Drawing Parallels in Service

by Mari Budlong, soldier in the U.S. Army from 1997 to 2006

Deployed to Bosnia in 1999, Kosovo in 2002, and Iraq in 2005

When I first heard we'd be asked to stay home to decrease the spread of the coronavirus, it seemed like it could feel like a military deployment.  There's a pattern to being deployed that becomes clear the second time around, and familiar with the third --not only do many service members remain confined to very small bases (one of the bases I stayed on fit inside a quarter mile track) for the duration of the deployment, many have little or no access to items we're used to having at home (think things like toilet paper, hygiene items, regular clothes laundering.)  

At the beginning of a deployment, while we usually do know how long we'll be out of country, we don't know what our living situations will be like.  Many of us don't know how long our shifts will be, whether we'll work days or nights, how often we'll have guard duty, what the chow will be like, how we'll keep our clothes and bodies clean, and whether we'll be able to call, e-mail, or video chat loved ones back home.  We are hyper-vigilant; we make some mistakes as we learn the regulations and nuances of the base and work.  After a few weeks, routines and tasks become familiar, and the days begin to blur together.  We miss birthdays, holidays, memorial services, graduations, and so much more, all in the name of serving our country.  We mark occasions more simply and experience more deeply the connections that keep us feeling grounded.

After a couple of months we take up hobbies - many service members start regular routines at the gym tent, some read, shoot pool or play darts at the morale tent, buy consoles to play video games, or start learning computer languages.  These hobbies sometimes last after service members return home, but sometimes they're done to pass time and then fall by the wayside upon return to "real life".   Like I said before, most service members know how long they'll be deployed -- sometimes the length of service is involuntarily extended, however, which can feel unstable and create anxiety.  Once we do know our redeployment date, there comes the time when the possibility of returning home becomes palpable.  We're close --we take our eyes off the job and move them to the finish line, we become complacent, and our complacency leads to injuries and sometimes deaths.  

Before redeploying, we imagine what our lives will be like when get home.  We've put our "normal" lives on pedestals, we've romanticized our families, remembering how fun, warm, and perfect they are.  We make plans for how things are going to be when we get back - the trips, the food, the movies, the games, the sports... Before we return home, we know everything will be perfect.  Yet when we finally get home we often experience something like post-vacation blues, for many of us on top PTSD from traumatic experiences while deployed.  Integrating back into life on a base for those on active duty, or into civilian life for Reservists and National Guardsmen, can be very disconcerting and difficult.  It takes a while, sometimes an uncomfortably long while, to find a new normal, and the loneliness that accompanies that can feel deeper than the relative isolation of the deployment.  

So if this lockdown has parallels with a deployment, the first few weeks were full of unknowns and we had limited access to some basic items (hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and toilet paper) and groceries; we didn't know how we'd get our needs met, we didn't know what protocols essential businesses would put in place for basic safety.  We didn't know what safety precautions would be helpful.  Now, many weeks in, we have a phased plan for reopening society and businesses, we have more information about how the virus spreads and what the symptoms can be, and many of us who are working from home and/or participating in educating children from home and/or have a new routine have figured out some kind of normal, whether comfortable or not.  Some of us may be picking up hobbies or de-cluttering, gardening, planning for the future.  Many of us are planning the perfect hugs and reunions, gatherings, picnics, bar-b-ques and travel.  Many of us are creating expectations for our post-lockdown lives.

There are differences worth noting-now, financial instability is widespread, anxiety and anticipatory grief are rampant, we don't know how long this will last, the disparity in inequities is glaring, we don't know the toll it will take on our people, on our economy, on our known ways of life.  We don't know what the PTSD of the pandemic will look like.  We were blindsided by this virus, and we hadn't previously volunteered to stand up and serve our fellow citizens.  But we can.  We can choose responsibility and put the well-being of those on the frontlines ahead of our own, for those of us who are in non-essential jobs.  We can evaluate our expectations, take each day as it comes, honor those working to keep people safe or treat those who are ill, and we can keep an awareness of what it means to serve.