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Katherine Witt

A waste of time is hard to define.

Author’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.

"You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!"

Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, a teenage Swedish environmental activist, spoke these words on September 21, 2019 at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York City in front of world leaders, lawmakers, and the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.  Inspired by her arguments and passion, millions of protestors marched in climate strikes soon afterwards in more than 163 countries. Her basic recommendations for saving the planet include: flying less or not at all to decrease high levels of emissions; reducing meat consumption or adopt a vegan diet; joining an activist movement to amplify the collective voice; and voting for candidates who prioritize the fight against climate change.

I thought about Greta while I made coffee in Afghanistan. As I swapped out my second K-cup of the morning towards the end of the deployment, I thought, She’d be pissed. We had a common drip coffee machine for our 10-person office with plenty of grounds and filters available, yet everyone gravitated towards their favorite brands. K-cups are an easy item to send in care packages and we stockpiled hundreds in the storage room. My parents consistently sent me Wawa K-cups from Philadelphia and I drank at least two every day. Sometimes Jason, the other captain I worked with, made a pot and I drank at least one cup out of fabricated obligation, but I preferred my Wawa.

I watched the one-time-use K-cups pile in the trash along with the individual creamer and sugar packets. I worked administration and performed tasks like placing Styrofoam cups next to the Keurig right before staff meetings. I watched those cups pile up in the trash as well. Our office produced at least one 30-gallon bag of trash every day. I deployed to Bagram for 213 days. That makes at least 6,390 gallons of waste from our office alone. At the end of each day, one of us would tie off the trash bag and walk it to the dumpster at the south side of our building. Someone else would snap open a new bag and placed it in the can, ready for the next morning.

My husband, Jeff, and I honeymooned to Alaska in 2013. We flew in and out of Anchorage and traveled north to Talkeetna, Denali, and Fairbanks. August in Alaska is perfect. The average high in the Anchorage area is 64°F. The sun rises around 6 am and sets just after 9 pm. The Parks Highway, Alaska Route 3, is the only road we needed to connect our stops. Cutting through the Alaska Range, I had never seen such a pristine and unspoiled landscape. I felt guilty for interrupting its perfect existence.

There are 59 National Parks in the United States. Alaska is home to eight, along with Denali, North America’s tallest mountain peak, which rises to 20,310 feet above sea level. Denali National Park alone encompasses over 6 million acres, which is larger than the state of New Hampshire.

It’s difficult to understand the true size of Alaska. The state contains 365.5 million acres of land, 28.8 million acres of fresh water, and 6,640 linear miles of coastline. In 1980, Congress passed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), designating more than 100 million acres of federal land in Alaska as new or expanded conservation system units. These conservation units include national parks and preserves, national wildlife refuges, designated wilderness areas, wild and scenic rivers, and the Iditarod National Historic Trail.

The largest city in Alaska is Anchorage, with a population of 288,000 people. The entire population of Alaska is nearly 729,000 people. Compare that to the city of Philadelphia, the sixth largest city in the country. Doubling the entire population of Alaska would still be less people than the population of Philadelphia, which is 1.5 million people. If Alaskans were to spread out evenly throughout the state, each person could have 500 acres. That’s the size of Disneyland.

I once read in a magazine that Britney Spears drinks from a straw to protect her teeth from staining. Since then, I’ve tried to drink my coffee and anything other than water through a straw. This habit receives a lot of attention—and playful ridicule—from friends and colleagues. Even though I embarrass easily, my straw obsession is one behavior that I’m willing to defend. My parents spent a lot of money on my orthodontic treatment in middle school and my physical feature most commonly complimented is my smile.

In 2015, marine biologist Christine Figgener recorded a video of her team removing a plastic straw from the nose of a sea turtle off the coast of Costa Rica and posted it on YouTube. The team is on a boat and one member holds the turtle’s head steady with one hand while gripping an edge of the straw with pliers in the other hand. Every time the pliers pull at the object stuck in the turtle’s nose, the turtle closes her eyes and a single stream of blood seeps out of her nostril and down towards her mouth. The team takes about five minutes to extract the white and misshapen straw, the turtle hissing and sneezing and bleeding throughout the ordeal before she’s released. Soon after posting, the video became viral and inspired companies to eliminate plastic straws from everyday use.

