Easter in Kandahar

Dear Family and friends,

Greetings from Kandahar Air Field!

I know it’s been a few months since my last posting, and I apologize for that.  There has been a reason for the radio silence which in short is that the rules regarding internet and blogging, once in the country, are different.  It’s important for “OPSEC” reasons (meaning “OPerational SECurity”) that we don’t violate any of a lot of restrictions.  For instance there are no photos allowed of the base, nor photos of patients or of operations, no photos of the flight line, no discussing military maneuvers on the internet, or mentioning base functionalities, or personnel issues….  And then there are the standard restrictions as well, such as don’t discuss colleagues or allies or enemies or patients, bosses, or great ideas you might have for how to make the war go better.  Probably a good idea not to discuss any issues around religion.  Hmm… What does that sort of thing leave a would-be blogger with?  Silence!

But on top of the external restrictions there is also a formidable internal one:  There is this great difficulty to initiate anything that takes hold of you after just a few weeks of being here.  It’s not depression and it’s not ennui; I think it’s like this, while at home it is normal to be things like “busy” and “productive” and if you are being those things that is well and good and in keeping with the environment and with everyone around you, but out here instead it is such a void and a vacuum that being “busy” and “productive” are notions as anomalous and crazy as, say, preparing for snow.  It just doesn’t make any sense.  There is a peculiar malaise that takes over when here; as my friend out here Dave describes it, “being here is like taking Morphine for the soul.”

Well, at least initially.  Because although it took a few months to settle in here, I can now see past my initial shock and find a couple of things that might be interesting to relate that don’t compromise security or pose any threats.  The things that I would wish to express to you are the normal items, such as friendships, day-to-day, missing people at home, et-cetera.

Getting here was the usual drag, and adjusting to being deployed has been a two-fold thing.  Phase I is familiarizing yourself with your new environment and assimilating your various duties and roles into a cohesive pattern; it is a busy first month but you get it all under your belt by week 4 or 8 and from there you are on cruise control for the rest of the tour, with occasional hiccoughs but more or less steady-state. Phase II is a bigger deal and involves assimilating the fact of being away, of missing your spouse and children and family and friends and neighborhood and country.  And by “assimilating” I mean adjusting to the fact that they’re not present in your immediate environment, and you’re not present in theirs.  Keeping them always present in your thoughts and heart is a bit like holding open a pew at church during Christmas or Easter:  the place progressively fills up around you, and you’re steadfastly preventing any of the other assholes from stealing your pew that you’re holding open waiting for your family to arrive and occupy.  This one (Phase II) kicks into gear perhaps at a different time for everybody, but for me it was like week 3-5 where it started, and not nearly so short-lived as Phase I it lasts the whole damn time, with a waxing and waning, undulating scope.  For a week or two you after it launches it hurts so much you can’t even believe you’re apart and are destined to remain so for a long while, but then somehow the sadness and loneliness gets less intense and then you feel good about life for a few weeks.  But then it recurs and I wonder how everyone else gets by; but then it goes away again, mercifully, only to come back later and so forth.

The story of the Phase I has recently been written, it’s called “Citizen-Surgeon,” and I’m tempted to just self-publish it so it can go straight to the middle of Amazon eBooks “minimal sellers” list, however, I think this one actually might be able to get published so I’m holding out for a trial of that.  Crikey, there’s a new book out on the working dogs of the Navy SEALS; if that can get published, I’m thinking “Cit-Surg” ought to have at least a fighting chance.  Nevertheless when my attempt to out-press the Navy dogs fails, it’ll be available on eBooks for very little money.

So what I can blog about I think might be issues within and around the “Phase II.”

Dealing with that involves getting creative.  My advice to my eldest child, Helen, as she preps for college in the not-too-distant-future, has been to go ahead and focus hard on the “STEM” subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) so that you can get a job, but to also balance those studies with an equal focus on the arts, so that you can stand it.  And I’ve had to hear my own advice in that regard in order to dig myself out of my malaise.

So what I did is start the “Kandahar Air Field Artist’s Workshop” in which we’re focusing on a number of disciplines each month:  April (Creative Writing), May (Photography), June (Music), July (Art), August (Performing Arts), and September (History & Culture).  We’ve also started a book club, and this month’s is Hemmingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.” My personal creative writing project is a short story, “The Singular Adventures of Euphestus Dubios,” and if I can beat it into shape, it’ll be the next post in another month or so.

One of the best things of all so far was Easter.  I’ve made some good Romanian friends, two Intel guys, and got invited to midnight mass at their compound, where they had built their own Eastern Orthodox church, and it was a great night!  I understood even less of mass than usual –on account of Romanian language sounding nothing like American– but I got the overall gist of it.  We stood the whole time, had real candles (which I think is done to force concentration upon all of us so as not to set alight one-another, or burn the wooden church down), we walked inside and outside and inside and outside, and around the church several times, and all in all it was a great mass.

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Hugely important out here has been the physical fitness factor.  At home life is so busy it is difficult to get in shape, and it feels like you’re always cutting out of other things (like, family time, or personal time, or work) to engage in it.  But here there is this great expanse of time with nothing else to fill it, like, like the Central Asian steppes, and so adding fitness is a breeze.  I’ve found the “Kandahar Crossfit” community, which is filled with a whole bunch of fitness fanatics of all nationalities, and it’s been a long, slow ramping up but I’m finally at the point where I can finish most of the drills.  I am always last, and always with the least weight of anybody, but just being here is one for the “win” column. Not a lot of blokes get to rub elbows in an outdoor, concrete gym with Slovaks, Belgians, Danish, British, and Yankee guys of all types, special forces guys, and really great fitness coaches who travel all the way out here to live with us and run the thing.  Also in addition to the Crossfit “box” we’ve a lovely NATO indoor gym which has the best air (it has big air filters) on the whole base. So, these are in place of prozac, and have been absolutely fundamental to our emotional survival, working amazingly well.  Today’s workout was in honor of the 5 British airmen and soldiers who died last week in the helo crash out here.  Brutally sad, actually; I never met them but of course all the Brits in the gym were quite close with them.

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I got to operate on a working dog the other day!  She hadn’t been herself for several months and on investigation (X-ray and CT scan) the Vet found a big goomba of a tumor immediately beneath her liver and gave us a call.  It was about a two hour operation; if I had any familiarity with the “canine” territory I think I could have gotten it out in an hour, but as it was we simply took our time and all went well.  A few hours later she was up on all fours, breathing heavily but able to walk out of there (imagine any human patient doing that?!?) and I’ll get to see her in another week to take out her staples.  It has been a real highlight!  Look where her i.v,’s were on her little forelegs.  (Sorry about the freaky face I’m making! Can’t fix ugly.)

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Okay family and friends, that’s enough for now.  Until the next one!

Roach out.