Monday, March 26, 2012
To say that I am embarrassed, and humiliated, would be a supreme understatement. And disappointed and angry, but those feelings will pass sooner. Ah well. As Victor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz, said:
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
So I will choose to be optimistic that this door has been closed to me because an even better one is opening. Thanks for reading!
Thursday, March 15, 2012
Turns out that the Army, in its infinite wisdom, doesn't let the original doctor who examined your records follow up on his ruling. They take all the incoming faxes that have been requested, put them in a big pile, and dole them out at random to all the "providers," of which there are maybe a dozen. So the original doctor rarely sees the records of someone he's flagged. If he did, it would be an incentive for him to approve questionable cases, because it would mean more paperwork for him later. As it is, they can make these godlike rulings that mess with the lives of people like me who just want to go over and do the job, and the doctor suffers no repercussions. Brilliant system.
But I did get referred to "case management," which means my records and the doc's ruling got bumped up to the next higher echelon of doctor. This older doctor spent maybe a minute flipping through the volume of records I had sent here; then, instead of just overruling the young doc who boned me by approving my travel, he instead opted to fax a request for a waiver to CENTCOM. In Florida. Now, since they had all my records as early as Tuesday evening, they could have done this then. Or Wednesday morning at the latest. Instead they chose to waste at least 24 hours, and the request was finally sent this morning around 0930. They told me that it takes 24-72 hours to get a response. You know as well as I do that this means a MINIMUM of 72 hours, which means I will miss my flight and have to cool my heels for another week, either here at Atterbury (I will buy a gun and hurt myself) or at home, which will be nice in one respect but psychologically devastating in another, since I am already all psyched and packed to go.
Actually, though, my barracks mate Adrian said he also needed a waiver this week for his TB test, and his approval came back actually about 22 hours later. So I do still hold out hope that by the time we report with our bags to the airport bus tomorrow, my clearance will have come through. Please, if you're reading this, pray that this happens.
Anyway, all the people who are cleared for travel (which is most folks, now) were in a pretty jubilant mood this afternoon--if for no other reason than at the prospect of leaving Camp Atterbury FAR behind. They all wanted to go into town for a "Last Supper" and they would not take my No for an answer, even though my mood right now is not celebratory. About 10 of us piled into two cars and drove into Edinburgh and had dinner at Montana Mike's, the steak house where I had dinner last Sunday on the night I was at the Hilton before reporting to Camp. They were pretty generally pleased with the meal, and I got to learn a lot more about these folks by listening to their stories. They are all amazing--all, I think, ex-military; all have been deployed overseas before, either in service or as contractors; and all with amazing experiences and stories to tell. I didn't dare speak up much, since I have nothing comparable to contribute to their amazing tales. I really felt like an outsider, but also honored to be in their presence.
So now we're back at the All Ranks Club for a couple hours before bed time. We have to get up extra early tomorrow to clean our barracks (something the previous class... or previous thirty classes... failed to do, apparently) before hauling our bags to the Day Room in Bldg 303 to await the airport bus. During that time I might still get the news that my waiver has come in and I am cleared to travel; otherwise I'll take the bus to the airport, I guess, and fly home for a week, then come back here for the next flight next Friday. In case you're not paying attention, that would suck.
Look for good news tomorrow!
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
I should also mention that the staff we have now, back at the A-TS office in Fredericksburg, has done such an outstanding job of preparing us for these deployments. My handler insisted that I finish all my online training, and get all my medical stuff done, before I ever set foot inside Camp Atterbury. Turns out you can, in theory, get all that stuff done here, but in reality the low bandwidth and scarcity of computers and wifi makes getting screen time to do the training very precious; and the docs and dentists here are so swamped with just signing the paperwork for all the deployers that they really don't have time to give shots and dental exams to more than a handful of guys (plus, this IS an active National Guard base, so they also have to take care of the people who actually live and work here).
