Airmen continue the adventure of the USAF 50 Summits Challenge. On Sunday March 31st, a group of Airmen from the USAF Combat Rescue Weapons School summited Hawaii's highpoint. Even if a summit has been 'claimed' or climbed, there are still endless reasons to climb it: fitness, friendship, health, views, inspiration, getting outside, adding a highpoint to your list, etc etc!
We are honored to be featured in the Air Force Academy Association of Graduates' latest publication. If you read it and support the idea of an outdoor-based stress innoculation training program, please let us know. We recently concluded a year's worth of research with MBA candidates from Denver University and have a compelling plan for a way forward.
With the right assistance from supporters and military leaders, we believe this will be the start of a new, data-driven, proactive wellness program that will reduce traumatic stress injuries, improve service-member operational capabilities, increase retention, and reduce the lifetime cost of mental health care for those who serve.
Contact Maj. Rob Marshall via our 'Contact' link in the upper right of your screen for more details.
USAFA AOG Article: https://issuu.com/usafaaog/docs/december_checkpoints_online/62
Summer 2016 has been a big one for the USAF 50 Summits Challenge, not only have we had great success leading Airmen and veterans to state summits, we were treated to visits by Army and Marine Corps members on our summer climbs as well. Very cool "Joint" operations!
Two of the toughest high-points in America were completed within two weeks of each other: Mt. Rainier of Washington followed shortly by Granite Peak of Montana. Both required a bit of technical skill, route finding, and robust risk management. Not everyone made it to the summit, but that's actually not the goal! The goal is always to get all participants back home safely... and hopefully a bit wiser/healthier/more alive. That did happen, so we continue the success of our mission!
Next up for the 50 Summits Challenge appears to be trips in North and/or South Dakota, Illinois and Missouri (led by leaders from Scott AFB), and perhaps Ohio as well. That would make for a great end-of-summer and beginning of fall!
Are you stationed in or near a state that hasn't been climbed yet? Sign up to lead a trip and we'll help you get the word out and plan your event. Has your state already been summited? No worries, we encourage Airmen to keep climbing their state highpoint. Contact us and we'll give you tips on how other Airmen have climbed that particular highpoint and then we'll get your event up on social media for max participation.
Be safe, enjoy the summer, and CLIMB ON! -RMM
Spring 2016 started off with a successful hike of the 12,600ft highpoint of Arizona. Through some teamwork, grit and physical fitness, they made it to the top and flew both the Air Force and American flags. Here's a great article from Davis-Monthan AFB Public Affairs that sums up the event: http://www.dm.af.mil/News/ArticleDisplay/tabid/6161/Article/789092/airmen-take-on-50-summits-challenge.aspx
Sometimes it feels like there isn’t much to write about in deployed life. The mind gets numbed by the incessant circadian rhythm changes, the repeating schedules, and the fact there is little new to write about since every day feels like Bill Murray’s “Groundhog Day” where he lives the same day over and over again.
But when I stop and take a deep breath, my mind clears and I realize there is always something different around me worth thinking about; worth learning about. A new plant growing out of the desert sand and rocks. The wind in the struggling grass. Another embarrassing report about the state of American politics. A change in the way my body responds to running/swimming/lifting. A new idea on how we can improve morale and wellness among military members (I've got lots of those...). A nearly lost echo of destiny calling your name, hoping you wake up from the doldrums of deployed life and remember what reason you are alive.
So with about a week left in the deployment (going home early!), I’m back at the keyboard with a mind full of thoughts.
Over the last month, I find myself spending a lot of time thinking about politics, entitlement, leadership and violence. Funny, seems like it’d be easy to draw a lot of parallels between those four subjects.
Violence comes to mind today. I’ve got this image of bombs stacked up in the back of our plane. Here’s a photo I took a while ago of some of the thing that go “BOOM” that we delivered into the fight against ISIS. From a military standpoint, it was impressive: a plane completely full of bombs, guidance equipment and fuses. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have all been used on targets by now given the amount of deliveries we make each week.
Part of me smiles at this cargo, because I know it’s going to be used to stop the cancer known as ISIS/ISIL. When push comes to shove and thousands of innocent lives are being lost, it’s time to go kinetic (aka “boom”). The fanatics waving that black flag have no respect for life. They kill indiscriminately. Their aim is to spread across the globe and kill anyone who defies them.
