16 JAN 2008 The peripatetic road home, first inhalation
Hi friends! I've finally found a quiet comfortable spot to rest on my way home. Since I've got nothing to do but rest and wait for air travel, I thought it was a good chance to tell you a little bit about the road that got me here. I feel like I'm at a pit stop for the night on "The Amazing Race." It is wonderful to be here, but I won't have won until I get home to M!
I started thinking about redeployment the day I found out I was going to be deployed! I did do my best over there, every day, even if I was grumpy many of them. I know the work I did in Balad will probably be the most important work I ever do in my career, but not for an instant did I forget that I belonged home with my family.
Through most of the deployment, I had not been assigned a replacement. This can be a bit unnerving, since without a replacement, I don't go home! Our command section assured me that one would be assigned. "Don't worry, trust the military". Eventuallyone was assigned, and it was a huge relief. However I was assigned one person as my unit number replacement, a different person as my functional replacement, and even a third person as my housing replacement. What really mattered, as far as wounded patients and I were concerned, was that my functional replacement arrived so that someone would be doing the work. He showed up around 8 JAN and I promptly trained him up. As far as the military was concerned, I couldn't leave until I had a crossover period with my unit number replacement, so it took a letter from our commander to get permission to leave.
As soon as that was done, I quickly received a reservation via email for a flight from a US city to my home on a commercial airline on a specific flight. A little while later, I got an email telling me that I was on a military flight out of the middle east to the US, but the window of uncertainty was within five days. And then finally after a few more days of waiting, I was told that I had a spot on the chalk leaving Balad for Qatar, just after midnight on 13 JAN. Funny how starting the journey, just getting out of Balad was the most uncertain part and the last to be arranged.
I passed my weapon on to the armory early, because after all it wasn't much use to me as a doctor. I cleaned my hooch and had it inspected, and with out my inspection stamp, I wouldn't be able to leave Balad! I had a nice last family dinner with the crew of surgeons, and they saw me off to the rally point for our chalk at housing.
Halfway to Qatar we had to make the stop in Kuwait I told you about to pick up the congressman. It was so freezing waiting thos hours with the back of the plane open. Eventually we got wheels up and made it to Qatar. When we landed in Qatar, we lined up in a cold rain to wait for the chance to turn in our body armor and chem gear. At our arrival briefing, we were first greeted with the unpleasant news that our exit from the Middle East had been slipped back a day. The ground crew had us unload our luggage into a bin. When it turned out to be the wrong bin, we had to move it to another. We immigrated to Qatar under the variably watchful eyes of Qatari officials wearing a blend of uniforms and civilian clothes. On rare occasions, they made a thorough scan of a troops DVD case to be sure that no porn was entering Qatar.
The two days at Qatar passed quickly because I spent them either eating, drinking our rationed three drinks/day or sleeping. Especially sleeping. The barracks were a good friend of mine. On the third day, we were told to show up between 1400 and 2000 for a 2am flight out of the middle east. Again we checked out of housing and got together at the terminal. A friend and I called Delta to change our flight once in the US, since we would miss our original reservation now that our flight had slipped back a day. We needed a stamp from the military staff, and also from the Qatari nationals who were emigrating us from the country. When the Qatari office closed because the official went for dinner, we were told that we could get both stamps from the military staff. I almost asked why we couldn't always get both stamps from the military staff, but then I remembered where I was.
After we had all been checked in and settled into the most painful metal terminal chairs known to man, the terminal staff chose to inform us that our plane had been stuck in Ireland for hours due to a hydraulic problem and our mission was again pushed back. Since a new day was coming, some troops decided to re-immigrate to Qatar to get the next calendar day's ration of three drinks. Eventually we were told that plane was on it's way. I got back on the phone with Delta to again push my domestic flight back to accomodate this newly annouced delay. All through the crowded tiny terminal, troops played cards, watched bad movies, or spread out their Goretex parkas on the dusty floor to sleep. The terminal staff commandeered waiting troops and handed them brooms to clean the terminal so they had something to do while they waited.
As dawn arrived, so did our DC-10. I can't remember the last time I rode a DC-10. Oh yeah, it was the last time I deployed. The military uses civilian contracts to move the bulk of troops around the world. The contracts are taken up by providers such as "World Airways" and "Omni Air International" that don't exist as options to civilians travelers. They have also done away with any amenities that might appeal to civilian travelers. They use aging airplanes and an interesting blend of flight attendants who are just starting or about to end their career.
With the plane on the flight line, the terminal staff lined us all up and moved us to a different building with the same cruel chairs to wait for another 45 minutes. They picked out some passenges to load the baggage and weapons onto the plane. Eventually, they let us cross the windy tarmac in the dull grey morning light of Qatar to board the plane via an aluminum stairway.
Once aboard the plane, we were promptly yelled at by corpulent, troll-like, homuncular flight attendants. They alternately barked "Sit Down" and "Move to the back faster" in loud grating ogre-ish voices. It was too absurd to take seriously. I was reminded of the bank robbers in "Raising Arizona" who shouted "Freeze, Drop to the ground!" The old timer replied "If'n I freeze, I can't rightly drop to the ground." The passenger seats had been reconfigured so tightly together to accommodate more bodies, that only Smurfs could have sat in them comfortably. We had been living out of bags for 72 hours. Some couldn't fit their massive back packs in either the overhead bins or under our feet. While one flight attendant attempted to close a hopelessly overstuffed bin, several other attendents would scream at the troops in her vicinity to get up and help her. Those who were tricked into rising from their seats to assist were promptly snarled at by the first attendant to "Sit Back Down!" I wondered if Bush would be leaving the Middle East on the same flight as us.
We learned as we waited for this flight that our first stop would be Kuwait. Yes, Kuwait, where we had just been three days before. We were headed back closer to Iraq. No reason was given, but I'll admit, by this time I've sipped the Kool-Aid enough that I no longer expect explanations for such things. So as we sat crammed buttock to buttock with our brothers-in-arms, we lifted off the runway and winged our way back to Kuwait. We glance out the window at the pallid sky and lifeless landscape and smiled. No matter how rocky, this was the road home.