Wednesday, December 01, 2004
Around The World In 20 Days....
I'm at a loss for words to describe the events from October 4th through October 24th, 2004. It's taken me a month just to find the time to explain it all. The only thing I can do is simply start from the beginning and hopefully it will all make sense. After all, how do you describe a trip that covered most of the globe and involved many different countries, life or death situations, and moments that brought to life of so many dreams I've had throughout my life.
Between October 4th and 7th, I continued doing my Exec job at Kirkuk. The only difference is that I had to train the two knucklehead Lieutenants that worked for me how to do my job (since I did most of their work in that office). I also had to find the quickest way off the base, so I spent most of my time driving around from office to office looking for a way down to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. When my Commander released me I didn't realize I was truly on my own in finding transportation from Northern Iraq to Qatar. Let me rephrase that... I had to find timely transportation down south. I could have waited around for a week until a C-130 found its way to Kirkuk, but I had two very important reasons for not waiting around. First, I did not want to stick around. We had gone nearly a week without an attack, and I would rather not stick around and wait for the Insurgents to catch up to their monthly quota of attacks against our base. The second reason was because I ended up finding a Travel Agent down in Qatar who hooked me up with a great deal on a commercial flight from Qatar to Sydney Australia. I originally wasn't going to go and meet Tonya down there, but when I came across the deal I couldn't pass it up. The only catch was that I had to find my way down to Qatar as quickly as possible or else I would lose my tickets. To make it worse, I had to know when I was arriving so I could arrange a ride from the Air Base in Qatar to the commercial airport in Doha City. The travel agent, who I really didn't know, offered to pick me up outside of the base and drive me there as long as I called him ahead of time. Basically I set myself up for disaster... almost.
Whipping the two Lieutenants into shape didn’t take long, but on Oct. 7th I handed the whip over to the true holders of power in the office… two of the coolest and hardest working Admin troops on the planet. Of course they’re women, but calling them the Admin Girls, Lavern and Shirley, or Janet and Chrissie just fit better. Thankfully they didn’t file an IG complaint. Honestly, these two were the best people anyone could ask for, and they made my deployment a million times better. The senior of the two, 'Janet', knew her stuff well, so things happened despite my daily attempts to mess everything up. She was also very funny, and her sarcastic humor kept everyone on their toes. The other one, 'Chrissie', was actually very intelligent, she just constantly acted goofy to make things more fun. She was a great motivator when things were getting harder. I really do miss them both, and I can only hope to be stationed near them some day down the road.
Later that night I found out that the Army had a 'Sherpa' headed up to the base bound for Balad, Iraq. Balad is the 'Mega Base' in Iraq, and I knew that if I could just make it to Balad I could easily find a flight to Qatar. A Sherpa, or C-23, is literally a propeller-driven shoebox with little wings. (Click here for to see pictures of it) I was told by the Army folks that I would be flying Space-A, so there was only a 50/50 chance of actually hopping on this flight. The next morning I knew I was in for a rough day as soon as I woke up. I slept in, so when I realized what time it was I shot out of bed and slammed my head against the top bunk. The way things started off, I thought I would never get out of there that day.
I quickly drove to the Army terminal and dropped my bags off. With 2 hours to go until the plane arrived I continued driving around base to other organizations to see if I could find other ways to travel south just in case this didn't pan out. I wanted to make sure I had a backup if this flight didn't pan out. By the time I made it back to the terminal I had two others lined up... a ride with the civilian contractors down to Baghdad that afternoon and a helo ride to Balad late that night. Of course either would have made me miss my flight out of Qatar, but at least I had options.
That reminds me... when I said I dropped my bags off, I meant that I dropped four 80-plus pound A-Bags full of gear and equipment, my weapon, 1 laptop, and 1 small gym bag. Whereas the Army troops pack one C-Bag and a backpack to last them a year, the Air Force makes you pack hundreds of pounds of gear that you will never come close to using. Air Force personnel are always the comic relief at military transportation terminals because we're always over packed and struggling to carry all of our gear.
Anyways, as I drove back to the terminal the Sherpa was pulling up. Turns out they were doing a stop-and-go, meaning they would spend very few minutes there and would not shut off their engines. I kept my fingers crossed of course, hoping they would take me. So far the answer was no because they would be picking up more folks elsewhere and they were going to be too full. At the last moment, they came in and told me to grab my bags and hop on. Remember my bags... picture me trying to run across the flightline with about 300 pounds of baggage. It was pathetic, but I had to make it. Struggling along with only about 10 steps left until I reached the plane, with the engines still running, the crew chief signals to me that they were full. I dropped my bags, and for about 10 seconds I just stood there in disbelief and exhaustion. Just as I was turning to head back another crew member stuck their head out the plane's door and waved me back. This stroke of luck would be the first of many over the next 48 hours.
