TDYs, Remotes, and Separations
In addition to his demanding daily commitments, a fighter pilot will inevitably be called upon to deploy—meaning he will travel to another destination to accomplish even more responsibilities. These deployments vary in nature and include short-term temporary duties to attend a training class, indefinite commitments to conduct combat operations, and assignment to remote tours that are a year or more long. Each situation presents unique challenges to a fighter pilot’s Christian walk, finances, family, and more.
Most Air Force deployments are “temporary duties” (TDYs) that involve an officer departing his home station and going to another location to fulfill a mission or training requirement. It could be as benign as a single pilot being sent to another base to receive some form of training, or it could be as complex as an entire base deploying to a front line location to engage in combat. Fighter pilots also occasionally get the opportunity to fly cross-country, meaning they fly to a different location for a weekend or so. Contingency deployments are also frequent, with pilots and jets departing the home station and traveling to any of a variety of worldwide locations. There are very few “standard” TDYs.
The most frequent TDY for a fighter pilot is in support of an Air Expeditionary Force (AEF). To add predictability to deployments, the Air Force recently instituted the expeditionary air force concept, with each unit assigned to an AEF cycle. Each AEF, in which there are multiple units from a variety of bases, is vulnerable to be deployed during a given window of several months. Several years ago when an AEF window approached, it was obvious that a unit would deploy to either Operation NORTHERN or SOUTHERN WATCH, which started soon after the Gulf War. Those operations ended in 2003 with Operation IRAQI FREEDOM, and subsequent TDYs have been much more varied and less predictable. With the close of those two operations, deployment is not guaranteed but still likely to support operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, or another less famous part of the world. When the AEF rotation is complete, the units enter a recuperation phase before beginning the next months of training for their next AEF assignment.
The tenor of the TDY varies widely with the nature of the deployment. When a unit “deploys” to a location in the States or near a popular city, it is very much a “good deal” TDY. Las Vegas, Nevada, is the first location that comes to mind because it hosts Red Flag, which is a large scale exercise with aircraft from around the world. A pilot might be lodged in billeting, or he could potentially stay in a luxury hotel in the city—costs paid. There are plenty of amenities, including cable TV, hotel pools, base gyms, and, of course, the local sights and sounds. On the other end of the extreme is a deployment to a near-bare base location. Rather than a posh hotel, pilots may be sleeping on a cot in a tent with 12 or more other guys. If there is access to a TV at all, the programming will be at the whim of the group. Meals are generally provided by a mess tent, and there are no other expenses. Often there are few other activities in which to participate, and the ability to go off-base and see the sights may be extremely limited. Ironically, when deployed to a location like that military members often receive much less financial reimbursements. (According to the US government, to “survive” in Las Vegas requires $165 a day, while the daily rate in Baghdad, Iraq, is $11.00. (The DoD source for these numbers is here.)
When deploying with a unit, a Christian fighter pilot could face greater pressures than at home station. Most fighter pilots will want to go “out on the town” frequently; this is partially because of the desire to experience the locale and also due to the fact that most billeting rooms or hotels will have few, if any, cooking facilities, which necessitates going out to eat. Going out often may concern someone who doesn’t want to spend too much money or has a family back home with whom he is sharing finances.
In the majority of the deployments I have been on, I have found that there can be a balance of social events. It can build comradery—as well as just be fun—to go out to eat with fellow pilots and experience the local cuisine of a unique location. If the other pilots desire to go to other places (most often, bars or “gentleman’s clubs”), a Christian can generally bow out and get a ride back to lodging. There may be some pressure to join the group, but firm refusals generally work well, particularly if a Christian has already established his moral reputation. Rather than eating out constantly, though, I found that by purchasing a few simple groceries I was able to make some of my own meals. This gave me the ability to eat healthier and save a little money and lot of time. I made my own lunches (the only other option was fast food, which got expensive after a while and was nutritionally questionable), and when I wanted free time I could make a simple dinner in my room and have plenty of time to do as I pleased. The alternative was spending several hours finding a restaurant everyone agreed on, waiting for the food, and then waiting on everyone to finish eating. With that free time I was able to do a Bible study, call my wife, read a book, or do any variety of other activities.
One of my earliest TDYs was near the end of pilot training. Our final sorties required a cross-country, and it was then that I was introduced to the half-joking “two TACAN rule,” which is similar in concept to the “two time zone rule” related to business travel. TACANs are navigational transmitters located at military and civilian airfields. When a pilot departs one base he will dial in the TACAN frequency of the next base to fly there. The two TACAN rule simply meant that after dialing in his second TACAN, the pilot was far enough away from his home that he could misbehave and the information wouldn’t make it back to his unit or, more often, his wife. Later in my career I learned the phrase “what goes TDY, stays TDY,” which essentially implied that the shenanigans that went on while TDY weren’t to be repeated once back home. For the most part this was simply an excuse to act up while away from home, which seems to be a veritable military tradition in the theme of a sailor having a “girl in every port.” Obviously, no one was protected while TDY and people would find out—one way or another—what had gone on. From the Christian’s perspective, God knows everything anyway—”I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind” (Jeremiah 17:10). A Christian fighter pilot lives life in the knowledge that God knows everything he does or thinks.