One of the reasons for the war against plastic straws is because for most people, straws are a non-necessity. They are so thin and lightweight that they often blow or slip out of waste receptors and end up traveling across land and into oceans. In July 2018, Seattle became the first major city in the United States to ban them. Major companies have also joined this trend, to include Disney, American Airlines, and Seattle-based company Starbucks. In place of plastic, restaurants have offered compostable paper straws. Because of the ban, it’s now also easy to order stainless steel straws, bamboo straws, or silicone straws.

I’ve had the same pack of plastic straws in my house for years. I rinse and re-use the same straw at home until a hole appears in the bend or I lose it or my daughter drops it in the crack between the kitchen counter and stove. I keep another straw with the mug at my office for my morning coffee. A colleague I worked with in Colorado once gifted me a pink silicone straw and my father bought me a metal straw years ago, even before straws were thought of as a problem. I still use plastic straws most of the time because I like the size and I have a habit of chewing on the ends.

One morning, as I drank my K-cup-produced Wawa coffee through a plastic straw in Afghanistan, a lieutenant colonel asked, Why do you hate sea turtles?

Since the start of the War on Terror in 2001, troops have used open burn pits across Iraq and Afghanistan to dispose of waste in deployed locations. Types of waste include chemicals, paints, metal and aluminum products, petroleum products, lubricants, plastics, rubber, wood, and medical, food, and human waste. Service members typically use jet fuel as an accelerant and huge plumes of black smoke envelope the sky when the waste is set alight. These burned materials release toxic aerial compounds that damage the environment and the people who breathe in the fumes. At the height of burn pit usage in Afghanistan, we burned more than 400 tons of waste daily.

Burn pits were created as a temporary means to rid the bases of waste. Infrastructure gaps in some host nations do not allow for proper or contracted disposal. The safer way to dispose of waste is through incinerators, burial, or landfills. According to a 2019 report from the Department of Defense, “the long-term waste management solutions of Engineered Landfills or Incinerators require significant resources to run, install, operate, and maintain on a contingency location. Engineered landfills require substantial resources to construct and operate… Incinerators require a slightly smaller investment to purchase, however toxic chemicals caused by burning plastics can still be generated in the stacks. Most service members are not trained to operate incinerators or engineered landfills, which are prone to failure when not rigorously operated and maintained.”

In 2009, former President Barack Obama ordered a study into burn pits and the health effects on nearby service members. The results of the study include the possibility of adverse long-term health effects of open burn pits, to include cardiopulmonary diseases and conditions. Under current policy, open burn pits are strictly prohibited unless the Combatant Commander determines that no feasible alternative exists. There are nine burn pits still in use across Syria, Egypt, and Afghanistan, down from an estimated 230 at one point.

I don’t know if there was an open burn pit at Bagram while I was there. The air was normally hazy, dusty, and thick. Towards the end of deployment, I started to run more along the main strip on the west side of base in the evenings. Oftentimes, I had a pesky cough afterwards and other people who heard my cough responded by mumbling “burn pit.” I also developed a mild rash of sorts around my mouth and nose mid-deployment. The little bumps on my skin were red and sore so I went to the clinic and the nurse practitioner on duty said it was “Afghanistan Acne.” She told me that it was common, but she nor anyone else on staff knew the reason for it.

When I arrived home from deployment, I registered for the VA Airborne Hazards and Open Burn Pit Registry by recommendation of my first sergeant. The VA established the registry in 2014 and stated the need to gather more information on long-term health conditions related to these burn pit exposures. My skin has mostly recovered, despite random outbreaks every few months, and I no longer cough for hours after an outdoor run. But I do receive automated emails every few weeks, reminding me of the option to make a disability claim through the VA based on long-term symptoms incurred from the disposal of waste via burn pits.

