Camp Virginia aka Tatooine
Note: This is installment eight of my series “Going to War” which chronicles my deployment to Iraq working with our advisers to the Iraqi Army and Security Forces in Al Anbar Province. To see the others in the series go to “categories: and click on the “Tour in Iraq” link.
We flew from Leipzig to Kuwait. Flying into Kuwait in mid- afternoon is an interesting sight. The azure waters of the Northern Arabian, or the Persian Gulf, the terminology depends on who your Ally is, hug the coast where Kuwait City, a sits ensconced at the tip of the Gulf. The azure waters and the almost overwhelming sand that predominate this area of the world stand in stark contrast. The city itself, full of modern luxury hotels, home of business and oil conglomerates and resorts for those who can afford them, seems a foreign intrusion. The brightness of the sun reflecting off of the concrete of the tarmac was nearly blinding to us and I was very thankful for my sunglasses. The aircraft taxied to its position and as the door opened the heat rushed in. We deplaned and walked single file in the searing heat with our covers removed to a line of white tour buses of various Asian and European manufactures. Drivers, guest workers from India, Pakistan or elsewhere on the sub-continent or eastern Africa sat in them or stood beside them smoking or talking with one another. Our bags were moved to waiting tractor trailers and a small shaded area was close by where liter bottles of drinking water and MREs were available for any who wanted one.
We were loaded onto the buses for the trip to our in processing station where our ID cards were scanned and we officially entered the theater. If you have never ridden on a tour bus manufactured in a country us than the United States they are not quite designed for people of our more fully shaped asses and longer legs. This means that unless you are short and twig like that you will be rather cozy with the person sitting next to you, especially if they are well fed. Thankfully Nelson and I were together as usual and since neither of us are terribly large, though I might be referred to as “stocky” and we watched in almost horrified fascination as rather some rather large folks squeezed in together. Since we were pretty hot and sticky and previous busloads of rather stinky people had left their stench on the seats before us, the odor in the buses was rather strong and vibrant. Unfortunately my allergy medicine cocktail of Allegra and Flonase allows me to smell the stink. 15 years ago I would have not noticed the smell because of what were then severe allergic symptoms when exposed to things like…. let’s say…dust. Lots of that in the desert, and there is plenty of dust in Kuwait. But this time for me there was no escaping the smell. It took a couple of hours going at what seemed to be an ungodly slow pace to get to what is known as Camp Virginia, a place which bears little resemblance to any locale in its namesake, save for the McDonald’s sign which lit the food court area since it was now night. Tents with plywood floors were our quarters and large air conditioning units on each end of the tent were used to try to cool it down. We got our gear off of the baggage trucks and did the “Sea Bag Drag” of our gear into our tents. This was no easy task, we all had three sea bags or their equivalent all packed with a deployment’s worth of gear. One thing about going to war as opposed to flying commercial is that you are often the baggage crew as well as your own “Skycap.” The smaller and older you are the bigger more painful the load seems. I was in better shape than many of my fellow sailors because of consecutive tours with the Marines and EOD, but three massive bags, a 3 day pack and case for the computer that I had been issued by EOD for the trip combined with the heat and the effects of our extended trip to get across the pond had kicked my ass.
The time we spent in Kuwait accomplished a number of things. It allowed us to get acclimatized to the region. It also was a place where we completed various administrative and training evolutions including a couple of days on a place in the middle of the fricking desert called the Buehring Range complex and specifically an inhospitable site known as the Udari Range.. I think that Buerhring is named for an Army Soldier killed during the war. I’m sure that he was a gallant soldier, but the Navy does far better in naming things for our heroes, we name ships after them, or nice buildings, not a hellhole in the desert. I do hope that the Army will decide to name something nice for him someday. It kind of remeinds me of the movie The Green Berets where one of John Wayne’s sergeants asks for a latrie, or “privvy” to be named after him.
Udari is a live fire range where more advanced weapons skills are taught as well as convoy procedures and IED drills which are as realistic as you can get outside of hte real thing. It also forces you to realize that danger is not far off, Weapons are carried at all times, security forces man checkpoints, guard posts and patrol the area, buses and convoys are escorted by armed vehicles. Despite the creature comforts provided on Tatooine by the US Government it is still both a harsh and inhospitable place as well as a dangerous place. The MREs, heated by the oven like heat were more tasty than usual, a culinary delight if you may. We only had a couple of heat related casualties while there and lost a Air Force sergeant to renal failure for which he was evactuated to the States, but apart from that the training was uneventful.
Udari Range August 2007, about the time I went through
I am convinced that Buerhing and Camp Virginia are actually not on this earth and that they are actually the planet Tatooine, the home of Luke Skywalker and his trusty droids R2D2 and C3PO. I have seldom seen a more desolate and God forsaken place on earth, even in New Jersey. Thus somehow we must pass through some interspatial portal while driving from Kuwait City to Virginia and Buerhing, possibly like a “wormhole” in Star Trek. Temperatures while we were there were 130 degrees plus in the heat of the day and the lows were in the cool 90’s. It was so hot that the air bubbles in my Nike 180’s melted and lost their bounce, becoming compleely flat. Likewise the glue on my Blackhawk boots melted and the soul began to separate from the boot. Thankfully it took a while for it to get really bad and my e-mail to Blackhawk netting me a new pair of boots with their apologies once I arrived in Iraq. I wrote Nike but got no response. Everywhere one looks there is nothing but heat and sand. Yes, you can see the heat. I am not making this up. As on Tatooine, Camp Virginia hosts a remarkably diverse transient population from numerous countries. Some of these are from former Soviet Republics such as Georgia. There was a Georgian Brigade processing through on its way to Iraq that was like a hoard of Jawas. 2,500 Georgian soldiers including female troops who we were informed served as ‘comfort women” for the Georgian men were everywhere, the Post Exchange, Chow Hall, or as the Army calls it the DFAC as well as the gym, the MWR computer room and food court. Of course I do not begrudge any ally a meal, a bed and a place to stay but the Georgians descended like locusts. If you got to the PX after them it was empty. Nelson and I would almost race the 500 meters to the Chow Hall to get in line ahead of the Georgians. They were amazing; they filled their plates higher than Bluto Blutarsky (John Belushi) in the movie Animal House. Breakfast was especially amusing from my point of view. They would have eggs, bacon, sausage, grits, topped with pancakes and waffles covered in syrup and two to three donuts stacked on top. All of this on one plate. I am sure that when these soldiers returned home to Georgia that its obesity rates spiked in a rather remarkable manner. The lady that ran the internet café constantly chased them off of porn sites, even the women. In addition to the Georgians we had Brits and Aussies, Poles, South Koreans, Brazilians and a number of other nation’s soldiers passing through on their way to various places in the Middle East, but it was the Georgians that I remember most.
The other two chaplains, Kyle and Rick and I ensured that spiritual and emotional needs were met during the stay, for me this was usually with sailors who would pull me aside informally just to talk or ask for prayer or advice. There is something about the final stage of a journey into a combat zone that pulls at you as you think about what might be faced on the other side. Since most places in Iraq were still pretty sporty with huge numbers of attacks and many personnel killed or wounded, even in supposedly “safe” areas. Kyle and Rick would remain in Kuwait to run the Warrior Transition program while Nelson and I loaded our gear prepared for our flight into Iraq.
Padre Steve at the Udari Range
Eventually we competed a very good cycle of training at Buerhring and Virginia and once again loaded our gear on trucks, made accountability checks, got our signed copies of our orders and headed off to a joint Kuwaiti and US Air Force Base for our flight to Baghdad.