Whether the TDY is as an individual or a group, once the distance to home increases there will be great temptations; for men, the most notable temptation is in the sexual area. For many young fighter pilots, the first time they go TDY will be the first time they realize they can anonymously access adult TV channels, computer pornography, and strip clubs. Most hotels have cable TV with varying levels of pornography that is immediately accessible. Also, fellow fighter pilots—both married and single—may carouse with the local women or patronize the local strip clubs. To deal with the television temptation, most hotels have the option to call the front desk and have the adult channels turned off in a room. If that isn’t an option, or the TV itself is the temptation, unplugging it, closing the cabinet, or covering it over are good alternatives. To deal with the temptation to go to strip clubs or the like, having a planned activity like a Bible study or a designated time to call family can also provide a “good excuse” for not joining in when others go.
There are two other valuable techniques that I have heard to help men deal with the sexual temptation of being alone in a far away city. The first is to get accountability from other Christians in the group, which is addressed in the mutual support section of Spiritual Requisites. The other technique is an anecdote I heard related many years ago. A businessman frequently went on official trips and experienced the same sexual temptation that many men do. It came to a head on one trip when he found himself leafing through the escort section of the yellow pages, tempted to call someone to his hotel room. When he realized what he was doing, he felt so guilty that he immediately called his wife. To his amazement, she was not only not upset, but she also understood the temptation he was experiencing. They talked about it at length and developed a means to help them deal with temptations together. When he faced those same lures in the future, he was to call her—regardless of what time it was in either of their time zones. They also developed what could be described as a “code word” or phrase that he could say to tell her that he was tempted, thus not requiring any detailed explanation. His greatest help was in knowing his wife supported him so fully. Whether an accountable Christian brother or a spouse with whom the situation has been discussed, there is great benefit in having some plan of defense to call upon when the temptation occurs. If a Christian fighter pilot has access to neither—perhaps he has no family to call upon and is the only Christian on the trip—then the most important thing is to depart on the TDY with the knowledge that the sexual temptation will be there and attempt to prepare himself for it. There are many Christian books wholly devoted to dealing with sexual temptation, and I could do little justice to the topic here (See Resources and Links). A Christian must rely on God, through prayer and Bible study, and know that God provides him a way to stand up under assault (1 Corinthians 10:13).
For the Christian fighter pilot, the unpredictability of a TDY makes it difficult to plan Bible studies, attend chapel service, or even have a personal Bible time. There is rarely a normal schedule or a routine—in general, by the time one is developed, it’s time to leave, thus the “temporary” nature of such a deployment. This is a perfect example of a time when having established spiritual habits will bear fruit (see the articles on Establishing a Spiritual Lifestyle.). A spiritual lifestyle will make a Christian fighter pilot miss the absence of his Bible study or fellowship and he will then put the extra effort into accomplishing them. It’s important to attend—or form, if required—some type of Bible study group during deployments. While at a TDY location, a Christian fighter pilot should generally attend the base chapel. He’s generally there for too short a period to become connected to an off-base church; in forward deployed locations, there won’t even be an off-base option. Chapels in forward deployed locations have been some of the best I have attended, even though the chaplains are only temporarily assigned themselves. The chapel is built around the mission of the deployed location, though not always perfectly.
When I was TDY at Incirlik in Turkey, the chapel had dedicated chaplains and even a Christian coffee shop that supplied free food, games, and Christian music. Operation NORTHERN WATCH (ONW), though, which Incirlik supported, had been ongoing for years so it was a fairly “routine” deployment; the chapel was able to work around the relatively predictable schedule. Al Udeid airbase had a chapel program that I attended as soon as I arrived in Qatar. It had two Sunday services: a contemporary praise and worship service and a gospel service. Before hostilities started I was able to attend regularly; however, as the war approached, I was one of the group chosen to fly night sorties. I took off after sunset and landed before dawn on most days. Once I was established on the “night train” it became virtually impossible to attend what was equivalently the “midnight” chapel time. I came to rely primarily on my own Bible study time. I and several other Christians had a “happenstance” Bible study group. Since the combat sorties were so long, we often woke up, went straight to work, flew, landed, and went straight to bed. When we had the occasional day off it rarely coincided with downtime of the other Christians, but those of us that were available would do a short Bible study when the time presented itself. The best that a Christian fighter pilot can do during such an unpredictable TDY is have a strong personal study and make the effort to do more as the opportunity arises.
