Saturday, January 29, 2011

Night Vision, Snow, Cheese and Guns...

I'm Back! It's been a busy week but it's almost over! Technically, we're over the hump! Over halfway done! So what have we been up to? I'll tell ya...

Tuesday evening we got to head over for NVG assisted night driving in the Hummers. Very cool evolution! It started with a quick familiarization with the actual NVG's.

Here you see how cool our colorectal surgeon looks in NVG's.

Next, we got into the vehicles and drove a course through the snow and woods. First time around was with headlights to familiarize us with the course. Then it was go time! All lights out including the classroom building and NVG's on! SO cool how well you can see and really fun to blast through the snow and ice with all that cool gear to help you.

Christian took this through the NVG's.

Wednesday evening it started to snow. Hard. Now, when I was a kid, and even through medical school, I used to love it when a big storm came in in the evening. The thought of a "snow day" was almost as good as Christmas! An unscheduled break from study meant snowmen, snowball fights, hot chocolate, and... well, NO SCHOOL! Those were the days... But alas, here at Fort Dix, a snow day means you have to make up the training another time. That could be as simple as an extra long day later on but it could also mean that training gets extended. More time at Fort Dix means... more time at Fort Dix.

Now don't get me wrong. Things are going very well in our class and there are clearly worse places to be. That said, I think we are all anxious to move ahead and get "down range" as they say. (Down range, in our case, means Afghanistan) See, while driving HMWVV's and shooting guns is kinda fun, we all want to get where we're going so we can do what we do best... take care of patients. To that end, we need to get this training thing out of the way quickly so we can get to the substance of the deployment.

So anyway, back to Wednesday. It starts to snow as we return in our HMWVV's from martial arts training where, after doing 100 four count jumping jacks plus numerous other PT exercises for an hour, we learned multiple ways to choke someone out. Awesome! At this point we (or at least I) start to worry that we might lose a day of training. We wake up to an absolutely blanketed base and word that the entire base is shut down until 1300 (1:00 PM for you non military types...). Thankfully we didn't have any training scheduled until then but there was still a chance that the "base closure", if you will, would get extended and we'd lose the day. "Stand by until we get the latest word to you at 1100". So we stood by.

While standing by, Dr. Corwin and I decided to take a recon of the base and hopefully get a cup of coffee from Dunkin Donuts. I'm not really sure why we thought there would be any chance whatsoever that Dunkin would be open when the rest of the base was closed. I guess in my mind I could picture the "Time to make the donuts" guy traipsing in at 4 am to... well, to make the donuts! Whatever the reason, we went ahead and secured the keys to the van and postholed through the snow with a broom and shovel to dig it out. The roads were snowy but passable and we headed toward our objective.

As we turned toward the location of our desire I
could see that the mini mart adjacent to DD had a completely unplowed parking lot and a guy with a snowblower had just started clearing a path to the door of the donut shop. He angrily waved us away as we sat there staring like kids with no money watching the ice cream truck drive away. The coffee run was a failure.

So we drove around a little taking pictures of snow covered tanks and then headed back to the barracks where we managed to get the van stuck while parking. But hey! We killed 45 minutes! Great success!

Ultimately, the instructors came to our barracks for our M4/M16/M9 PMI class so we didn't lose the day! Score one for the good guys!

Friday was a day off so we all managed to find our way to the gym, go for a run, hit the exchange and commissary, etc. Sounds great right? Not really. If you aren't sure why I say that read paragraph number two above. Remember, we aren't allowed off base. We can't drink. We can't wear civilian clothes. So a day off ends up being kinda boring. The DFAC (chow hall) food was starting to wear on me so my visit to the commissary included picking up a little snack for us all. If you know me, you know I love cheese! All they serve in the DFAC is American. So I picked up a little Camembert and some Gorgonzola Dolce! Add some honey crisp apple slices and marinated olives and voile'! Dix life is almost bearable!

All we needed was a little vino, but alas... General Order Number One...

