Wednesday, March 24, 2010


This is a recycled post, from my tour on MAUI in support of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom.

Last night was the first night in probably 18 days that I got more than three hours of sleep at a time. I usually sleep about seven to eight hours a night, but never more than three hours at a time. I'm always on call, and my watchstanders have direct orders to call me for a myriad of circumstances. It just seems like the last three weeks, they've been competing to see who can call me the most during the night. I think OPS is winning. He averages one call every 30 minutes.

So, needless to say, I was suffering from lack of sleep. I talked to my sister last night, and after describing the situation, she not only recommended the subject of this post, but was also concerned enough to suggest (strongly) that I see a doctor to make sure I wasn't doing permanent damage to myself.

The awkward thing about sleep in my chosen profession is that everyone in my immediate surrounding suffers from severe lack of it. I heard about a study at Command and Operations school done by the Coast Guard a few years ago about fatigue. I may not have all the details exactly right, but it went something like this. Some sleep specialists went out underway with a ship on patrol and did some tests on the personnel at the unit. The test was given at the start of the workday, and each individual followed his/her normal morning routine (coffee, breakfast, smokes, whatever). Then they sat down in a regular office chair with nothing to do and were told not to fall asleep. According to the specialists, people getting sufficient sleep should be able to not fall asleep under those circumstances for at least 20 minutes. Fatigued people tend to start nodding off at 15 minutes. About 80% of personnel at the unit the specialists studied were zonked out in under 5 minutes, indicating, of course, severe sleep deprivation.

And we're expected to function safely in an inherently hazardous environment like this. Hmm. But somehow we manage to do it.

There is a certain amount of bravado associated with being able to manage such arduous hours (note from the present: you can bet that, while I whine about being port and starboard, I will tell *that* sea-story with salty pride for the rest of my life!). I can tell you nearly to the minute how long I've gone without sleep due to operations during my career. The longest was 30 hours followed by four hours of sleep followed by another 18 hours awake and "functional." We were in the middle of a crazy go-fast chase in the Eastern Pacific, and I was an integral part of the process as OPS. I wasn't the only one pushing on through lack of the end of it we all looked like zombies. I slept for 15 hours straight one it was all done.

The kicker is that during that 52-hour period, the stress level was out of control. I've never been so nervous that people under my tactical control had the possibility of dying as I had that night. I'm sure I'll pay the price, healthwise, of constantly living with high stress and no sleep. But that's a lot of what this job is all about. Pushing yourself to the limits, and coming out safely on the other side.

So, here's to a good night's sleep. In a comfortable bed. With no phone calls. Or banging doors. Or loud equipment kicking on. Or off. With no bad weather outside.

Back to the present on KISKA: I've thought a lot about sleep lately. When I wrote this post, I think we were standing gloriously rich one-in-four, three-hour watches. But we were underway for five to six days at a time. Now, the port/starboard watches are only for two to three days at a time at the most. I'm not sure which is more difficult.

I've been planning how to keep myself busy during an upcoming maintenance and repair period. Almost two months of being in homeport, living in my own house, shaping some sort of standard routine; I haven't done something like that since I was XO on WASHINGTON during our drydock, nearly seven years ago. It's gonna be a test period for adjusting to grad school. What I'm looking forward to most--sleeping in my own bed on a regular basis...


Azulao said...

For someone like you, graduate school is going to be a bloody vacation. When faculty whinge about how biiiiizzzzy they are, you can remark absently about the time when....

Kick their asses.

Do take care of yourself, though; I agree with your sister. Prolonged sleep deprivation not only makes your judgment suck, you end up "microsleeping" and that can be fatal -- say if you run into a moving object.

JulieAnn said...

Ditto Azulao, grad school is a huge vacation (at least that's how it was for my hubby). I keep telling him that he needs to write a book about how being a CO prepared him for parenthood. Sleep deprivation, life and death decisions, all great fodder for a book!