This week I’m doing a solo episode about what I learned from deployment. I deployed to Afghanistan 10 years ago this month and am celebrating my experience by talking about the 10 things I learned from deployment. You can read the whole episode below or you can listen to the whole episode here.
10 years ago, this month, I stepped out of a C-130 and onto the flight line at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. I was about to begin my nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, but the truth was my journey to Afghanistan had actually begun four months earlier when I began my combat skills training in Indiana. The training and deployment ended up lasting 361 days.
And since my 25th birthday happened within days of arriving in Indiana it sometimes felt as if life stood still for those 361 days. Not saying a lot of life didn’t happen, I can’t really explain it, it was a weird, kind of like a time warp. Where you are stuck somewhere you really don’t want to be and life keeps going, but you kind of feel like your life is standing still. So, when I got home from Afghanistan my birthday was coming up again and it was the closing note of the deployment because I was back home in the United States and my friends were there and they celebrated my returning home and my birthday at the same time.
If you want to learn more about my deployment experience you can listen to episode 2 of the podcast where I share my military experience or you can find most of the emails, I sent home during the year I was in training and deployed on my blog.
For this episode, I wanted to talk about what I learned during my training, deployment, coming home and by coming home, I don’t usually mean immediately coming home, but years. Going to Afghanistan for me had a huge impact on my life. Before I had kids, I could say there was the Amanda before Afghanistan and the Amanda after Afghanistan. Now there is this window between when I got home from Afghanistan. After being home and how those experiences still affected my life, even though I had been home for years and when I had kids, and then my life kind of changed all over again. But definitely my deployment has played a huge role in who I am today and where I am right now.
It also changed my world worldview. I had never been out of the United States except for when I went on a cruise to Alaska and step foot in Canada, and I don’t feel like that actually counts. And so I would go to a war-torn country that struggled with poverty and war and it was really eye-opening and changed my whole experience of life.
I also went to New Zealand for my mid-tour and got to see a whole other culture. So I spent that one year seeing more of the world than I had ever seen before. And it really changed my life. So for this episode of the podcast, I wanted to talk about the 10 things I’ve learned from my deployment experience.
I kind of broke these up into three parts. Lessons from training, which was in Indiana, lessons from deployment in Afghanistan and lessons from coming home. Let’s start with number one.
1) The first piece of advice. When I found out I was going to Afghanistan, my commander gave me a journal and in it said, “When you come to a great chasm in life, jump, it isn’t that far.”
I was terrified to go to Afghanistan. I was terrified to deploy with the Army. I was terrified to ride around in Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles, which are armored vehicles and meet with local villagers. I didn’t know how I’d gotten signed up for something when I joined the Air Force and now I was going on this crazy mission that had me outside of the wire and meeting with the local people and being an engineer in a third world country.
It’s not really what I thought of when I said I was going to join the Air Force and be a civil engineer. When I found out I was going on deployment. I was not feeling like I was prepared for this at all. And this quote from my commander, Lieutenant Colonel Knutson, really was something that I held onto for the whole deployment.
Whenever I came up to something that I didn’t think I could do but often didn’t have a choice on if I was going to do it or not, I would jump and over and over and over. I found out that he was right. When you come to a great chasm in life and you have to jump, it isn’t that far. That doesn’t mean it’s not scary.
It doesn’t mean that you’ll want to do it, but when you jump, you’ll find out that the fear that you had or the worries that you had or whatever is stopping you from taking that leap. It often is not. As dramatic as you thought. And for some instances when I would jump, it wasn’t dramatic at all and it was just eye-opening to realize that I could do so much more than I ever expected.
And it just changed how I live my life today. One of my friends was asking me, how do you like to do stuff because I have a podcast, I wrote a book, I do blogging, I do all these things. I speak. And she was asking me how I did it, and I have this philosophy that I’ll just like do it. If I have about 10% of the idea of like how it’ll work and then I just jump in.
A lot of that comes back to my deployment that I would jump. And that was because the military made me jump and I didn’t have a choice on either going on a mission or doing the training, and I always came out the other end stronger and learned more about myself. And so it’s a philosophy that really has led me to where I am today because, without my deployment experience, I don’t think I would be able to jump as much as I do.
