This is another installment of my “Going to War” Series that I began last year. In the Fall I had to take a break from posting anything more due to issues that I was having dealing with the effects of PTSD. I started this article in the spring but again put it on hold. I have reached the point that I can again write about this. I will post follow up articles about our operations and experiences supporting our Marine Corps, Army and Joint Service advisor teams in Al Anbar province. The previous posts as well as others dealing with Iraq are filed in the “Tour in Iraq” link on the home page. The direct link to these articles is here: http://padresteve.wordpress.com/category/tour-in-iraq/
Nelson and I continued to prepare in the days leading up to our first mission to the Border Port of Entry at Waleed on the Syrian border with a planned follow on to the teams of the 3rd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Division at Al Qaim about a hundred miles to the north . Waleed is about 350 miles west of TQ and 70 miles from the nearest FOB with any substantial American presence known as Korean Village or simply KV. We were in constant communication with the team that we to visit via VOIP and SVOIP telephone and secure and non-secure e-mail. The commander of the Border teams, which included Border and Port of Entry adviser teams was Lieutenant Colonel Bien. Our mission in getting out to the furthest point west was to meet up with an incoming and an outgoing Port of Entry team and see what we could do to get out to other posts along the border.
Nothing in Iraq is easy. The get out to Waleed we had to make a two day trip from TQ, through Al Asad out to Waleed. Our flight out was a day flight on an Air Force C-130 to Al Asad. Our contacts in the G3-Air at 2nd MLG were good in helping me figure out the Air Force flight request which was different than the normal Marine Air Support Request. For this mission I had to submit two Air Force and three Marine Air Support requests. Simply submitting a request does not guarantee a flight. Flights are based on precedence dictated by the overall mission. Religious support was pretty high on the list but there was no telling that your flight would go until you had your approval message and even then things could change. The actual missions were not known until about midnight the night prior to the flight. So if you were a frequent flyer it meant no sleep the night before a mission as you waited to see if you were approved. This was my first time actually having to do this for real so I sat at my secure laptop in my office in the back of the TQ plywood Cathedral waiting for the flight list to be posted on the MLG G3 Air Secure Website. Finally about 0100 the list popped and our first flight was on in. It was a mid day flight which meant that we needed to be at the passenger terminal about 0930. This entailed getting our ride from the Chapel to the terminal by 0900.
I told Nelson who was checking his e-mail on a computer in the RP office that it was a go and then headed off to my can to prepare. Since most of my gear for the 10 day trip was already packed I tried to actually get ready to sleep. I quickly found that simply being tired because I was up late was not enough to help me go to sleep. I was really tired but the adrenaline was coursing through my body making it impossible to sleep. I prayed the office of Compline and then played computer Ma-Jong until at least 0300 before I could finally pass out. I was up early to shower and get breakfast before lugging my gear over to the chapel. The weather as usual was about 100 degrees by the time I got back from the chow hall; I gathered my gear and went to the chapel. I took my back pack, my laptop and a flight bag. I would learn on this mission that I would need to pack lighter the next time around, but live and learn.
The first leg of our trip was on an Air Force C-130 from TQ to Al Asad which we shared with a large number of previously unknown friends from every branch of service in the US military as well as various civilians and contractors. All of us had our personal protective equipment as well as our bags. The bags that we did not want to lug were placed on pallets and transported with a large fork lift to the aircraft. When you make one of these trips you are accounted for a good number of times before ever getting on the aircraft. This first mission was still in the heat of the Iraqi summer and thus the temperature inside and outside of the aircraft was stifling. We staged off the tarmac in the sun for a final role call and then in two lines who guided out to our aircraft which had just landed. As we were trudging out to the aircraft two lines of assorted passengers primarily Soldiers and Marines passed us mid way to the aircraft. As we neared the aircraft the propeller blast blew the hot air into our faces and I thanked God for the high speed Wiley-X ballistic sunglasses that I had been issued by EOD. Entering into the aircraft we had to step up onto the cargo ramp and then took our seat in the narrow canvas mesh jump seats that lined both the side of the aircraft and the center. The rear of the aircraft including the cargo ramp was used for several pallets of cargo including the bags that we elected not to carry. Sitting in the aircraft and waiting for the pallets to be loaded I thought back to my early career as an Army Officer where I became an air-load planner and embarked my soldiers on six C-130s during Winter REFORGER 1985. Back then instead of the 130 degree heat of Iraq we faced the coldest winter in 40 years in Europe in which the Rhine froze over. Although the use of computers has become routine in load plans the principles are the same as they were 25 years ago and everything on the aircraft needs to be properly balanced to ensure the stability and safety of the aircraft and that weight limits are not exceeded. As the sweat poured off of me I took off my helmet and downed part of the one liter bottle of water that I carried onto the aircraft and threw some on my face, though warm it was refreshing and I reattached my helmet as the aircrew came through the cabin giving a final safety brief.
As the last of the cargo pallets were loaded about the aircraft the cargo ramp was raised, the entire time that the aircraft was on the ground was under 15 minutes, it is amazing what the Marine and Air Force ground crews and cargo handlers can accomplish. With the ramp raised the aircraft’s air conditioning began to take effect and though not the coolest air conditioning it was better than what we had up to that point. The aircraft began to roll and move down the taxiway and when it reached the end of the taxiway it made a fast turn and began its take off. Since there was a real and present danger of possible missile or gun attacks on low flying aircraft the C-130 made a steep lift off and banked right over Lake Habbinyah and continued its ascent until it reached its cruise altitude. The C-130, like any cargo aircraft is extremely loud and because of this hearing protection is worn by passengers and crew and conversation is nearly impossible.
The flight from TQ to Al Asad is only about 30 to 45 minutes depending on the route taken so most of the passengers took the opportunity to grab a bit of sleep or read. Nelson and I sat together on the starboard side of the aircraft not far from the palletized cargo. Nelson who can sleep almost anywhere on a moment’s notice was out quickly; and although I was tired I could do little more than close my eyes and try to clear my mind. When we neared Al Asad the aircraft banking nearly perpendicular to the ground made a steep and fast approach. As we landed I could see other aircraft on the ground including F-18’s, various transports and rotor wing aircraft. The C-130 taxied to a spot on the tarmac where the ramp was dropped and we were instructed to exit the aircraft and led to the rear of the aircraft about 50 yards and then led between it and another aircraft to a group of tiny Japanese made Nissan and Mitsubishi buses in which we were loaded until every seat was full including the in aisle jump seats. Packed into the bus like sardines and smelling almost as bad we sucked in the stench, which was somewhat like a European elevator in the 1980s.
After a short ride to the terminal we picked up our gear which had been delivered on the pallets by forklifts. Another muster was taken and after all personnel were accounted for those of us waiting on follow on flights checked in at the terminal. After being accounted for we got our temporary billeting in large tents about a hundred yards from the terminal. The tents were large and poorly lit with plywood floors and several air conditioners built into the sides of the tent. The bunks were in very poor condition, many broken and even more with dirty worn out mattresses sagging in the middle. Nelson and I looked at each other and Nelson made some comments about the accommodations and we each found a bunk grounded our gear and settled in for a bit in order to clean up before trying to go get some chow.
Next: Air Travel In Al Anbar: the California Line.