Commentary: Deployment Challenges and Coping

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Zachary Rule
  • 380 Air Expeditionary Wing

I have been of service to the USAF for 17 plus years. My career has taken me to locations both fantastic and austere, near and far and places I can call home and places I prefer to forget… however, there is one story I want to tell about a very long deployment to a challenging location that, at the time, looked like it would never end… during this deployment I met challenges that I never thought I would with my military service.

A deployment to Afghanistan as an operational control (OPCON) Airman to a U.S. Army Cavalry Unit assigned to provide Provincial Reconstruction and perform various “security details” no small deal. Prior to the deployment we were trained by professionals educated in how to conduct business in our area of responsibility, it was called Combat Skills Training. We received approximately 2-3 months of CST, along with our Army brothers and sisters we were to deploy with, and away we went together to our deployed location.

During our time there we were met with a great many obstacles including operational and personal challenges. While the operational challenges we met were mostly covered by our CST we performed before our deployment, many of us would find that our personal challenges would prove to be the toughest we had experienced up to that point in our lives… I had a grandmother that our family loved very dearly die during my deployment. At first I thought it would be impossible for me to get to her in time… Yet, I insisted to my leadership that if given the chance I would prefer to see her before she passed.  Fortunately, even at my location the American Red Cross and my chain of command were able to secure my departure and re-entry back to the United States to see my grandmother before she passed. I never forgot the names of those that played the biggest part in aiding me and my safe return to see her. I am grateful to them to this day.

We faced other challenges… every day was a struggle. The heat was unbelievable, 120-130 degrees (with humidity) or so it felt! Heat exhaustion wasn’t at all uncommon. Days were long, we wore 80-100 lbs. of gear, and went on dangerous trips to survey work and/or scout areas that were required by command. Then some days we were still required to pull a tower guard shift. Needless to say, what was expected of us was tremendous and we couldn’t let our team down, so we did our job. We always had each other to lean on, we were more than a team… we were family.

Even with all of us together as a team, as a family, our base still recorded casualties. There were great conflicts going on all around us and not just outside the wire. I mean, we were always pushed to our limits and nearly on a daily basis. 14-16 hour days weren’t uncommon. This was undeniably the most challenging mission any and all of us had ever met… and understandably so. Who wouldn’t get stressed out with the enormity of our responsibility to the mission and to each other? But, at the end of each mission and each day, we still had each other!

Once our great deployment ended, we were to return home and carry on with our careers and our lives. Upon departure from our deployed location we were met with a series of decompression periods, almost like large isolation groups, to help aid us in transitioning from the area we returned from. We were met by mental health professionals who evaluated us to ensure we were adapting appropriately to our lives we were returning back to. Most of everyone returned and reintegrated just fine. I did… or so I thought.  Some years later, after meeting some challenging circumstances I was facing in life at the time, I started developing extreme anxieties and kept flashing back to certain memories I had during my time in Afghanistan.  I decided I couldn’t live my life with all of these stressors, anxieties, and feelings I didn’t know how to deal with.  I reached out to our mental health professionals at the base I was stationed at. They aided me in developing my own coping methods, a foundation if you will, a foundation in self-care. After a few sessions, I left with the skills and fortifications that I needed to manage my anxieties and to better take care of myself. I still remember the physician’s name that helped me so, and I am grateful to her to this day.