If you have never taken that risk, or if you’re thinking about something that you really want to do but you’re afraid to jump, it isn’t that far.
Training for Deployment Prepares You For War
2) So on to number two – training does prepare you, even if it isn’t exactly the same. So when we were in Indiana, I swear, Indiana must have had more snow than they’ve ever had before, but it’s probably just a normal winter in Indiana.
But we were outside and there was snow on the ground most of the time we were there. We were there from November to February, and when we got home from Christmas break, there was snow and there was lots of snow and we were running these like fake missions in the snow, going on ruck marches in snow, doing all these things and the experience was nothing really like what it was like in Afghanistan. We would go on these training missions to try and learn how to spot improvised explosive devices, which are IEDs. And it wasn’t realistic, but it did prepare us for what we were going through. That a little bit distracted from my notes, but I, one of the things that really helped me with my deployment was.
When we got to Afghanistan, we had to do rollover training, and when we were in Indiana, we had to do rollover training. At first, I was like, we already did this. It was horrible. Why are you making us do it again? But when we did rollover training, that was one of going back to point number one, where if you had told me you have to get in the vehicle and where all your gear, and then roll around a few times I’d have been like, no, I’m not gonna do that.
But we didn’t have a choice. So I got in the vehicle and we got flipped upside down a few times, which really wasn’t that bad. And then they stopped and of course, they stopped so that we were upside down and I had to push myself up and get out of my seat belt and gear, and that whole ordeal of going through that experience was really hard for me.
I panicked and couldn’t get myself pushed up high enough so I could get my seatbelt unlatched. When I finally was able to do that because the sergeant yelled at me and told me I had to. I. Like crumpled. And then I like had to readjust my thinking and figure out what was going on. And it was just kind of a crazy experience to go through that.
But then we got to Afghanistan and one of the things we had to do before we left Bagram to go to our forward operating base was go through, rollover training again. And I wasn’t scared while we were waiting in line for our turn to go through the roll overtraining. I felt confident. I knew what was going to happen and I was ready.
And then when we got in the vehicles and we went through it, even everyone in the back was calm. We kind of were treating it more like a roller coaster instead of like before where it had been really tense and a little bit scary and they flipped us around a few times. And then. Once they stopped the vehicle, we all knew how to brace ourselves and get out of the vehicle in a quick time.
And it was just eye-opening to see that. Even though in the first instance we were in a Humvee and then when we were in Afghanistan, we were in an MRAP and it didn’t matter. We had already gone through the experience we had. Done it with our gear on, and even though the situation wasn’t exactly the same, we’re prepared for it.
And that experience at the beginning of my deployment before I would say it really started because we hadn’t even finished in-processing onto the base, was under realization that the training that I had done for four months in Indiana was important and that it was gonna pay off in the long run for my time in Afghanistan.
And continually throughout my deployments, even though things were different, I either would know how to react in stressful situations or I would know what to look for, and it just kind of surprised me how much that training really did pay off.
Bad Leadership Affects the Whole Team
3) One of the other things that I learned in Afghanistan was how much bad leadership affects the whole team. I don’t like to talk about my commander during my deployment because he was a jerk. And I guess I try and focus on the positive. And so one of the things that if you read my letter at home or if you hear any of my past presentations about my deployment. I talk about my job, what I was doing and the positive things that came out of my deployment.
But our team suffered under our commander and he was not a good leader. He brought down the morale of the team and we knew it was going to be a long deployment with him in charge, and we didn’t know this Like when we got in Afghanistan, like we knew this in Indiana, in the, it didn’t take four months to figure it out before we left for Afghanistan.
About two weeks before we left, the higher headquarters leadership at the base in Indiana required that the commander had a sit down with all the officers and SNCO’s to talk through his leadership about how the team felt about him. And we were told to be completely honest and to share what our experience was like.
And I won’t lie, there was crying and I was one of the people who cried and he seemed to change. I guess he was on his best behavior because he didn’t want to get fired, cause it was really serious, but pretty much once the old team had left and we were on our own and Afghanistan, he went back to his manipulative, micro-managing, discouraging ways of leadership.
