10 September 2007

10 SEP 2007 Stick with your chalk

10 SEP 2007 Stick with your chalk.

(Spanning Western to Eastern Hemispheres)

Anyone’s journey is like anyone else’s. There is a start and a finish, and any number of disasters and successes before the ending. So I will try not to bore you too terribly with the details of my journey over the past 36 hours. Of course some of the details are best not to reveal as they provide a bit of specificity that someone intent on mischief could use to their advantage, so I’ve dropped a few of the proper names. Just imagine someone you know in a similar place, and I’m sure the image you land on will be pretty close to the truth. Also, I find it is very hard not to phrase any experience today without considering “how it compared to last time”. It always annoys me a bit to hear medical colleagues say how much better it was at the Mecca where they trained, so I resist that urge too, though it may slip out. On first impression, most of it seems the same anyway, except, perhaps for me.

The trip started much like it did last time. We reported at God-awful o’clock in the morning and made formation. I watched people kiss their babies and cry. My errant deployment paperwork showed up, sealed and completed, with the help of some dedicated friends. (redacted) mingles with us and we strike up a conversation. He extols the virtues of the new hospital, so much better than the tents. I ask him if he has visited. He hasn’t but he has seen a similar one just opened in (redacted). I’m pleased that we are less likely to have rivers of mud running through the wards when the rains come.

M. has sent me with a delicious bundle of nearly two pounds of delicious butterscotch-cinnamon bars. I share with friends. I have also brought a shopping bag full of Halloween candy from our early celebration last week. A day and a half later, I have consumed nearly all of the butterscotch bars, and I am sure that the dense sugar and butter calories have been responsible for keeping the engine going this long. Most of the candy remains and is tucked away in my contractor’s trunk for the flight to Balad.

I had little to do the long hours we were sequestered, so I gave in to the urge to call. I’m sorry my phone call woke you, it was still too early to call, but I was happy to hear your voice nonetheless. Especially since a combination of morale call limitations and a parent-teacher conference have conspired to keep me from hearing it tonight. It did make me very happy to speak with B.

Friends from the hospital visited to say goodbye and good luck. It was sweet of them to come, and it reinforced the feeling of family among our medical unit. They say that I will be missed, and even as a nicety it pleases me because if you aren’t missed you aren’t useful. I have worked with a large percentage of this deploying group, and I know that they will work hard to take good care of the people we encounter. Public Affairs pays me the compliment if asking if I would be willing to speak to the press. By the time the photographer gets to me, I am racking against the wall in a metal chair and he gets a wonderful photograph of a napping officer. It is good to be captured doing what I do best.

The announcement comes that family must clear out. The conversation in the classroom had reached a warm reassuring buzz, but it immediately takes on a more frantic and pained tone. New kisses and tears follow. I see one boy who is about seven shake his head at his stoic teenage older brother and say “you’re not very emotional, are you?” When relations are hustled out, we take roll and learn our itinerary. We have a day’s journey to the east coast, north, across to Europe, and then a rest in an Air Base in (redacted) before the military flight hopping to . A long line of well-wishers forms in the hot sun on the tarmac to see us off.

The day rolls on, punctuated by butterscotch bars. We shuffle from bus to bus. There is a strange dance of busses as they switch places in the parking lot, apparently to keep us from lingering behind on a bus and missing a briefing. It reminds me of the way prisoners switch busses when they go through a checkpoint to guard against stowaways and contraband. We shuffle from airport to airport. The seats are small. A chief assigned to command sits next to me. She describes how she has seen civilian aircraft reconfigured for military troop transport. Where two rows of seats have been removed, three are installed in their place. I read Huckleberry Finn and The Emperor of the Air. We watch movies and I note funny lines to tell M.

Along the way, volunteers from the USO feed us and tell us to stay safe. Once, there is a DJ, but nobody dances. In Maine , close to midnight, a long line of veterans and retirees greets us with smiles and hugs. I think I have seen some of them in patriotic videos set to music in slow motion and circulated through email. After we pass, they meet to discuss who is staying for the 2am arrival. Many are octogenarians. A friend and I take the opportunity to order a fresh Maine lobster roll. You can taste the cold water in the crisp tail meat. I miss family in Texas and the east coast greatly. As we fly over, I pick out city after city to which I want to move. In we are sequestered in a terminal that feels like a cage that is only slightly larger than the airplane. A military tourist trap sells sodas for three dollars and certified pieces of the Berlin Wall for $20.

With new fuel and a new air crew we make the final jump to the Middle East . A comedy plays on the video screen. When the final credits finish, the trip computer comes on screen and shows that we are in the airspace over Tikrit, . It is a sobering vision and laughter about the movie quietly dies down. As I disembark, I’m overwhelmed with the feeling that this place looks, smells, and feels the same. Even near midnight, the air is heavy and hot, and a halo of suspended dust blurs the flood lamps. What a dump. We form a bucket brigade to tuck our gear away and are given bunks in barracks that hold around 60 troops each. We are separated into groups called “chalks” and are told to await announcements of flights to Balad. We are wide awake with travel stiffened joints, sweaty kits, and jet lag. We scatter to find the morale telephones, Cadillac shower trailers, and beer garden. I settle into biscuits and gravy with potatoes, sausage, and bacon at midnight chow. I watch Fox on the big screen TV as Bill O’Reilly marginalizes MoveOn.org. It is the first of many visits to midnight chow.

You must be as tired of this journey as I am. I hope I’m not stuck at this waypoint for too many days. There is a crew in Balad that is waiting for us to spell them. I miss you greatly. It’s time to take a shower and rack. One day down.




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