So naturally most folks who come here for CRC, as the preparation for deployment is called, have at least some, if not most, of those online courses and medical exams done by the time they get here; but no one is as well prepared as I was. My handler made sure that in addition to a fresh passport and visa, I had a packet with all my training certificates and medical papers, sorted into various folders ready to hand directly to the functionaries at each step of the project. In fact she made me two copies of everything, one to keep in a master folder and one to give to the folks here. Our armor and helmet are much simpler than than the Army-issue stuff (I think it's the Marine Corps version), which earned me many envious glares this morning during the armor briefing when everyone was expected to disassemble and reassemble their armor--no easy feat, believe me, with all the flaps and snaps and everything needing to be arranged just so. It's a great feeling of reassurance that so much thought has been put into our equipment and prep by some very smart colleagues who know the process, and needs of the deployer, so intimately. I'm really proud to be representing A-T Solutions overseas, among all those thousands of contractors from dozens or even hundreds of other contractors.
Since tomorrow is our last day of prep, and the big hurdle was actually all the medical stuff that had most people worried, why am I calling today Hump Day? Because by this time tomorrow (Thursday) I should know whether I'm actually flying to Kuwait on Saturday, or being sent home.
See, for those of you who don't know, I had a "medical event" back in July 2009--at the time they called it an acute abdominal aortic aneurysm, although later they scaled it back to just an enlarged aorta. Google the details if you like, but the bottom line was it happened, I went to the hospital, they figured since I wasn't already dead from it, it was unlikely to cause me any further harm, so they sent me home but said let's keep an eye on it. And I have, because I like living. The cardiac surgeon who cared for me in the hospital had me come in every six months, and later once a year, to take an MRI and an EKG to monitor it. Up until I left for Idaho last year, there was no change (and as I said, the more he looked at it, the more he revised downward his opinion of the severity of it). When we got to Boise I located another cardiologist because I wanted to keep tabs on it. The one I found gave me an exam, ironically, on the day I found out that I was chosen for deployment. He also gave me a clean bill of health. And finally, the doc in Fredericksburg who gave me a thorough exam before I came to Atterbury said that everything looked fine to him.
One of the doctors here, a young guy who has his own practice in town when he's not doing his National Guard gig, has decided to make a federal case out of it. He wants to see all manner of records from those other doctors before he'll decide whether to clear me. So, of course, on Monday afternoon I called all those doctors, and got the two cardiologists' offices to fax all pertinent records to this guy. All the faxes for stuff like this go to a central fax number, and it's up to the Atterbury staff to process all the faxes and put them into the right folders and make sure the "providers" see them. (You can see where this is going.) By Tuesday midday, I was assured that the faxes had all been sent and apparently had gone through OK, but my name was still not on the "cleared" list. OK, I figured, the new documents just have to make their way through the system, and the doc has to sign off, and someone has to change my status on the spreadsheet, so events just haven't caught up with the list yet.
By early afternoon today (Wednesday), though, the List was still showing that I needed to get these documents to the doctor here. Protesting to the sergeants in charge of shepherding us through this week is like cursing the sky for the rain, so I got back on the phone with the heart doctors in Virginia and Idaho and requested that they fax the records again. I also asked that the email the records to the secure email address the Army has set up for just such a thing. Clerks in both offices called me back, as I asked, to confirm that the records have been sent a second time. If they haven't gotten to the doctor by tomorrow, it will be warpath time.
And if this camp doctor decides, against the opinions of two heart specialists and another doctor, to not clear me, and I have to go home in disappointment and shame... well, I don't know what I'll do. Getting his medical license revoked might just be the start.
Especially since I just heard on the news that that soldier in Afghanistan who supposedly shot all those civilians last weekend had suffered brain damage in an accident in Iraq, and had other mental issues, and yet the Army STILL made him go to Afghanistan for his 4th deployment... well hell, if they have no problem sending someone like HIM, why should they turn me down?
In the meantime, in high spirits, we decided to visit the one real sort of club on post, a place called “The All Ranks Club,” aka The House. Turns out it’s actually a pretty nice bar and restaurant, with good music, and some pool tables and video games. I hiked down there with the aforementioned Ray and two other guys who sleep in our end of the barracks, Adrian and Ben. Though younger than me and Ray—they both seem to be about 30—they are both married family men, ex-military, and have already had their share of adventures in exotic places. I gather from their stories that Adrian was a mechanic, who knows all the Army’s combat vehicles inside and out, and Ben was some kind of Navy diver. He’s even done some underwater welding, so he and Ray have that in common. Ray is a master welder who finds a lot of work all over the world going to work on industrial infrastructure-type projects. When he’s not on deployment, he calls east Texas home where he owns a charter fishing boat business. His goal is to save enough money from these deployments to buy some land in Costa Rica, get another boat, and run fishing trips from there in the winter and from his Texas base in the summer. Sounds pretty great.
