Becoming mission ready

I had been awakened off and on throughout the night to sounds of beds squeaking and doors occasionally being slammed. Voices from individuals who just didn’t care whether the rest of the tent was asleep or not, resonated like the siren from a fire truck in a holiday parade. I threw my warm, fuzzy dark brown blanket towards the end of the bed and sat up slowly and hunched as to not hit my head on the upper bunk. I was lucky to have found a bottom bunk with the number of female Soldiers that filtered through the musty, overused tent. Bottom bunks were commodities. Bottom bunks near power sources were deemed prime real estate, beach front property.

I fumbled for my cell phone to turn on a flashlight. My phone’s only purpose for many months now was as a radio and a flashlight. I had stored 673 of my favorite songs on that phone. The sand, by this point, made the slider keyboard make the same sound as my childhood key-turned metal roller skates as they ran across cement. Nonetheless, I played those 673 songs over and over and over. Music seemed to be the one touch of my normalcy back home. My radio was always on in my car back home. Heck, I didn’t even know where the power button was on the car stereo that my ex-husband had installed for me. It didn’t matter anyway, I never turned it off. My stereo was always on in my house as well. If ever it were off, someone coming through my front door was asking if I had a headache or who was sick. It was always on. My music served a purpose: to calm me, to pump me up, to drown out annoying people, to pacify me. Music, to me, is a backdrop… a soundtrack… of life. In the ‘Stan, it bonded me with new friends and reminded me of friends back home that used to sing along with me in the made up karaoke night in the front seat of my car driving somewhere in Northwest Ohio. Everyone knew I was the one with the addiction to music, even if it was the same 673 songs. I took that phone with me when we played cards in someone’s AO. I had it with me on every mission, fully charged and ear buds at the ready for flights or convoys. I even took it with me to the showers in the morning. All the females knew if there was music in the shower trailer, the Afghan Battle Fox was in the house.

I navigated the area near my feet with the dim screen lighting to find my shower shoes. Flip-flops I called them when I was younger but Uncle Sam corrected me to call them shower shoes now. I slipped on the thin, foot shaped contraptions, grabbed my towel and personal hygiene kit then slowly leaned forward to stand up and avoid hitting my head on the top bunk. Once stable, I proceeded to fumble my way to the door at the north end of the tent. There was a thin sliver of light streaming from its lowest edge. Although only 0430, the sunlight had already taken over the post. I pushed the bulky door open and squinted to see the next few steps ahead of me. My eyes stung from the light like a criminal’s during an investigation in some old ’30s black and white movie. Slowly I stammered a few steps forward, still squinting, but drudgingly making progress toward the rows of show trailers.

What would it be today: Warm water? Cold water? No water? Locked doors? The simple freedom of going to the bathroom back home had been ripped from me as soon as I joined the service. The days of just walking to the bathroom barefooted in a T-shirt and panties were over. The luxury of setting the water to just that right “Ahhh” temperature to get the muscle knots out was gone. The concept of leaving the water run while I lathered and suds myself up was gone. The steam in the air, the spray of the water, the fragrance of shower gels and shampoo, the feeling of being clean after the shower, the coziness of a warm, fluffy towel… now all memories of a life I seemed to vaguely remember although it had only been a year before. Instead, I wore PT shorts, the previous day’s tan t-shirt and my faded shower shoes. My uncombed hair pulled back into a pony tail and wearing the remnants of yesterday’s eyeliner, I carried my toiletries with me in a semi-water protected bag and stepped up to the locked metal door of the female shower trailer. This particular trailer had a code to get in: 35214. I remember this for two reasons. For one, I spent plenty of time on this particular post. It served as a hub for many of my missions and departures. Therefore, I was very familiar with these showers specifically. The second reason for remembering the shower code on this trailer was because the lock was imprinted with Roman numerals. I had never seen a lock like this before but I can picture in my mind and remember the circular pattern of I, II, III, IV, and V. My fingers methodically knew what buttons to push even without the Roman numerals. III… V… II… I… IV… turn knob. In!!

