Sunday, May 8, 2011

coming down is the hardest thing

"You're going to make me say it, aren't you?"

The diminuitive flight surgeon looked across the small office at me, her face a measured mask of compassion and regret. I breathed in a moment, pursing my lips as I looked down at brown flight boots, nicked in dozens of little places. Dusty, still, and more beat up than they should be at their age, no thanks to a week out in the field at SERE.

It had come to this. I thought back to my first time, in the back of the Cessna, puking up husks of pumpkin seeds while Dave had a go at his third landing of the day. Later on, in the T-6, popping my mask to huck up stomachfuls of bile and belch out hot, gingery burps.

"You back up with me?" the IP would ask, and I'd lock my mask back up to my face, gulp down the 100% and say, "Yes, ma'am. I'm here." You've really got to make sure you get the ziplock seal good for the split S, cause it's coming up next. Interestingly, I didn't puke during the spin. I think I was so concentrated on oil pressure and not dying, my gut forgot.

Pills work wonders. They also slowly kill you. Moderation in everything, I suppose.

Jacksonville, after quaking in delight at my selection letter. LT Sagehorn half-laughing at me, one eyebrow drawn up. And in-between bailout drills that would never actually be carried out anyway, I'd reach for my bag, beneath the airsave vest and tucked into the chest of my flightsuit. Eating bright orange goldfish at least provides for some variety on the way back up. Tip: bananas taste the same the second time.

Two flights out from winging, and the dreaded "I word" shows up on my gradesheet. Incapacitated. Acclimation flight after acclimation flight, and I find myself packing back up for Pensacola, ready to jockey a chair for eight weeks, forty-five minutes a chop. And laying on the floor afterwards, grateful to press my face against the dirty carpet because it wasn't moving. I pass because, unlike my stomach I can control my mind, and I can trick myself about that damned chair. The old muppet-shaped man signs my paperwork, and I'm splitsville.

Two days later back in Jax and I barf four times on a Tac flight. I make my peace with flight, grateful to God that my last moments out here in the delirious burning blue would be over these glinting waters, blue-and-fire in the late Floridian afternoon sun. A leaf tells me not to get discouraged, back in STUCON. I wonder when the right time for that might be. They wrangle me Q orders, promising that I'll be able to hack it if I can adjust to a Nav flight profile. I get limped through, nursing drills and taking breaks standing in the flight station whenever my skin starts to crawl. Months belated, my folks come down, I have a dozen guests and I get my wings after all, feet shoved into spraypainted shoes and tearing up after it's over.

And then SERE, and Advanced SERE-- training that left me with loose teeth and a permanent frayed nerve when it comes to Rudyard Kipling. My clearance. Flight physicals. Now here I am in Washington, and after thousands of miles and multiple airframes, there is one constant. I threw up on my first flight, and now I either get queasy or pass out. How far am I willing to go? There's surfing the knife edge, but if you slip, the severance is brutal and permanent. I think about the kids in the back. The clouds where mountains hide. My own exhaustion, keeping even pace with me this whole time. I look at my hands for a moment, and know one thing above all others: Not on my watch.

I look back up at Doc Pham.

"Yeah, I am." I sigh. "Cause I'm not going to."

She smiles, gently shakes her head. She's already told me she hates this part. Who wouldn't?

"Ok, go talk to your department head."

There's a moment, I blink my eyes and let her words sink into my skin. I walk out in a daze and cry in a corner of the hangar, my favorite Chief Warrant holding my shoulder and being altogether softer with me than she usually is. I keep my back to everything else, letting her see this raw part of me, but nobody else. Leslie told me back at OCS, you cry in your room if you need to, but when you open that door and walk out, it is game on. Nobody needs to know. I wipe my face and take a few shaky breaths. Soon this, too, will be a memory.


As of last Thursday, I have been permanently grounded from flight, aeromedically disqualified due to chronic airsickness. I'm going to stay Navy, but I don't know what I'll be doing yet. Something good, because I don't jack around.

I don't know what the timeline is for anything. I don't know what comes next. I'll keep you all posted. Thanks for caring. And for the record, I'm ok.

As Chappy said in "Happy Texas," one of my favorite movies of all time: "That's what life's for, isn't it? Findin' out."