We had a couple rounds of drinks at The House, where they feature both Jameson AND Bushmills (!). Then we ordered some food and moved over to the pool tables. After some intermural (is that a word?) rounds, they started playing against some of the other guys from our “class” who are prepping for deployment this week. A good time was had by all and we all slept soundly when we got back to the barracks, around 10 PM.
Except for me. I caught someone’s cold and spent the night with stinging mucus draining down my throat and my sinuses swelling up. I’ve been taking Zicam regularly for almost 24 hours now and it seems to have ameliorated the symptoms some, but these things always seem to be at their worst at night. I was only able to sleep for about an hour last night, so I’m really hoping for some quality Zs tonight.
Today, Monday, was our day to get medically processed. This consisted of a briefing of what was going to happen to us, followed by lots of paperwork, then filing into nearby buildings to present said paperwork to clerks who ranged from friendly to bored to hostile (I’m looking at you, Audiology Lady, aka Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS). I am hugely indebted to my “handler” back at A-T Solutions in Fredericksburg, who spent the previous two weeks beating me like a rented mule to get all my shots, and take all my training, and get all my certificates before I reported to Atterbury. As a result, I was just about the best prepared person out of the 300 or so of us who are deploying this week. I breezed through most of the test areas without having to do anything. I passed the blood pressure test—the only one I was really worried about, which of course is a feedback loop for failure—and ended up only having to get some blood drawn for a DNA test (in case I’m blown to smithereens by a rocket and all they find of me is a bloody boot) and a smallpox vaccination. I idly wondered to the doctor why, if the UN touted that smallpox had been eliminated, we had to get this inoculation, which includes 15 quick needle jabs. He dissembled, mumbling something about prevention just to be sure. My bunkmates later were less equivocal and we got into a loud discussion about the “features” of not enforcing our borders and letting people from the Third World pour into our country, uncontrolled.
Anyway, if you’ve never gotten a smallpox vaccination as an adult, Google images of the resulting injection site and how it develops over 28 days. I am not amused. Also, it means I can’t wear contacts for the next 28 days because if a speck of smallpox virus gets on my fingers and I put it in my eyes, my eyes will melt out of my head in a fountain of blood and pus. That’s good enough for me—no contacts till April.
So I sailed through medical and was feeling quite pleased with myself… until the end, when an actual doctor-doctor goes over your collection of records, which by this time looks like a dog-eared copy of a Leon Uris novel. The doc I drew was annoyingly thorough, and decided I didn’t have enough documentation to prove conclusively that the little, meaningless aortic aneurysm I had back in ’09 wasn’t going to flare up under the stress of writing computer code at night. Like I haven’t been doing that for 30 years. Doc, lemme tell ya, the only stress I’m getting right now is the possibility that you might not green light me to deploy on Friday. But he stood firm and would not be swayed even by the signatures of two doctors saying they had cleared me for overseas travel. So I had to scramble, once all the exams were over, to call the offices of these doctors and beg them to please please please quickly fax all my records to this guy so he could clear me by Thursday. I won’t be able to truly relax until I know that these records have been received here (recall, we have to fax the records—not email them; how quaint!) and that the doctor has given me the go-ahead.
You know how you always see those movies about the Army in which guys in their skivvies are down on their hands and knees, scrubbing the floors till they shine and the fixtures till they sparkle, while a leathery sergeant glowers over them and barks how he wants to be able to eat his chow off that floor, or some such interesting dining habit? Well, I think we’ve been had. If the latrine in our barracks is any indication, no Army bathroom has been cleaned since the Korean War. The grime is so thick on our urinals that you could write your name in it, assuming you wanted to watch your diseased finger turn black and drop to the floor (where it would fit right in) a few minutes later. Also, apparently the water to the urinals comes from the hot water pipes and not the cold, because every time you flush, a gust of warm, err, “scented” air billows up into your nostrils. In the stalls there is absolutely no toilet paper; I guess they want us to get acclimated to doing it the Muslim way and use our bare hands. Great and useful training for us, I’m sure, where we’re going; but if I need to avail myself in that way, I hike over to Building 5 (the Indiana Military Academy, and also the DFAC, or Dining Facility) where they keep the stalls fully stocked, because officers use them.
