The Magic of WestPac

As time grew short in San Diego last summer, and my squadron’s WestPac deployment loomed, it was hard for me to work up much excitement. That I would miss spending the holidays with family and friends, the long list of things to accomplish (related both to my job and my personal life), and the knowledge that I would be leaving my familiar and good life in the states for six months weighed heavily on me. In that frame of mind I couldn’t truly listen to those who had experienced such a deployment before, all of whom spoke of WestPac with an indefinable longing–for some it seemed like the highlight of their career (which, seeing as how most of them had flown fighter aircraft in direct support of troops in conflict, is saying a lot). Yet nearly three months into the trip I am beginning to understand.

Being abroad as a part of a group of young, capable comrades creates a carefree and deliciously arrogant sensation. Though our personal and professional burdens are heavy and the hours we work long, we are conscious of our collective freedom from the social restraints of home and proudly aware that should war erupt in the Western Pacific we will be the first to enter the fray. Robbed of the traditional cues of passing time (such as holidays and seasons) both by the tropical weather of our deployment locations and by our constant movement from one place to another, we happily find ourselves living mostly in the present–and when we do look to the future, we tend to care more about tomorrow or next weekend than next month or next year.

I could truthfully describe the time we spend here as frustrating, boring, hectic, exciting, and fun. There is an increased workload for us all that stems from both the constant packing and unpacking of the squadron itself as we move around and from the extra time spent learning how to fly in new, strange locations. For the young guys like me, many additional hours are spent after the normal working day studying for the Section Lead qualification. This is really the first career step for pilots after they arrive in the fleet, and it means (when they achieve it) that they are capable of leading another aircrew in combat in any air-to-air or air-to-ground missions of which the F/A-18D is capable. It requires both extensive knowledge and a lot of flight preparation to complete the course of 11 “work-up” flights in which we demonstrate to instructors that we are qualified as a Section Lead, and the required techniques for briefing, conducting, and debriefing such flights are specific and often “written in blood,” a half-euphemism we use often to note that such procedures were developed as a result of some forgotten mishap years ago. Moreover, the criticism of our conduct in these “work-up flights” is strict and can last several hours or more while the entirety of our preparation, in-flight decisions, and post-flight debriefing are examined, discussed, and if necessary corrected. It makes for long days, but we are all grateful for it–this winnowing process makes us better aircrew, forces us to develop the necessary habits of safe flying, and trains us to focus our flights on actual combat rather than mere administrative procedures.

Of course, the best part of deployment has more to do with squadron-mates than actual flying. Living together, far from our homes, with no one else to occupy our time, we “relax” by finding things to do together. Often that is having several drinks at any number of O’Clubs and bars in the places we visit. But tourism is also fun, especially when there is the chance of finding something authentically foreign and yet undiscovered (by tourists) in the unfamiliar places we visit. To this end I took a solitary bike tour through the compact and industrial city of Iwakuni to see the medieval Kintai Bridge and Iwakuni castle, stopping along the way back to enjoy being the only American in an (apparently) popular sushi restaurant. One weekend morning on Okinawa some comrades spent the morning driving to the island’s rural and beautiful northern portion to find a beach with adequate surf, and another evening there we headed into the colorful and cheerfully dilapidated city of Naha to enjoy sushi at the touristy and famous Yoshi’s restaurant. More recently I headed into the Outback to climb some waterfalls and dive into fresh-water pools in an Australian national park.

Some places have yielded better times than others, such as the concrete pavilion behind our barracks at Kadena Airbase, Okinawa. The cookouts, the songs sung drunkenly–particularly, nostalgically, “Country Roads” by John Denver–together under the stars in the heavy jungle air, the stumbling trips across the street to pick up more beer all contributed to the most comradely nights of the deployment so far. Likewise the Officer’s mess in Australia, scene of mustache competitions and three-man lifts, of cowboy- and 70s-themed parties (which we attended in the most flamboyant and outrageous costumes we could create), of the creation of drinking songs, and of friendly carousing with RAAF pilots is now also a place of good memories.

There is something about the places themselves that is exhilarating–they are unfamiliar and exotic–but the exhilaration also comes from our collective wonder and excitement at simply being on WestPac. I’ve already written of the indefinable pleasure of being catered to in Osan, Korea, but other places have their own intriguing characteristics. Okinawa is distinguished by the bright, Caribbean, almost third-world appearance of Naha city (with laundry hanging from lines strung between concrete apartments), the pockets of noisy jungle squatting darkly amid the sloppy civilization scattered across the island, and the riotous┬ásunsets spreading each evening over a golden ocean horizon. Australia is a place where only Orion and Scorpio are familiar in the night sky among strange southern stars, where the reddish outback is rendered curiously bright by the slender, undersized trees, where the large bats, alone of their species, sense the world through their vision and darken the evening sky with their great numbers, and where the thunderstorms are huge, swift, and violent. Many flights we have spent circumnavigating the towering and dark cumulus clouds, and I have watched from above the dense rain showers moving across the floor of the Outback and the terrible lightning striking all around my little vessel from cloud to cloud and down to the earth. In the evenings, when storms reach their climax, I have stood in the entrance to the tunnel leading to our bunker with other squadron members watching the lightning flicker brightly, every couple of seconds, in the darkening sky. One night, watching the storm rage, lightning struck the airfield control tower mere hundreds of yards away, causing us all to involuntarily jump back and cry out.

There is more to see over the next months of deployment. There will be more nights of drinking and visits to new places in Okinawa, Japan, and Korea. And after that we will be moving ourselves one last time, from Iwakuni back to San Diego. No doubt when the time comes to go home it will be welcome indeed. But for now I am glad that date remains comfortably in the vague future, because despite the increased stress and strain of deployment, I am enjoying myself much more than I did in San Diego.

This is perhaps the best-kept secret of the naval service–this is WestPac.