IT'S 5:17pm and my alarm is going off for more than likely it's third round of snooze and I'm finally putting "foot to pavement" (as my old drill instructor would say) and again my feet slide into shower shoes. I'm simply waking up just to go to the bathroom down the hall but going barefoot is a no go. It's shower shoes to get ready when your outside shoes line your entryway. This is strict routine. Speak to anyone who's ever spent time in Afghanistan and they'll more than likely tell you about the "dust & dirt" - it's everywhere. It just latches on as if you've watched your towels with your favorite fleece. It's simply unavoidable. So essentially from the first day you arrive in country, you accept you'll more than likely never walk around barefoot until you're out of country. This is something you can't really prepare for mentally.
A roughly 20X20 room would be a pretty decent-sized room to spend a year in. Though, this room isn't for just one person — no, you're in a room with two others and you're all fighting for just that extra foot. There are no floor to ceiling windows nor skylight. Two windows barely big enough to even be classified as windows, if I'm being honest. I was the latest to arrive in the room which meant I had two curtains making up the "walls" of my space and well... no window.
At this current time during my deployment, I'm on the night shift. Lucky for me that means I can roll in to the office at roughly 7pm. So today, I'm gonna spend a few extra minutes in the gym. Which means walking the hundred yards to get there. Like I said, small compound. Though, on this day, there's another dust storm. Cool. Another one means even more dirt. By no means is it anywhere close to cold out. No, its August and it's still 100 degrees at 5:43pm.
Back in DC, I think I had grown to love the morning coffee before a long run more than the run itself. There's something about starting your day with a process. One that requires attention and the end result determines how good that cup of coffee is. A saturday morning run with some English soccer on in the background, a cup of coffee, and natural light — nature's alarm clock — is my perfect morning. It can't be beat. It was by far one of the hardest things about being in that 20x20 room for a year. No morning light. No morning coffee. It was wake up, find your shoes and stumble to the (shared) bathroom. Don't even bother turning the room light on. You wouldn't dare. Not when one of your roommates starts his shift at 9pm. He's still asleep.
"i had two walls & two curtains making up the four "walls" of my space and well... no window."
I found myself on most days wondering if I should event put myself through this process. Why wake up and get a workout in? It just means coming back in the room, trading workout shoes for shower shoes, spending more time in the dark (because no light of course), piecing together an outfit in the dark. Which by the end of my deployment meant the same pants and a rotation of 2-3 clean shirts (well, I think they were. It was a long year, give me a break). I couldn't be upset about the lack of soothing English soccer commentary during my get-ready time if I just stayed in bed, right? Instead, I forced myself to get up. I had the time. Shit, I had plenty of time. Who am I kidding. When you're there, you work every day. I don't mean, "oh, I worked "like" every day." No, I mean every single day. 12 hours a day. Don't even think for a second of calling in "sick." You don't get it call it in. Not even once. There was one day that life just caught up to me and I needed a day. I showed up 30 minutes passed my time, told my boss what was going on. "Okay, go back and get some sleep," the captain said. "Be back in an hour though." Cool, that should fix it.
Now there were days where I'd have the chance to hop off the compound for a run down the main road on the base but only under a few very specific conditions: For starters, no headphones. You had to be able to hear the base sirens and loud speaker just in case an attack happened and you're out in the open nowhere near a bunker. Yes, that happens. You had to wear glasses, again in case said attack happens and shrapnel hits you. An arm band with identification. No real safety thing here, just hate an arm band as much as the next person. Oh and worst of all, THE DUST! This is the main road. Every vehicle is on it. Driving, kicking up that stupid dust. Don't even get me started on what that road looks like in the winter. Now, I can get over the music, the glasses, even the arm band but I had to make the decision constantly: A long outside run or pick dust boogers out of your nose for the next 3 days. Ok, boogers it is today. Nothing beats the open road. It just cannot be beat.
"You had to be able to hear the base sirens and loud speaker just in case an attack happened."
It was never lost on me that somewhere, someone had it worse. Without a doubt there was someone in that same country who would love to be able to slip on shower shoes instead of living in boots 24/7. Someone who would much rather have to "deal" with no window light instead of dealing with sleeping outside. I know that — and in many ways those mornings that were tough to get out of bed often turned in to a regular "get your ass up, Carl" pep talk. I had to. That day may not see a break. There may not be another chance. Those miles were my escape. Those miles on the treadmill, on the open road, or that hour of strength training might be the only moment of quiet I have for the next 24 hours. I couldn't waste it. When you're deployed for a year, you work with the same people day in and day out. You eat every meal together. You become family. You rely on one another to help keep you spirits up. When the other side of the world is asleep and no one is answering your facetime calls and you've caught up on your current book collection and there are no more "likes" to pass out on instagram, it's those fellow co-workers that you spend time with. But no one is gonna be there to get you up and out of bed. No one telling you to run. You have to get yourself up and talk yourself up every single day — weekends and holidays, too. Every mile felt like a long run. Every morning, regardless of your location, schedule, or living quarters, you'd start off alone. After a couple months of this, I started treating every morning & every lonely walk to the gym as if I was headed somewhere in my city back home. That walk in the heat wasn't a walk in the heat. No, this walk was a rainy morning in November, on which I'm wearing two layers, gloves, and a cold weather cap. When every single day for a year has guaranteed moments of loneliness, you have to find ways to make those days feel less lonely. You've got to day dream and tell yourself the hardest part of this run won't be worrying about your compound being shelled, but whether the line at your coffee shop is gonna be too long after your run.
We all have a routine. We know when we need to wake up. We know our kitchens like the back of our hands. We all stumble barefoot to the bathroom, eyes barely open. There's a sense of comfort in that. I never took it for granted — or at least I'd like to tell myself I didn't. But more than ever before in my life, I know how incredible it feels to have that comfort. The comfort of home.