And it made it really hard. And it wasn’t just the leaders who suffered, it was the whole team. Everyone, even down to the lowest rank, we had privates on our team and everyone was affected by his leadership, and eventually our commander did get fired. He didn’t get fired until, I think we had about two months left of our deployment.
So August, September timeframe, he got fired and we got a new commander. And the worst part about him getting fired. Fired at that point was that we were all ready to go home and we were just ready for the deployment to be over. We had dealt with his ways for so long that we were just trying to focus on the light at the end of the tunnel, and then we got a new commander and it kind of shook everything up and he was a better leader.
I mean, in hindsight, I’m happy that he came because he was a really good leader. He wrote letters of recommendation for me after I got home from my deployment and I needed them when I was on Active Duty. And I’m really thankful that I got to work for him, but I wish that he had gotten there sooner and not so late in the game and that.
So that’s all I’m going to say about that. I don’t want to talk more about, I just realized how much one person can impact an entire team of people. By their actions and the way that they lead.
Lessons From Deployment
4) The fourth thing I wanted to talk about was how your mind gets used to being at war. So one of the weird parts about going to a combat zone is how your body reacts to the stress it is under.
You find a way to relieve stress. One of the most common ways that people relieve stress while overseas is cursing and smoking. You can’t drink in the combat zone and you’re really limited on. What you can do besides the port. So one thing that people do is curse and smoke. It helps to relieve your stress level in some weird way.
As time goes on, your mind and body get used to the stress, get used to the noise. You get very used to the reality of the danger that you’re in. That the next mission could be the end of your life. And in some ways it makes you a little reckless and other ways it’s the only way that I think you mentally can survive.
But one of the weird things that I thought was interesting was that when our base came under attack from incoming fire from the enemy, I could tell you before the alarms went off, which direction it was coming from, because we often had, they would shoot outgoing fire. And then I tell you. The sound difference between incoming and outgoing.
Just because I had heard it enough and I didn’t hear incoming very often. Our base only got attacked one time while I was there, and a few times while I didn’t wake up. But when I heard the sound, I knew what it was and I thought it was crazy that I could hear that minute difference in sound on which direction the firefight was coming from.
And another thing is. My husband, shortly after I got home from the deployment in the morning, my husband asked, “How did you sleep all night?” And I said, “What are you talking about?” Apparently there was a bunch of helicopters flying around our neighborhood and making a ton of noise. And I didn’t wake up at all, but when I was deployed, we were at a tiny little forward operating base and there were helicopters flying all throughout the night, I think.
Yeah, all throughout the night, maybe throughout the day. I don’t know. I can’t even tell you because there was always noise and if I had been worried about every sound like I was when I first arrived in the country, I would have never slept. So somehow my mind was able to shut off all the outside noise.
And sleep through all kinds of crazy stuff. And so I just thought that was interesting how my body, even when I got home and was in a safe place, still was like, that noise isn’t important. Sleep is more important, and I slept all night.
5) The fifth thing that I wanted to talk about is that I always thought about going overseas that my biggest concern would be the enemy. The people we are going to fight. But one of the things I learned is that sometimes the battle scars you get come from your team. And one of the things that is really hard to prepare for mentally is the fact that some people on your team might betray your trust. They might talk bad about you, they might have something going on that they are trying to manipulate you.
And when you’re in a war zone. I think things like that really affect you because it really affected me, at least there were people from my team who spread lies about me and they caused a lot of hurt and pain and it was really hard for me when I got home. I haven’t seen either of these people since I got home from my deployment and I thought, well, I’m not going to see them again. I don’t have to worry about what they did. I can just forget about them and move on with my life.
But I learned through a long process that I had to deal with those emotions of hurt and betrayal. I had to find forgiveness and I had to find a way to move on because even though I was
Ignoring it and pretending like it didn’t bother me. It was eating me from the inside out and it wasn’t making me the person that I wanted to be. And so I think sometimes when people talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if you think about getting shot at or getting hurt by someone on the opposing side or different traumatic events, but for me, a lot of my PTSD or trauma from my deployment came from being betrayed by people who were supposed to be there to protect me. They were supposed to be the Air Force. We call them our wingmen. And what they did was the opposite of that, and it was really painful and something that I had to deal with.