That’s reason enough for fighting back. I’m sure of that.
But that doesn’t mean the other side of me won’t feel some level of remorse or sadness at having to deliver high-explosive death incapsulated in iron. It’s the cycle of warfare, of violence that I dislike the most. You’d think that an eye-for-an-eye would mean both parties would stop after losing their first eyeball. Self preservation, right? But it’s not about eyeballs. It’s about people. And unlike eyeballs, people can grow more people. A “son-for-a-son” is more accurate. If we fought by trading pokes to each other’s eyes, well, we’d eventually stop when everyone was blinded. The cycle would stop, at least for a while. But when you can continue to produce unlimited offspring, such tit-for-tat actions result in endless violence.
Ahh, see? It’s damn confusing and something a mind can chew on for days, years… a lifetime. It’s an interesting dichotomy we live in as military members. How to best balance non-violent vs. violent actions in achieving our goals.
I grew up believing superior firepower and violence was by far the best tool for fighting. It was the Cold War and the more nukes we had, the more likely we’d wipe out those Commies before they got us. “Duck and Cover” “Don’t look at the flash, just hide under your desk or go to the fallout shelter.”
But as I studied military history as well as philosophy at the Academy, I started to really see the endless cycle of violence that hard-power/war creates. I was drawn to the Special Forces mantra of “Hearts and Minds.” (Which hardly seems to exist any more.) As more years went by, I studied various spiritual leaders who all practiced non-violence (regardless of what their followers may have later written/said) and suggested we do the same in order to live a good life. That we let whatever God handle the judgements. It sounded nice. I’d rather solve issues over a cup of tea or a friendly game of soccer. Sounds wonderful, right?
Then Al-Qieada, and now ISIS, declare all-out war on my way of life. Swear to kill me and my family if given the chance. Again, I'm back in the conundrum: no matter how much I peacefully respected other humans, they always have the choice to use violence against me or my loved ones. Well, I for one, choose not to idly sit by as they figuratively hold a gun to my head or to those I care about. Self preservation vs. dying to make a point. But it still requires, at some point, the loss of human life.
With that being said, I always spend time on deployments being conscious about my reasons for volunteering to be here... Understanding that I’m making a conscious choice that I will have to answer to one day, whether it be through judgement from God or a karmic debt.
If I had my way, it’d be cups of tea or soccer matches, waist deep casting flies to rising trout, hiking a Turkish or Afghan peak, siting on rocking chairs out on a porch sipping a drink of choice (I'd settle for a mint julep right about now), working through our issues with mutual compassion and respect. One day perhaps. But not today. Not this year. Maybe not in this lifetime.
But by thinking about it, constantly reevaluating my reasons/options for fighting, and doing my best when not deployed to promote a better community, state, nation or global community… well, perhaps the days of solving issues over tea (or Scotch) will come a bit sooner.
Until then, I’ll keep bringing loads of BOOM wherever it needs to go and ensuring those who swear violence upon freedom and democracy fail in their sick and misguided ways. -- R. Marshall
(Maj. Marshall's deployed blog is hosted by USAF50Summits.com as part of our mission to tell the story of military members who are also avid outdoorists. Stay tuned in for more adventures.)
And if every step taken is a step
After a cup of coffee and dinner for breakfast at Mazar-i-Sharif, my groggy yet upbeat crew is ready to continue the adventure west. So we load up the plane in the dark mountain winter and take off around midnight.
We are now 12hrs off from our previous circadian rhythm. Go figure. We descend the length of Afghanistan and this time Pakistan lets us fly through their airspace with no complaint as we continue on our long way to Europe, with a little stop in along the way. Let’s just say it's a country I’ve never visited, so I’m looking forward to checking it out.
The dawn horizon was glowing brightly as we flew over more rugged mountain country… my sort of place. For some people, it might be flying over beaches or cities. But for me, it’s the peaks, valleys, canyons. The more forested the better. Running rivers with rapids and deep pools living in endless tandem. That’s where my heart feels most alive, whether I’m at 29,000ft or feeling the branches and grass moving across my shins and arms.
