Freedom and the soldier

The wedding invitations were in the mail, the cake chosen, the church booked. But then, three weeks before the wedding date, Kevin got the call to deploy. He and his bride-to-be postponed the ceremony.

One of the ironies of military life is that the people who feel they are fighting for freedom have little freedom themselves.

"We're on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the rest of our lives," said Airman 1st Class Allison Bir, a medical technician here on base. It's a responsibility she says not everyone is capable of. "My friends at home ... are not self-sufficient or driven enough to do this."

Everyone on base talks about being "type A plus" personalities: aggressive, forthright, and charismatic. But a soldier gives up autonomy easily. In the military, a rule is a rule.

To a degree unlike anything in the civilian world, military life pulses to the beat of rules and protocol.

"There's a checklist for everything. The Air Force loves checklists," says Capt. "Doogie," a pilot with the 75th Tiger Sharks. In pre-flight briefings, the lead pilot does little more than intone, prayer-like, from a punch list while the wingman listens.

These rituals ensure that nothing is forgotten - and keep emotions in check.

"When you step into the jet, it's years of training and procedures that take over," says Lt. Col. "Shooter," an A-10 pilot. "I don't think about anything else than what I'm doing."

Maintenance crew members must sign out each and every tool brought out to the flight line and sign it back in upon return. This procedure reduces the risk that a tool would damage a jet by being sucked into its engine.

Before driving onto the air field, military vehicles stop and the driver walks around the car and removes any pebbles from the tire treads. One small pebble can cause a lot of damage to a jet engine.

Ceremony and ritual abound on the flight line. Chaplains make the sign of the cross or bow their heads as pilots taxi away. Maintenance crew chiefs pump their fists in the air or give a thumbs-up. One waves a giant American flag as the planes take off and return.

The ritual carries into the cockpit as well.

"I'm carrying two flags for my kids," says Maj. "Hitch," a pilot. "I make sure I have those in the same spot every time." Other pilots carry pictures of loved ones.

Along with rules, there is repetition. If there's one thing a soldier will do more than once a day, it's sign his name and rank.

Today, for instance, I signed my name, (using "Civ" for my rank) before eating at the chow hall, when I got a second anthrax shot, and when I picked up a sleeping bag.

The Air Force may be one of the biggest fraternities in the world. New pilots get assigned their call signs ("Doogie," "Hitch," "Slappy") often in connection to something embarrassing. "We come and do this for camaraderie more than anything else," said "Surge," a helicopter pilot. "You know that duty, honor, country thing? We do it for camaraderie."

Editor's note: csmonitor.com reporter Ben Arnoldy is on assignment in Kuwait as part of the Pentagon's program "embedding" journalists with troops involved in the invasion of Iraq. His reporting is collected in the web special project Assignment: Kuwait (http://www.csmonitor.com/specials/kuwait/).

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