And I got home in 2010 from my deployment, and I didn’t deal with my hurt and betrayal and forgiveness of these people until 2017.
So for seven years, I lived pretending like there wasn’t anything wrong and there were a lot of things wrong.
And so I think it’s really easy to think, well, that’s not really a big deal because. It wasn’t getting shot out, but if something like that is affecting you, or if something like that happened to you when you were overseas and it’s still bothering you today or you still think about it today, it’s something that you probably needed to deal with and when you finally do, it’ll change your life and bring healing in a way that I don’t even think you can understand until after you’ve gone through that healing process.
Deployment Changes How You View the World
6) The sixth thing that I learned from my deployment was how I view the world is a little different now. I mentioned before that I had never left the United States, and I definitely hadn’t been to a culture much different than where I was. And to learn about the Afghan people in Indiana, which I spent two weeks of language training and lots and lots of culture training and so many different things.
I know a lot about the Afghan people and who they are. But when I finally got to meet Afghan people and see the children who didn’t have enough clothes or had dirty clothes, and, and to just be immersed in the culture of Afghanistan, it really changed my life because I can’t stop thinking about the kids that I saw.
And one story that I thought about when I was putting this together is when we think about what it means for kids to be poor. I thought this was a good way to share my experience, to give you a deeper level. Instead of just saying, we saw kids all the time and they just, they looked hungry and one day we were out practicing firing our rifles.
I’m not sure why we were out, but we were right up right off the base. There wasn’t room on the base to practice shooting our rifles, and so we set up a little perimeter. It was, I guess a security perimeter, but really it was to keep the kids out of the firing range because every time you shoot a rifle, the brass flies away and, and when you’re at the firing range.
In the United States, you get to pick up all the brass and turn it in, and, but when we were there, we had to keep the kids back from the firing range because they wanted to get the brass to take it to the parents. They weren’t really worried about getting shot, so we had to keep them at Bay, and there was a group of soldiers who kept the kids entertained and played with them so that they would stay away.
And they knew that one, they got the all-clear they could run and get the brass. So once we had finished shooting for the day, and we’re about to head back inside. Those soldiers gave the kids all clear and I haven’t ever seen so many kids running. And they ran and they picked up all the brass and it was gone like instantly.
And it just kind of showed me they had nothing and they just wanted the brass from our rifle. The bullets that we shot that day and how overly blessed we are to be in a country where we don’t even really think about what that is and why we would need it and how we would reuse it. And so one of the things that changed how I give to different charities is that we give a lot of money to charities to help kids overseas.
We sponsored a child through Compassion International, and we, I think she was 11 when we started sponsoring her. And since then she has already grown up and graduated from the program and she’s now had her life changed. And so now we’re sponsoring three kids with the Compassion International. And then there are other organizations that I’ve sponsored kids through.
One of them is Help One Now, and one is Food For the Hungry. So. Sponsoring five kids, and once they grow up, we get to sponsor more kids, but right now they’re all pretty little. I think the oldest one, she just turned 12 and so, but the rest of them are all around the same age as our boys, so four to six and just being able to help those kids and change their life and give them a better future through various organizations has been really important to me.
And so the other thing that I do is I am a big supporter of microloans and the organization that I. Do that through is called Kiva. And Kiva is a great organization because they match people all over the world with loans, and then they pay him back.
So you give $25 or you give in $25 increments, and once they get. Like if one person needs $1,000 or whatever business project they’re working on, you would have 40 people giving increments of $25 and then once their loan is funded, then they get the money, they start putting their business into practice, and then they pay back at a certain rate.
And the great thing about microloans is that people pay back the loans at a rate of 97 percent. And so what we do is we give out $25 increments and we started with a certain amount, and we occasionally add more to the amount that we give, but oftentimes we just re-lend that $25 that we’ve given to another person.