There were a few mornings, like this one, that I was the only female in the showers and I didn’t mind at all. The transient tents were just that…for transients. These were Soldiers coming and going in and out of the country or in between missions. These tents were not permanent housing for Soldiers who actually lived on the post. Nearly 0445, it was too early for female Soldiers who were going to fly out. They didn’t need to be up and ready for the shuttle until nearly 0630. For those females who came in the middle of the night, it was just plain too damned early. The transient tents were lights out most of the time because someone was always sleeping. (Whether you were respected that you were sleeping and it was quiet is an entirely different situation.)

I hung my towel, set my personal hygiene kit on the counter, put my shampoo, soap, and razor in the shower bay, and let down my hair. Although it was nearly 90 outside already, it was nippy in the trailer. I didn’t want to check to see whether there was hot water or no water yet. I wanted my music on. I had a live version of Thousand Foot Krutch that always echoed in the metal shower can. I loved it and I loved it loud! I had the feeling this day was going to be amazing and I needed prelude music. Shuffle, shuffle, press… YES!! The solo plunking of the piano keys was followed by the grilling of the electric guitar. The crowd roared in the background as one loud wave of voices. Add in a solid bass guitar rhythm and finally a snare drum… oh yes! “Welcome to the Mascarade”

Welcome to the Mascarade! ~Thousand Foot Krutch

The music was rockin’ and my shower necessities were in place. I stripped off the half-assed uniform, turned toward the small white shower stall and took a deep breath. It was now time to play against the water trailer gods. I tilted the metal shower head as far away from me as I could. There is nothing like a shockingly bad jolt of ice cold water on your warm shoulders to get you in a cranky mood for the day. Today was NOT going to be that day. I took another deep breath, reached for cold silver handle, and leaned as far away from the direction of the possible spray of water. Remember that scene in Armageddon where Liv Taylor and Bruce Willis are on the computer monitors speaking their last father/daughter conversation then closing their eyes slowly and dramatically as he presses the button that sets off the nuclear warhead taking his own life to spare the rest of humanity and save Earth? I reenacted that dramatic pause many times when tempting my fate with the shower gods. I braced myself, looked back up at the shower head, and flicked my hand to raise the handle. What I expected to get was no water or a dribble of cold water. What I got instead was a full stream of hot water. Thank you to whoever must have showered and warmed up these pipes or to those who continued to sleep and left me a supply of water. Oh happy day!

I was in such a good mood at this point; I decided to break the rules. There are signs posted everywhere in every shower trailer on every post I have visited. Each sign, same thing: COMBAT SHOWERS. A combat shower is intended to get the major crud off, diminish a few germs, and slightly freshen up your body odor. To do this you turn on the water only when needing to rinse yourself. So, turn it on to get slightly wet, soap yourself, rinse, and get out. This is not how easily it goes. When you slightly dampen yourself in a sprits of water then shut it off, you get very cold standing there in your nothingness. Goosebumps form and these are not good for shaving or your mood. A few droplets of water on skin also do not allow soap or body wash to lather. You essentially smear some type of goo-like substance on your goose bumped body and spend more time standing in the cold water once you’ve turned it back on trying to peel or wipe it off. It’s like degreasing yourself.

Anyways, I broke the rules and really didn’t give much thought. With the traveling I had been doing and the variety of shower trailers or lack thereof, I was going to enjoy this shower. Albeit, it wasn’t going to be a long one because I had a mission to get to but I was going to take in a full shower, lather included.
As the music pumped through the trailer and with my body completely warm and suds up, I began to mentally play out scenarios in my mind of the possible events that could occur that day. Snapshots of history and reality intermingled with daydreams and fantasy. I began to picture my arrival at the truck line, meeting up with friends and fellow Soldiers, and departing on helicopters to a place I had never been. I felt a mixture of excitement and nervousness. This anxiety occurred to me at the beginning of every mission. Question after question began to cross my mind: what would the Afghan people be like? Would they be receptive to our presence there? What would the country look like? Would we be in any danger while we were in that area? As every new question permeated my thoughts, my heart began to race.

