held on for a good month but punched out after he started skyping his wife and son more often. The surgeon and the veterinarian held on until the forward surgical team re-deployed. After almost three months, it was down to me and our battalion surgeon.

It was just the two of us. Isolated from society, we continued mission undeterred. End of Mission occurred the day before I left on R&R. Sadly it was me who decided to bail out. I had originally intended to proudly wear this new accoutrement home but after discussing it with my wife, I realized it was in my best interest to have it completely removed before I got there.

It was a sad day in the aid station. It was time for it to go. We gathered the last few surviving members of the mustache clan and videotaped its farewell. Goodbye old friend. Until we meet again…

I was just wrapping up the day in my clinic when my tech came to me and said “Sir the vet wants you to come over. A military working dog just died.” For a second I was confused. I thought he may ask me to do some sort of post-mortem dental identification or something. “They want you to take a paw print to give to the handler” he added.

We grabbed a couple of bags of stone powder, a mixing bowl, and a spatula and headed over to the veterinary clinic. The veterinarian and I exchanged introductions and he told me what happened. Apparently a military working dog had been brought in by his handler in pretty bad shape. The temperatures here are up in the 110 range and this dog had succumbed to extreme heat injuries.

My techs and I, along with the help of the veterinarian tech and the orthopedic surgeon (who just so happened to be there) mixed up some dental stone and made an impression of the animal’s left front paw. They wanted to give the handler a memento to remember his partner by. The young Sergeant was apparently very shook up. To him this dog was his partner, his battle buddy. His battle buddy had just died.

What impressed me the most was when the mortuary affairs team showed up. They said they were here for the “hero.” I was confused. “Hero” is the code word we use when talking about a fallen service member. What were these guys talking about? They were talking about this military working dog.

Canine or not, this dog was a US service member. When a dog goes down, we treat it the same as if he was a fallen soldier. These animals are given the same level of respect as anyone else who serves their country in this war. After we finished with the remains, the mortuary affairs team took the working dog down to the mortuary affairs facility for processing – the same as if it was a soldier.

Whether or not one agrees with elevating dogs to the same level as humans in life or death, you have to appreciate the respect our military pays to all those who serve. My condolences go out to the handler and the rest of their team. This dog was apparently a huge part of who they are and will be sorely missed.

The other day was Memorial Day in Afghanistan. This is the day we honor our fallen colleagues who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation.

In my unit, we chose this day to have our Combat Patch Ceremony. The ceremony honors all of those serving in a designated combat zone by awarding what is known as the SSI-FWTS (Shoulder Sleeve Insignia-Former War Time Service). In day-to-day life back in the states, all soldiers in the Army wear the patch of their unit on their uniform’s left shoulder. Those who have served in combat with a unit are awarded the SSI-FWTS – and are authorized to wear the patch of their unit on their right shoulder as well. This is more commonly known as the “combat patch.”

Today, many soldiers in our unit join the ranks of soldiers before us who are authorized to wear a “combat patch.” For many of the soldiers in the unit this is their second, third, fourth, and even fifth yearlong deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. I am really honored and humbled to serve here and to add my name to the ranks of those authorized to wear a combat patch.

Here it is. The much anticipated “downrange review” of the Danner Combat Hiker. The overall consensus is in: These boots suck. I will caveat this by saying that Im no Tora Bora mountain climbing SF dude who is wearing these things in the middle of winter. But unlike many reading this, Ive actually worn these boots for several weeks- both in garrison and in Afghanistan.

So a little background…We were all required to wear them post RFI for several weeks back in garrison. That means I wore them every day in the new multicam duds. I wore them on a short 6 mile ruck march and I wore them on the flights over here and I wore them in Kyrgyzstan. I gave them all the benefits of the doubt. My initial thoughts when putting them on were that they were stiff and heavy, but relatively comfortable and not too hot.  Then on the trip over here people started complaining. It seemed like EVERYONE was complaining about them. Peoples feet were aching. The lacing system became a nightmare – they wouldnt get tight, they came undone, the laces wouldnt stay tucked in. As soon as our flights took off – off came everyones boots. Mine included. Originally I thought these boots might just turn out awesome. I was wrong.

So once we got here to Afghanistan the CSM authorized us to wear our old tan boots. Why? I have no idea. But as soon as that was put out the combat hikers disappeared. A few people are still wearing them but the one individual I talked to said the only reason she is still wearing them is because she didnt bring her tan ones. So the army spent $310 per pair and bought two pair per soldier in my brigade. Thats $310 x 2= $620 per soldier. $620 x 3,500 soldiers = $2,170,000 of boots just for my brigade!!!

So it is officially released and public knowledge – my unit is getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan. For those who haven’t heard, they have changed the camouflage pattern for Operation Enduring Freedom from the digital gravel-esque ACU pattern to the new super-sexy Multicam! Since this pattern is new and only for use in theater, we all had to get issued brand new everything. I’m talking everything – new uniforms, new equipment, new camelbacks, new rucks, boots, etc. Its a lot of stuff.

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The process of getting all this wonderfulness to the soldiers is called RFI – Rapid Fielding Initiative. They basically fill a warehouse with all of the required gear and the soldiers spend the better part of a day going through stations in which we try on and are issued said piece of equipment. It was really exciting – like Christmas morning exciting.

All this new gear appears to be really high quality. Phenomenally expensive however. I asked one of the civilians who seemed to be in charge of the RFI process how much all this cost? His answer: Between $10 and $13,000 per soldier. The new boots – which are just Danner hiking boots – retail for over $300 a pair. They are surprisingly comfortable and breathable. I wore them around for an hour the other day here in Hawaii and was quite impressed.

It blows my mind how much money the Army has just for gear. They spare no expense when it comes to taking care of soldiers. I would say about 1/3 of this stuff I will never use. The boots are awesome, but do I really need two pair? Especially since the old boots are rumored to be authorized for wear in the Multicam uniform as well. How about the $800 dollar Level 7 Parka top? This is for -40 degrees! I don’t even think it gets this cold in the region of Afghanistan we are going to. But better to have and not need than need and not have, I suppose.