Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Never Ending Story: Part I

Two weddings and a baby. That’s the stat line for the three of us (I could also add one hernia and a bad knee to that list). It’s October 12th and we’ve been given the blessing from our boss to head home a few weeks ahead of the rest of our team to take care of our business (see above) at home as he would say. For weeks we have been engaged in a guessing game that can only be truly appreciated by those who have played it, attempting to pinpoint our exact arrival date home. Our Senior NCO sage likened this to trying to park a spaceship on a moving target back on earth, a fitting analogy although now that I’ve been through it I would add that we are not the ones piloting the craft. We are the monkeys riding in cages in the back of the unmanned shuttle and everyone back in Houston appears to have gone on coffee break, or perhaps permanent sabbatical. Maybe someone, somewhere, knows what’s going on, but from a passenger’s perspective, just trying to get some solid answers as to the whens and wheres of our return from the desert, every person you ask seems to only have a sliver of the bigger picture and to be quite okay with only being responsible for the tiniest fraction of the process and to have gotten down to the T the phrase “I’m sorry sir, but that’s out of my control” with the more frustrating variation: “I’m sorry sir but that’s not my responsibility.”

We space-blocked ourselves tickets to Kuwait on Sunday the 11th, but after placing all of our bags onto pallets to load onto the aircraft (we each have five bags each weighing about 50 pounds, plus a weapons case) and filling out a suspiciously brief questionnaire on a half-sheet of paper asking us if we are experiencing any of the following symptoms: cough, sore throat, sneezing, fever, spontaneous bouts of oinking, we were told our C-17 was having mechanical issues and our flight was cancelled. Yes, cancelled. Not delayed. Cancelled. Listen carefully because this is a brief window into what government run airlines could look like. Here is how it works. We were only space-blocked on this flight. This is the military equivalent of flying “stand-by” in the commercial world. Not surprisingly, all airlines overbook their flights due to the inevitability of no-shows. In the military world, a dust storm hundreds of miles away could cause 100 people to miss this flight, meaning a “full” flight could end up quite empty. You just never know. To a lesser degree this happens state-side too, but a lot less frequently. Case in point, on the final leg of my journey four days later and a half a world away from Iraq traveling from Phoenix to Tucson they announced that our flight was overbooked and asked for a volunteer to stay the night in Phoenix in a hotel room paid by the airline for the evening and the first flight out the next morning. Airlines seem to be getting themselves into this sort of situation more and more frequently of late, so says my traveling fiancé, so I’m assuming they’ve cut several flights to save some dough, but we’ll get to that part of my journey a bit later. There were no coupons for free hotels handed out after our flight was cancelled. There were no apologies either. We were simply sent home.

After loading all of our bags and promising to not be carriers of the Swine Flu (sorry… H1N1) we have just been told we will not be leaving as scheduled. However, there will be another flight out that night at 3 am which we can attempt to be on. Show time will be 12 am but this time, rather than retaining our space-block status, we have been reduced to Space A travel. This is actually worse than stand by. It roughly means, if we want to bring you, we will, but we don’t have to. A flight, even a flight with room, can choose to not add you for any number of reasons. Passenger/cargo C-130s and C-17s routinely bypass smaller bases in theater on their way from A to B with little or no explanation (weather, fuel, cargo, etc). Catching a ride is especially difficult if you are the only passenger trying to leave from a base because the amount of effort that goes into landing, reloading, and taking off again apparently makes getting you a not so worthwhile pit stop. I have heard stories and on several occasions been the one to be left behind for an extended and unpredictable amount of time. In those cases, all you can do is keep trying, day after day, haunting the passenger terminal until you’re on a first name basis with the workers there and have watched every DVD in their arsenal including Vin Diesel’s “Fast & Furious” twice. While this is a truly agonizing dilemma considering we’re trying to get home, it is no different than what I experienced on the way into the theater six months prior…

…After being incorrectly ordered to hop a flight to Baghdad by a Major not exactly in our chain of command, my friend and I spent four days trying to get on a flight to Balad so we could join the rest of our team and BEGIN our deployment. This is one of the biggest disadvantages of the Air Force way of deploying in ones and twos from different bases. Split teams don’t have much bargaining power to book entire aircraft for travel. Instead we often had to wait hours or even days for travel into and around the A.O.R. It’s not like we were going on vacation and were super eager to get to Iraq. Kuwait, other than being on average about ten degrees hotter than Iraq, actually had a cozy feel at the base we were staying at. True, we were living in tents, but it wasn’t bad otherwise. The fact that we had to push so hard just to get to war remains one of the biggest beefs I have with the entire experience…

…The comment to us at the counter at 1 am (now Monday morning, the 12th) when we were again told that our flight had been cancelled was that we were going home and therefore were not of as high a priority as those going home for emergency leave or R & R. On the priority list for the people managing the movement of personnel into and out of Iraq, we rank just above used Kleenexes. We had done our time, and they were happy about that, but there would be no thank yous at the passenger terminal, just unapologetic suggestions that we return at 6 am for the next flight’s show time.

Disappointed and groggy we headed to the truck to drive back to the office for a few more hours of sleep before our next show time. Somehow between the bright lights inside the terminal and the darkness outside I missed that the path to the truck veered to the left. Instead, I followed the sidewalk that lead me directly into a low concrete wall which I hit in full stride square on my right knee. It was exactly like you see in cartoons where a character hits a wall and boing-oing-oings back a few feet. I limped back to the truck, my knee throbbing and me cursing under my breath, my two traveling companions attempting to consul me between giggles and yawns.

Let me stop here to point out that the entire time I was in Iraq I was sick a total of three times, twice from food poisoning in the cafeteria, and once just having a common cold. I was injured a total of three times. One was when I strained my neck/shoulder lifting weights and the other two injuries both occurred at passenger terminals, the first in Baghdad on my way in. In the middle of the night I got up from the cot I was sleeping on in the terminal and I sliced my finger on a door. Then there was this knee thing at the JBB passenger terminal on my way out of Iraq. So essentially my deployment was book-ended by two airport injuries.

We made it out on a 9 am flight the next day. The flight was full and they packed us into the airplane like sardines. The bucket chairs (more comfortable, with leg and shoulder room) along the side walls of the C-17 were filled mostly with civilian contractors so we were moved into the center seats, rows of five seats apparently designed to transport armies of small children. For all flights (and of course convoys) around Iraq, you are required to wear your full “battle-rattle,” meaning our helmets, vests with front, back, and side plates and groin flap, ballistics glasses, and beneath that our usual winter-weight, Air Force standard Airmen’s Battle Uniforms. Balancing our bags on our chests we slept with ease for the duration of the hour/hour and a half flight, exhausted from the previous night’s escapades, and with far less oxygen than would normally be required for us to function properly making it to our brains with our lungs crushed under the weight of bags, vests and the chairs in front. Our chairs, apparently installed on wheels that were not fully locked in place, rocked forward than backward several inches at a time like the start of a roller coaster ride, further lulling us into uncomfortable slumber.

There were cheers when we went wheels up out of Joint Base Balad and again when we touched down in Kuwait at Ali Al-Salem Air Base, jumbled shouts of laughter, joy and relief. Still far from home we were finished in Iraq and with it 99% of the danger of our deployment. Helmets and vests were no longer needed. We put those and some of our other issued gear into crates to be shipped back to the states for the next round of soldiers and airmen to use. We locked our guns away in a closet. Those were coming home with us, but we wouldn’t take them out of their cases again.

After 24 hours of trying, we were finally on our way home.