I threw my bags up to the crew chief, who I could tell was pissed off with all of my baggage, jumped inside and sat down near the front of the plane next to a large passenger window. The seats were all cargo-net jump seats running down each side of the plane. I was the only one sitting on the left side of the plane, and I was sitting across from about 10 Army troops all wearing full combat gear. Once again, the brilliance of the Air Force, all of my body armor had to be left at the base supply hanger because of the low supply of them in theater, making me travel across the country with nothing. These Army troops must have thought I was a total dunce for just sitting there with nothing on. Trust me, I wish I had had the gear to wear. The plane was so small, anyone with a BB gun could have punched through it and done some damage.
We were given a quick safety brief and informed that we would be flying about 100 feet off the ground, going from base to base to move troops around, until we reached Balad. Instead of earplugs, I put on my headphones and hit the play button on my 20Gig Mp3 player. Little did I know that the next 5 hours in this little flying shoe-box would be the best thrill-ride of my life.
Within seconds after lift off we leveled out at about 100 feet and proceeded to hug valleys, rivers, and hills, dodging houses and power lines with inches to spare. With the band AC/DC blasting in my ears, this ride was the most fun I'd had since my last F-16 ride through the Alaskan mountain range. We were going fast, but we were so low to the ground that you could see the kid’s faces as you flew over their homes, or the farmers stares as you flew over them and chased their sheep across the ground. I couldn't believe how much agricultural land there was. To me, it was almost as if I were flying across the Central San Joaquin Valley in California. Nothing but farms and rivers as far as the eye could see. Like most people I always assumed Iraq to just be a big sandbox. This place is very fertile, which explains why civilization started in this region. I know I had the best view in that plane because the Army troops were sitting too close to each other to look out their windows. That, and a few of them were getting pretty sick and filling multiple vomit bags. Like I said, this was the best ride ever... better than any roller coaster or thrill ride I'd been on before.
We flew this way for a good hour until we landed at a small base called 'Key West.' Once the plane stopped and turned the engines off, everyone got out and went into the terminal shack. I just laid down on the flightline under the wing and enjoyed the quiet and warm breeze. A few others realized that lying on the ground was much better then sitting in a small shack and joined me. I just laid there and thought about how I never could have predicted I would be laying on the flightline of one of Saddam's old Air Force bases in the middle of Iraq. It just reinforced my belief that life is truly unpredictable. (As long as you make it that way)
We hopped back onboard the plane and flew another hour to yet another base, doing exactly the same thing as last time. One funny moment at the second base happened when I was laying out on the flightline. About 10 helicopters flew down the runway and landed next to us in perfect formation. Without turning off the engines, and almost as if on queue, all of the crew members stepped out of their helicopters, walked about 10 feet away, and relieved themselves. It was one of the most perfectly choreographed moments I'd ever seen. It must have been the normal routine for the Army because I was the only one laughing at it all.
Once again we took off and headed further south. I was enjoying the low-flying ride and listening to great music the entire way down. We stopped at a third base, did the same thing as the first two, and then finally headed to Balad. Of the many things I noticed as we flew over Iraq, most of the larger farms were putting together all new Agricultural equipment. I'm from California so I know modern equipment when I see it, and the larger farms had loads of brand new irrigation equipment, tractors, and other equipment. It gave me some warm fuzzies inside knowing that this ancient and fertile land would be producing more food and resources then it has ever done in the last 10-thousand years of farming. These people will be prosperous again soon.
As we flew into Balad we crossed over a very large city that reminded me of a giant Palm Springs California. I couldn't help but notice once again how I had no protection as we flew in whereas the Army guys had all of their gear on. Anyone could have taken a pot-shot at us and I would have been hit. I hated that feeling. Anyways, we landed at this insanely large base and rolled to a stop. It was 1200 in the afternoon.
The terminal where I needed to sign up for a Space-A flight to Qatar was a few miles a way, and I was going to have to wait a good hour to get a shuttle to take me there. As luck would have it, the Colonel I was chatting with at the various bases we landed at along the way had a ride waiting for him, so he let me tag along and drove me to the terminal. He even helped me with my bags. That was extremely nice for an Army Colonel. Once in the terminal, I signed up for the first available C-17 headed to Qatar. It was scheduled to leave at 1630 local time. In keeping with the historical military transportation motto, it was time to 'Hurry Up and Wait.'
I just sat in the terminal and chatted with the employees. At one point I hopped on a shuttle bus to go around base and find a phone. I'm glad I did, because the driver was this old retired African American guy with a Cavalry hat on. He was from Georgia and was enjoying his retirement by driving busses on an Air Force base in Iraq. He really enjoyed his job, and I was lucky to have met him because his constant joking and story telling was the perfect tress reliever after all of that traveling. On the way back to the terminal I had a bus driver who was from Macedonia. He was cool to talk to as well. He reminded me of the character Steve Martin used to play on Saturday Night Live... when him and his roommate would say in their thick Eastern European accent, 'We're two wild and crazy guys.'