We finally got through our day off and hit the hay anticipating a day on the pistol range to qualify with our M9's. I set my alarm for 5 am so I could get ready and be in the armory to issue weapons by 0545. When I got up the next morning, neither of my roommates was awake but I figured they were planning on a quick start so no worries. Interestingly, the head (bathroom) was also strangely void of other personnel. Hm... everyone must've showered and shaved last night... I go back and get dressed by headlight and, being the caring roommate and solid team player I am, at 0530 I wake the guys to tell them that weapons issue is in fifteen minutes. It is THEN that they decide to let me in on the fact that training had been pushed back by two hours because of more snow. Thanks alot... (It turns out I was on the phone when the operations officer came to the room with this bit of news last night but I'm still planning on blaming my early wakeup on Wade and Christian for the rest of the deployment)

So here we are on Saturday evening. The range time was great and everyone qualified! One more box checked. One day closer to validation. The best story from the range involves our OIC, Captain John Raheb and our plastic surgeon, Ken Ortiz. The first portion of the range time was basically a familiarization fire of our weapons at paper targets. You had to shoot ten rounds each from standing, crouching, kneeling and prone. A score of 24 or better and you could move onto the actual qualification. Too easy, right? Well, CAPT Raheb and CDR Ortiz were shooting in adjacent lanes. After cease fire was called, the instructor went out to score the targets. Captain hit 25 out of 40... passing, but just barely. Interestingly, CDR Ortiz somehow managed to hit 50 out of forty... Hmmm that doesn't make much sense... oh wait... it does if someone else was shooting your target!!! You kinda had to be there but trust me, we all had a good laugh about it. Below you can see the miracle target in question and the "team" that made it happen.

The 50/40 target!

So you're all up to date now! Class 011811BMED continues the march toward points beyond! See ya next time!


Monday, January 24, 2011

Week Two Begins...

Today marks the beginning of class 011811BMED's second week of pre-deployment training here on lovely Fort Dix, New Jersey! That means one week of deployment is gone and we're all a week closer to returning home to our families and friends! I know, I know, you're probably asking, "Isn't it a little early to be counting down?" To which I reply, "You have to embrace every victory when your morning trip to the latrine leads to this discovery...

In case you're wondering, that is, in fact, frozen solid porta-potti chemical. Now, I have no idea what the freezing point of that particular substance is, but I'm betting it's lower than that of water! It is single digits here and my thin San Diego blood is taking it's sweet time to acclimate and I'm quietly thanking Yvon Chouinard for Patagonia on a regular basis. It is actually so cold and dry that over the last few days, despite the temperature never rising above freezing, almost all of the snow and ice on the ground has disappeared. (Question for Cam: How is that possible? I'll be expecting an email with your response by Friday!)

So aside from freezing, you are probably wondering what else we're doing out here. Well, where do I begin? Training at Joint Base McGuire/Dix/Lakehurst (Known in some circles as McDickHurst) is aimed at preparing a bunch of sailors, airmen or coasties to fill an Army billet. To that end, we are all under an Army command and learning Army technology, Army acronyms (boy do they love their acronyms... they actually have acronyms WITHIN acronyms!), and, perhaps most importantly, Army terminology. We've discovered that we always need to be "tracking" our instructors and that almost everything here is "too easy". I am convinced that two soldiers can have an entire conversation using only the ever-present "hoo-ah"(not to be confused with the Marine Corps HOO-RAH or the Navy Diver's HOO-YAH). Hoo-ah actually ends up sounding a lot like the beginning of an episode of emesis when pronounced in the typical way, however it can be a question, an answer, an exclamation of surprise, or even a profanity! The most common way to use it, however, is to acknowledge that you're "tracking" all the stuff that's "too easy".

Most of our first week was spent in gear issue and getting all that gear put together in some way. The equipment is actually very good and has been battle tested for the past 10 years in the war on terror. Almost everything our class has been issued is "tags-still-on" brand new so we have had little to no issue with equipment problems thus far.

