Sensations, Perceptions, DifferencesOld Blue | Sunday, February 5th, 2012 | No Comments »
One thing that I try to do with my writing is to bring at least some sense of the feeling, the sensation of what it’s like. I don’t know how well I do with that, but I try. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been in, or how many times you have deployed; deploying is an experience. First deployments are different. Each deployment has its own flavor, its own underlying tone. Some aspects never change; the interminable flight to Asia, for instance. Other things vary.
I can’t speak for anyone else. I can speak for the differences I feel in my perceptions, my sense of anticipation. I can compare these with observations of others, listening to those on their first deployment. Afghanistan was a mystery to me, my perceptions shaped partially by what I had read, what I had been told by others, and by my training. But even with that shaping, there is no substitute for reality. You cannot train a feeling. And feeling, no matter what anyone says, is important. It is what they mean when they say using all of your senses.
The unknown has a flavor. Anyone who has had a first day at a new school, a new job, been in a new place… all of us… know that.
First deployments are exciting in that regard. Subsequent deployments have aspects of it, but in another sense the newness has worn off. Each deployment is different, though. You’re going a different place, doing perhaps a different job. The smells, the sights and many of the sensations are not unfamiliar, though. Afghans and their peculiarities are no surprise. On the first tour, everything looked and felt strange. On subsequent tours, the organization and the personalities are different, but the overall sensation of being there is for the most part the same. When I hear the chatter of the new deployers, I pick up on the unknown, the attempts to understand, to predict the feeling, to not be surprised; they are trying to grasp the reality. But you cannot train a feeling, you cannot train a perception. And for each of us, it’s the sum of our perceptions that add up to a feeling that is the flavor of a certain time. Smells, sounds and music can remind us of the flavor of a time; that’s the flavor I’m talking about. It underlies entire experiences.
Newness adds its own flavor, and its like a dish with too much cilantro; you don’t taste much else. At least at first.
Being a transient is a feeling all its own. On a first deployment, its not something that you’re focused on initially. It’s a nebulous murk that you must pass through on your way to where you’re going, but it’s an overwhelming sensation. It’s like being the guest of honor at a meat processing plant.
This tour is like being the guest of honor at a meat processing plant with multiple E Coli violations. Unless this is how beef is aged, in which case menus that brag about “aged beef” will never hold the same allure.
First deployers, having never focused on the transient experience, are more impatient to get it over with. Being stalled in transit as we are currently is frustrating for everyone, but for them it is even more frustrating due to the surprise of having looked past it only to have it loom so large in their current experience. It will pass, but for the time being it is the experience. For those with a previous deployments, the transient phase is dreaded. It is the first pain to be felt. The long plane ride to Asia, the misery of confinement, then the transient experience at places like Manas and Ali Al Saleem in Kuwait, and finally arriving and moving through RSOI (Reception, Staging and Onward Integration). The mission doesn’t start until this rite of passage has been accomplished.
A couple of posts ago I tried to note the perceptions of being loaded on the plane and being on our way. Many have written about such things, but it is the feeling of that moment. On the first tour, it is as significant in its own way as walking down the aisle. It is a sensation that is hard to describe. It is a feeling. It is something that each of us would avoid if we could. You are stuck in your own head with an experience that you just want to be over. It is the dentist’s chair. At the same time, you are so there in that moment that the sights, sounds and smells are so very real. Fog, rain, snow, light or darkness, the brightness of the interior of the aircraft, the uncomfortable seats, the seemingly endless wait in that uncomfortable seat for the aircraft to begin moving, to lift off. The frustration of having been loaded and unloaded, of having taken off and flown the distance only to be turned around at the last minute.
For me, it cannot possibly be as torturous as for the young men and women who have never been there before. It’s frustrating for me, but I knew about this transient Limbo/Hell that we would pass through and potentially be caught in. For the new deployers, it is not something upon which they were focused, and this unexpected intrusion on their experience grinds on. Each time, the excited chatter of the new deployers becomes more muted. Some are now in disbelief. They are so far from their imagined frame of reference that a sense of unreality creeps in. They voice this at times.
I don’t feel as if the deployment may somehow not happen. I know it will. Being back in Afghanistan will feel as it has before. I’ve never been up north, but it will feel like Afghanistan. The sound of Dari or Pashto being spoken will be familiar. The normal activities of Afghans on the street or in the fields will look… well… normal. Afghan offices will feel like Afghan offices. Working with an interpreter will feel like working with an interpreter. The crazy things that Afghans sometimes do will not be so surprising. The common sights, sounds and smells will not assail my senses as foreign and unusual. But I will try to note them and share them, because they can be remarkable.
Today will not be the day that I will once again walk the soil of Afghanistan. I actually do not know when I will. Weather, airlift priorities, the vagaries of Central Asia…
I bide my time.