Meet & Greet of Fellow Grunts, Plus Onboarding

20MAR2011. I set two alarms to ensure I’d be up on time. And even with that assurance, I tossed and turned all night, checking the alarm on my cellphone throughout the night to ensure it was on (not that I’m a heavy sleeper, just paranoid sometimes). My body, mind, and soul would have to get used to all the newness. After all, it was a new bed…a new environment…a new job…a new state!

I think I’d chosen wisely because the meeting was at the hotel I was staying at, and although it didn’t start until 0800, I was ready and out the door by 0730. I walked to the lobby to check out the selection of breakfast items. To my delight, it was quite decent. The coffee was good and the warm, freshly-baked cranberry muffins were awesome! Coffee, a banana, and a cranberry muffin would become my go-to breakfast on mornings I perceived to be running late (“perceived” because I can be paranoid about timeliness).

By 0750, I was refilling my coffee cup and stopped by the front desk lobby to say hello to the attendant. I was trying to kill some time and didn’t want to appear too eager by showing up early. But I’d come to learn that in the military if you’re 15 minutes early, you’re on time. If you’re on time, you’re late, and if you’re late, it’s unacceptable. (This was fine because, again, I’m a stickler for being on time.)

Coffee in hand, I walked upstairs to the meeting room and was greeted by a few of the employees from XYZ Defense. One of them asked my name and handed me a tag, which I quickly scanned to ensure that my name was spelled correctly (it was, phew!). There were already a few people in the room, and we’d be known as the MARCH CYCLE. (Through 2012, there were groups of people joining the program on a monthly basis, and at any given time, there were at least three groups cycling through training.)

I chit-chatted with a few of my fellow trainees/colleagues and was particularly interested in getting to know the rest of the Social Scientists (I’d heard there were 4-5 in our group). Aileen was the first Social Scientist I met. She was a slender, petite woman in her early 50s dressed in a sharp black pantsuit. She had short, wavy blond hair and looked like she really liked the sun (very tan skin, but not leathery).

As we exchanged pleasantries, I’d learn that she too was from the Washington, DC area, and applied for the position because it sounded like an exciting opportunity (sounded like an exciting opportunity?!?! Really?!?! Wow, okay). We both had questions about the process, which was comforting because I didn’t feel like I was the only one still trying to figure things out.

Two wooden stick figures shaking hands.

After a brief exchange, she excused herself to grab some coffee and I made my way to one of the tables. I took a seat in the middle row of one of the plastic tables, which were evenly-spaced throughout the room and accommodated a maximum of two people. I sat silently and glanced up periodically when someone new walked in. They were mostly males. Some would look over and say hello, then awkwardly look for a seat. Others just kept to themselves. (Were they as nervous as I was?).

I took a deep breath and opened my new notebook and wrote the date on the first page. (I always use a new notebook for a new job.) Although the people I’d met initially seemed nice, I still didn’t know what to expect. (It felt a lot like move-in day in the dorms during my college years – I didn’t know anyone and was anxious to meet my roommate.)

As the room filled up with fellow grunts, one individual took a seat at the table in front of mine, and as I was thumbing through my packet of endless paperwork, he turned around and excitedly said hello with a big smile.

Bart: Hi, I’m Bart!

Me: [chuckling] Is that your real name?

Bart: Yes it is. Well, it’s Bartholomew, but everyone calls me Bart. What’s your name?

Me: Farzana

Bart: Ooooh, Persian. Are you Persian? What does it mean?

Me: Well, yes…a Persian name. No, I have Afghan roots. It means “wise.”

Bart: Wow, cool! Wise? Nice. And you’re going to Afghanistan? I’ve been there…I was deployed there. I love the Afghan people. I’m going to call you “Farzana Jon.” Is that okay?

(Adding “Jon” at the end of someone’s name in Dari is a term of endearment. In Persian or Farsi, it’s “Joon.”)

Me: [smiling…laughing] Cool! I’ll call you Bart Jon.