I had to convince myself to stop thinking about the questions so that I didn’t work myself into a small panic attack. The reality of living and working in a combat zone could drive a person crazy. I had learned by this point in my deployment not to think too much on anything. There was so much out of my control and anything could happen at any moment. Concentrating on the worst case scenario only gave me an anxiety headache and would probably turn me into a mad woman by the time I got to go home. So, I simply touched on the “what ifs” and put them out of my head.

As I shut off the water and began to dry myself off, I began the mental checklist of gear and supplies to take with me. As for camera gear, I learned early on to only take one lens, maybe two, with me. I already had to wear heavy body armor and carry a ruck sack with me so I kept my camera gear simple. Were there times I wish I had other lens with me? Of course, but I learned to adjust to what I had. I had charged an extra battery the night before and had brought an extra memory card with me. All of my camera equipment was in my ruck sack and ready to go.

“Camera gear… check.” I mumbled to myself as I stepped carefully out of the shower stall. The floors in the metal cans were extremely slippery. There was no traction left on the bottom on my worn out shower shoes. Improper balance or lack of caution usually resulted in some awkwardly painful wrenching of a body part into a direction that it was not intended to go. With both hands pressing the inside of the shower stall, I slowly placed my padded foot on the floor and stepped out into the walkway.

My music had now moved on to another song on the Thousand Foot Krutch album. My mood was still energized as I slipped into a clean tan shirt and back into my PT shorts. I rummaged through my personal hygiene kit to look for a pick to comb out my saturated hair. My hair had grown so long over the past year. I hadn’t even trimmed it. There really wasn’t a need. I had to wear my hair up off my collar so it was always in a bun. I combed out sections and began to braid the front left side of my hair then my right. I found that pulling my hair back into braids on both sides seemed to keep the looser strays from popping out. I combed the back and pulled my long hair into a ponytail, pulled the two freshly braided strands from the front to the back of my head and wrapped a band around the gathering. I then sectioned out three more strands from that ponytail and proceeded to braid them together. I wrapped that braid around itself and wrapped it with a second band to secure it. This process happened every time I had loose wet hair. I wanted to look professional and hated having loose hairs blowing against my face.

I continued with my regime of putting on eyeliner and a natural shade of lipstick. Combat zone or not, I want to look like a lady in uniform. I gathered my belongings, shut off my music, and carefully slipped my way past the remaining shower stalls and out the door I went.

The sun was warm but not unbearable and, having just come from a hot shower, I had a little extra pep in my step. I returned to the dome tent and made my way back to my bunk. It squeaked as a plopped myself down and as I moved to put my uniform on: another regime that had also grown methodical. I chose the better and cleaner of two uniforms I had brought with me. I was headed out on a new adventure today and I wanted to feel like a million bucks. A hot shower, a fresh face, or a clean uniform… any combination of these three always seemed to make a difference to my mood. Today I was awarding myself with all three.

I finished dressing, tightened up my boots and began straightening up the blanket on my bed and depositing yesterday’s dirty t-shirt, socks, and underwear into my laundry bag. After giving the once over to my area and double checking the gear in my ruck sack, I took a deep breath. I bent over to get a hold of one straps of my ruck sack and, with a big tugging lift, slung it over my right shoulder. I then bent my knees slightly to bring me down to a level in which I could reach my body armor careful not to allow my ruck sack to slide back off my shoulder. The body armor with plates inside was strapped up as if there were an invisible body wearing it. Its rugged material helped to keep its shape. I slid my left hand through one shoulder area of the vest and out the other. I strained a bit to lift the heavy bullet proof vest onto my left forearm. My left hand, with forearmed draped in body armor, grasped my ACU from my bunk and I confidently walked toward the door ready to go on that day’s mission.


3 thoughts on “Becoming mission ready

  1. Ben says:

    Not sure why this is the first time I’ve heard of Thousand Foot Krutch but they’re now on my playlist helping me through this Friday at work. Seriously – when you google ‘thousand’ they’re above thousand island dressing…where have I been?

  2. James says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I love reading blogs about how people “Become” who and what they will need to be. As human animals, it seems we rarely wake up ready for what the day will demand of us, and taking time to “Become” is important. I don’t know of too many others who take the time to share this deeply personal, yet omnipresent step. Thanks!

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