20 September 2014

Embracing the Suck: Depression and Deployment

Why are combat deployments so depressing?  You're talking to an expert, not because I am severely depressed (this post is not a "cry for help,") nor because I have extensive psychological training, though I did sleep in a military barracks last night.

I have claim to expertise because I think about these things a lot and I write about the things I think about.

During overseas War on Terror operations, a common mantra has been, "embrace the suck." It encapsulates much of the deployed experience. A good friend of mine even wrote a book with the title. He hopes that it "will provide [the reader] with strength, courage, wisdom, and faith plus a little bit of humor and hope to get through each day while deployed."

Why do readers need some courage and hope to get through deployments?

"Embrace the suck" is an idea elegantly loaded with prescriptive value, but has no diagnostic value. Whether it's the tidbits of inspiration in the book or the idea that suckiness can be lovingly accepted and held, ETS helps Soldiers soldier on, as it were. But it doesn't help those Soldiers' families and friends understand exactly whence the suckiness comes.

That's where "My Public Affairs" comes in. Here are five reasons why deployments depress.

1. Isolation from family and friends

First, being away from home, for most people, sucks. There is a class of Soldier that likes being away from home. This is strange. As in, not normal. It might beg a larger discussion, but one of the policy reasons for sending us over here nine months to a year at a time is to prevent disruptions at home. In other words, the Army deploys precisely to make it more likely that people can lead normal lives with their families most of the time.

Communication with loved ones is hard for Soldiers away from their families, and the disruptions are intense. It is compounded for those with children-- the absence can often be wrenching for me, as I see snapshots of my two boys growing and developing in spurts. Trying the optimistic tack-- looking forward to a time when I'll be with them and will get to enjoy their energy and love, makes the present even harder.

2. It's a small, small world

Another reason that a deployment depresses the soul is the limited people and geography. Forget the suckiness of seeing little more than the same dozen buildings every day, traversing the exact same path to get to the laundry or to a meal. The work we do is mostly routine and monotonous, and makes the world feel even smaller. For the vast majority of Soldiers, work in a war zone is anything but glamorous. It's assembly line labor. Even the guys who go out of the wire usually patrol the same road every week or visit the same small Afghan village. Or guard the same entry control point every night. In public affairs we write the same stories... just change the names.

It's not terribly different from the work a lot of Americans do. But Soldiers don't get weekends. We can't go to a new restaurant tonight just to mix it up. Often, at home, I'd grab a book and head to the coffee shop for a few hours. Here, I'm just going to see that same people I'm trying to take a break from.

3. Everyone sees (and cares) what you're up to

That brings to mind the distinct lack of privacy. Here, there are very little alone time, and no "alone place." Everything from sleeping to showering is done in the company of others.

For a lone wolf like me, living under the microscope for so long is withering.

It goes without saying that there is no sex on a deployment. For accuracy's sake, there might be sex happening out here, but it is punishable by fine and demotion.

4. It's hot

There are other factors to the suck. The heat is inescapable at times. It's dusty. The only basketball court is concrete and outdoors. No McDonald's. No good steak. No a lot of things. The mission seems murky or unattainable. Many Soldiers confess to very low levels of satisfaction in their work.

There are a million little things for me and every other human being that can add up to a big thing.

5. Big Brother doesn't requite your love

But by far the biggest factor in The Suck is the Army itself. Working under the weight of a tired, uncompassionate, unforgiving, relentless bureaucracy can figuratively suck the life out of you. I have written about this many times before.

The deployment cycle begins with excitement and motivation, followed by bouts of frustration and constructive defiance. After the inevitable defeats, Soldiers lose the energy to defy and create, entering a period of lethargic resignation, like to cruise control. Toward the end, some Soldiers begin the surrender phase. If you've ever read the final paragraph of 1984, you'll know what this looks like.
He was not running or cheering any longer....  The long-hoped-for bullet was entering his brain.... But it was all right, everything was all right, he had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. 
Winston Smith embraced the suck. And then he was dead. Of course the killing that the Army does is only metaphoric. It kills the creative spirit. And I know that there are "resiliency" tactics to combat feelings of defeat to Big Army Brother. But those tactics drain mental and emotional resources. They cause stress. The body and brain can only cope for so long. About a year, as it turns out.

The all-important fifth phase of the deployment cycle is the elation of returning home.

