Saturday, July 30, 2005

Remembrance of things past

Was this just 5 weeks ago? It seems like 5 months. The days roll together in a seemingly never ending cycle. I get up, drink coffee, get ready, walk to my office, work 12 hours, eat three times, watch an hour of TV and go the bed. This is The only thing that keeps me from chuking it in is knowing that my bride is strong and supports this. Not too much longer. Gotta get that new house built. Gotta get that youngster's college tuition put away. I can rest then. Sleep fast, sleep when you are dead.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Ok. Made it to Dubai. Two days late, hungry, cranky, and 20:00 but here none the less. We get our bags and waltz through customs. Since we have landed at the charter terminal and the customs folks know we have come from Iraq they don't search any of us. I don't know if this is because they think we are all stone killers or because they know there is nothing to smuggle out of Iraq except dirt. Either way we waltz.

You go outside and try to put your luggage into the compartment of the 40 passenger bus. Keep in mind that this is a day coach design and while it carries 40 passengers, it is designed for 20 backpacks or so. if you are not one of the first 10 people you can't get your bags in and you have to lug them into the coach. All of this makes you start to wonder just what the hell these people are taking with them. You have a weeks worth of clothes and a camera in one bag. Some of these people need a train of native porters to haul their stuff. I wonder if they are not really smuggling dirt at this point. You finally get everything loaded and go off on the bus. Yay! We are going to the hotel only we are now informed that since a pair of nitwits streaking drunk through the lobby got us thrown out of a really nice hotel, we are now HQ'd in a not so nice hotel across the street.

Upon arrival we are met by more fierce looking security guards. They have us form another line. We stand in line for our airplane tix for the trip home. All this time you are steaming to get A: Something real to eat. B: A BEER There are nitwits in front of you arguing about their tickets. They wanted the 12:45 from London to Miami but since it is the height of tourist season they are on the 12:50 flight. THIS is a major problem. After 30 minutes Bubba from Mississippi finally understands that it all washes out in the end and takes his ticket. You wait some more and then they get to you. This is not the ticket you asked for. Bubba had a 5 minute difference. Yours is at the wrong time, on the wrong date, to the wrong location. THIS is a major problem!

"Oh, so sorry sir! That is not your ticket. Here is yours! You decide against acting on the homicidal impulse which first occured to you. Your ticket is fine (HA! More on that later.) You finally have a ticket in your pocket, money in your pocket, you are out of Iraq and off the books. What is the first thing you do? You walk over to the bar, get 2 beers, and shotgun them. Now, let's get a cab and be off to the hotel.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Days and Nights and Long, Long Flights

I had a meeting with some night shift personnel and asked them what benefits there were for working on night shift. Along with the usual "There are no big wigs roaming around" and "It is much cooler" were some really good comments. There was one guy though who really put where we are in perspective when he stated that he did not have any jet lag flying to and from the states. By working night shift here he was on an ordinary schedule with the US.
That is a bigger benefit than most folks realize. Most people don't know just how exhausting it is to travel from this part of the world to CONUS. Imagine this and follow me.
You work a 12 hour shift and report to leave. You leave for the flight line at 21:00 for a 22:00 flight. It is a 15 minute ride to the flight line. You do this because the helicopter may be early. It does not show up until 01:30. You get in line and walk through the hot exhaust. You are wearing a full rifle protection vest, a kevlar helmet, long sleeves, ear plugs, safety glasses, and carrying two bags. It is 110 degrees ambient temperature and about 140 in the exhaust area. You work your way past the Machine Gun post and sit sideways along with up to 50 other people. The bird lifts off and you are lulled to sleep in 2 minutes by the hum and vibration of the ride. A minute later you are woken into a semi panic state as the automatic flare system is popping off because they got to close to a burning garbage pile. You don't sleep after that.
The Chinook sets at a pad at the airfield. You get out and have to walk about 1/2 mile to the transient center. You find out that no one sent a bus for you. You go into the center and no one there has commo with your company. You go back out to the parking lot and sleep on your bags.
About 06:00 a bus rolls up and you finally get a ride to the BTC. This is the place where you process out for travel. You get there and they assign you a space in a room designed for 4 people. There are two bunk beds in each room. The staff apologizes that there are no sleeping bags or pillows but you are OK with this because you have traveled this route enough to know to bring a pillow, towel, and space blanket with you. You get to your room and discover that the bunks are all full and there are two cots for you and some one else. You don't care because you are tired and just want some more sleep before the 10:00 roll call. You settle in the bunk fully clothed and nod off. This is interrupted 20 minutes later by your new room mates coming in and talking about subjects you have no interest in. They are oblivious to the fact that you want to sleep so you give up and go to catch the bus for breakfast.
At breakfast you run into several people you really don't want to talk to but they sit down and you force a congenial conversation. You return via bus for the roll call. You have a 2 day lay over planned in Dubai and have hotel reservations so you make sure you are on time so you can catch the afternoon charter flight out.
At roll call they announce a sand storm has settled in and all flights are cancelled. You have the joy of staying at the BTC another day. Whoopee. You suffer it but retain your composure as there are a lot of others in the same boat. The personnel handling the BTC announce that there will be roll calls at odd times and that you will have to use your psychic powers to figure out when. If you miss one of them you get bumped from the flight. because of this no one strays away very far.
You get back to the room and find that while you were gone two people moved out so you now get a top bunk. That's OK until you look on the bunk and see the old piss stains. You decide the cot is better.
You spend a boring day eating, attending roll calls, and trying to sleep and check in for the briefing the next day. The sand storm not only has not abated, it is almost a sand hurricane. Needless to say, they don't want any flaming wrecks from the sky so no flight. Another 100 people arrive who are trying to leave and now some serious crowding issues begin. You have now lost 2 nights at your hotel that were pre paid. You have one night left. Yippy Skippy.
Low and behold, the flight leaves the next day. You are bussed to the terminal and sit for almost 5 hours until they are ready to board you. During this time you are forced to form a line at all times. The security personnel handling this have zero people skills and attempt to make up for that by constantly scowling and looking fierce. After standing in line three seperate times and making a forced march to the holding pen the fierce looking security folks announce that the snack bar has been judged to offer the worst food this side of Tijuana. Having been to TJ and never gotten sick I am at best, cynical about this. However, the prospect of being on your well deserved R&R while taking the Saddam Two Step is not very appealing so you opt for a can of Pringles and twco cokes. Some of the others have also bought Pringles that are different flavors so you all sit around and share. It is sort of a meze type lunch.
They finally announce that you will board and once again the fierce looking security guards have you line up. You now go through a pat down from some Iraqi security personnel. It is not a good idea to wink at thses guys or be a smart ass of any kind. You just suffer through another indignity so you can get the hell out of here.
You load up in an old rickety bus that reeks of diesel fuel and has stained seats. The crappy stereo is playing the Offspring wailing 90's tunes at full cracking volume. The driver grins and gooses the accelerator. Several people almost fall but he just keeps on grinning.
You get aboard and find that your seat adjustments do not work at all. You start to look around and notice that the charter company has changed again. This one is called Phoenix Air. You are not very comfortable with the fact that they have named the airline after a bird that rises from the ashes. The Russian crew can barely speak English. You notice that the backs of the tray tables are all labeled in Spanish and English. The lit signs above the seats have been painted over and English scratched out of the paint for instructions. You wonder which language they painted over.
The plane takes off and makes several hard banks to the left as they corkscrew out of the airport. This maneuver is supposed to make you think they are avoiding missiles but it does no good at all for that. The bad guys can set up two miles away and hit you with a stinger. This vomit inducing move is for random gunfire. You feel like you are in the airline version of a NASCAR race.
You then start to notice that your knees and ass are numb from being squeezed into the smallest seat ever put in a commercial airplane. You wonder if this thing used to belong to Willy Wonka and the plane was used to transport Oompah Loopahs.
2 1/2 hours later you land in Dubai. It is 20:00 two days after you left your camp. The first thing you wonder upon landing is if you really packed enough underwear this time.

