Monday, March 20, 2006

Safe in Kuwait

I have safely arrived in Kuwait, where I am writing from an undisclosed location (well, okay, its an AAFES internet cafe), waiting for the first available transport into Iraq. I almost made it into country last night on a late flight into Baghdad, but my group was bumped from the manifest when we arrived at the plane.

Some travel notes to tide you over until I am able to provide specifics on my location and activities:

- Our travel started at Ft. Bliss with a 0020 formation Thursday night/Friday morning, after which we loaded our gear (four duffle bags and a carry on, although I was allowed to bring my Stanley "Tough Box," a 36"x24"x18" tool shed), cleaned the barracks and area around the replacement center, drew weapons and atropine kits, and mustered to the air field at 0600. In between all this, I was unable to sleep, and watched "The Dirty Dozen" in the day room. Like watching "Black Hawk Down" on the bus between Ft. Jackson and Ft. Bragg, I couldn't help notice the irony of viewing a war movie before shipping out to a combat zone.

- At the air field, we were served a hot breakfast, and weighed in with our carry-ons to determine the seating chart for the flight. (This made me afraid that I would be seated between two fat contractors to balance things out, but fortunately had plenty of space). The chaplain led a non-denominational Christian service in one corner of the large hangar, and you could hear the echo of about 20 soldiers quietly singing "Onward Christian Soldiers." When we moved out to the airplane, the cadre who had been in charge of us for the week lined our path, shaking our hands and wishing us luck. Little things like that mean a lot to soldiers, and it was a far cry from the indifference/condescension certain officers at Ft. Bragg displayed.

- Not to sound weird, but it is strangely liberating to walk onto an airplane carrying a Baretta 9mm. Talk about things I'll never get to do again once I return to the civilian world . ..

- Our first refeuling stop is at Bangor, Maine. As we move from the plane to the terminal, we are met by the "Maine Troop Greeters," approximately 20 veterans and spouses who formed a line, shaked our hands, and thanked us for our service. About half of them wore red and yellow marine sweatshirts, which made me think fondly of my father-in-law (a two-tour Vietnam vet) and Marya's family in Maine. The Troop Greeters provided us with free peanut butter fudge and cookies, and the USO office was decorated with banners expressing the appreciation of units that have passed through Bangor. After 90 minutes and the obligatory lobster roll, it was time to leave the country. Again, the Maine Troop Greeters lined the passageway to the gate to see us off. They wished us a safe trip, thanked us for answering the call to duty, and one lady, Kay Lebowitz, hugged as many of the 160 soldiers as possible. It took all of my reserves not to choke up at this expression of support.

- About ten hours later, we arrive at an airport in Germany for another refueling stop. We were taken by bus to a special terminal used to house the U.S. military between flights. Whereas in the US the television montiors featured news channels or NCAA tournament gaems, the two televisions in the German terminal featured pornography. The 18-year old privates, exposed to European sophistication for the first time, quickly gravitated to the tables that offered the best views of the women gyrating naked on the screen.

- Personally, I was more interested in the section of the terminal with the two snack bars. Each had long lines of soldiers waiting to buy brats for $2, or $2.50 desserts such as Black Forest Cake or Apple Streudel. I had one of each, as well as a strong cup of German coffee. I had only managed to get an hours sleep by lying in the aisle, hoping nobody would step on my head. But given that it was now 0900 in theater, I didn't want to sleep any more so that hopefully my body would be adjusted to Middle East time.

- The worst part of the layover in Germany was the booze, or rather, the lack thereof. Whereas a small cup of Coke cost three dollars, a bottle of Rheisdorf (I think) beer cost only two dollars. When we arrived at the terminal, there was a table occupied by a group of airmen on a separate layover. On the table next to them stood roughly fifty empty beer bottles! Also, in the duty free shop, there were rows and rows of high-end liquors, including Danish and Finnish Vodkas unavailable in the US, and a 15-year old Glenfiddich for only 39 Euros. But General Order #1 for CENTCOM is that troops can neither consume alcohol while in theater nor lawfully bring it into Iraq or Kuwait. Was it Coleridge who wrote "Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink?" It is going to be a long year.

- After only getting another hour of sleep between Germany and Kuwait, we finally arrived in theater. I will be a bit more sketchy on the details so as not to give away any classified information here. At the Kuwaiti airport, buses took us to a water point were we waited for an hour and stretched our legs. Our busdrivers (who looked Pakistani -- Kuwaitis rarely do any manual labor themselves) unfolded a cardboard box, removed their shoes, and began praying towards Mecca. Inside the port-a-john, graffitti indicated the units that have passed through here on their way to Iraq.

- Along the way to our present location, we passed goat herds, sheep, and even some camels grazing in sparsely vegetated fields. Children played soccer on sandy pitches, and we were passed by a Sheikh in a shiny new Mercedes, smoking a cigarette. As the sun set into the Western desert, it framed an old mosque (possibly abandoned) against a salmon backdrop. The perfect end to the first day spent in the theater. (Okay, the steak, shrimp, and crab legs they served at the camp mess hall were pretty good too).

Either way, my hour is about up. Hopefully I will be able to make it into Iraq in the next 24 hours. I will try to post again as soon as I am somewhat settled in the Green Zone.