Showering this morning was an adventure. The shower stalls are just barely big enough to wedge your shoulders into—which makes it interesting when you then turn on the water and you get to guess whether it’s going to come out ice cold or scalding hot (I got scalding hot in this morning’s lottery; my belly is still red). Every time someone else starts a shower, or ends one, or flushes a toilet, or opens the tap on a sink to brush his teeth, the water temp fluctuates about 30 degrees in a random direction. This has the admirable effect of making one limit one’s shower time to an interval so brief that would make the smelliest of hippies proud. Oh, and the drainage is not of the best—thank GOD for the people who recommended that I bring some Crocs to wear into and in the shower, to avoid standing in the stagnant muck that covers all the floor in that part of the bathroom area. I had always sworn that I would never wear such dorky looking metrosexual shoes, but I am a believer now.
I rolled into Camp Atterbury around noon (Sunday) and dragged my tons of gear into the one-story Building 303, as instructed on the flyer. There was one long, wide room with a bare concrete floor. Some small wooden desks were arranged along the outer edges of the room under the small windows, no doubt salvaged from a school that had been condemned in the 1970s. In the wide center of the room were some mismatched couches which put me in mind of that Volkswagen commercial of a few years ago (Dah dah dah…), all facing a surprisingly nice Visio wide-screen TV at the end of the room, tuned to a basketball game. The room was empty, but a door next to the TV had a laser-printed, Scotch-taped sign that said “IRDO Checkin.” I opened the door and a uniformed enlisted man who was lounging on a small love seat, watching his own TV, leaped to his feet and made a half-hearted attempt to look business like. I started to tell him who I was, but before I could finish he told me to take my stuff to Building 408 then report back here. As I hoisted my burdens and turned to go, he said “Oh wait. You’ll need these.” From a couple of cardboard boxes he pulled a pair of folded sheets which perhaps in their youth were white, and an olive drab wool blanket that felt like it had been woven at a steel wool factory. I could see my nightly repose shaping up real well from that point on.
As instructed I hauled and dragged over to 408, which was about 100 yards to the north. From the outside it was clear that this was one of the original structures from when Camp Atterbury was built in 1942. From the inside it was even more obvious. Long rows of bunk beds, tall gray lockers, and pairs of battered black wooden footlockers stretched into the distance. Same bare concrete floor as the “day room” in 303, same tiny windows, same thin layer of grime and filth on everything. I looked in vain for a bottom bunk that didn’t already look occupied (signified by a green blanket on it, in some form of kemptness) but there were none. I resigned myself that for the next week I would have to be climbing over someone to get in and out of my bunk, and I vowed not to drink anything after 4 PM every day so that I wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night. Even though no one else was in the barracks at that moment—something which gave me pause for concern that I was missing an important briefing—I stowed some of my stuff in an empty locker, and tried to squeeze and shove my suitcase and armor vest into the locker. I was trying not to make too much noise, banging the empty steel lockers, but that just made my movements clumsy and I had a flash of vision of myself as a cross between Bill Murray in Stripes and Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin: “Where are the beaches? Where are the condos?”
Eventually stuff was stowed securely enough and I trudged back to 303. There were a few other folks there at that point, sitting on the couches. Just after I arrived a white school bus pulled up and we filed out. It creaked and rattled its way down to the south end of the base and disgorged us in front of a low steel building. We went inside where in-processing was already, well, in process. After picking up our “welcome packets” I furiously filled out fields and signed signatures in an attempt to catch up, and eventually succeeded. After all forms were filled out to the instructor’s satisfaction, we queued up to turn the forms in. What they didn’t mention at that time was that different instructors the next day would be asking us to provide those very same forms, so most of us had to fill them out all over again. Then we were to take those forms and sit down at computers and fill in computerized versions of the forms. At this point, we can pretty well recreate those forms in our sleep. What became of the original versions we filled out, we’ll never know. They probably went right to the incinerator.