Jeff, our children, and I moved from Colorado to Alaska in 2019 for an Air Force assignment. We discussed Alaska as an option and I added Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson to our list of possibilities, along with Peterson in Colorado and Dover in Delaware. My parents were really hoping for Dover, imagining an easy one-hour drive from Philadelphia on I-95 for regular visits with their grandkids. We broke their hearts when we made the call to say we’re moving even further away from them.

I spent four months living in Alaska before I was tasked to deploy to Bagram, Afghanistan with three weeks of notice. I think I laughed when my commander gave me the news in my office early in October. I was nervous and overwhelmed and excited and incredibly sad. Jeff was in a new nursing position, my three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son were settling into their fourth, and hopefully final, daycare arrangement since arriving in Alaska, and I was leaving them so suddenly and quickly after uprooting them from the life they knew and loved in Colorado. We made plans the best we could and I was gone before Halloween.

I don’t like sleeping in a bra. But after an attack in early December, I started to sleep in a sports bra, a spice brown t-shirt, and bikini-style underwear. Next to my twin bed was a nightstand and next to the nightstand was a sand-colored folding chair left by the NCO who occupied the room before me. I kept the other parts of my uniform—my blouse, pants, and socks—on the chair, along with my M9 and my holster. My boots were on the floor beside the bed. Some nights, when I tossed, I resorted to stripping down to nothing. Then, I would think about VBIEDs and I would stretch the bra back over my head.

The source of the explosion was a vehicle that drove into one of the perimeter walls 750 feet from the main lodging complex. The latch on my window blew off and the glass splintered like a heavy boot stepping on a newly frozen puddle. My alarm buzzed two minutes before the blast and I spent one of those minutes deciding whether I should rise for a workout or succumb to more sleep. I chose the workout so I was already at my door when the impact happened, across the room from the window. I remember the power failing and dust filling the air. I had been on my way to the restroom, covered only by a crimson bathrobe.

The first person to text me after the explosion was a maintainer who lived on the other side of base. He had sent me a work question in the middle of the night, during his normal shift, and apologized for waking me up. I’m not sure if the notification chirp woke me, but I wasn’t bothered by the interruption. Twenty-three minutes after the bomb, he texted again: Are you ok. The communications flight disabled WiFi shortly afterwards.

I spent most of the next sixteen hours in a guarded building while our defenders secured the base and F16s dropped bigger bombs on the desolated building where the bad guys hunkered. I watched our Wing Commander, a brigadier general, communicate with the Intelligence shop and higher-ranking generals to make decisions about how to neutralize the threat. At one point I put on my flak vest and helmet to deliver MREs to our squadrons across the base.

No one died. The nine insurgents involved in the attack were killed and they never fully breached the base perimeter. The medical team evacuated some people for head injuries incurred from the blast. In the months that followed, I processed a handful of Purple Heart medals.

It was all under-reported in the media. We found articles after searching, but there were no front-page headlines anywhere. Over the next couple of days, the only thing that happened was everyone back home asking me how I was doing and what I wanted in my next care package. They didn’t know that my Wednesday morning started with an explosion. They didn’t know that I loaded a round into the chamber of the weapon I carried every day. Two weeks before Christmas, friends asked what outfit I had picked out for my kids’ picture with Santa or if it snows in Afghanistan. They didn’t know what it meant to be at the other end of an attack.

In August of 2020, the Trump administration finalized plans to open up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and gas development. The Arctic Refuge is under protection of the ANILCA, so Congressional authorization is needed to drill in the area. Due to lack of infrastructure in the northeast region of Alaska, drilling is not feasible for years. However, Department of Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and the Trump Administration held lease sales to energy companies at the beginning of 2021.