Our little airport destination was covered in snow when we arrived and had some rounded mountains peaking above the haze. Sitting in a little bowl with a blanket of thin clouds/smog, the airport was hard to see until short final. We were impressed to be greeted by Airmen from the local American embassy, which doesn’t happen all that often these days. They actually brought us Cinnabon. That’s right, those gooey, frosting covered, delicious fat nuggets. Reportedly western chains had shown up in the last few years in this country and Cinnabon was one of the most recent. We happily accepted their unexpected gift. Then we waited for about two hours as a group of local soldiers milled about outside in preparation for their trip with us.
While waiting, we took on gas and had the lavatory cleaned. I noticed a bit of a ruckus with the ground crew outside the plane, so I went to see what was going on. To my horror I stepped off the aircraft stairs and almost into a growing pool of human waste. The guys trying to pump out the lavatory had somehow failed to connect their pump tube correctly, resulting in fecal matter, toilet paper, urine and the infamous “blue liquid” pouring out of the plane onto the tarmac. YUCK! For those of you faint of heart, you might want to skip the video below (it’s not that bad). With their military general on his way to preside over the ceremonial loading of his troops, the ground crew quickly went to work trying to push and spray the turds out of sight of the military ceremony and accompanying videographer.
Yup, that’s just the comic relief deployed service members need. It’s moments like this that we laugh about for hours, even days later. Without comedy, much of this work far from home among an environment permeated in violence would be too heavy.
After the young conscripts line up and march onto the plane, we say good bye to another country and head for Germany… where we hope a real bed, a Kolsch beer, and a little rest awaits.
The flight was an easy one. We drank lots of caffeinated soda, since the infamous energy drink “RipIt” is no longer offered on the deployed bases. It was a highly potent dose of caffeine that I guess too many people were abusing. During the flight, a long discussion regarding religions began. The range of conversations that take place while airborne range from crude toilet humor to some pretty serious scientific (nerd) and spiritual topics.
For a good hour and a half the young 1st lieutenant who was temporarily flying with us, my loadmaster Ray, and I talked about love, sin, hell, God and judgement. Yea, I know, that’s some serious stuff. But unlike the crap you see on TV these days, there was no yelling, no finger pointing, no damning each other and certainly no judgment passed. Imagine that!!
While our views/beliefs were often very different, each person considered the other’s point/belief and then considered how it might play into their personal experiences. I could write a book about the stuff we went into, but let’s just say that in the end the three of us came away with a better respect for each other’s positions and experiences, and I’d say each was more compassionate and tolerant from it.
The powerful concept that the judgement of others should be reserved solely for whoever your God/Spiritual being is, leaving each of us free to not carry that impossible burden, was mutually agreed upon. I’d call that a most satisfying conclusion.
Soon we were on the ground in Germany, swarmed by ground crews eager to whisk our passengers away, pump us full of tens of thousands of pounds of gas, suck out the doo-doo the 150 passengers left on the plane, and get us to a hotel for our quick overnight. I’ve never visited this part of Germany before and it didn’t take long to see the jewel of this city: Cologne Cathedral (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cologne_Cathedral). Its dark, gothic tower stood far above it’s surrounding skyline like a magnet attracting all eyes.
After checking into our hotel, a failed attempt to eat at a popular restaurant (we got the distinct impression we weren’t welcome and after 1.5hrs of patiently waiting for a table we bounced), and a subpar meal at an alternate restaurant, I was reminded to quit paying attention to all these little inconveniences and pause to appreciate the beauty around me. (That’s always around us.) I snapped this photo that dark and rainy night… and as always moments of beauty always do, it made such adventures worthwhile.
Jetlag woke me after five hours of sleep, so I decided to venture into the dark, rainy city center in search of a fresh baked good and a quality European espresso/latte. Putting on my civilian clothes and walking through the nice lobby was a stark change from the ubiquitous tan flight suits, camouflage uniforms, and shoddy buildings of the bases. I soaked in the lavish setting and put my hood up as the revolving door brought me into the wet, cold predawn morning.
