The following experiences relate specifically to deployments with Combat Operation Stress Control units in Afghanistan and/or Iraq which ranged from 6 to 15 months in length. The intent is to provide the reader with a glimpse of individual experiences OTs encountered while deployed. These accounts do not necessarily reflect the daily routines, activities, or experiences of the majority of deployed OTs.
Leaving for the Warzone
First, rumors are heard followed by general conversation until one day there is a formal announcement that the unit is deploying. Although uneasy for a SM and their family to grasp, it is their reality. Even though Combat Operation Stress Control teams deploy to relatively secure areas (by war zone standards), there is no telling what kind of danger one may encounter.
Upon receipt of official deployment orders, the earnest military training begins. Without proper and thorough preparation, a unit’s security and mission success can become vulnerable. Units must simulate performance to certify that they are ready and capable to conduct their mission. Each OT is assigned a personal weapon, either a 9 mm handgun or an M4/M16 semiautomatic rifle. Accountability of a weapon is critical every minute of every day during a deployment. One should never lose sight of their weapon; it remains in arm’s length at all times. Due to the terrain and threat of roadside bombs during vehicle convoys it is imperative rollover simulation training is completed as a pre-deployment requirement.
Fig. 5.1 CPT Nordstrom and Major (MAJ) Butch, COSC Therapy Dog, on a Chinook Helicopter en route to a BH Mission, Afghanistan, August 2012 (Courtesy of CPT Nordstrom)
Individual readiness is also a key component that must be accomplished prior to entering the combat zone. Despite all the military training, nothing can prepare a Service Member to leave their family for a 6-15 month deployment (Fig. 5.1).
It was 2100 and I knew I had to be at formation in preparation for leaving by 0200. There was no way my husband and I were going to sleep and I did not want to disrupt the children (ages 7 and 3), so we said our good-byes early. After spending 3 long months preparing for my deployment, I can still remember in detail, these extremely emotional last few hours with my family.
Everyone deploying with the COSC made it on time and in the correct uniform the morning of our departure. The overall excitement and apprehension took hold as if we were all moving in slow motion. We collectively put one foot in front of the other and boarded the first of three airplanes.
It was not until getting to Kyrgyzstan that the vital role of technology was realized. Stateside, we all had cell phones; if something came up; we could text, call, or email one another to maintain communication. During a 48-hour layover spent in Kyrgyzstan, it was evident that communication outside the United States was going to be complicated.
Within the first 12 hours, unit members were showing up in the wrong uniforms, incorrectly assigned groups, and wrong locations. At some point during our travels, new information was communicated but not fully disseminated to everyone. Failure to accurately provide information in its simplest form to a large group of people, especially in such austere circumstances can cause chaos, confusion, delays, frustration, and anxiety to an already uneasy group.
We were tired, frustrated, and concerned for each other’s wellbeing. My deployment in its onset demonstrated the absolute importance of training, knowledge sharing, and maintaining one’s physical and psychological wellbeing.
Captain (CPT) Michelle Nordstrom, OT, US Army, Active Duty