10 years ago, this month, I stepped out of a C-130 and onto the flight line at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. I want to share what deploying taught me. The three main reasons I wrote this article was to help you prepare for a deployment, deal with the emotions of deploying and to let civilians know what deployment is like and how it affects us. Talking about deployment can be hard. But it is important that those of us who have deployed share our stories to help people understand our experience. I’m so excited to share what I deploying taught me.
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. But it felt weird to come home and turn 26 where so much had changed and I just felt like I had missed it. 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 here.
I wanted to talk about what deploying taught me in three aspects: during my training, deployment, coming home. Coming home continues today as I continue to learn as life brings me new life lessons. Going to Afghanistan for me had a huge impact on who I was and how I view the world. And for the first years after coming home I could remember the old me and the me I became. But 10 years have passed and it is harder to remember what life was like before. But I still can remember what deploying taught me and how those lessons I learned changed me into who I am today.
Want to listen to the whole episode? Check out 10 Things Deploying Taught Me on Women of the Military Podcast
Jump, it isn’t that far
When you come to a great chasm in life, jump it isn’t that far. – Joseph Campbell
Before I left for my deployment my commander gave me a journal and on the first page was this quote. And I think he was a little worried about this grand adventure I was about to go on, but also knew something I didn’t even know. He knew I could do it. All I had to do was jump. One of my friends recently asked me how I do the crazy things I do. Not knowing if it will work out or having everything in place. And I didn’t really know how to answer. But my introvert self couldn’t stop thinking about her question. And after a lot of pondering I realized this quote changed my life.
Because in Afghanistan I had to jump. I didn’t have a choice and what I found is it really wasn’t that far. And I have used that as a guiding principle in my life. Sometimes I fall, but even then it often is never as bad as imagined. And more often than not it works out in ways I could have never expected. So, I jump and see what happens. You know what it really isn’t that far.
Training does prepare you even if it isn’t exactly the same
Another thing deploying taught me goes back to my training in Indiana. The best way to share this experience is through a story. I like to tell the story of when we had Humvee rollover training. Speaking of jumping. There is no way I would have ever stepped inside a vehicle knowing it would flip over and I would have to figure out how to get out. But this was a training requirement so I didn’t have a choice. And at first, it went just like I imagined I couldn’t get out of my seatbelt and was hanging upside down and panicking. But my Sgt yelled at me and told me I could do it. He got me to calm down and do it. And then when I went to Afghanistan and had to do rollover training again. There I did it with ease and wasn’t scared. It was the first moment I realized the training had prepared me for what I was about to face. I was ready.
Bad leaders affect the whole team
My commander during my deployment was not a good leader. He brought the morale down and we knew it was going to be a long deployment with him even before we left Afghanistan. I can’t remember what about him, but I do know that before we left for Afghanistan, we had a meeting where the officers and senior enlisted members told him about how he made us feel. He said he would change and he did for a few weeks, but once we got to Afghanistan, he went back to who he was.
He made the deployment experience harder because of his leadership or lack of leadership.
And the whole team suffered from it. Rumors spread about different members on the team and there was no support from the leadership from stopping it from running rampant. Our commander did eventually get fired and a new commander came in, but we were only a few months away from coming home and by that point, the damage had been done.
You get used to being at war
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 (most common is cursing and smoking) but your mind and body get used to the stress, the noise, the reality of the danger. In some ways it makes you a little reckless, in other ways, it is how you survive. A few months after I got home from my deployment my husband asked me in the morning how I slept all night. Apparently, helicopters had been flying in our neighborhood in the middle of the night and he couldn’t believe I didn’t wake up. I think my mind was still adjusting to being back home and it had determined to ignore those noises because if I hadn’t, I would have never gotten any sleep overseas.
Battle scars might come from your team
Another thing deploying taught me was about people. One thing I never expected when I deployed was that some of the hardest parts of dealing with my deployment years later would not come from the rocket attacks or the firefight with the enemy but from members on my own team who spread lies and caused hurt and pain. It was their betrayal that hurt me the most.
I felt like the enemy had a reason to try and kill me.
It was why we were there and in a way, I was mentally ready for this, but to be betrayed by members of my own team who were supposed to be protecting me and then I still had to rely on during various missions was hard to move past. I tried to move on from my deployment and forget what had happened, but in the end, I had to learn to forgive those who had hurt me and give up that resentment I had been holding onto.
It will change how you view the world
Going to a 3rd world country is one quick way to realize how blessed you are. We would drive past villages of mud huts with bathrooms that were nothing more than holes in the ground. And seeing all of the children every mission we would go one. One day we were out practicing firing our rifles near the Forward Operating Base. Kids could hear the gunfire and they came running. They wanted to collect the brass from bullets and we had to have a team of people hold them back from running out into the firing range to collect the brass. Once we had completed our training for the day the kids were given the all-clear and the brass was gone within seconds.