I walked, peered into dark cafe windows, watched bakers working their industrial ovens and stacking fresh croissants and loafs, smelled the butter and flour cooking, but couldn’t find an open bakery or cafe. What is going on? It’s a modern country and a big city, but everything is closed! Ohh… it’s Sunday. These folks think a little down-time from commerce and some real relaxation is a good idea? Nah… what’s this world coming to?! :)
As much as I was sad to not find a hot cup of coffee and a snack, I appreciated this concept of rest that is often lost in America. Thankfully the hotel restaurant gave me a free cup of joe and I spent the morning reading and waiting for the sun to rise. At 9am the first cafe opened and you can bet I was their first customer. Berliners (like a donut), a chocolate croissant, and a big latte satisfied my sweet tooth so I could return to the Middle East (where none of those exist, at least on base).
The flight back was a good one, though I’m not sure our passengers would agree. We had over 100 coalition army troops who would be riding with us back downrange. Little did we know that they had been waiting at the German airport for two days waiting for us. The ‘system’ did not communicate with them that we had been delayed in Afghanistan, so they showed up on time and waited in a hangar. One of their local officers told us they then slept two nights in the hangar, waiting in limbo for us. We passed on our sincere apologies and gave their leadership the phone number to command and control, as such gross miscommunications were out of our purview/control.
The rest of this adventure was tame. Each of us looked forward to returning to our 10’x10’ trailer room, the moldy bathrooms, and the blowing dust. Much like mountaineers returning to basecamp after days at high camps, we so easily overlook the poor conditions of the place we temporarily call “home”. Familiar items await: a place to sleep, fresh clothes, food, and a chance to breath out and relax. On any adventure you’ve got to be content with what you are given to work with, otherwise the opportunity to grow and make the most from the experience is lost.
[This blog hosted by USAF 50 Summits Challenge as a way to chronicle the deployment of a military outdoorsman and build insight for the outdoors-minded person of what a deployment is like]
Picking up from where we left off: I'm stretched out in the coffin sized rest area behind the cockpit, ready to nap after being up for over 20hrs. We are headed for a much anticipated overnight in Germany, having just entered Pakistani airspace on our way to the Persian Gulf.
Like our trip into Pakistan just six hours earlier, Pakistani air defense comes on the radio in a state of intense emotion. By threat of intercept/force, they kick us out of their airspace and force us to return to Afghanistan. Wha?! We are one of thousands and thousands of coalition planes that cross this same airspace, but tonight we must have the “Kick Me” sign on our back.
We try to calm them down and explain we’re on a scheduled flight, but they’ll have none of it. The threat of launching fighters to intercept us is the final straw and we turn around back towards Afghanistan. (We later found out the Air Force mobility coordination center failed to add our flight to the document allowing Pakistan overflight. Oversights do happen, more often than we'd like, but that's the downside of a ginormous, complex entity like the mobility arm of the military.)
Naturally at this time we’d hop on a satellite frequency or phone and get some help in fixing the situation. But this plane just happened to have a broken satellite antenna. Doh! We are now stuck in Afghanistan, because we don’t have overfly authorized on the route to the north or to the south. We decide to land at the nearest base: Kandahar. (Hah!!) So much for overflying that pit. We pull in to what is a ghost town compared to earlier in the war. As I walk out of the plane the first thing I notice is the smell: dusty, but with the slight smell of smoke or something burning. Anything is better than smelling the poo-pit, so I’m cool with it.
(Here is a video of the Kandahar area when I was flying the CV-22 there in 2010:
We find out that they cannot accommodate our crew and the 50+ passengers in the back of the plane. Command and control is no help over the land-line phone we are driven to, as they are thousands of miles away and unable to fully comprehend the bind we are in. Their answer to Matt: "spend the night in Kandahar… we don’t believe there isn’t room to sleep there." Thanks for the vote of confidence.
The 50 passengers are quite frustrated, as they were supposed to return to Europe where their families were waiting, but now they are in Kandahar with no where to stay. That’s when they suggest: let’s go to Mazar-i-Sharif. They are familiar with the base and can assure us a place to sleep and a hot meal. "Why didn't you say so earlier? Deal!" So we launch into the dawn sky and head north. And this is where the first reward of the adventure comes: I get to fly right up the middle of Afghanistan and its mountains in the daylight without fear of being shot, something I hadn’t really been able to do in my past AFSOC life.
