Aiming High in the Air Force: 2004, Part One: With Frickin’ Laser Beams

Me (January 2004)

I started off 2004 on a high note. I was granted permission at the end of 2003 to move off base, and I was living in an apartment complex just across the street from the South end of Nellis Air Force Base. It was a one-bedroom, and it was the first time I had ever had a place that was completely my own. My dad gave me a kitchen table and chairs that he was no longer using, and I packed it into the back of my car during my visit at Christmas.

As exciting as it was to finally be living on my own, however, I quickly realized that I no longer had anyone to talk to. In fact, I never saw my neighbors the entire time that I lived in that apartment complex. Instead, I turned my attention more fully online. I’d had my web sites–Jeffrey’s World and FedNet (later rechristened Trekipedia)–for several years already, but now I spent much more of my time maintaining them. I also spent a great deal of my time volunteering as an Assistant Scoutmaster for one of the two Boy Scout troops on base. At work, I moved from the Logistics section’s warehouse up to the Prime BEEF deployment planning section, and my friends Tom and Arica were married in a wedding chapel in Las Vegas.

 

The kitchen table in my apartment

Early in the year, I requested a slot for a program that would allow me to have laser eye surgery–specifically, photorefractive keratectomy–performed by an Air Force doctor. Space was limited, so I justified my request by recounting the difficulties posed by the eyeglass insert lenses on my gas mask, which routinely caused me to be unable to achieve a good seal. Considering the frequency with which my job required me to wear a mask, I argued, eliminating the need for insert lenses would be of tremendous benefit to my safety. My request was approved almost immediately.

After several weeks of screening examinations, I was finally given an appointment to have the procedure performed. In May, I flew to Travis Air Force Base, near San Francisco. I stayed in base lodging for several days after the procedure was completed, while my eyes healed enough for me to be able to safely travel back to Las Vegas. Prior to the surgery, my eyesight was so poor, I couldn’t even make out the first line on the vision charts (aka “the big E at the top”); since that was rated as 20/400, my vision was (pardon the pun) clearly worse than that. In fact, I couldn’t see clearly further than a foot from my face without my glasses.

The procedure required that the laser actually reshape my corneas, altering how light was refracted through them so that the focal point was, properly, on my retina at the back of my eye. I was so severely nearsighted, each eye required twenty seconds under the laser. My eyes were held open with specula, and a nurse placed drops in my eyes to prevent them from drying out while I was unable to blink. Incredibly, I could actually see the room (or, at least, the ceiling) become clearer as the laser worked on each eye. There was a slight, barely noticeable odor of burned tissue, but painkillers and numbing eyedrops had been administered before we started, so my face and eyes were completely desensitized.

That didn’t last. I was prescribed codeine and sent back to my room at lodging to recover. When the medicine wore off, the pain was excruciating. I stayed in my room with the curtains drawn, and took the codeine and eyedrops whenever my prescription allowed me to do so. After two or three days–time blurred with the curtains drawn–my eyes had healed enough that I was able to fly back to Las Vegas. After two more days of rest, I was back at work, albeit with a waiver permitting me to wear sunglasses, even indoors, as I was still incredibly photosensitive. My vision eventually stabilized at 20/15, a vast improvement over my old eyesight.

Co-pilot Elizabeth

A few weeks later, my mother came out to California for a few days with my my niece, Elizabeth, while they were flying from Japan to Iowa. I took some leave time and drove out to visit. On our first day, we spent some time with my dad and his parents, and took Elizabeth to the museum where my dad worked. While we were there, we took Elizabeth up for her first helicopter ride, with my dad at the controls.

The next day, we took Elizabeth to Disneyland. This visit was, to date, the only time that my dad got to spend with his granddaughter, who was already six years old by this time. He was completely wrapped around her finger. So much so that he spent a ridiculous amount of money on a Princess Jasmine costume, because she wanted to dress up like her favorite Disney princess. Of course, I wasn’t immune, either; I bought the shoes to complete the outfit.

We spent the entire day at Disneyland. We went on dozens of rides, mostly in Fantasyland, which was geared more for younger guests. We ate lunch at the Rainforest Cafe in Downtown Disney with my friend, Darren, whom I’d first met while a student at Fullerton College before I enlisted. Darren was working at Disneyland while attending Cal State Fullerton, and he was kind enough to help get my family into the park for the day.

Elizabeth and Jasmine

We stayed until Elizabeth was so tired that she could barely keep her eyes open. When we got back to our hotel, she was so exhausted that she fell asleep without even changing out of her princess costume. She simply curled up on top of the bed with the stuffed Stitch doll I’d given her and went to sleep.

The next day, we went to Knott’s Berry Farm, another nearby theme park. While she enjoyed Disneyland, Elizabeth absolutely loved Knott’s. Although it was much smaller than Disneyland, Elizabeth simply seemed to have more fun there. Disneyland didn’t have the same kinds of high-intensity rides for kids her age, and Knott’s seemed to specialize in them.

Sadly, all things must end, and my mom and Elizabeth had to continue on their way to Iowa. I went back to work at Nellis, and quickly became wrapped up in preparations for a major inspection in September, as well as the aircraft crashes or HAZMAT responses that seemed to happen on an almost quarterly basis. I also started blogging, infrequently, in August. I bought a used car, since my old one had finally been driven into the ground, and it turned out to be a complete lemon. It was from this point that things started to go downhill for me.

As the new school year began, I enrolled in a math class at the Community College of Southern Nevada, in order to complete the general education requirements for my degree from the Community College of the Air Force. As the inspection drew near, I was expected to work later and later hours. One evening, I was working to prepare my squadron’s deployment folders for the inspection, staying late because much of the paperwork had been misfiled by someone. I was allowed to leave work early to attend class, while one of my coworkers continued to work on the folders.

The Vegas Strip, seen from my office on base

The next day, I was given paperwork–specifically, a Memo for Record–by my flight superintendent and my section supervisor. I was told the Memo would remain “unofficial” and wouldn’t be placed in my Personnel Information File at my squadron’s headquarters. That seemed odd to me, to be given paperwork–deserved or not–only for that paperwork to not be put in my file. Then, my supervisor and superintendent told me something that still infuriates me to this day, long after my military career ended: I was told that I would get out of “their” Air Force, or I would be “helped out” by them.

I was livid, but too intimidated as a junior enlisted Airman First Class by a pair of Senior Noncommissioned Officers (SNCOs) to stand up for myself. I had enlisted with the desire to make a career out of the military, just as my father and grandfather had done before me. I told another SNCO in my flight that I trusted about what had happened. He, too, was infuriated, and when he made his displeasure known, he became a target of my superintendent as well. Lines were drawn. Soon, my office was divided, trust was dwindling, and life began to become extremely uncomfortable at Nellis.

 

© 1997-2019 Jeffrey Harlan All Rights Reserved -- Copyright notice by Blog Copyright