Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Up Time

There's no shortage of comparisons out there between the experiences of deployed soldiers these days and those of past wars and conflicts.

In the past, soldiers had way fewer creature comforts. No unlimited Baskin Robbins, not to mention unlimited food and water, in a chow hall inside a landlocked country with a semi-functional road system, for instance. No wireless Internet to keep up on news from home. No DSN switches at Hanscom for free phone calls home 24/7.

There were also a few, uhh...creature comforts that soldiers enjoyed that are now prohibited by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. It might surprise you, but technically no soldier out here can have a sip of beer or look at prurient images.

But this has all been said before. And we've all heard the narratives...the old guys were tougher, the new guys are better-trained. The old guys could get by with less, but the news guys have a broader mission set.

Here's one key difference that's often overlooked: In a break from ALL past conflicts, to include everything from well before the Vikings right through Desert Storm, the experience of a deployed Officer or Sergeant on certain bases, in certain positions, is marked by virtually no 'downtime.'

This has everything to do with connectivity.

Ask any soldier, sailor, airman, or marine from the pre-Global War on Terror (GWOT) era about his or her deployed experience, and you will inevitably be regaled with stories about waiting and boredom. Now, if that person was in a combat zone, that boredom may have been punctuated with brief spasms of violence, but that violence was likely followed by more...boredom. Those periods were necessary times for bonding with fellow teammates, and for the physical healing that comes with sleep, and for giving the ol' adrenal glands a break (the old term 'battle fatigue' actually has to do with what happens when the adrenals are taxed dry).

Years ago, whenever you were moving somewhere, that's basically all you could've been doing. Anytime you were waiting to move somewhere, that's probably all you could've been doing. Once your mission had been wrapped up, your weapons were cleaned, and your patrol debrief was done, there's not a whole lot more you could've done.

These days, not so much. We're wired for sound and effect in our workspaces, our living quarters, and even in our MRAPs. Our leaders understand we're human, and need time to sleep and to workout, but there's a pretty clear expectation of responsiveness to all the various forms of communication that we have. I sit at a desk with three machines (one unclassified, one on an Army network, and one on a NATO network), and inboxes that are hundreds-deep with messages. If all I ever did was try to read and respond to them all, I never I prioritize the most important ones in order to keep my boss and the rest of our staff as informed as possible.

When I do get to leave the FOB (Forward Operating Base), it's just to go to another FOB. Still, that's such a welcome relief from the monotony of Camp Phoenix's gray hues that I welcome the chance. Leaving also means reporting on the early side of early (even a 0900 departure means lined up and ready at 0815), which I always enjoy because it's the only real downtime I might get for days -- I literally have to be there, but there's nothing else I could be doing than just standing or sitting around. (I have purposely avoided carrying a cell phone out here, although most of our Officers do).

I won't ever, ever, ever, ever (did I mention ever?) play the who-has-it-worse game when I realize there are soldiers out in places like Kunar and Helmand Provinces who get into near-daily firefights and have to fear booby traps and underground bombs at every turn. What I will say, however, is that endless 12, 14, 16, and 18-hour days while constantly in an "up" state of readiness takes its own sort of toll in its own sort of special way.

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