Bart: Cool.

The interaction with Bart – who’d become a good friend and colleague – was comforting. He was a bit quirky, and at times, off-putting to those who weren’t used to someone being so open and abrupt, but I didn’t mind. Sometimes I’d watch him interact with others and it made me laugh how squeamish they appeared (not that he was trying to make them uncomfortable, but he was wicked smart and very straightforward, and not a lot of people appreciated that especially some of the trainers.)

A sheet of paper w/"Checklist" at the top.

At 0800, we were greeted by one of the individuals who’d serve as a seminar leader – all of whom were employees of XYZ Defense. He introduced himself and welcomed the group, and provided an overview of what to expect for the next few hours. It was essentially onboarding with XYZ Defense – filling out forms and reviewing the many others we were instructed to bring with us such as marriage/divorce certificates, transcripts, passports, resumes, etc. (This is where my anal-retentive tendencies came in handy. Not only did I have all of my forms, I had at least two copies of each!)

Bart: [looking over at my form] So you live in Arlington, Virginia? That’s a pretty coveted zip code…where wealthy people live.

Me: Really? Okay. It’s a nice location…urban feel, close to the Metro.

Bart: Who’s “we”? Do you have a family?

Me: Myself and my husband. I got married a few months ago. I used to live in the San Francisco Bay Area…my parents and brother still live there. I recently moved to the East Coast.

Bart: A California girl. Nice! So why would you be here if you just got married? Your husband’s okay with you being away from him for so long?

Me: Yeah, he’s supportive. But it’s for a year or so and then I’ll be home. How about you? Any family?

Bart: Yeah, a wife, and two kids.

Me: That’s great. What’s it like to deploy and be away from them?

Bart: I’ve done it a few times. You get used to it and so do they. It works for me…us. I miss my kids but we stay in touch.

Me: You’ve deployed multiple times…how do you do it?

Bart: Well, I love my work and you get used to it. You’re helping people.

I couldn’t understand why people deployed multiple times. Was it for the money? The sense of duty? Why would people willingly put themselves in danger? I knew soldiers didn’t have a choice (unless they were injured and couldn’t deploy; obtained some other type of waiver, or were discharged, etc.). My questions about the “hows/whys” of multiple deployments were initially triggered after watching Hurt Locker, a movie intended to show the experiences of soldiers in the Iraq War during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF).

Dirt road and mountainous terrain with a Humvee.

In the movie, Sergeant First Class William James (played by Jeremy Renner), a reckless, arrogant team leader for the U.S. Army Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit, often pissed off his team by playing Russian roulette with his life and theirs. But he was brilliant at his job and knew it. When he arrives home (redeployed), he has a hard time adjusting. In one scene toward the end of the movie, he stands in the cereal aisle of a grocery store, overwhelmed by the variety, and ultimately, the mundaneness of civilian life. Eventually, he’s back in Iraq, disabling explosives.

Seeing the character return to the war zone didn’t make much sense to me. Why would he leave the comfort of his home and his family? I just couldn’t wrap my head around his decision. I get that he loved his job, but my naivete about what war means to some and what it does to you – physically and psychologically – were limited at the time. (I’d come to understand the desire to deploy again once I redeployed, but the need to go back – at least for me – faded the longer I was home.)

As I’d come to learn throughout my training, multiple deployments were the norm – either in uniform or as a contractor (not to mention those who work for non-profits, media outlets, etc.). But, as far as I was concerned, I was only doing this once; intent on coming home…alive…in one piece.

Having completed the necessary paperwork during onboarding, some of us stuck around to chit-chat, then parted ways in anticipation of the first day of training (aka work). I headed back to my hotel room, made some calls to family members to fill them in on the happenings of the day, and headed to bed early (which for me was 2100, or 10p for you non-military folk). Again, I set two alarms to ensure I’d wake up and get to where I needed to be in the morning.

I was both excited and anxious about the first day of training.