Afghanistan: It’s a beautiful country! Rugged mountains give way to deep river canyons and rocky cliffs. A fresh snow had fallen, so I could easily pick out the inhabited, remote villages by seeing foot/animal tracks leading around the outskirts of the village or to a local water source. Soon the sun was up to full brightness and the blue sky made for a perfect day. I hopped from one side of the cockpit to another marveling at the sights and wishing I could be down there exploring the rivers, rocks and mountains. Eventually I just kicked back, put my feet up, and enjoyed the sunshine and snowy landscape surrounding us.
Mazar-i-Sharif is a beautiful location. It’s on a plateau mostly surrounding by rugged mountains reaching up to 9,000ft. Maz is the third largest city in Afghanistan (~690,000) and has a storied history, from the estimated birth place of one of my favorite poets: Rumi, to Genghis Kahn destroying their most important mosque, to the Russians using it as a base of operations to fight the mujahideen. I wished for the opportunity to learn more about it in person, but my main focus was on finding a place to sleep, as it had been 30hrs since I last woke up (deployed sleeping isn’t very good unless you use Ambien, which I’m avoiding).
Our passengers hooked us up with temporary sleeping arrangements, although it was right at freezing temperature inside them. But it was better than a cargo plane floor or tent cot. We dropped our bags and walked to the chow hall... which is where we received another treat: the view of the snow, mountains and clouds outside the fence. After a quick meal, we returned to the rooms, hoping the small heaters we turned on would take the bite from the air, though not really caring either way.
The friendly German quartermaster offered us some sheets, a cotton blanket and a pillow each. With the weight of the hectic 30hr day pulling me to sleep like an intense gravity, I crawled into what seemed to be a cotton sleeping bag of sorts. I loved the idea: one sheet like a tube, so no need for a fitted sheet. Under the weight of the blanket and breathing in the cold, crisp mountain air, I fell into a deep sleep. Only later did I find out the three-sided sheet I liked so much wasn't supposed to be slept in: it was a mattress cover that you slide over the entire mattress. Hah! Well, it certainly got the job done!
After six hours of solid sleep and a little bit of dozing, it was time to get back to work. Too bad, as this quiet little base suited me well. The view of the mountains from the compound was inspiring! It reminded me of a grand adventure had by several Italian nationals in Africa. They are Italian professional who are held in a WWII British POW camp. Several days after they arrive at the camp, the clouds clear enough that they see a huge mountain summit hovering above the clouds. They realize it must be Mt. Kenya, famous at that time for it was considered nearly unclimbable. Well, they happen to be mountaineers and decide they’re going to escape the camp and climb the famous peak. It’s a story about the love of mountains and adventures… about risking life to live life. Check it out: “No Picnic on Mt. Kenya”.
Part 3 Coming Soon. The Adventure Never Ends...
[This blog hosted by USAF 50 Summits Challenge as a way to chronicle the deployment of a military mountaineer and build insight for the outdoors-minded person of what a deployment is like]
This adventure was the type not worth repeating. However, like many adventures, it lead me to unexpected beauty and broadened my life. Isn’t that why we adventurers ignore the unpleasant aspects of a journey and throw our hat in the ring time and time again?
It was supposed to be a long, yet simple mission: pick up troops in Afghanistan take em back to Europe and along the way make a brief stop in the former Soviet Union. Come back much the same way.
But it didn’t turn out that way.
Global politics can be such a pain in the ass when you’re trying to get from point A to point B in the most efficient manner. We needed to fly up Pakistan to Afghanistan, because clearly Iran isn’t interested in letting coalition aircraft fly in their airspace. On the way into Pakistan, a very agitated air defense controller started calling for us over the emergency frequency, demanding we speak to him immediately. So much for being in touch with his country’s air traffic control and for the US coordinating our overflight. Hearing the stress and anxiety in his voice, I couldn’t help but wonder if he had his finger on the launch button to some strategic missile defense system. It would be a silly oversight and highly unlikely, but hey, if it could happen in the Ukraine, why not here? That’s something about military/combat situations: you never know who’s finger is on the trigger and what state of mind he/she is in that day.