And I always try and do women. And because I’m an engineer, I often try and do construction loans. So it’s been really cool to help people all over the world change their lives by giving them just $25 and all these other people coming together. So I’ll put links to all the charities that I mentioned in case you want to learn more about them in the show notes.
Experience Brings Credibility
7) The seventh thing that I learned from my deployment experience is that your experience will bring you credibility. When I first went on active duty in the Air Force, I was hoping that if I got deployed, it would be on an Air Force mission and it would not be to combat, which is kind of funny thinking back, but in the end, I deployed with the Army to Afghanistan and my job didn’t even leave me on the base.
I was running convoys with an infantry unit in 2010 long before women were technically allowed in combat. It was an experience I never expected, and I was terrified of what was to come. But looking back at this experience, I realized that it was life-altering and it changed my life in not only the experience that I have but the perspective that it gave me and the voice and platform that I have today.
I would never want to do it again. That’s why I’m not in the Air Force because I didn’t want to deploy it, but at the time it was just what I needed and has changed everything about who I am and what I’m doing.
This podcast is all about sharing our stories, stories of women with stories that people would never expect to hear, and a big driving force behind what started the podcast was when I asked women what people said when they found out they deployed, they often would say, well, no one knows because no one asks about it.
And so I wanted to tell people about these amazing women and these amazing stories that no one knew about and no one was asking about. And I think that my experience of deploying in a nontraditional deployment experience kind of gave me, and I guess the fear of not jumping all the tools that I needed to take this podcast and to launch it.
It was kind of like a perfect storm of everything that happened. And I am just really grateful looking back on my experience of deploying to Afghanistan and just. Even the hard parts, just how much it changed my life and changed me as a person.
8) The eighth thing I wanted to talk about was coming home and being alone.
One thing that you don’t realize when you’re deployed is how lucky you are to have a team of people who are going through the exact same thing that the people around you are. I think that was one of the hardest parts about becoming a military spouse is that I was going through this big transition of leaving the military and becoming a military spouse, and it was really hard and there was no one that I knew that I could talk to, but when I was deployed, I had a group of people who were going through pretty much the exact same thing I was going through.
So I had people to talk to and we all had our unique life experiences. Some people had kids, some people were single, some people had problems at home, some people weren’t worried about home at all. We all had our own life experience and the different aspects of the appointment affected us in different ways, but we had each other and we had people that we could rely on.
One of the cool things about being in the military is that even if you don’t like the person sitting next to you when it’s time to do whatever the mission requires, you drop that dislike and you just get the mission done. The military is kind of a cool place because that’s one of the things that I think is really neat is that you have to overlook.
Your differences and you have to just get the mission done because the mission is the most important thing. And sometimes if you’ve listened to other things that I’ve talked about, I’m not a fan of the mission sometimes, but I’m not in anymore. So it makes my life perspective all different. But when you’re in the military, you know what the mission is, you know what your focus is, and you get the job done.
And so having all those built-in support networks when you’re deployed is really a blessing that you don’t even realize. That you have, but then you come home. And I was one of two people from my base who deployed on the mission, and I was actually really lucky because a lot of the Air Force people were the only person from their base who deployed.
So they had no one to talk to when they got home and when I got home, my husband had already moved for his next assignment and I came home and I didn’t really have anyone to talk to because I had 10 days of rest and relaxation where I got time to decompress from being overseas. But I was like alone during that time and I really didn’t have anything to do and it was really hard in a way, it almost would have been better for me to just go back to work and not have that time off.
Because I went from being surrounded by people to all alone and having my thoughts to deal with. And it was really hard. And one thing I think I should mention about being alone is that being alone caused me to like stuff all the feelings that I had from my deployment because I didn’t really feel like I had anyone that I could talk to about my deployment experience because I felt kind of like the odd person with this weird deployment and it led me to stuff all these things, not just the anger and resentment that I had towards the people who had hurt me, but just the whole deployment experience. I didn’t want to talk about it. I, even now, sometimes I can talk about my deployment, but sometimes I have to step away and not talk just because I can’t always deal with the emotions that come with it, and I really don’t have control on like how my body’s going to react to different situations, so it makes it really difficult.
