by Katerina Gallus, MD, FACS: Commander, Medical Corps, USN
My personal experiences on deployment as a female Navy plastic surgeon to Afghanistan not infrequently enter otherwise polite conversation when dining with colleagues. Many aspects of deploying to a forward operating base are serious and important. But those are not nearly as entertaining as explaining why I made it a personal goal to smell as pleasant as possible during my time there and why I felt it necessary to carry a knife to the bathroom.
Before I left the country I had to stop for some Army training. For weeks at a time Navy personnel are trained by Army drill instructors in skills considered important to hone prior to deploying. The Navy personnel are a mixed bag, so there are logistics, security, medical, and chaplain elements present. And anyone familiar with training knows there is a lot of down time built into the schedule. A. Lot. The Army likes to refer to it as “white space”. Those two words give me a nervous tic now. It translates into sitting around doing absolutely nothing while far away from home without a phone or reading material for distraction. For a multi-tasker like myself it is the definition of going crazy. At any rate you have time to shoot the breeze with people you wouldn’t normally work with. In those hours of conversation I learned from the security guys that for women, it is important to consider personal safety. We all know a combat zone isn’t exactly safe, but they meant in a wandering-into-a-bad-neighborhood-at-2am-alone kind of danger. That shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, after all there are thousands of troops and contractors from all over the world in a tight space. And there is always a buddy system in place. The problem is that some of us are such a miniority that the buddy system is not always feasible. Most of us as adults don’t want to wake someone else up just to walk to the bathroom. And at my final base I was being housed with the other (male) surgeons – so me and 3 guys that don’t need a buddy to go take a shower. Akward. So I and my female co-trainees promptly went to the nearest exchange to purchase knives. We spent a lot of time weighing the pros and cons of each knife (since we were on a military base, the choice of knives was extensive). How long a blade? How easy was it to deploy? Were switch blades still illegal? What are the odds I am going to accidently stab myself? How easy is it to carry around? I already have to drag a towel, change of clothes and 6,000 toiletries to the bathroom that is a quarter of a mile away- where am I stowing my knife? The security guys talked us out of some machete type weapons and I selected a modest 4 inch blade. With our knives and a sense of humor we completed the training. I was ready to move forward.
One basic condition of deploying is that there are no built in bathroom facilities. You are housed in one place and the bathrooms and showers are in another building. If you are in luck the walk is short, if not, well no one promised deployment was going to easy. Most everyone is housed in a box made of varying percentages of plywood and canvas. More plywood is preferable. During transit times you temporarily reside in some version of a large open warehouse with rows of metal bunkbeds. Think orphanage chic. The housing is segregated by gender and by all accounts the female quarters are infinitely better. For starters there are less of us. And we smell better. At baseline. And we don’t have to be reminded to shower. This is before we start layering on lotions, perfumes, and scented shampoos. As long as you don’t have a paraben-laced scent allergy, we definitely possess the more desirable living spaces. The circumstances of Afghanistan inspired me to up my game. Both bases I spent time at disposed waste by burn pit. At the larger base there was even a small lake where the sewer was dumped. It was affectionately referred to as the “poo pond”. I could devote an entire column to crazy signage encountered on deployment, but the presence of “NO SWIMMING” signs on the perimeter of the lake of excrement was an apt example. Every night when the smell of toxic waste filled the dusty night air I recommitted to making my personal space smell pleasant. At one point someone had mailed me a body lotion that looked and smelled like cake frosting. My co-surgeons decided that if I didn’t take it down a notch I might get mistaken for a dessert and go missing. I reminded them that I travel either with a buddy or a knife.
I unexpectedly scored upgraded housing when I arrived at my final destination. There were a few cement buildings left behind by the Soviets. Concrete is a absolute bonus. Even with a lovely coat of peeling lead-based paint. I shared a common space with the anesthesiologist and 2 surgeons. After critically assessing the space and noting the large steel doors that could only be padlocked from the outside I realized we were living in prison cells. Considering we weren’t going anywhere until our time was up, I considered it fitting. In one of the rooms a previous inmate had started scribbling “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” over and over again. It really set the ambience for my 7 months in the middle of nowhere Afghanistan. Thankfully we had a great team and a shared desire to make the best of our circumstances. And some great scented lotions.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.