Let's hope I can hold out that long.

12 September 2014

If the Army Changed Diapers, and Happy Birthday Joseph!

The following originally appeared in the blog "Musings of a Factotum" on September 17, 2008, shortly after the birth of my first son. 

As a new dad, I have the privilege of waking up to a screaming baby at the inconvenientest times of night. He is beautiful, and his cry is even adorable, even at ungodly hours. Sometimes he wants food, other times it a fresh diaper he wants. For the former, his mother promptly obliges. In the case of the latter, I can lend a hand, which I do quickly so I can get back to rest.

Though I don’t always get up eagerly, I don’t complain. Four days before Joseph was born I was at Fort Meade, Maryland doing some Army training. It’s the kind of place where you have to wake up at 0400 and present yourself for inspection. Fireguard duty in the middle of the night is the norm, and cleaning dirty latrines is a fact of life.

So waking up to change my own son’s messy diaper is no big deal. I do it and move on. But it got me thinking, what if changing diapers was an Army task?

First, everyone in the room would have to wake up and be in uniform before they could report for diaper duty.

The diaper changer would report to the NCOIC, who would ensure that everyone was in the right place and ready to go. Of course, any NCOIC worth his stripes would never abide a baby making noise while preparing to execute a mission, so someone would have to get the little one to forget the predicament that brought them to this point.

The next step in the baby-changing procedure would be the completion of all applicable DOD forms. This is to ensure that NCOs and officers can track the different diaper changings. Despite the fact that such forms never get read or followed up on, they are very important.

The Risk Assessment is the next step. The Army loves to assess risks, and there are many, even in a routine diaper changing. Take the risk assessment lightly at your peril.

Diapers and other supplies (wet wipes, lotion, powder) need to be requisitioned from Supply. More forms, and more approval. All requests need to go through the NCOIC for preliminary approval, but need the Commander’s signature. For any supplies used, forms need to indicate who used them, the quantity, and the time they were used.

Before changing the actual diaper that is dirty, a run-through should be conducted to improve accuracy and performance. After the drill, an After Action Report will help identify strengths and weaknesses.

Finally we are ready to change the diaper. By this time, the boy is potty-trained.

09 September 2014

Complaining the Army Way, aka Don't Gripe to the Brass

I complain a lot. Well, I take that back for modification.

I complain about the Army a lot. And even more specifically, the active duty Army. Big Army, as opposed to the Army National Guard. And while I'm clarifying and qualifying, let me add that the extent that the National Guard invites complaints is in direct proportion to the degree to which it tries to emulate Big Army.

On to the topic, then.

When a higher ranking Soldier politely accused me of simply pointing out flaws in the Army instead of trying to productively engage them, I had to reflect on that. Of course, I think my complaining is productive, because it's legitimate. Doesn't everybody?

Well, turns out, no.

To get to the bottom of it, I looked into bona fide social science. There are plenty of people and organizations who want to know why people complain (the Army isn't one of them, by the way.)

For starters, there are many types of complaints. Some whine. Others vent. The whiners and venters think they are just blowing off steam. But the irony is, Guy Winch, author of The Squeaky Wheel tells us, that we are not blowing off steam but creating it.

I might be guilty of that. But in an effort to affirm my behavior, I kept digging. 

According to Jeffrey Kassing, a communication researcher at Arizona State University, people vent because they feel helpless. In an organizational setting, this manifests as dissent. According to the literature (a really fancy terms that simply means, "a bunch of published studies"):
expressions of dissent can occur when employees combat psychological and political restraints imposed by modern organizations, when they choose to exercise freedom of speech in the workplace, or when they decide to use dissent as a means of participation.
Now here is the fascinating part (fascinating for people who get really excited by findings in journals with titles like, Management Communication Quarterly!) This dissent-- we'll call it complaining from here on out-- can be grouped into one of three types:
  1. Articulated complaints (expressing dissent directly and openly to managers)
  2. Antagonistic complaints (dissenting in an adversarial way, but with a perception of protection from reprisal)
  3. Displaced complaints
Can you guess which one this blog predominantly expresses?

