17 JAN 2008 Back on the plane, the journey continues.
(Please note that I am safely and happily home, but the story must be told, and it comes out slower than I travel!)
Once on the plane, I did my best to settle in to the narrow spot allotted to each body. I had my 72 hour bag at my feet, since there was no more overhead space. My boots touched both my bag and the front of the seat under me, leaving them no room to move. To my sides, I was touching the troops to my right and my left at the hips and shoulders, locking me in laterally. I had balled up my Goretex parka with gloves and watch cap and placed it on my lap. Since I had left my barracks the previous day to come to terminal to make this flight, it had been 36 hours since I had last slept. I drifted off to sleep several times during the short flight. I was tucked in so cozy and immobile in my position that I awoke to find that I hadn’t moved at all.
Perhaps this is a good time to reiterate that whatever I write here represents only this one individual’s personal account and opinion, and not any official communication from the military, the government, or any corporation or state to which it may be beholden. Anyone who would come to the obtuse conclusion to construe it as anything else clearly doesn’t know me and has to have a second read. Those of you who know me realize that I write as a way to handle the pressure and stress of my brief deployment and keep from having a psychotic break. If I can’t get it out and laugh at it this way, it would never settle in my mind. Frankly, I consider it a matter of conscience and compassion to try and let the people who know and love me some of the inconsequential mundane details of my life while I am far from them so that they know that I’m still myself and that I’m okay. So try to view what I write here as merely what a friend might tell you about their latest vacation, complete with some boring snapshots that flip endlessly on the screen while you try to dream up an imaginary emergency that would tear you out of that tar pit.
It wasn’t long before we were on the ground again in Kuwait. Our aircraft taxied to a stop several hundred yards from the wind and sandblasted buildings of the terminal. One of the passengers next to me remarked that it looked like Stepen King’s Langoliers would show up any minute. The place didn’t look much better in the daylight than it had looked in the wee hours of the night when we had been here two days ago. At least this time it seemed that we had parked close to some structures that might shelter us from the cold, and not at the far end of a sandy runway. It wasn’t clear if we were getting off the plane or what we were doing here in the first place. If we did disembark this time, maybe we would be able to use indoor facilities, and not have to share a single frigid port-o-potty staked down to the dune with cable against the onslaught of the crisp wind. (To be truthful, it didn’t take too many minutes standing in a line 30 deep before many of us wandered off a bit to find our own individual open-air facilities in the dark at the edge of the runway.) After several minutes, one of the terminal personnel boarded to make an announcement.
We had to leave the plane so that it could be cleaned. I didn’t realize that we had left such a mark after two hours. The terminal bus was broken so we would have to walk to the buildings. We were instructed to walk deliberately and directly, following a painted line on the runway. We were warned that the Kuwaiti guards on the flight line would “take us down” if we deviated from this single-file path. Judging from the lean size of most of the men in this region, I didn’t think that taking us down would involve Greco-Roman wrestling. We had to remove all of our belongings from the cabin because anything left behind would be discarded. Our three senior ranking troops were escorted off the plane and shuttled to the terminal in a minivan. We filed off the plane, down the windy stairway, and walked deliberately and directly along the white line in single file.
We were led through a heavy rolling steel gate into a paddock bounded by concrete walls. There was a hangar on one end with rows of chairs. Outside in the enclosed yard there was a raised trailer with running water that served as a lavatory. We milled about in the cold sunlight and stretched our legs to knock the blood clots free. I ran through a series of my fencing stretches to try and ease the creaks out of my old man joints. They have the kind of cartilage, or lack thereof, which tends to stick in any given position if left there for too long. I began to get the vibe that I was a prisoner getting my daily walk in the yard to air out in the sunshine. Perhaps it was the fact that after we were herded through the heavy gate it was secured shut with a thick plastic zip tie that resembled plasticuffs. Troops in their Goretex parkas and black watch caps drifted around the macadam in small gangs, stamping their feet to keep warm. The scene would have been complete if there had been a set of weights and the sudden unexpected appearance of a bloody shiv. There were small bleachers at one end, and we stood on the wobbly aluminum benches and watched a whole lot of nothing happen at our plane a quarter mile back on the flight line.
We had been told that it would take an hour and fifteen minutes. Two and a half hours later we were starting to get antsy. Perhaps it was the lack of food, the fatigue, or the whole absurdity of the situation, but the troops began to get a bit punchy. One of the troops stood by the gate and would yell out for food whenever someone passed by. “Throw us your Burger King!” she would yell. “At least a cup of coffee!” she would beg plaintively. When they would look away shocked and hustle along to their business she would call after them “We’re people too!” I looked for my steel canteen cup to rattle on the bars of the gate, but unfortunately it had been tucked away in my A bag. We began calculating our odds and what losses were acceptable if we made a rush for the plane.
Soon a squat cross woman with a walkie-talkie and an ID badge came to shout at us that the plane was almost ready. Our DV’s were loaded into the minivan again and returned to the plane. Another 45 minutes passed and some uninterpretable activity involving a cleaning truck and fuel delivery played out around the plane. One of our number was gimping home on crutches after an injury. He too was given a ride out in a vehicle because his trip off the plane had been hard. The woman returned and shouted that she only wanted ranks E-9 and above, who would be allowed to board first. I voiced a loud “Hell no!” and said that I would be remaining behind until a general release of all the troops was allowed. The woman snipped the zip-tie holding the gate fast with heavy shears and opened a small chain link swing gate to which it had been secured. A few senior enlisted and officers filtered through our ranks to begin the walk along the flight line to the plane. Many officers stayed behind with the remaining mass.
The woman told us that we could now all board and that we should follow her single file out to the aircraft. As the point began the journey across the flight line, the rest of us slid the heavy gate open and walked out to queue up into formation behind this avant garde. When the woman heard the gate slide open on its heavy rollers, she ran back to the paddock and began screaming “Get back! Get back!” in a shrill angry voice that broke with her strain. We stood stunned in our tracks, our fatigue addled minds unable to comprehend what in creation was going on. She continued screaming for us to get back and began shoving one of our petite woman pilots. The pilot dropped her gear, squared off, and in command voice issued clear warning to the woman that she had better get her hands off. We nearly had to restrain one of our superintendents because it looked like she too was going to deck the woman. I shouted out for everyone to get back into the paddock so that the woman could finish her power trip to nowhere and we could restart our trip to home. Begrudgingly, because it is so hard to go backwards, the troops that hadn’t escaped to the plane in the first rush shuffled back into the sterile yard and we were once again locked behind the gate.
When the woman reopened the swing door, we filed past her and humped it back to the plane. Most of us were able to restrain our comments, but one of the airmen returning back to a base in Italy told her that she was going to report the woman’s unprofessional behavior. The woman wagged her head and retorted that she wasn’t interested in our whining because she was prior military. She went on to assert that last month she had been chosen the terminal’s employee of the month. As we climbed the stair to wedge ourselves back into our diminutive seats, I chuckled to myself. I would hate to see who had been runner-up for employee of the month. Pleased to have passed another gauntlet, we eagerly began the next leg of our journey to the base in Aviano, Italy.