The Arctic Refuge is over 19 million acres and the largest national wildlife refuge in the country. Polar bears, grizzly bears, black bears, moose, caribou, wolves, eagles, lynx, wolverines, beavers, and 201 bird species all live there. On the northern edge of the refuge is the Inupiat village of Kaktovik (pop. 258) and on the southern boundary the Gwich'in settlement of Arctic Village (pop. 152). Drilling in this area has been a political debate since 1977. The benefits include increasing the oil reserves of the United States, creating more jobs for Americans and indigenous people, and generating revenue. The detriments are damage to the land and the natural habitat of several species, to include humans. The plan for drilling anticipates the construction of airstrips and well pads, 200 miles of road, supports for pipelines, barge landing, storage sites, and more.

In October of 2020, President Trump also announced the lifting of protections for the Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest located across southeast Alaska. In 2001, former President Bill Clinton protected the forest from road construction. Trump reversed these changes with hopes to boost timber sales in the area. The Tongass is an ecological oasis, responsible for absorbing at least eight percent of all the carbon stored in the lower continental United States. Several indigenous tribes also rely on the forest as a home to their only food source. The Tongass is home to deer, moose, salmon, berries, and ingredients for medicines.

I grew up outside of Philadelphia. I’m used to convenience and traffic and pollution and noise and lots of people. Spending time with my friends typically meant going to the movies, walking around in the mall, gossiping in our bedrooms, or asking our parents to drive us to the indoor ice rink that was thirty minutes away (I’ll ask my mom to take us if yours can pick-up). Where I’m from, taking time to be outside meant racing to leave work early on a Friday afternoon to drive north on I-95 towards Ocean City, New Jersey, hoping to beat traffic and enjoy the crashing waves for a weekend. Or in the winter, my dad organized ski trips for my brothers and me 90 minutes north to Blue Mountain, one resort situated along the Pocono Mountains. I loved the Jersey Shore, reading on the beach and eating soft-serve ice cream with rainbow jimmies from the boardwalk. I also learned to ski in the Poconos and spent my sixteenth birthday snow tubing with friends.

Every summer from elementary school until my oldest brother left for college, my parents planned a two-week vacation for the five of us. Typically, we traveled west and visited National Parks because that’s what interested my parents. One summer, we flew into Denver to visit Rocky Mountain National Park and I was amazed. The highest point of the Poconos is 2,215 feet. Colorado is known for having over fifty peaks that are greater than 14,000 feet. The mountains there felt real.

I moved to Colorado when I was 18 because I never forgot that trip and I wanted to be close to mountains. Then I visited Alaska and have never felt so enamored with a place. I like to travel from Anchorage to Homer on occasion, by myself, to spend weekends in an Airbnb reading and writing and enjoying the views of the Kachemak Bay and its surrounding mountains. Alaska Route 1 curves around rock faces that open up to the peaks shaping the Turnagain Arm and Cook Inlet. While driving south, out of the right window is the sea and to the left, sharp cliffs make up the Chugach Range. Along the coastline on a clear day, Alaska smells like salty ice. Even in the warmest months, there’s a chill that lingers in the space above the water. Between summits, it’s possible to glimpse one of the thousands of glaciers spread across the state. The glaciers are a cold and screaming blue in jagged edges between the harmonic brown rocks and forest trees.

On our honeymoon, Jeff and I took a scenic boat tour in Seward, another seaside town. We saw otters, bald eagles, seals, puffins, and orcas. All of the animals were incredible, but to see whales in the wild was something I never imagined possible. When my brothers and I were kids, our parents took us to SeaWorld San Diego for one of those summer vacations, where we watched whales performing acrobatics in the tank with their trainers still inside. After the show, I told everyone I was going to be a whale trainer for at least a year; we probably watched Free Willy on repeat for the rest of the summer. The wild orcas in Seward didn’t do flips or chirp on cue, but their majesty and natural behavior were much more satisfying.