Look, the reason I write is to find an audience. I am but a humble staff sergeant. I can't go to the colonel (whose main priority is to please a general) with a complaint. A lieutenant colonel can't even lodge a complaint, because the colonel used to be in Delta Force, so if you say something that upsets him, his mere glare will emit extracorporeal lithotripsic shock waves directed at your head and turn your brain to mush. For this reason, anyone O-5 and below must wait until the D-Force guy has had three cups of coffee and the Cowboys have won at least two games in a row before speaking with him, just to be on the safe side.

Me? I just write a blog. It is a safe way to express displaced dissent. The good kind of complaining. Or at least the best kind in the Army.

You see, displaced complaints are marked by,
disagreeing without confronting or challenging... It involves [complaining] to external audiences and/or to ineffectual internal audiences... [which] include nonwork friends, spouses/partners, strangers, and family members. Employees [complain] to these audiences because the risk of retailiation deminishes. (Kassing, J. 1998. "Development of the Organizational Dissent Scale," p. 192). 
Dissent serves as a corrective feedback mechanism. So I am really just trying to better the organization. And you wonderful readers are a part of that important work!

So, in the interest of telling the entire story, if dissent (complaining) is a way to provide feedback, then assent (praise) should be a regular practice, too, when appropriate. I think this blog has praised the Army quite well here, here, here, and here, for examples.

So I'm not done complaining. I'm just trying to do my military duty. 

04 September 2014

The Day I Got Arrested in Kandahar, Part 3

This is the third part in a three-part series. Read Part 1. Read Part 2.

"Get down!" yelled the Belgian captain.

He was quite serious. The "big voice" notified us of the incoming indirect fire. These things, while not a daily occurrence on KAF, are not out of the ordinary by any stretch. And while the procedures for responding to a rocket attack are sound, the reality is that avoiding injury from an enemy rocket or mortar on a big base like KAF comes down to nothing but sheer luck.

I hit the deck. Cameraman had a $5000 camera on a tripod, and was more worried about it than anything else. "You have to get down," I informed him. He grudgingly complied. The Belgian was clearly irritated by our lack of earnestness.

After a couple of minutes, we were to move to a bunker. Instead, we got inside the police vehicle and drove with the sergeant to the "precinct."

Threats were issued. Regulations cited. More phones calls.

I offered to have myself flex-cuffed, just to make it official. But since the security officer had a flight line to clear (his protocol for a rocket attack) he let us go with a very stern look on his face.

He was from Utah too! So I thanked him for being so meticulous in his security practices, and he took us to retrieve Ricky, who had been left alone 100 meters away. The Belgian had gone after him earlier and directed him to the nearest bunker.

We met up and moved to another bunker, where we baked until given the all-clear (see photo of Ricky baking). Luckily there was an Air Force E-7 with his rifle at the ready in case the enemy launched a follow-on ground attack. Given that such an attack never came, I assume they had scouts that saw the E-7 and concluded that it wasn't worth the risk.

We went on with our mission for the rest of the day. We ate curry. I played volleyball with the Australians that night.

The aftermath of this, while somewhat anti-climactic, reveals a lot of what is wrong with the Army at times.

I got a call a few days later from the Belgian. He was back! He told me we had to talk about the incident. I told him I had moved on. It wasn't him, I assured him. It was me. We had just grown apart. He really didn't want to end it.

Then I get a call from a Romanian, who apparently do the dirty work of the Belgians. He told me that I needed to come in and sign some paperwork acknowledging the grievousness of my sin. Okay. I went and found out that I had committed several escort violations:
  1. I shouldn't have driven on the taxi way. Why did the guard let me in? The Romanian didn't know.
  2. I was too far away from Ricky. How far is too far? The Romanian didn't know, but assured me that the Belgian assured him that I was too far. Imagine if we came under a rocket attack, all the bad that could happen. You just never know.
  3. I didn't have a memo. The Romanian did know about that, but we all did. You're probably wondering if the lieutenant colonel who was supposed to have provided me a memo took any responsibility. 
Cliff hanger, huh? Well, while the light colonel was avoiding responsibility, a different light colonel was conducting an investigation of his own. He summoned me for a final berating, which was punctuated by,
"Don't do that s--t."
All of my violations apparently sent ISAF into a tailspin.

I also had to get my escort badge punched. It's like getting branded a war criminal. they're not getting that back, I hope they know.

Now this entire story might seem anticlimactic, to which I say, "fine." But let it be a lesson.

Never trust a lieutenant colonel.