At some point during the deployment a fighter pilot will have some free time. During some TDYs free time will be so rare that he may be satisfied with simply doing nothing as a change from the constant demands of work. On the opposite extreme, some TDYs are a vacation from the fast-paced life of a home base. Particularly when those types of deployments are anticipated, a Christian fighter pilot should plan things to occupy his time. He could take books to read, an instrument to play, or materials for a class in which he’s interested. Obviously, a Bible is a requirement, and he might also consider Bible reference or study materials. Modern electronics have made some travel requirements easier, and a pilot might consider taking Christian music on an mp3 player or Bible study tools on a PDA or laptop. Most, but not all, Air Force locations will have some form of library that will have books, magazines, videos, and possibly internet connectivity. I think I can safely say that every military location has some form of gym. Regardless, exercise is a good thing to incorporate into a deployed lifestyle; it burns off excess energy and improves health and morale. Once at a TDY location, a Christian should fill his “extra” time with these activities, rather than giving in to the temptation to watch hours of television or party constantly. This will give him some mental and physical exercise and prevent cabin fever. The repetitive nature of many TDYs causes some people to relate their lives to Groundhog Day, the movie in which Bill Murray relives the same day over and over. The monotonous lifestyle and limited extracurricular activities encourage many to engage in wild (and often unwise) activities to release steam. By having edifying activities in which to participate, a Christian fighter pilot can have something positive to do that will also benefit his overall well-being.
Remote tours are, in many respects, similar to TDYs, with the key difference of length. (As of 2006, the maximum TDY length in the Air Force is 179 days. It is worth noting, however, that the Army is serving tours of a year or more in Iraq. A few Air Force members have served that length there as well.) Receiving an Air Force remote assignment means being assigned to a base in a far-off location for a year-long tour, most likely separated from family. Pilots in every Air Force fighter aircraft have some form of remote requirement to fill. Virtually every F-16 pilot is supposed to complete a remote tour at some point in their career, though it is not a given. Some may go an entire career and never go remote. Due to the costs associated with remote assignments (many expensively-trained people, including pilots, have separated from the Air Force rather than go remote), the Air Force is in the process of re-evaluating the status of some remote locations. What they ultimately determine (whether some bases close or are turned into normal accompanied assignments) could significantly alter the outlook for fighter pilot remote assignments.
Supposedly, most fighter pilots have a requirement for a single remote tour in their career, though many pilots may voluntarily take another, and the needs of the Air Force may dictate that some receive a second. Depending on the availability of assignments, accepting a second remote assignment may be the only way some pilots can stay in the F-16 and avoid an ALO or UPT tour. Some more senior pilots are offered command of a squadron in a remote location. If they turn it down, they probably won’t get another offer of command, and their career progression may grind to a halt. So while the “requirement” is for one tour, to get what they want (more F-16 time, a command) some pilots may volunteer for another.
Air Force remote tours are actually rather stable and predictable; pilots are generally fixed in one location and rarely go TDY. Most Air Force members on a remote tour will live in dormitories, the enlisted may not have a car, and all will have the majority of their personal household goods either with their families or in storage in the States. Remotes are often in austere locations or in very foreign surroundings, which limit the amount of activities in which to participate off-base. Feeling trapped on an island of a base, combined with the fact that remotes are so much shorter than regular duty assignments, causes many to view a remote as an extended TDY rather than a permanent assignment. This may lead to a short-term attitude in which people put off problems because they know that if they can delay long enough, their tour will end and it will become someone else’s predicament. With few things to do and a TDY perspective, little excuse is needed to spend much of the available free time either getting drunk or recovering from a hangover. Most pilots aren’t permitted to put off problems, but they definitely participate in the alcoholic atmosphere. Because there are so few activities outside of work, fighter pilot lives tend to revolve around the squadron—either officially, with pilots working long hours and through weekends, or unofficially, as pilots create a myriad of social functions with which to fill their free time.
There are several remote tours in Greenland, the Middle East, and Asia (mostly non-flying ones), but the most likely place that a fighter pilot will fill his remote tour is Korea. Kunsan Air Base and Osan Air Base host the two US flying units in Korea. There are also several staff and ALO positions to be filled throughout the peninsula. Since Korea is generally considered a higher threat area (people like to point out that the UN and North Korea are still technically at war), they tend to have base exercises with more frequency and gusto, which detracts from both personal and family time—whether they’re stationed at the same location or not. If a Christian fighter pilot is unable to bring his family on a remote tour, he’s faced with the prospect of being separated from them for the greater part of a year. Depending on the assignment, he will probably get one 30 day leave to go home with them, and he may get one or more opportunities for his family to come and see him for 30 days. This separation can be very challenging for young marriages or families with children.