Here is HM1 Afuso putting together his individual body armor, or IBA

And here I am in the IBA. You definitely feel the extra 45 pounds this adds after walking or standing around for any period and the decreased agility is somewhat irritating but it'll stop a 7.62mm round. Good enough reason for me to wear it!

Late last week we went to Brindle Lake for MRAP training. MRAP stands for Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. You can read more about them in general on Wikipedia here. Brindle Lake is frozen but the surrounding area is actually really beautiful so we took the opportunity for a small group photo. Back row is LTJG Gabe Rocha, our PA, CDR Ken Ortiz, plastic surgeon, LT Gerald Gambala, CRNA, LCDR Mike Finckbone, OR Nurse, LT Melissa Wickersham, nurse practitioner. Front row is AG1 Staten (actually headed to Iraq but training with us) and yours truly.

After a classroom session, we all got to drive the MaxxPro version (on the left) around a little track. The MaxxPro is built on an International dump truck chassis. I gotta admit, it's the coolest dump truck I've ever seen and the only one I've ever driven. That afternoon took us to HMMWV (HumVee) rollover training. After some basic instruction, the had us strap into rollover simulators which are basically up-armored HMMWV bodies on a giant rotisserie. There is a driver, a truck commander, two back seat passengers, fondly known as "window lickers" and a gunner who sits in a swing with his head in the turret. When the simulator rolls to 25 degrees, the window lickers pull a quick release to drop the gunner into the vehicle, grab him around the legs and torso, and then act as his seatbelt for the rest of the revolutions. Maybe one, maybe three! Once the vehicle stops spinning (either upside down or on it's side) you unclip get out. Easy, right? All I can say is, I'm glad that the first time I exited an upside down Hummer was in a simulator in New Jersey rather than under fire in Afghanistan. Overall a pretty cool day!

Finally, today was our driver's test for these bad boys! Super fun to drive and has an amazing heater!

Life during "white space" or down time is pretty chill (pardon the reference to the freezing weather). We have plenty of time for chow, reading, PT, and movies. Other times we climb into the horizontal time accelerator (pictured below) and wake up in the future!

Things are going well overall and we have an excellent team. Thanks for following along and stay tuned for the next installment!!!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Gear, gear, and more gear!

Our team is coming together! We have a total of 26 people in our training class, 18 of whom are going to Qalat. We spent the day today in gear issue. Gear issue is a really incredible thing because just when you think they couldn't possibly have anything else to give you there's more! We all got an initial gear issue of about a seabag worth of gear before coming to New Jersey. That consisted of all our basic uniforms and a couple pairs of boots. Today they gave us an incredible cold weather clothing system, eye protection, a sleeping bag system and huge rucksack plus all or our body armor and another pair of boots... and that's just the "big stuff". I have no doubt that it's very unlikely I'll use half the gear they gave me but it kind of gives you a warm fuzzy feeling to know that your needs are (mostly) covered.

Of course, the downside to all this gear is that you have to take it with you... ALL THE WAY TO AFGHANISTAN! Looking at all the stuff I have to take, it looks like I'll have a huge rucksack, three seabags, and a computer case. Oh, and two weapons.

Tomorrow we have a fun-filled day of lectures. Rights and responsibilities, suicide prevention, sexual harassment, etc. We will slowly be easing into actual field training over the next week. I look forward to driving the Hummer, shooting, and just running around! It'll be cold, wet and strenuous but it beats sitting in lecture!

Overall things are really good and I'm glad to actually be ticking days of my time away from May and the kids off the calendar instead of counting down the days 'til departure. Stay tuned for more from cold and snowy Fort Dix!


Sunday, January 16, 2011

Fort Dix... the adventure begins!