Anyway, we sorted things out and the defense guy hopefully did some deep breathing and drank a cup of tea (decaf, preferably). Then we were back in Afghanistan… my first time since 2010. I shook my head a little, as I figured I wouldn’t be back here unless it was to open up the first fly fishing, rock climbing, or ski tours of this rugged and naturally beautiful warrior nation. Those nature-based adventure dreams will just have to wait a bit longer… at least until this stupid war crap dies down a bit more and we can go back to enjoying each other’s company and the natural wonders that abound on our planet.
As we flew over Kandahar, I was happy to stay at 30,000ft and watch it pass by the right window. Little did I know I’d be back on the ground there in a matter of hours.
We made it to our destination in Afghanistan, only to have the plane suffer a major electrical failure upon engine shutdown. It took several hours for ground crews and our flying crew chief to figure out the problem, as the nearly freezing air blew into the depowered jet, but by God they figured it out. I was sure we were going to be stuck there for a day or two. Bully on them! So we loaded up our troops and cargo and headed towards Europe.
You’d think we could just fly northwest and head over Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan on the way to Turkey and mainland Europe. Nope. Global politics. Let’s just say one of the small countries didn’t like the fact that we were moving a few of their neighbor soldiers, so they put out the old “hand in your face” and wouldn’t authorize flight through their airspace. Never mind they are a “coalition partner”.
So we double back and head south, back through Pakistan, with the plan of continuing back to the Persian Gulf, up through Kuwait and Iraq, and then finally into Turkey enroute Europe. I trade off with our third pilot, as it has been 22 hours since I woke up. My body was begging for some rest. Just as I stretched my legs out, we hit a good bout of turbulence. So I just rest my eyes and relax a bit in the coffin sized sleeping space as we bounce through moderate turbies.
Then it happens again... (To Be Continued)
I have a heightened respect for the men and women flying military mobility missions around the world. After the last 72hrs, I've seen how hard they are worked and how little thanks they get from 'the system'. I thought life in the SOCOM community had to be the hardest, but now I see each military community has difficult challenges uniquely their own.
For the mobility aircrews, it's working for a system that seems to have little concern for the quality of their rest and morale. It is commonplace for the crews to work for 20+hrs straight, try to sleep completely off their regular circadian rhythm, and then do several more 20+hr work days. What does the system do? Ask them to do it again and again. Fatigue and frustration hovers above them, waiting for its chance to settle in.
I didn't fully realize this until I joined the community as a Reservist a little over a year ago. I always thought this line of work in the military would be like an early retirement: lower risk than my previous life (as in it's rare to get engaged by the enemy and the mission threats are low), relaxing hours of cruising at high altitude on auto-pilot, having a flushing toilet on board and traveling to new and interesting places.
Well, that can be the case, but often it is not. Dependency on Ambien or sleeping drugs becomes the norm in this time-zone hopping, circadian rhythm crushing world. Those challenges are shared by other aircrew throughout the military (Lord knows I was popping Ambien like no tomorrow in my previous job), but I find the constant cycle of 20+hr days and little thanks or consideration by the Command & Control system to be acutely destructive.
In the AFSOC world, it seemed to me that our circadian rhythm and sleep quality was always respected. Were there 24hr days? Hell yes, but that was not the norm. Was adequate time allowed for recuperation? Whenever possible. Did the command structure regularly give thanks and praise for work? Absolutely.
From what I've seen, when mobility crews call to check in with their remote command and control, they almost cringe as they dial the airborne sat phone. Why? Because month after month, year after year, they've grown accustomed to someone thousands of miles away telling them their work-day just got extended, their rest just got shortened to the bare-minimum allowed, and their request to change any of it is denied. To be fair, it's possible to get lucky and convince 'the system' to give a few extra hours off in-between flights, but that's the exception, not the norm.
So I raise a toast to the Mobility Air Force crews who are flying around the world, napping 2hrs here and there on the floor or bunk of the plane, chugging coffee and Red Bulls to fight off their bodies' need for sleep and then using sleep drugs to force a few hrs rest as they hop through time zones day in and day out. Hollywood and the media doesn't glorify your mission. It's often taken for granted. There is no lull; your fight never ends... it is 24/7. I give my respect and appreciate the hard work! Blue Skies. --RMM
50 Summits Challenge