Dealing with Separation
With family, a spouse, or a significant other, the separation of a TDY or remote will be a challenge to the relationship. While the sexual temptations have already been addressed, communication with family is important for another more subtle reason as well. While pilots are separated from their families they will have reduced interaction with their family and increased contact with the people they see every day. In today’s military, virtually every deployment—including combat—is mixed gender within the officer and enlisted ranks. Besides the sexual implications, it can be tempting to develop an inappropriate emotional relationship with a peer of the opposite gender. If a pilot finds himself befriending someone of the opposite sex and talking to them more than he communicates with his spouse, he is at risk for developing an intimate emotional relationship outside of his marriage. Such an emotional relationship can be just as damaging (and perhaps more so) than an illicit sexual one. The same logic applies to singles that are engaged or simply involved in a serious relationship that they intend to continue. In any case, a Christian who gives the appearance of having a special relationship a friend of the opposite gender while TDY will endanger his witness based on the smallest hint of potential impropriety. The mere appearance of an inappropriate relationship can threaten the stability of a Christian’s marriage. His family relationship should always take precedence.
Regardless of the reason or the distance of the separation, it is important to have as much communication as possible between those that have gone and those that are left behind. Most Air Force bases have a variety of connection methods even in the harshest environments. While I was in Qatar mail was dependable, a library with email computers was fairly accessible, and military phones were available for us to make morale calls twice a week for 15 minutes. The connection itself was generally good, though often there was a delay on the phone line that had the odd effect of letting you hear your own echo. There was no privacy, though; not only were there airmen parked on phones on either side, it was distinctly possible that the command post or base operator that had connected the call had decided to have a listen as well. There was also the obvious possibility that the calls were monitored for security reasons. Still, the phone calls were better than email and far superior to nothing at all. Some locations now have high speed internet so that military members deployed to even remote locations can communicate with their families via internet video phone, which has the benefit of both audio and visual interaction.
Maintaining a family is one case where I would elevate the relationship over financial concerns. It’s difficult—though not impossible—to grow a relationship over distance; just to maintain it requires immense effort and significant communication. Long phone calls are standard—particularly if one party is upset with the other—and pictures, videos, video phone calls, and emails are essential to keeping a visual connection with home. If a Christian fighter pilot keeps his phone calls short to minimize phone bills and uses the library because he doesn’t want to pay for high speed internet, then I think he risks endangering his family for the sake of a few dollars. Plane tickets will certainly be expensive if official travel isn’t available, but the potential emotional benefit to both the pilot and his family is unquantifiable. It does no good to come back from a remote well-off financially but having damaged or lost a family. There may be some financial sacrifices to make, and the Christian fighter pilot should budget and search for the best financial deals, but ultimately I believe that maintaining the family relationship is more than worth the cost.
Besides continual communication, commonality helps keep a family connected. One important example would be to have a common Bible study or devotional. This has the advantage of keeping a pilot and his family spiritually oriented together. When I deployed to Qatar, my wife and I did not know how long I’d be gone. To keep our spiritual lives somewhat linked we decided to study through a book of the Bible “together,” reading 10 or so verses every day. I chose Psalms; in retrospect, with its 150 psalms and hundreds of verses, it may not have been the best choice to encourage my wife of my speedy return. Still, by having a connected study, we were able to have our minds on similar Biblical topics. On the occasions we were able to talk or write we were able to communicate our thoughts about the study, knowing that the other had read the same verses recently. If creating such a study isn’t possible, Christian bookstores and online resources have a veritable plethora of pre-fabricated studies (See Links). Before my wife got an assignment to my base we were separated for nearly six months. It was easy enough to purchase two copies of a Bible study and have both of us complete the studies throughout the week; we were then able to talk about them on the weekend or email each other the answers to the study questions.
Regardless of the reason, the quality of the separation will be based on the attitudes on both sides of the relationship. Both the person deployed and the family at home must remain committed to the relationship and willing to put the time and effort into maintaining it. Separations are not easy, but if both sides understand its necessity and temporary nature, it will be more bearable. There are many Christian and secular resources on maintaining relationships over distance that have more ideas and cover the difficulties in greater detail. (See Links.)
TDYs can be one of the more enjoyable aspects of a fighter pilot career, though for the Christian they can also be one of the more challenging. Remote assignments offer opportunities to see unique place, though they too can be spiritually taxing. The separation caused by TDYs and remotes, though temporary in nature, can be hard on families. With knowledge, preparation, and active spiritual effort, the Christian fighter pilot can succeed and thrive even in the face of such challenges.