Well, I packed all the gear they gave me last week at NMPS into a seabag last night and boarded a US Airways flight bright and early this morning. In just a few short hours I went from sunny, high 70's San Diego to snowy, 30's Philadelphia. After a (too quick) stop at The Continental in Old City Philly for one last good meal and several last beers we (Wade Vincent, Anesthesiologist, Gerald Gambala, CRNA, and myself) headed up the 95 into New Jersey. We found our berthing here and have had a chance to settle in. Our OIC and the rest of the team came around so we've now met most of the officer compliment of our group. Wade and I are roommates along with Christian Corwin, a colorectal surgeon and we start training tomorrow.

What kind of training?

ARMY TRAINING, SIR! (Sorry. I just had to get that out of the way)

So with the requisite Bill Murray line out of the way, sounds like the next few weeks will be interesting. More training on rights and responsibilities, weapons training, cultural training, etc. My main goal will be to stay warm and hope the DT's don't get too bad. (Just kidding!) Anyway, thanks to everyone following along for all the kind words and prayers! I'll be thinking of you all.

More to come!


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pre-Deployment Chills

I feel miserable.


On the way home from running errands today and I had to pull over and let May drive.

What does this have to do with deploying? One word. ANTHRAX.

On Tuesday, before leaving the hospital after my last surgery prior to deployment, I went like the obedient sailor that I am to the immunization clinic. I knew I was in the window for the second dose of the anthrax series and figured I'd get it over with so there'd be one less line to stand in at NMPS (the processing station). After the first shot, a few months ago, I'd had a little deltoid soreness and MAYBE some fatigue for a day or so but no biggie. I figured this one would be the same...


Yesterday my arm hurt (expected) and I was a little fatigued but over all not bad off. I wrote it off to an early morning session at Tourmaline and too much Loco Moco at Leilani's Cafe. By yesterday evening I was so tired I went to bed at like 7. After a night of tossing and turning with my arm hurting every time I rolled to my right side I got up and headed to the beach. My arm still hurt and I was definitely more tired than usual for 7 am (especially after being in bed for 12 HOURS! Anyway, we had a nice session in super clean, though not too consistent, waist to chest surf and then headed for a round for french toast at Fig Tree. During breakfast I noticed I was sore all over. By the time I headed home I was feeling like I normally would after a double session overhead day AND the hike up from Blacks AND a few beers in the hot tub... but it was only 10:30 AM.

When I got home I had to take May to run some errands and I progressively got worse. Sitting at a stoplight on the way home from Lamps Plus, the whole world turned upside down and I had to turn the controls over. Ugh. Home to bed exhausted but not sleepy. Laid in bed for 2 hours and finally gave up hope as I felt progressively worse.

So now I'm sitting here with a sore arm, a wicked headache, chills (I can't get warm) but no fever, and an ache that includes every part of my body. Muscles, skin, fingernails, teeth, even my hair seems to hurt. Guess what the reported side effects of the vaccine are?


All of the above.

I hope it's worth it.

I think I'll go wrap myself in every down sleeping bag we own, take 800 mg of ibuprofen and three fingers of Bulleit. If I don't die from this stupid thing over night I'll catch you all later!


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Countdown to Dix...

Two weeks left in San Diego.

The reality of my upcoming "Afghanistan vacation" is truly starting to hit me.

This whole saga started in late August when I got a call from the department head asking me to "volunteer" to deploy to Afghanistan in January 2011. I had just gotten out of the water at Tourmaline after a really good morning of chest to shoulder high sets and was headed to see clinic with my new partner when the call came. Now, I knew that my number was coming up after two years of being untouchable as the only spine surgeon at Naval Medical Center San Diego and I had, on multiple occasions, joked about how once I was board certified and had a partner I'd be immediately tagged for deployment - but I could never have guessed just how accurate that prediction would be.

On the evening of the 26th I had logged onto the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery website and discovered that I had, in fact, completed the requirements for board certification. Now here I was headed to clinic on the first day of work for my new partner and the call had come. Wow. Eight months gone from home. Eight months missing May, Cam and Haley. Eight months of no surf.

So, a little about me...