Friday, July 08, 2005

18 Hours in Dubai

The Burj al Arab is the most photographed place in all of Dubai. On our way to R&R the three of us stopped of for an 18 hour tour. We of course had to have our picture taken at the place. It is sort of like the Eiffle Tower for the Middle East.

Dave, James, Brent and two Asian girls who were not smart enough to get out of the way.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Hit in the gut

I had a great R&R with Carren and Tanner. I'll put more on that later but I wanted to share a letter I wrote today to some friends. It follows here:

While I was on R&R I heard that we had lost an Apache in Baghdad. Even though the news did not confirm it I knew it had to be one of ours stationed here at Taji. I always have a feeling like I have been hit in the gut when I hear about helos going down. This has been ever since 1st Cav lost an Apache and I knew both the airmen. This was the same.
I knew them both. I didn't know them closely but I had met them in an MWR center and we talked aviation shop talk. These Apache crews are joined at the hip. They call each other "front seat" and "rear seat".
They rag on the Black Hawk pilots and are considered the elite of the rotating wing air world. They are the best helicopter pilots in the world and they are absolutely fearless.
I know a lot of the guys from here who have been killed or wounded. I also knew several of the contractors and some Iraqis who have died.
Today we got news that a bus on its way to the airport was ambushed and 4 women in it were killed. Sure enough we heard that two of the women worked at the snack bar in the airport. This just makes me ill. These were young girls. They were good Muslim girls who wore their head scarves and did not flirt but just conducted their business professionally and while being friendly about it. Nice girls, educated, and good English speakers. I spoke with them several times and like most Iraqis they just want all the strife to end so they can get on with their lives.
I know all this will be over one day and we will all go on with our lives but I just hope that none of these people are forgotten. I remember a promise I made to myself at the very beginning that I would not forget those I knew. I still think from time to time about Francis Vega. She was the first I knew to die. She worked in the postal section and had handled several packages for me at BIAP. She was transferred North and when she got her R&R her Chinook was shot down with 17 casualties. This was in November of 2003. They named the Post Office at Camp Liberty after her.
I hope that no more people I know die but I am sure some will. I am glad that most of my friends have made it home safely. Guys like Butch Jacobs, Dwayne Koontz and Neil Cohen. They are unsung heroes who did their time and now are just trying to get on with their lives. I know that they talk about all of this to people but that they always hold something back. They tell some of it but not all. They understand now why Vietnam vets would say," You would not understand, you were not there." Its true, you don't understand unless you have been here. I am glad they are OK but I know that they wake up every day and wonder how their friends over here are doing.
I got a phone call today from a guy who worked for us in 2003 and early 2004. He wanted to check up on everyone and see how we were doing. He also just wanted to vent a little about how the media is misrepresenting all of this. He knows what we know. We are not fighting the Iraqi people, we are fighting radical Islam. We have no beef with the Iraqis. For the most part they are good honorable people who just want to get on with life. We want to help them to accomplish that.
Sometimes the violence hits close. I mean this in a literal and figurative sense. Mortars, rockets, and sniper fire are one form of it. Violence perpetrated on those you know or are affected by is another form. It all plays on our souls and on our attitudes. My attitude about this is unshakeable. This is a good fight. This is the right thing to do. There are those who want us to fail but we will not. We can't. Our very way of life depends on it. I may die over here. If I do I hope no one forgets my sacrifices the way I don't forget the ones before me.
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