When I got back to the terminal I started talking to the civilian employees a lot more. After all, they were the ones that could get me on a plane. I wanted them to know how important it was for me to get down to Qatar since my commercial flight left the following morning at 2am. Talk about feeling like I made a mistake and was going to miss my flight. I had a good thousand miles to travel still, or so it seemed, with only a few hours to go. Well, at about 1600 (4pm) I was informed that my flight was cancelled, which is a standard thing for traveling Space-A. They signed me up for the next available plane that left at 1830 (6:30pm). At 1800 (6pm), just as my taking me to Qatar plane was supposed to arrive, the base was attacked by insurgents with mortars. Once again, I had no gear. Gotta love it. The interesting thing about that attack is that 15 seconds after the mortars started hitting the base (you could hear the thuds and explosions), I heard a set up booms that sounded different. Turns out that the Army had a way of tracking the point of origins for the mortar attacks, and immediately starting returning fire. There I am standing outside with a bunch of other troops, the sun had set and there was just a little bit of blue light in the sky, and you could hear cheers all around you from the folks who knew our guys were firing back at the insurgents. One of those surreal moments I guess.
After a good 30 minutes the plan finally landed and I was whisked aboard along with 3 other guys. This was my first C-17 ride, and if you've never seen one of these planes before, it is truly a work of art. The C-17 is the Air Force's newest cargo plane, and it is amazing. I'm so used to flying in much older planes (40+ years old). This new one is not only spotless, it actually works well. In the past, new aircraft systems took decades to perfect. This thing is perfection, and has proven itself as the best transport ever flown. Thankfully we own it. Nobody else can get equipment to any point around the globe like we can. Anyways, we took off and I proceeded to lay down in the cargo jump seats along the walls and listen to my music. It was so spacious inside of this plane, I felt as though I were in a auditorium or hockey arena. I wouldn't feel safe until we left Iraqi airspace, but since I had no windows to look out of all I could do is wait until we landed. FYI, bring lots of ear protection if you ever fly in one of these things. They're not insulated from the sound of their huge engines.
Finally we landed and I stepped foot onto the 90+ degree flightline in Qatar at about 2200 (10pm) at night. I had 4 hours until my commercial flight left and I still had to inprocess onto the base through customs, change out of my uniforms, store my weapon and gear, and get to the gate to meet my ride who I had called before I left Balad to tell him I was on my way. Nothing went smoothly. The hardest part was changing out of my uniform in a storage room, packing my little gym bag with a couple shirts, pants, and toiletries, and then bribing the armory troops with Iraqi coins to store my bags for almost two weeks. Once they agreed, I hopped on a shuttle and rode to the front gate. I had no guarantee that my ride would be there, and I still didn't even know if I could trust him or not, but I really had no choice.
As we pulled up to the gate I met Albert, my travel agent and ride to the airport. He was an older man, about my height, and drove a beat-up old Honda Civic. He turned out to be one of the nicest guys I had met along the way. He was originally from Jordan, and he informed me that he was Christian, which was out of the ordinary for a country like Qatar. He couldn't operate his manual transmission if his life depended on it, but he got me to the airport safely and on time. Along the way I was able to see Doha City, Qatar. No kidding, it looked exactly like Torrance California. Lots of stores, shopping centers, large streets, and restaurants such as TGI Fridays, Applebees, Arby's etc. Qatar wasn't too bad for a tiny little speck of land that stuck out into the Persian Gulf from Saudi Arabia. The conversation with Albert was good as well. He joked about how nobody liked the Saudi's. Why, I have no idea, but that was the norm there. Honestly, could they really tell the difference? (There's my Western ignorance shining through)
Turns out Albert used to be a manager at the airport, so he helped me work my way through all of the various desks and security checkpoints, and waited there until I got through security and my passport was verified. We even had a quick bite to eat... my first that day, but it wasn't my smartest move. Never, ever ever eat a chicken sandwich in Qatar... 'nough said. Once I passed through security I sat at a coffee shop and played games on my laptop until I had to leave. It was a western-style shop, but the employees waited on you as if it were a restaurant. One funny moment was when I was sitting at my table next to a window at the Cafe, and outside there was an airport employee who was staring at my laptop screen as if he were gathering vital intelligence. No matter what I did, he just kept sneaking up to the glass, trying to see what I was doing. I guess you just had to be there to see why it was funny.
From there I got on the plane at 2am, an Emirates flight from Qatar to Dubai, UAE. It was only a 45 minute flight, but it marked the perfect transition from that insane day of traveling to an even stranger day of flying across the globe and landing in Australia. Within 48 hours I had traveled through Iraq, hopped across the Persian Gulf, and stared out my window at the Sydney Opera House.
Don't ever tell me that life is not amazing and unpredictable...
To be continued
posted by El Capitan at 2:04 PM
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