The USAF deployments used to be 3-4 months. As the Army was sending people here for 12-18 months at a time, the USAF changed policy and lengthened deployments to 6-12 months (just in time for my deployment), and the Army, ever for the sake of parity, diminished 15-18 month deployments in favor of 12 month stints.
For 3 months, you can hold your breath. To be sure, it is a long time to be without the people who love you, and away from life as usual, but it is not so long that a seamless transition back into that life cannot occur. Life here is so different in every way - hiking to a shower, walking everywhere, wearing the proper uniform, dealing with the threats and stresses of a war zone – and 4-6 weeks quickly fly by before anything becomes rote and a real rhythm is maintained. Most anyone can muddle through the 4-6 weeks that remain prior to the 1-2 weeks spent preparing for the voyage home.
Six months is different. Seasons change. The rains come and go. And the fog quickly dissipates revealing the exotic, mundane; the weeks and months then progress with a rhythm of life, not an escapade, but a regular life. Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat after dreaming that my boys have grown to men in my absence. It is not missing a t-ball game, but rather, watching, as if through a kaleidoscope, your son learning how to throw a ball from his friend’s father - a surrogate guide through a boy’s rites of passage.
My doubts aside, those on multiple tours contend that there are many opportunities to atone for these fatherly absences. Those sent here for a year or more, however, put this contention in doubt. When you receive orders to come to Iraq or Afghanistan for a year, you are picking up and moving your residence, no matter what they tell you. Active units involved in military operations may work constantly to keep their war machines humming along, and months pass quickly given the greatest distraction of self-preservation. As if they were frozen in suspended animation traveling at warp speed to and from another galaxy, in cliché Star Trek fashion, they return home to find life has continued without them, and they are not as they perceive - hours or days - but months and years removed those they left behind.
The permanence of these moves is magnified at the close of a war or during a lull, when the work does not fill waking moments, and the mind is filled with the pedantry of which I have spent months discussing in this blog. I am not sure how a man, or woman, returns to regular life after spending a year here. It is completely humbling to consider this in the context of D-Day, which 66 years ago today marked the beginning of what was 18 months, or more, away from home, in deplorable conditions amidst countless deaths and decay.