I'm a 41 year old white guy originally from Logan, Utah and raised in Utah, Washington, Texas, California, Ohio, and Georgia. My Dad was an Army dentist and I was a rebellious child so that combination led to me finishing high school away from my parents. Due to suboptimal high school performance, I ultimately wound up joining the Navy at age 18 where Uncle Sugar turned me around and, miraculously, I began to perform academically. I asked for an NROTC scholarship and I got it. I asked for a transfer back onto active duty in the Enlisted Commisioning Program and they said "Yes." I applied for med school at Uniformed Services University. Granted. How about a surgery internship? OK! Dive school? Sure! Orthopaedic residency? No Problem! Spine fellowship? Absolutely! The bottom line is, the Navy has pretty much given me everything I've asked for in the almost 23 years I've been in. With one exception...

In the summer of 1990 when I was spending my days hanging around the University of Utah NROTC unit waiting to start my freshman year, Iraqi troops stormed into Kuwait and wreaked havoc on it's people. My Air Force C-141 pilot uncle called us a day or two later to let us know he would not be able to make it to the upcoming family reunion. He couldn't tell us why. Duh! My next move was to go speak to my CO about delaying matriculation. See, technically I was still Hospital Corpsman Third Class Harris, 8483 (Operating Room Technician) and I figured this was an opportunity to display the patriotism that's been a part of me as long as I can remember. I was ready and willing to go. Now. The skipper said no. I tried to argue my case but the answer was clear. I'd have to sit this one out. The Navy had bigger plans for me, school was more important now, blah, blah, blah. Bummer.

Flash forward to 9/11. By now I was a Diving Medical Officer stationed at the Navy Submarine Medical Research Laboratory in Groton, CT. Perhaps the most boring place a Navy Diver could be stationed. My days were long stretches of boredom punctuated with moments of complete apathy toward life in general. The towers came down and it became clear that we were going to find the responsible parties and provide them with a large container of gluteal punishment. I called the head DMO in the Navy. I laid out my case. I'm doing nothing here at the lab that contributes to the war on terror. Reassign me! Let me help! Once again, the answer was "No."
A year and a half later, it becomes apparent that we're headed into Iraq. By now I've been selected for ortho residency. I know it's a long shot but I asked to be delayed so that I can do my part. Guess what they say? Yeah... NO! The closest I get to the desert is a drunken weekend in Adams Morgan sending my best friend, Kent, off to Kurdistan. What a gyp...
So. Every time I ask the Navy to let me go the answer is no. Until now. So I guess I should be happy to finally get my wish! Thanks, Uncle Sugar!

Seriously. How do I feel about going? I'm fine with it. Not as jazzed as I would have been to go all the times I asked to go but at least I had time to plan and I wouldn't miss any big holidays aside from May's 40th birthday. (So sorry, sweety...) Plenty of time to prepare and see all my friends and take some pre-deployment leave. So...

I spend 10 days in Guatemala on a medical mission...

...then a weekend in Moab, mountain biking like a madman.

I take more time to be with my beautiful wife of 17 years, our 15 year old son and our 11 year old daughter.

I ski and snowboard for a week at Vail...

...we go, as a family, for the vacation of a lifetime in Fiji...
 a great New Year's Eve party...

...and I paddle out every chance I get...

Now, with the holidays behind us and the kids getting ready to head back to school, the reality of 8 months away from home is really sinking in. It will certainly be a great adventure and I thank God every day that He's blessed me with the skills to help the men and women who will need me downrange. I pray for the safety of my family while I'm gone and for the wisdom I'll need to make good decisions caring for the real warfighters and the local nationals. And I hope for an end to the fight so we can all be home safe.

So, for the next eight months or so, I'm going to "blog" about the experience as a whole in hopes of keeping everyone at home informed about what I'm doing. I would love feedback, criticism, encouragement, or whatever anyone has to offer and I hope that, if you follow my "adventure" that you'll enjoy what I write and come away from it with an appreciation for what "we" ( interpreted: my FST, your US military, our nation) are doing over there.

Stay tuned for more to come!!!

Signing off from (not-so-sunny-right-now) San Diego...

Eric B. Harris