On the way home from work on a December evening at the end of 2020, my children sang along to The Greatest Showman soundtrack and fat snowflakes fell from the low clouds. By that time of year in Alaska, the sky had already been dark for hours and the roads were slick. As I merged onto the Glenn Highway, vehicles in front of me clicked on their flashers and traffic came to a halt. Sudden braking for some vehicles caused sliding and I saw cars peel off onto the shoulders with hopes of avoiding a collision. With studded tires and AWD, I was able to stay in my lane and peer ahead in search of a cause to the traffic.

About 100 feet ahead of my car, two moose frantically darted across the six-lane highway. My initial reaction was awe, thinking how incredible it was that people here actually stopped for wildlife. And then I realized that hitting a moose is not like hitting a squirrel; eight hundred pounds of mass can do significant damage to a vehicle and its passengers. The moose found their way to the tree line within minutes and people resumed their journeys home. After dinner that evening, I told my husband about the moose traffic and how I wanted to believe that people cared about keeping the animals alive. He responded, No way. Look up the Roadkill Lottery.

Alaska established the roadkill salvage program in the 1970s. Close to one thousand moose are killed each year in the state from vehicular accidents and the massive creatures are not easy to remove from the road. Additionally, moose meat is widely coveted and consumed in Alaska. The lean red flesh is just as versatile as beef or can be made into stew chunks, burger, or sausages. State troopers are typically the first responders at a crash site and they’re responsible for maintaining regional lists of individuals and organizations who want moose meat. Anyone called to pick up a moose is entirely responsible for the transport and field butcher. Alaskan roadkill is in high demand; everyone is eager for a few hundred pounds of free, nourishing, organic, free-range meat so the wait lists can be extensive. As part of the roadkill application in Anchor Point, Alaska, applicants acknowledge that they could be called to respond to the roadkill at ANY hour of the day; that they must be able to reach the roadkill animal within and no longer than 30 minutes from the call; that they are not guaranteed to receive a full-grown moose; that they agree to remove the viscera and other animal parts from the roadway and as far out of sight as practical; that they understand that if a moose is received, they are responsible for the return of body parts—the front six inches of the lower jaw, with teeth intact, and a femur—to the State of Alaska Department of Fish & Game within a reasonable amount of time after salvaging the edible meat.

I have no idea how to field dress an animal or how one goes about removing six inches of jaw bone with teeth intact. What does one wear to butcher an animal? I suppose that if I only had thirty minutes to respond, I may have to sacrifice my favorite jeans. Does hydrogen peroxide lift moose blood from clothing the same way with human blood?

I still book flights to visit family and friends and to visit new places regularly. I like to pretend I’m rugged and could live off the land if I had to, but I prefer gas fireplaces with a switch and meat packaged on a Styrofoam tray and wrapped in plastic. I’m trying to be better. I didn’t think that my behavior, as an individual, mattered much. And maybe it still doesn’t. But living here, in Alaska, the beauty and the life that thrives here finally convinces me to do better.

Before arriving in Afghanistan, I never felt like my life was in danger. I experienced bad car accidents and thought about my chances of an unfavorable medical diagnosis, but no one, to my knowledge, actively planned and tried to take my life. We were at war in Afghanistan and while the Taliban did not know me personally, my death would have been a celebration for them.

At the beginning of the deployment, I felt useful and energized. I enjoyed meeting people across base and learning about their families and lives back home. I enjoyed going to the flight line with my boss and watching him launch in his F16 towards the snow-capped mountains, where he provided close air support to our troops on the ground. I spent entire Sundays in my bed reading books from beginning to end. I looked forward to playing volleyball and trash talking on Monday and Wednesday nights in the C130 hangar. For a while, despite the attacks and threats, I loved it.

As the COVID-19 pandemic set in and our departure dates were moved or canceled, I watched friends and colleagues depart and I didn’t know when my turn would come. It was doable to wrap my mind around a six-month deployment; I tracked my April return date for months. But when that date was erased and no one could tell me a new one, my resolve crumbled.

