Sunday, August 21, 2011

Looking for some body...

Mission callouts from my SAR team leader all seem to take the same shape these days; the phone rings, and he asks, as usual, "What are you doing this weekend?"

I reply, as usual, "I don't know, but I have the feeling you're about to tell me." I also have the feeling it's going to involve dogs and probably at least one dead person (missing people who might be alive typically won't wait for a weekend; those happen on their schedule, not ours). As usual, I was right on all counts.

I don't get to see my SAR teammates nearly enough since I moved out here with Greg last year; it was a very sudden transition from seeing them all at least twice a week, often more, to maybe once every couple of months if time and gas money fell into place. These people, and most of the dogs, too, are like an adopted family to me, and I miss them, and part of me feels a little guilty about leaving. If this PCS move to El Paso goes through, it may be several more months before I can work with them at all, so when I got the call from my team leader the other day, there was the usual drive to find the missing, solve the mystery, help the family, but also a much more personal and sentimental reaction to getting to spend a weekend in the field with my team again.

As soon as I hung up the phone, I realized I had just done something slightly stupid; the medication for my Crohn's-related iritis dilates my pupil and makes me painfully and ridiculously photosenstive, to the extent that I can't tolerate sunlight even with two pairs of sunglasses on. The only solution, since I wasn't willing to miss the search, was skipping my medication for a couple of days. That went tremendously better than I honestly expected, though not without some moderate discomfort.

I make the comment on every search, and it always applies: "Why am I never following this guy and his border collie through anything pleasant?" Despite being nominally "in town," our search area this weekend was composed partially undeveloped and partially abandoned areas, full of brush and undergrowth as only Texas can do it; Greg came home with an inexplicable spot of poison ivy on the inside of elbow (seriously, how do you get poison ivy there?) and I managed to garb hold of a thorny vine this morning, so I spent a few minutes cussing and bleeding- but honestly, I live for this shit; the messier and harder the better. I'll take my adventures where I find them.

Heat was a major challenge this weekend; it limits the working time of both dogs and people, but the limits heat places on the dogs are narrower and less negotiable. Even an eager, willing dog cannot do scent work effectively in extreme heat, because the act of panting affects airflow through the nasal passages in ways that bypass most of the important bits for serious scenting, and because the heat changes the extent to which the scent itself emanates from the remains and the way those molecules behave. Our work was limited to half days, which meant early mornings, several hours of searching, and then lazy recuperative afternoons. That turns out to be a really pleasant combination; being clean and cool and lounging around with a good book and a glass of sweet tea is something you never really understand how much you fail to appreciate properly until you're doing it after a morning of sweat and dirt and soreness, and the tiredness itself is that vaguely pleasant kind that comes from having done something fulfilling.

The case itself was too interesting to pass up, and as we worked this weekend, we increasingly found that much about the situation and the information we had were difficult to make sense of (hence my comment on Twitter, during a break at base, that every case is different but some are more different than others). We spent some time at dinner last night comparing notes, exchanging ideas, and debating theories and fragments of theories; our informal version of debriefs, those discussions, especially when we're all loopy and giddy from exhaustion and heat, are always one of my favorite parts of the mission.

I'm really glad, as always, that my husband Greg is willing to do this work with me. Search and Rescue / Recovery is demanding work mentally, physically, and emotionally, and requires a commitment of time and resources that few people are willing or able to make; without understanding and supportive family members, it would be impossible to do what we do. I had hoped for and expected that support, but I'm continually amazed by and grateful for Greg's willingness to be actively involved with the team himself.

His training and competence are tremendous assets in the field. Just today, he ended up running communications at base (at least partially because he was mildly frustrated with civilian radio practices; this was when I learned that the word "repeat" in military radio protocol means "shoot it again" which is not something that comes up a lot in civilian applications). My teammates are like my family, and I don't lightly trust anyone to watch out for them, but I know I can count on Greg.

Besides, my teammates are like my family mostly because of the nature of this work. The hours together, the shared challenges and experiences, the moments of silliness and stress and triumph, and the emotional nature of what we do all form a bond that you sort of have to experience to understand. I'm glad that Greg and I get to share that too.

(cross-posted on my personal blog, One Day at a Time)

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