After busing us back to Building 303, they informed us that we had no more scheduled activities for the day, and that we were on our own until the briefing at 0700 on Monday. I retrieved my laptop and took it over to 303, hoping to catch up on email and fill out my timecard, but found there was no WiFi signal in 303. Nor in 408. Nor anywhere on this 65-square-mile base, apparently. Which is why you’re not reading these posts in real time. Thwarted, I decided to act on a conversation I had overheard and seek out the one “restaurant” on post, a Subway sandwich shop, about half a mile from the barracks. I found it, along with a PX at which I bought a towel (I had stupidly sent my towels on ahead to Bagram, thinking the Army might furnish them; ha!) and a barber shop, launderette, massage parlor (a legit one, not one of THOSE kinds), and a Blackhawk tactical store, which was closed on Sundays. The fact that a weapons store was closed for the Sabbath but a massage parlor wasn’t, struck me as funny. I went in and enjoyed a small sandwich while reading a book, then went back to the barracks. By that time all the residents were in residence, and I was stigmatized by the fact that I was the only person in a top bunk. Fortunately my bunk-mate, a friendly, ruddy, blond-haired fireplug of a Texan named Ray Clark pointed out that a bottom bunk across the way, while appearing occupied, was probably in fact abandoned since no one had slept in it the night before and no one had been seen there all that day; also, the locker was empty. I decided to wait until 8 PM to see if anyone showed up to claim it, and when no one did I pounced, and moved all my stuff over and made the bed for the second time that day (wishing I had rubber gloves to remove the toxic waste of someone else’s sheets and pillow). The simple fact of having a bottom bunk made a world of difference in my comfort and well-being; how easily we’re satisfied when deprived of our normal creature comforts.
Or as was almost my case, not getting there. Since no one at the base answered my phone calls on Saturday afternoon, I concluded that the flyer was in fact telling the truth, and that the office was closed on Saturday. Well fine; I grabbed a cab at the airport and embarked on the 40-minute, $100 ride to a hotel in Edinburgh, Indiana, the town closest to the one open gate of Camp Atterbury. I snuggled into the comfortable room, wondering how long it would be before I would enjoy a comfy bed, big TV, and high-bandwidth Internet access again. After a couple hours’ nap, I hiked over to the “commercial district” (Edinburgh’s claim to fame is a huge complex of outlet stores, surrounded by restaurants and other businesses to cater to the flow of charter buses) and had a nice steak dinner at a place called Montana Mike’s. It wasn’t very good, truth be told, but I was pretty sure worse was in store so I made myself enjoy it.
The IRDO (Individual Replacement Deployment Office) opens at 1100 on Sundays, so I “slept in” till 8, then showered, dressed, repacked, and went downstairs to travel to the camp. That’s where I realized I had made an error. I should have just stayed near the airport and caught the shuttle from there to the camp. Turns out that the shuttle wouldn’t go two miles out of its way to come by the hotel to pick me up; I had to arrange my own way to the receiving center. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but the nearest cab companies were in towns an hour or more away—Edinburgh apparently was too small to support any. But the guy working the hotel desk that morning gave me the name of a local guy who runs a “limo” company. I should have been suspicious when this clerk smiled and showed that he had maybe eight teeth distributed evenly around his mouth, but I called the number he gave me with a hopeful heart. I got shunted to voicemail, and left a message at what sounded like someone’s personal email whose name was nothing like the name the clerk had given me. While I waited for the limo driver to call me back, I called other hotels nearby to see if maybe they had shuttles. None did, but one of them mentioned I should try the local “city cab,” and gave me the same number that the clerk had given me—but with two digits transposed. I called *that* number and was rewarded with a voice saying I had reached City Cab. Joy! I told him my story and he said he would be by to get me in about 20 minutes. While I waited, I went over to Snaggleclerk and asked, “That number you gave me, 314-blah blah blah… was it really 341-blah blah blah?” He leaned over to look at the Post-It note stuck to the printer behind the desk and said “Oh yeah.” That’s all. No apology, no glimmer of recognition of his failure. So, Hilton; is this really the BEST you could do, even in Godforsaken Edinburgh, Indiana?
Sunday, March 11, 2012
I don't know why, but I find this painting--which was in the bathroom of my hotel room in Edinburgh, Indiana--strangely compelling. Maybe it's the clothing on the two men. Maybe it's the fact that their backs are turned to you, or that you can't really make out what they're looking at. They seem, subliminally, to be Americans travelling in Europe, but it's hard to pin down why that seems to be. Most paintings don't grab me, but there seem to be so many options for weaving a story around this one, I just found myself staring at it. I would gladly hang this in my house.