Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Road to Iraq (Part One)

I'm writing this from a CHU somewhere in Iraq, and here's a synopsis of the journey to get here:

We sat in a vacant field next to battalion HQ at Ft Lewis for about 5 hours, swatting mosquitos and telling stories until our buses arrived at 2330 to take us to McChord AFB. We sat in the passenger terminal on hard wooden benches (relieved by short visits to the very homey USO, staffed by extremely nice folks) until 0330, when we boarded our commercial aircraft and flew to our first stop at Bangor, Maine. We had a two-hour layover while crews serviced the airplane, so we all headed into the main terminal to pee and grab a sandwich. None of us were prepared for the gauntlet of greeters lining the jetway, applauding us and shaking our hands. Yep, most of us choked up right there on the spot. These local volunteers meet every flight of servicemembers going to or returning from the war, and extend their thanks for our service. Just another reminder that America has learned a lot of important lessons from the Vietnam War, in a good way.

Much to my added delight, the airport cafe serves an excellent lobster roll, which I promptly bought and devoured. Mmmmm, lobster roll for just doesn't get any better than that!

We bade farewell to the greeting team, and were soon on our way to the next stop: Leipzig, Germany. Leipzig used to be in East Germany before the 1990 reunification, so Cold Warrior that I am, it just felt weird to be in Army uniform there. The airport had that Soviet-Bloc charm, but there were fresh Brotchen (rolls) for sale, along with bratwurst, so I again feasted on a favorite food. So far, this "going off to war" thing was pretty darn good, at least in the regional cuisine department. Well, that sense of well-being ended abruptly when we landed in Kuwait. Everyone piled out of the plane into a hair dryer on steroids, complete with a dust storm worthy of a Best Special Effects Oscar. We shambled into a holding area, were directed to drink lots of water (thoughtfully provided in big cases), and finally boarded buses for our next destination, a mega-huge transit camp. Plusses: Our tents were air conditioned (sort of), with plywood floors, and the chow hall was only a half-mile stroll away. There were several fast food chains located in the vicinity to satisfy the carb and fat junkies, and a gigunda PX.
On the minus side: Some of the senior people hadn't figured out "Desert Rules" yet, like not having everyone stand outside in formation in helmet and body armor 30 minutes before we needed to, and then haranguing us for "not hydrating properly". We had three required training events to accomplish before departing for our final destinations, and all but one were kind of disorganized. (We had one lecture presented by a female British RAF sergeant in a droll, "Bridget Jones" manner that was downright hilarious, despite the serious topic of "Fratricide Prevention"...she is to date the only presenter either stateside or here to get an enthusiastic round of applause.)
Weapons qualification was the last mandatory event before we could depart Kuwait. We climbed on buses at 0345 hrs, and headed out into the desert. Our bus driver suffered from a serious case of cranial-rectal inversion, and was tailgating the guide vehicle so closely that we expected a collision at any second. Anyway, when we turned off the asphalt road on to the range road, we immediately came to an abrupt halt. Seems that the unit ahead of us managed to have one of their buses get bogged down in the sand, completely blocking the road. We sat in our buses for 30 minutes, until our leader decided to have us walk the mile to the firing range. I have always respected the infantry, but now have a new appreciation for what those guys accomplished on foot patrols here. We slogged thru the sand to the range, and then when finished we slogged back, thoroughly drenched in sweat and covered with sand. Our transportation smelled like a high school football team bus after an away game ("Take that, you tailgating driver!") Once back at the camp, we were ordered to pack our duffle backs in a hurry, and get ready to head to the adjacent airfield, with no time to shower or change clothes. Another formation in the sun, frenzied loading of baggage on to a truck, and another bus ride. We made incredibly quick time to the airfield, unloaded all of our bags...and then we waited. Turns out our flights into Iraq weren't supposed to happen for a couple more days, but one of the "Good Idea Fairies" thought that if we all showed up at the terminal looking like Rommel's troops after El Alamein, the Air Force would smile and say, "Gosh, folks, let's just move you in front of all these other soldiers who made flight reservations for today, because you smell so foul we don't want you in our waiting area!" And so how'd that strategy work out for us? Not so well...
(To be continued)

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