I didn’t want to be in a place with rocket attacks and VBIEDs and ballistic missile threats. My throat tightened at the thought of seeing and holding my children again and I imagined that homecoming scene at the airport nearly every night before I drifted off to sleep. I wanted to take my daughter blueberry picking in Girdwood and board the Alaska Railroad to Seward with my son and fish for salmon in the Kenai with my husband in Soldotna. I missed drinking cabernet and sleeping next to my border collie and traveling to new countries.

A waste of time is hard to define. I too surrender to binge-watching Netflix and I can curl up with a good book for hours while neglecting housework. Trips to the DMV are never short, but I remember taking my son on my last visit to claim residency and I spent an hour focused solely on playing with him, which doesn’t happen often. I’ve had bad boyfriends that stuck around for too long. The worst of them gave the best gifts. Even on my most frustrated days at work with a surplus of meetings, I am paid a handsome salary. Sometimes if my beagle curls up on me just right, I will ignore all other plans and let her rest while I sit and pet her and smile at how much joy she brings me.

The more time I spent in Afghanistan, the more I felt like not just my time, but my life was being wasted. I don’t believe that I’m destined to change the world or launch an international campaign to promote positive transformation or that my face will one day be featured on Time magazine, but I still have so much love and attention to give. I felt miserable about losing nights in bed with my children and telling them stories about sea turtles in the ocean or looking for the right walking sticks for hours on the trail behind our house. I missed being with my husband between flannel sheets on a chilled Alaska morning and drinking coffee together. The enjoyment I felt early on in the deployment wore out and ideas of what I was missing continued to grow.

One day at Bagram, about a month before my departure, I spent the afternoon with the Expeditionary Rescue Squadron. They were practicing hoists and offered to treat me as one of their patients. Pararescue specialists, the Air Force personnel responsible for rescue and recovery, are physical specimens. I was partnered with a lieutenant named Tyler, who was well over six feet and had thighs the size of my waist. I, at 120 pounds, was no challenge for him.

I listened to the pre-brief before we walked out to the airfield. My commander wouldn’t let the guys take me off base so the preparation wasn’t all that intense. I strapped on my harness and loaded into the Chinook, attaching my lead to the cable running throughout the fuselage. As we lifted and peeled away from the runway, Tyler gave me the go-ahead to move towards the back of the aircraft to sit on the ramp. I slowly crawled from my seat and re-attached my lead to the rear cable so I wouldn’t fall out of the helicopter.

The day was beautiful: clear blue sky and frosted mountains surrounded us. We never left the perimeter, but I could finally see what was outside the gate. Farmland stretched for miles until the terrain spiked into mountains and the farms were interspersed with small houses. I could faintly see people milling about their land. Within the Bagram walls, everything is grey and brown and rocky; the blanket of vegetation outside surprised me. I let my legs dangle over the edge of the ramp and leaned back on my hands. In that moment, I felt like I was on the back of a pick-up truck in Texas on a summer day early in the season. Instead of cowboy boots and cutoff jean shorts, I wore tan combat boots and bloused OCP pants, but the lucky-to-be-alive feeling was the same. For a short time, that ride made me forget where I was and why I was there. I forgot about the people who creeped through those farmlands to set off IDFs and IEDs. I forgot about the people I wanted to hold back home.

"For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you're doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight…You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you."

Greta concluded her 2019 address to the United Nations with these words. I’m not mad at the United States or the Air Force or even my commander for sending me to Afghanistan. Not in the way that Greta is mad, at least. And that’s probably why she has the world’s attention. We were in Afghanistan for twenty years. I tried to stay focused on the mission and engaged in our objectives, and for a while I did. But for every death that occurred while I was in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help the thought from creeping into my mind: What a waste.

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Katherine Witt is an Air Force officer who taught English at the United States Air Force Academy. Her work has been published in Santa Clara Review, The Laurel Review, Hot Metal Bridge, CONSEQUENCE, and War, Literature & the Arts. She lives in Alaska with her husband and two children.

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