Anger and Resentment
9) Let’s go on to number nine and speaking of anger and resentment, I had a lot of anger and resentment that I needed to deal with the pain that was caused by those people on my team, the way that the commander was, and just the stress of being deployed really was a struggle for me. I, I was able to stay afloat and I could keep everything in balance. And then I became a mom and I lost my identity as I left the Air Force to be a stay at home mom and military spouse. And I kind of felt like something got unhinged inside of me and I couldn’t keep it all together anymore and I needed help. I struggle with my anger. I didn’t have a way to deal with it constructively and I was, I didn’t want my son to grow up with the person that I was becoming, and the anger and resentment was just growing and I was beating myself up for not being the perfect person, perfect mom. And so I needed some way to get some help through that.
I found a program called Celebrate Recovery, and I was able to start going. Going was easy, but when I finally decided to go, the first meeting, I showed up, I listened to the group talk, and then we broke into our sharing groups. And when it was my turn to share, I think I talked for like maybe five seconds, and then I started crying because I was in a room with people who were broken like me talking about these struggles in an open way, and I could feel that there was a potential to find healing and it was really hard to go through all the steps that were required to get me to a healthy point. But I know that through that experience, my life has been changed and I’m not the same person that I was, and I’m a better mom for my kids.
I’m a better wife to my husband and I’m just a better person in general. And if you know anything about Al-Anon or AIA, they use 12 steps to celebrate recovery, And so the 12th step is always to give back to your community. And for me, the podcast is my 12th step, I get to talk to other women about their military experience.
I get to hear amazing stories. I get to hear them talk about stuff that they’ve never talked about, and it just brings healing. And so I think that’s why the podcast is such a special project for me because. It’s more than just a job. It’s something that I’m super passionate about and I only found it through finding healing in my mental health journey.
And it’s just my way to give back to those who are still struggling. And I should add that if you want to hear more about Celebrate Recovery and my mental health Journey. I wrote a blog post a few years ago about my journey, and I’ll put a link to that in the show notes if you would like to read it.
Friendship is important
10) So the last lesson learned is a good one. So we’ll end on a high note. After going down a little dramatic though, I want to end my lessons learned talking about friendship.
My deployment, I met a lot of people that I talked about how we all got each other through the deployment, and I made some really good friends while I was overseas, and I kind of expected that I guess I’m idealistic that all these friendships will last forever and we would stay in contact and we would have reunions and we would get to see each other, but reality is life happens. And a lot of the people that you meet from your deployment experience, you may never see again, or maybe you’ll just see them on Facebook. I can’t say that about everyone because luckily I connected with three other people who I am still friends with today, and we have a group text message that we talk about.
Everything from, what should we name one of the persons new dog to real-life struggles with, you know, what to do with our kids or what to do with that. And we just have this special friendship. And I couldn’t imagine not having these three people in my life and they are why for a long time even though I really struggled with my deployment, the fact that I had their friendship made it all worth it and now I’ve been able to deal with a lot of the hurt and pain. From my deployment, and I’ve been able to use it in a positive way. And so I don’t have as much resentment towards my deployment, but I’m still forever grateful for their friendship and how they’ve changed my life in such a positive way.
So some friendships last forever. Some friendships will end right when you leave Afghanistan or your deployment and, but those friendships, even the ones that don’t last, I think they still leave a lasting imprint on your life because of the experience that you share and who knows? Maybe one day you’ll need each other and you’ll reach out and who knows what will happen.
10 Things I learned from deployment
So those are the 10 things that I learned about myself from deployment. I really appreciate you listening to my story and my experience, and I hope that if you’ve deployed. It resonated with you. And if you know someone who’s deployed, maybe you could talk, open up the conversation by talking to them about what they learned about from their deployment.
And if you’re a civilian and you don’t really have any military connection, I really hope that this can help shed light on some of the stuff that goes inside our brains that we don’t really like talk about. When we think about deployment and what it means to us and how it’s changed us and how we deal with our deployment when we come back and are no longer in the military.
What did you learn from deployment?
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