It showed me the reality of what they had which was nothing.
I think the kids are the thing I can’t forget and why we donate to the various charities we do. Supporting kids through Compassion International, Help One Now and Food For the Hungry and also through microloans through Kiva.
Your experience will bring you credibility
When I first went active duty, I was hoping if I got deployed it would be with the Air Force and it would not be in a combat zone. But in the end, I deployed with the Army to Afghanistan and my job didn’t even leave me on base. I was running convoys with an infantry unit in 2010 long before women “were allowed” in combat. It was an experience I never expected when I decided to join the Air Force and I was terrified of what was to come, but looking back this life-altering experience changed me and gave me a perspective very few people have. And it gave me a platform to stand on.
I would never want to do it again which is probably one of the main reasons I’m no longer in the service, but at the time it was just what I needed and has changed everything about who I am and what I am doing today.
Women of the Military podcast is about sharing our stories. Stories of women that people wouldn’t expect to hear and a big driving force behind that was that people were so surprised when they found out about my deployment to Afghanistan. And the more I would tell them about my experience the wider their mouth would open. They never expected a woman to be doing what I did. Especially in 2010 when it wasn’t something that people were talking about. Deploying taught me a lot about stereotypes and I had to do something to change them.
Coming home and being alone
One thing you don’t realize when you are deployed is how lucky you are to have a support network with you. Everyone on your team is going through generally the same experience as you. We all had our unique life stressors, but you all were under the stress of being at war. One time when our base was rumored to be attacked. We dropped everything and everyone pitched in to get everything prepared for the possible danger. Luckily the threat ended up being empty. But it was a morale boost to all be on the same team and doing something together. Even if it had the potential of being dangerous.
We were all focused on one mission. I choose not to tell my parents and husband about these types of experiences while overseas because I didn’t want them to worry. But I also know looking back it was a way for me to protect myself mentally. And not having the added stress of worrying my friends and family back home was a good thing.
But when I came home, I was alone.
For one thing, my husband had moved to his next assignment so he wasn’t even there. But also, since I deployed as single augmentee from the Air Force I didn’t even have anyone from my unit to talk to. My counterpart had stayed in Afghanistan longer for the changeover with the new team and even if she had been home, she was in Texas and I was in New Mexico preparing to move to Ohio. Our lives had almost been the same and within months of being home, everything looked different. And for a long time, I didn’t talk to anyone about my deployment experience except through sharing letters from my deployment. Which never talked about the hurt and pain caused by my deployment. I was trying to move forward but was also stuck with the pain caused by the deployment.
It was really hard.
Dealing with Anger
This leads to my next point. I struggled with anger when I came home. The hurt and resentment from the members on my team who had caused a deep hurt was stuffed away. But with the stress of becoming a mom and losing my identity in the military, I couldn’t cope anymore. And I didn’t want my son to have to suffer from the way I acted. I wanted to become a new person, but I really didn’t think it was possible.
I started going to a weekly support group where I listened and shared. The first meeting when it was my turn to share, I barely got a sentence out before breaking down crying. Because I knew I had finally admitted I had a problem and was on the journey toward healing. I still had a long way to go. But a year later when I received my one-year chip for being part of recovery I broke down in tears again. I had come so far.
Realizing that I could change and life could be so much better than I imagined.
I recently told someone that I feel like when I got home from deployment I was living in a dark room, but the darkroom had become my normal (it probably started through the deployment) and when I came home, I didn’t realize how dark it was. But after going to get help it was as if each day got brighter and my life changed. I could see things I couldn’t see before. I was happier with myself. And I was able to feel my body and react in a rational way. It was such a profound change I can’t explain how much it changed my life.
You can read more about my mental health journey here.
Some friendships will last long after you are home
I touched on this a little earlier about how life changed when I got home and I felt so alone. But a lot of the friendships I made have fallen to the wayside. And many of that friendship disappeared almost from the moment we got home. It makes it hard to move on with your life after spending a year with the same people every day and then to have that taken away.
Luckily for me, even though most of the friends I made in Afghanistan are only connected to me through Facebook. I have a close friendship with 3 friends from my deployment. The four of us got connected during the deployment and we stay connected through group texts with almost daily conversations. All four of us have met up at Disneyland and are planning another reunion in May. We also have had the chance to see each other around the country as our travels led us to the same place.
For a long time after coming home, I thought the only good of my deployment was these three friends I made.
They made life easier and I am so lucky I have them in my life. I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today without their friendship these past 10 years.
Now you know what I deploying taught me…
What did you learn about yourself during deployment? Did anything from my list of lessons learned from deploying resonate with you? I would love to hear about your experience of coming home from a deployment and what deploying taught you.