Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Straight Out to Bishkek!

Quick trivia question: What is the only country in the world that's home to both a US military base and a Russian military base?

Answer: It's Kyrgyzstan.

I happen to be at one of them right now (the Air Transit Center at Manas) just outside of the Bishkek airport.

What that means, of course, is that I'm NOT in Afghanistan. And yes, that's a great sign. The combination of endless days stacked one on top of the next, and the fact that blogspot was blocked from our computer servers at Camp Phoenix, meant that my blog posts were few and far between. Within a couple days, I'll be at Fort Dix (and unfortunately, stuck there for the Super Bowl), and should be able to hold the missus and our daughter in my arms in just over a week. Awesome, eh?

Of course, I have no idea where to start or stop when thinking about the past year, but one thing hasn't changed since I last posted: The single strongest feeling I have coming home is that I need to make up for lost time.

For the past 12 months, I put aside everything else that I might want to do (i.e. leisure reading, PT, staying in touch with friends/colleagues) and focused entirely on the unit and our mission. Trust me, that's not a complaint or a lament -- I wouldn't have done it any other way, and I *get* that all of that is part of the deal I entered into with Uncle Sam -- but it's just a statement of fact.

That type of self-surrender to the environment is not necessarily true of all soldiers who enter war zones...but before I get too high and mighty, I'd have to point out that my version of "hardcore REMF" or "badass FOBbit" isn't really comparable to the guys who are out closing and engaging with the enemy every day in places like Kunar and Helmand. Still, it's a sacrifice that I didn't fully understand a year ago when all this started at Reading High School. The way I see it all now, though, helps explain why I'm going to be a lot more visibly emotional when I get back to Reading next week than I was on "goodbye day."

Besides the obvious feeling of physical relocation away from the *zone* one of the biggest changes in Bishkek, compared to Kabul, is that it's much easier to breathe the air here. Much like a loud buzzing sound that you don't really notice until it goes away (and you notice as you revel in its absence) the air in Kabul is of pretty awful quality, owing to pollution, topography that means a bowl of exhaust surrounded by mountains, the burning of coal and wood in the winter, and thermal inversion which traps the nasty air.

At Manas, I can take a full, deep breath and it seems like I can feel the cleanliness of the air. The novelty hasn't worn off, and I don't think it will.

The other great feeling now is that I can PT as much as I want. I know this may surprise a lot of people, but periods of formal military training or work (i.e. mobilization and deployment) tend to leave me in worse shape than they found me. Now that we're just in wind-down mode, and have tons of free time, or *white space* on the calendar (as we will at Dix, too) it's a PT bonanza for yours truly.

And what makes it all possible are these wonderful Air Force facilities! I know Kyrgyz politics -- and Russian influence -- might mean Manas might not be around forever, but as far as places to be stuck for a couple days, this place ain't bad...they've got all the basic amenities here, such as the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) computer on which I'm typing this.

Looking forward to posting again from the states very soon, and in the meantime, just sort of hanging out and working out between meals isn't such a bad way to pass the time before I can "rejoin the world."

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lost Time

Well, I finally found that semi-quiet night here (thanks, Mother Nature) and a chance to grab some of that wonderful Camp Phoenix chow hall wi-fi to put a few thoughts down.

I could/would blog more -- much more, in fact -- but the high-speed Internet we have in our TOC (Tactical Operations Center) says no to blogspot. The funny thing is, Facebook, Yahoo mail, and Gmail are all somehow okay. I can access richardhowe.com but somehow nothing else that's on Wordpress. There's a crappy public wi-fi access spot on the base, but it seriously took me about a half-hour just to get to where I could type...and the connection keeps coming in and out, but thankfully blogger will automatically save any drafts I have.

The other limiting factor is time. The 16+ hour days are just sort of stacked endlessly on top of one another, and the demands placed on our intel section are constant and endless.

The good news, though, is that this will be all over in not *that* long. The first wave of new guys (Advance Echelon, or ADVON) is already here, and the rest of the crew will be here in two weeks or less. After moving through Manas Kyrgyzstan to Fort Dix to Reading, MA I should be home in early to mid-FEB.

Thankfully, I haven't heard a single shot fired in anger or felt the *pucker factor* of combat in the entire ten months I've been here. So coming home I'm not dealing with PTSD, or the after-effects of violence, related nightmares, or anything like that. The strongest single feeling that I have though, is the need to recapture lost time.

By that, I sort of mean everything. First and foremost, it's the time that I haven't spent with my wife and daughter, who I tend to think about more and more the closer I get to the big C-17 ride. That would apply no matter what I had been doing over here. After that, there's also the personal time that just doesn't exist here in this position. Don't get me wrong -- there are many jobs here that, based on duty MOS or paygrade, require only a fraction of the hours that mine does (say, someone who works in the Finance Office or in Admin). Then there are others that require long hours but are essentially just downtime punctuated by short periods of work (say, a radio operator in the TOC, esp. on the overnights). There are others still that require physical labor and occasional long days but come with lots of in-between time (say, a crew member on an MRAP movement team that ferries people around Kabul).

Either way, what I'm looking forward to most is seeing and spending time with Ratriey and Lily. Next to that, though, is just having a bit of personal time to do just about anything...whether it's walking along the canals, whether it's reading the Sunday Globe in bed or on the couch, or it's going to dinner with Ratriey and her mom and not feeling constantly rushed, it's going to feel dream-like for the first few weeks. Third, I would say, is what I'd call re-joining the world. Without even getting into an assessment of what I've done here, or who I think it's helped (or hasn't), where it's been relevant to the overall mission (or not), there's a big disconnect between what I work on here and anything that I will do, or want to do, back home. Rejoining the world is sort of how I envision catching up with friends, getting back into the groove with groups (i.e. LDNA, VFW, Global Vets, reading group, etc.), and getting on track with professional networking type of things.

Eventually, everything will sort of just become normal again, and I sincerely hope never to be mobilized for a twelve-month clip ever, ever again. (I am trying to angle my way into a unit at Devens that directly supports CENTCOM, and tends to do shorter tours when called up).

But for the first few weeks or months back in the states, if it seems like I'm still *on a mission* -- and maybe even obsessively so -- it's probably because I am. And the mission is to take advantage of every nanosecond that I can spend immersed in my reallife.

In the meantime, that time thing is nagging at me again. Just taking the time to write this means a delay in the reports that are due in the morning, which means being here until nearly noon, and with convoy duty in the mid-afternoon, it means another night of, well, you get the idea. More of the bleary eye stuff.

With that said, I have no plans to blog again until at least Manas, if not Fort Dix or even good 'ol Lowell come February. When I do, I'm looking forward to doing some local traveling (a modified 351 club is the goal), and taking the blog in a more interview-y type direction.

In the meantime, thanks for reading this far, and I greatly look forward to catching up with you next month...and when we get the chance, I hope we can both take at least a brief moment of quiet, or reflection, or maybe just laughter that goes on for that extra second or two to appreciate the time afforded to us to be able to do it.