How Deployment Prepared Me for COVID-19 Isolation

By: Mandi Rollinson

If you’ve deployed, then you’ve likely heard the phrase commonly used to describe the different sense of time that occurs during a deployment: “the days are long, but the weeks are short.” During deployment, time has a different meaning. 24 hours seems it lasts for the duration of several days, not merely one. When everything you need — or at least have available to you — is within a footprint smaller than your normal run route back home, completing tasks takes significantly less time and you have, quite suddenly, a lot of time on your hands. No longer having to cook and clean up your own meals, no longer cleaning your residence, or commuting to work or child care centers means that you’re able to focus on the mission and that you’re able to carve out time for PT, contacting family, and checking in your Soldiers simply because you feel like you have all the time to do so. There’s one big similarity between deployment and the current social situation regarding COVID-19: social isolation. But there’s one big difference: mission. And that’s where my lessons learned from deployment help make sense of how to navigate COVID-19 isolation and social distancing.

I remember the day before the unit that we replaced flew out of Afghanistan. I suddenly realized that the number of people on the base were going to be cut in half and that, for the foreseeable future, I was only going to be around my unit. It was a few hundred people, but that really meant my shop, the other staff sections, and my chain of command. My in-person social circle suddenly bottomed out. Either I outranked them or they outranked me. They were NCOs while I was an Officer. They were at the company level, I was a staff officer. Everyone was slotted into their duty position and executing their missions. Like everyone else, I focused on my work and there was never a shortage. It didn’t take long before we were planning award submissions, planning departure and turnover procedures, looking at the unit calendar after deployment (including a change of command of nearly every single commander in the Squadron). Like I said, I wasn’t wanting for work. But I also blocked out time on my calendar for self-development and PT every morning. I carried my e-reader around with me so I could read in all the ‘in-between’ moments in my day. I had to be sure to leave my office in time to get to the DFAC tent in time to eat dinner and leave by closing time. Weekends were for writing a weekly email I sent out to friends and family and for sleeping in (or what passed for it compared to an off-duty weekend back home). Slowly, days turned to weeks, which turned to months. We organized monthly events on the base. Those, combined with federal holidays, helped to mark the time in a meaningful way. Seeing all the weeks I had sent a letter out helped me to realize all the time that had passed. There were long days, of course. But just as the good days were limited to 24 hours, so were the bad days.

How does this apply to COVID-19 isolation? Having a mission helps with focus from one day to the next when the future seems insurmountable or unachievable. Let’s start by acknowledging that a ‘mission at home’ looks different then ‘mission while deployed.’ However, let’s also acknowledge that everyone’s work life has just collided with their home life. This is a time of a new normal, and establishing a new routine helps tremendously. This could be working for a certain time after breakfast, eating lunch, then going back at it before putting work down for the day. Maybe it’s forcing yourself to get up to an early alarm even though you no longer have PT formation. Maybe it’s doing a certain activity with your kids at a certain time. Setting boundaries for yourself within the confines of your work requirements puts you in the mindset of being present with what you’re doing. Inherent in this is also opportunity for other pieces of a routine. Thinking about what you have to do, then factoring in when you want to or need to do it enables you to craft a routine. For me, I walk my dog every morning before PT and breakfast. But, on the weekends, I don’t do PT and I go on a different, longer route. It’s the same routine overall but it helps me mentally mark the weekend at a time when time seems like an illusion (and, yes, lunch time doubly so). Another part of my routine is having benchmarks for meals. This helps me ensure I’m eating routinely (something that is surprisingly easy to lose track of when engrossed in work). But, while I have a routine, I’m also not a slave to the clock. Part of the beauty of working from home is that you’ll likely have some flexibility within the routine. Personally, I made myself a list of physical, mental, work, home, and chore tasks to choose from when I realize that I’ve been staring at my social media for too long. Yes, there are Zoom and Team meetings, deadlines for data calls, and accountability requirements. But there is also the ability for you to make prudent decisions for yourself and your family within these requirements.

When do you eat breakfast or stop for lunch? When do you do your daily workout? Does your family ever join? Do you take a daily walk with your pet or family? What limits are you putting on phone or video calls? How’s your sleep hygiene? What news do you consume, how do you talk with your kids about it, when do you stop? How are you allowing for flexibility in this routine?

The second takeaway from deployments is the familiarity, even acceptance, of social isolation. There is a reason that you’re not around the people you’d like to be when you’re deployed. During deployment, that reason is the unit mission and the location of that mission. Right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re limited on social interactions for the safety and security of those care about, those vulnerable to disease, and those whom you’ve never met. This is really hard. Especially in the Army, we’re so used to taking action to solve a problem. But now, that action is being couched in terms of inaction — don’t leave your house, don’t go to work, don’t be closer than 6 feet to others you’re not living with right now. Focusing on the first takeaway of your mission helps to flip these ‘don’ts’ into tasks to accomplish.

The last lesson I learned during deployment is when to give myself a break. Take the pressure off yourself to perform your routine rigidly and perfectly every day. Those of us in the military are used to operating in stressful environments. We may be tempted to tell ourselves that ‘we’ve got this’ and throw in a “hooah” for good measure. However, it would be foolhardy to not recognize that this is a new situation for everyone. You, me, all of us are going to have rough days. Days where the weight of the news will weigh heavily, where you may find out a family member is ill, where you may realize you have become ill. You may even have a friend or family who is a health care worker. At some point, if you’re a human being in a community experiencing this, it’s going to feel like too much to bear. This is why I create flexibility in my routine. Realize that there’s a difference between not ‘feeling like doing PT’ and having another, greater physiological and psychological need that I should spend that PT time doing instead. Do your best to stick to physical fitness and work productivity, but give yourself some grace, too. It’s okay to make a batch of cookies and eat half the batch over a movie (what? No, I didn’t do this, why do you ask?). It’s okay to go on a far longer run than your usual route. It’s okay to spend a whole day not talking to anyone. It’s okay to choose any of these as a way to vent the stress you’re feeling in your body and mind, whether you’re living with all your favorite people, cooped up with your entire family, or living alone. Recognize that some of these coping mechanisms may not be long-term sustainable life choices, but that spending an afternoon watching dog (or other animal), theater, doodling, cooking, or news videos is not an act of self-harm and could be just what you need right now to help you through today. Any or all of that is okay.

All of us — leaders, followers, and combined — are trying to do the best we can. It’s all that can ever be asked of any of us. So do the best you can. Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds. Clean, then disinfect, commonly touched surfaces in your living space 1–2 times a day. Take yourself, your family, or your pet for a routine walk or other physical activity. Go outside and soak up the sun, especially if you’re in North America because, folks, it is officially Springtime! Know that these long days will become short weeks. The weeks will become months. Right now, doing the best we can is physically staying away from other people and having a routine to take care of ourselves. Some days, it is okay to let that be enough.

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Mandi Rollinson is an AG officer currently social distancing within the confines of her home in Pittsburgh with her dog, who refuses to respect the CDC’s 6 feet boundary. She is completing her last semester of graduate studies as part of the ACS program. This summer, she will join the West Point Department of History faculty as a rotating military instructor. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the DoD, US Army, West Point, or Duquesne University.

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