Monday, May 9, 2011

Down Time

  "In war, morale is to all other factors as four is to one."
- Napoleon Bonaparte

Over the course of the last seven months, members of the 3-19th ADT have had a smorgasboard of what the military calls morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) events available to the unit. It may seem mind-boggling to hear that activities such as salsa dance lessons, "open-mic" night, and countless sporting tournaments occur around FOB Salerno on nearly a nightly basis.

Fitness minded events seem a bit easier to comprehend, but the number of other activities aimed at keeping soldiers occupied during their free time is quite impressive. These few events I've mentioned all occur here on a forward operating base; I wouldn't even begin to attempt to list the number of activities taking place on a much larger base such as Bagram.

The number of people that use tobacco in the military still seems quite paradoxical to me. Here we are in a workforce that values fitness and preparedness, yet arguably has some of the highest rates of smokers per capita. Before anyone sounds the hypocrisy alarm, I'll gladly admit to indulging in a few stogies from time to time... The Rocket City Cigar Club, the officially sanctioned cigar smokers group for FOB Salerno, meets on a weekly basis- providing soldiers yet another outlet to pass the time. 

A few of us taking a welcomed break from the monotonous "chow-hall"
at Aziz's, the one and only restaurant on the FOB.
Close your eyes for a minute and picture your favorite military themed movie...odds are that the majority of the scenes in that movie have to do with either soldiers playing cards or soldiers smoking and joking around with each other, perhaps even both. The reality today is that some things never change. While the card games have for the most part been traded-in for networked, XBox challenges amongst the men; the basic principle of spending nearly every hour of every day together as a team builds extremely strong bonds over the course of a deployment. The camaraderie that we as troops enjoy forms relationships that many of us will maintain for the rest of our lives.

The 'Stache
Every year, Air Force members across the globe participate in a decades old tradition known simply as Mustache March. For the sake of my family, friends, and anyone else who might need to take me seriously, I've opted out of this tradition in years past. As I flipped the calendar to March this past Spring, I decided to let the 'stache grow free...
No, this was not taken in the 1970's...but rather circa March 2011
As you can see from the above pic, I wasn't the only one around the FOB with a caterpillar resting above my upper lip. I will say that after several weeks of chapped lips (I think I had been sub-consciously checking with my tongue to ensure the 'stache was still in place), I grew somewhat accustomed to my furry little friend by the end of the month.

With the turning of the calendar page to April, also came the shaving of the 'stache. Within days of once again sporting a clean-shaven face, I was amazed at the number of people who commented "thank god you finally shaved that thing off." Perhaps it wasn't for me, but I do have to say it provided a lot of great laughs and some good natured ribbing. Needless to say I'm in no rush to see March of 2012...
All good things must come to an end...

Reminders of Home
With the running of the Indianapolis 500, the month of May shines a bright spotlight on the City of Indianapolis each year. Another race occurs earlier in the month that also draws quite a bit of attention to the Circle City each year, that being the Indianapolis Mini-Marathon. At the same time this monumental foot race is taking place in Indianapolis, the world's most famous horse race is taking place less than 100 miles south at another world-renowned track called Churchill Downs. Each year as May approaches, I find myself torn as I weigh the costs/benefits of running the mini versus that of making the short drive down to Louisville to experience my first Race for the Roses. Up until this point, I've always justified my choosing of the mini-marathon as a wise decision while I was still young and healthy enough to accomplish such a run. 

With Specialist David Silva after joining him in his first
half-marathon, our own satellite version of the Indy Mini.
I guess you could say one of the benefits of serving in Afghanistan is that you really don't have to make a whole lot of tough decisions regarding your social calendar.  As I looked ahead at the month of May 2011, I knew I wouldn't be attending either of the events that have caused me to question my decision making capabilities in the past. Factor in that the derby/mini weekend also falls on Mother's Day weekend, and you've got yourself a star-studded weekend. 

In the latter part of this past week, my running partner (David) and I had a short conversation about the possibility of running our own version of the Indy Mini. He had never run more than eight miles in his life before this attempt, but where better to at least give it a shot? After all, perhaps the threat of incoming rockets or poisonous snakes along the route would provide an extra shot of adrenaline. After praying to myself that he'd cancel, at 7PM Saturday evening he wrote to tell me that he'd be willing to give it a shot. Now it was time to prepare for our own version of the Indy Mini- the Salerno Satellite.

Race day was warm, over 80 degrees by 7AM with the high levels of humidity we've now grown accustomed to. With limited paved roads and even fewer water stations/restrooms, a few more logistical issues presented themselves than what one might encounter in downtown Indianapolis. After two hours and five minutes, we finished our own version of the mini. Although we were 7,500 miles away from those finishing in Indianapolis, the satisfaction of completing such an endeavor is the same the world around. 

Just as I had finished stretching, an email came in that I had been tagged in a new Facebook photo. As I clicked on the photo, a giant smile came across my face as I realized that I had finally accomplished something I had been trying to master for years- both running the mini and attending the Kentucky Derby. You see, while I was here running the Salerno Satellite, a group of ladies especially dear to my heart (my mother and three oldest sisters) had decided to experience that Race for the Roses that I previously mentioned. 

Great friends were able to meet up with dear family, a deadly combo...
A group of close friends also happened to be on the grounds at Churchill Downs on Saturday, so as luck would have it the six of them were able to rendezvous amidst the crowd of 300,000. This is the photo I saw when clicking on the link in my email, with a simple caption of- "This one's for you, Bart!". 

When I had first heard that the two groups were both going to be in the same general area, I sent a simple request to my buddies: if they were to by chance encounter my mother, please give her a hug and a Happy Mother's Day from Afghanistan. As you might imagine, the hug was a big hit when finally delivered. I was humbled by my great friends once again when in response to my thanking them I received a text stating- "Any time man, we were just arguing over who got to do it, an absolute privilege..."

These chance encounters, small victories from thousands of miles away, are what help deployed service members great through each day. A year away from loved ones, surrounded by the horrors of combat, can truly take a toll on many young men and women. Between increased communication capabilities such as Skype, email, and text messaging; the extraordinary distance separating us from our loved ones doesn't seem all that far. 

Several members of the 3-19th ADT were among the two billion tuning in to the Royal Wedding


  1. Haha - I think the mustache is pretty funny! Love the derby pic too, what sweet friends and family.

  2. What a great post, again, Bart. You are really a great writer! Future career perhaps? While I am certainly closer to home than Afghanistan and not facing combat on a daily basis, I know exactly what you mean about being so far away from home. Most days, I'm just fine but it was especially hard on Mother's Day when I realized it was the first time I wasn't spending Mother's Day with AJ. Kudos on your mini -- what number is this? L.Rae ran her first mini in Nashville a few weekends ago ... perhaps I need to get in gear and train for one myself. Hope all is well ... can't wait til you're home!