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Deployed Troops Resist ‘Groundhog Day’ Mindset

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 1, 2013 – It’s a running joke among many deployed troops: every day feels like Groundhog Day.

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Army Pfc. Jesse Wilkins, right, assigned to the 25th Signal Battalion in Kabul, shoots pool with Army Spc. Wayne Thompson of the 810th Medical Detachment. Wilkins said he strives to keep his deployment interesting and resist falling into a rut that could lead to complacency and impact the mission. U.S. Army photo by Capt. Marvin Baker

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Tomorrow, as Punxsutawney Phil emerges from hibernation to check for his shadow, many U.S. forces in Afghanistan will feel like they’re characters in the old “Groundhog Day” movie in which Bill Murray plays a weatherman who repeatedly relives Feb. 2.

They’ll rise from their same bunks, put on their same uniforms, eat the same chow at the same dining facility and conduct the same mission they do every single day throughout their deployments. But most say they make concerted efforts to break the routine – not only to keep their sanity, but to keep their edge in a tough operational environment.

Several deployed service members spoke by telephone with American Forces Press Service today, describing the strategies they use to stay sharp. 

Just one week into his nine-month deployment to Afghanistan’s Ghazni province in Regional Command East, Army Sgt. Andrew Tobin said he’s already adjusting to a familiar routine. He wakes up each morning at about 7, shaves and showers, then heads off to work. 

“You hope to fall into a good routine and you just fall into the groove,” said Tobin, who already knows the ropes after a yearlong deployment in 2010. “You roll day to day and forget what number day it is and you forget what day of the week it is. It’s just another day.” 

But with bad weather grounding aircraft that would ferry Tobin and his fellow troops to their advise-and-assist mission with Afghan national security forces, he admits that he’s already starting to get a case of cabin fever. 

Army Sgt. Ramel Thomas, who’s almost midway through his second one-year deployment to Afghanistan, understands that all too well. He spent his first one-year deployment in Kabul, overseeing food service operations at a dining facility.

“It can feel like Groundhog Day,” if you don’t try to break up the monotony, he said.

Thomas said the variety of his current deployment, assigned as a driver and liaison for the 3rd Infantry Division at the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command headquarters in Kabul, offers a reprieve. The work is interesting and challenging, he said, and gives him the chance to learn new skills. 

“You have to stay sharp,” he said. “I take pride in what I do with my job, and at the same time, it is helping my time go fast. I am always learning, and the military is all about learning.”

Air Force Col. Ginger Wallace, operations branch chief for ISAF’s Force Reintegration Cell, said regularly getting “outside the wire” to work with the Afghans gives her more diversity than many deployed service members.

“I’m lucky because the job is different almost every day,” she said. “I get to work with the Afghans every day, so it’s not a job that confines us to a FOB or base.”

But when she returns to her base, Wallace, too, experiences the routine of deployment. “We go to the same dining facility every day, the same laundry service every day, the same gym every day,” she said. “For the most part we work, we eat, we sleep and we work out. That is about it.”

The problem, many deployed services members said, is that too much routine can spill into the mission.

“You definitely can’t fall into complacency, and there is definitely no room for that on the battlefield,” said Tobin, who’s assigned to Cross-functional Team Warrior at Forward Operating Base Arian. “Just because you patrol the same area every day doesn’t mean that if nothing happened yesterday that something won’t happen today. You definite have to stay vigilant and situationally aware of everything.”

“If you don’t break the routine a little bit, you can lose that edge,” agreed Air Force Maj. Demetrius Mizell, joint secretariat liaison officer with the Force Integration Cell in Kabul. “Especially being out here and doing what we do, it could be the difference between life and death.”

Every deployed service member has his or her own formula for keeping every day of deployment from becoming a carbon copy of the last, Tobin said. “Some go to the gym to relieve stress. Some like to read a book or watch movies,” he said. “It’s all about staying sharp and not driving yourself crazy.”

Variety can come in many forms. When  Mizell, found himself eating the exact same breakfast every single day – French toast, bacon, one egg and yogurt – he intentionally started throwing in an occasional breakfast burrito or bowl of oatmeal, he said.

For many deployed troops, Mizell said, communicating with loved ones at home is the biggest way to break routine. He called Friday morning Skype sessions with his wife and 7-year-old son the highlight of his weeks.

Tobin said he avoids routine, even when calling home. “I try not to set a pattern that I’ll call on this day at this time because if I break that pattern, people back home will worry,” he said. “And the last thing I want to do is cause them any more worry than I already have.”

A month after arriving in Afghanistan, Army Pvt. Jesse Wilkins is taking the advice he’s received to heart. “They told us that you have to mix it up during deployment,” said Wilkins, assigned to the 25th Signal Battalion in Kabul. “They said that if you do the same thing every day, and you just stay in your room on the computer watching movies or YouTube all day, it’s not a good idea because you could go insane.”

So after getting off his night shifts, he treats himself to one episode of the old Dragon Ball TV series he downloaded to his cell phone. But he also hits the post exchange, shoots pool at the Morale, Welfare and Recreation Center and is learning to play guitar.

“It’s very important to mix it up and try something new,” he said. “If you like working out, try taking a Crossfit class. If you want to learn a new language, try learning French. You can go to the education center and take college courses and better yourself while you are out here.”

After pulling his 12-hour shifts through the night, Thomas said, he spends much of his time on professional development and using tuition assistance to pick up college courses. 

Army Capt Morgan Samuels, a rotor wing current operations liaison with the ISAF Joint Command, said she’s taking advantage of serving on a NATO compound by increasing her own language skills. She’s teaching German to a Canadian officer, who in turn is teaching Samuels French.

It’s fun, breaks up the monotony and fends off complacency that could affect the mission, she said. “Keeping yourself busy keeps your mind fresh, and by keeping your mind fresh, it helps you do your job,” she elaborated. “So when things come up, you’re able to react fast because you haven’t allowed yourself to get ‘too settled in.’”

As they resist falling into that trap, many deployed troops say the best way is to lean on each other. They hang out together and look forward to special events they plan, such as Thursday night pizza-and-movie nights at Wallace’s and Mizell’s office.

The biggest secret to resisting Groundhog Day, Mizell said, is to keep a positive outlook. “Everyone has a good sense of humor, so we do a lot of laughing,” he said. “If you come to this building, you probably hear more laughing than in any other building, because we know you have to have fun. You have to keep your sense of humor.”


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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Capt. Morgan Samuels, a rotor wing current operations liaison with the International Security Assistance Joint Command in Kabul, is learning French and sharing her own German language expertise to break the monotony of deployment and keep her mind sharp for the mission. U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Bryan Beach  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageOne week into his nine-month deployment to Afghanistan, Army Sgt. Andrew Tobin is adjusting to a familiar routine but knows from experience the importance of weaving variety into his days. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Foss  
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