Seven Military Strategies for Coping with Social Distancing

Notes from war zones and other remote areas.

Posted Apr 01, 2020

This is a guest post by Obaid Omer. Obaid was born in India and grew up in Canada. From 2002-2018, he has also worked as a civilian contractor in war zones and various desolate places.  Obaid currently manages the operations of an Internet service provider in a remote region of Northern Quebec. As always with guest posts, this is presented because I think Obaid brings an interesting perspective to these issues, whether or not I agree with them.

As we are required to sequester ourselves increasingly, I thought I would share my experiences.

On my deployments, even though we were around people, we kept to ourselves. We did look after each other and made sure we were all okay. There were social activities on the bases, but not many, and we had to get creative.

Wikimedia
Rodin's Caryatid Fallen Under Her Stone
Source: Wikimedia

Currently, we are going through similar isolation. Some may be going to work and then returning home, or some may be working from home and not leaving often. Eventually, we will have to stay indoors as much as possible, going out only in need.

We have had a culture shock. The first couple of weeks have been hard. Here are some recommendations to make it less hard.

1. Figure out a routine stick to it. Also, as long as you are able, go out for 30-60 minutes every day. You can go out and avoid people. In cities, there are always areas that are empty, now more than ever. If you live in smaller or rural towns, go outdoors. 

2. Rigid flexibility. There was a term often used on the bases, rigid flexibility. You were rigid in your objective but had to be fluid in doing your job. Use this idea when setting up a routine; stick to it, but as things change, adapt. You will find having a schedule helps pass the time, and you have mini-goals throughout the day.

3. Spoil yourself. If there are treats you like, buy them now. Buy little things to "spoil" yourself. 

4. Proactively seek social contact in other ways. Find out what games, puzzles, there online that you can play with others. If you are alone, the main thing will be keeping in contact with others. If you are with your family, you will be able to support each other.

When I was overseas, I had people that I could talk to in person. We may not have that luxury. We can, however, use technology to reach out to our support network. You can reach out to family and friends on scheduled times, set up a network of people you can reach out to in need. Maybe organize virtual dinner parties with your friends over a Hangout, Facetime, Skype, etc.

5. Work on common goals. Having people with whom you share a collective experience helps, as does having a common goal. No matter what our job was on a base, we relied on everyone doing their job. It was my responsibility to set up and maintain communication systems and networks. I could not do my job if the electricians did not work, nor could I work if purchasing and receiving did not order my equipment. Our goal was the stated mission. In my case, that was a military objective, but we focused on our specific tasks. We always knew we were working towards a common goal and had to do our part.

Our goal should be to support each other and minimize the toll that COVID-19 is going to exact. If you are working or studying from home, that is your task, do it thinking you are helping our common aim. 

6. Check on your neighbours and friends. Reach out to people. One word of caution, if you are going through this, don't send out general messages on social media; reach out to friends and family privately through DMs. I wish it weren't, but social media is awful for things like this, and there will always be someone who will try to take you down for being human. If you see people breaking down on social media be kind.

Lee Jussim
Bald eagle seen in NJ
Source: Lee Jussim

7. It's ok to freak out from time to time. Cry, freak out, primal scream.

We are very adaptable and things become “normal” very fast. Almost everyone I worked with, after a few months, would call the base home. I remember when I was going back after a leave in my mind I was thinking I am going home. You will get used to this as well.

The thing that struck me the most in my work, was the generosity that was displayed daily. We all knew what we were, collectively, going through. If we got care packages from home we shared. We made sure people were ok. You are seeing some of this now. A lot of people are doing selfless acts. There are a few negative stories; focus on the good ones. If you can do something to help do it.

When Things Get Dark

I was in Bosnia when my dad died. He went into the hospital on November 30 and was diagnosed with lung cancer. They were starting treatment, but he died early morning, December 9. My brother called me on the base to let me know to come home on the 8th. My work had bought me a ticket for the 9th. I never got to say goodbye to my father. I bring this up because I think that quite a few people will not be able to say goodbye to their loved ones. We need to be kind to each other right now.

I was at a lot of ramp ceremonies in Afghanistan. A ramp ceremony is when they load the casket of a soldier on a plane to repatriate it. Words are said, and the base says its farewells. At one point, they would read out the names of those killed that week every Friday. We were constantly reminded of death and the dangers we faced. I wish I could tell you how to prepare for these grim reminders that I think are coming, but all I can say is find a way to cope.

The main thing about what we're all about to experience is keeping in contact with each other. We will need to find novel ways to socialize. Work toward keeping everyone safe. There may be a need for people to take on new roles. Be rigidly flexible. Rigid in your resolve to get through this and flexible in your thinking to find ways to do so.