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Going to War: Flying Into Baghdad and a Blast from the Past

050Outside the Al Faw Palace, Camp Victory the HQ of US Forces and Former Haunt of Saddam Hussein, the Palace was Named after the Victory of the Iraqis over the Iranians on the Al Faw Peninsula toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War.  The Palace sits in the middle of a lake

We made the trip from Camp Virginia to the Ali Al Salim airbase to catch our flight to Baghdad.  As usual there was the seabag drag to the waiting baggage trucks, an accountability formation in the blazing sun and the shuffle, this time in full protective gear to our buses.  Riding in a foreign tour bus in full “battle rattle” is even more uncomfortable than the regular ride.  Packed tightly into the buses the air conditioning of which did little to help after coming in out of the heat, we took our places jammed into the bus and once again with armed personnel in the bus and convoy escorts as we pulled out of the high security entry control point at Camp Virginia and drove to Ali Al Salim.  The trip was uneventful and rather boring as there is not much to see between the two bases except sand and occasional nondescript buildings.

Ali Al Salim is a large Kuwaiti and American air base and logistics hub for air movement operations in the Arabian Gulf.  We arrived there and once again formed up, went through a staging area where were we were able to pick up some water from one of the ubiquitous pallets of bottled water and waited inside the terminal.  Some folks grounded their packs and used them as pillows or recliners, others found seats in the waiting area and others looked around to see how the Air Force lived.  A couple of TVs set to AFN played as we chatted, wandered or dozed.  It was not long before we were moved to yet another staging area and began to get our aircraft briefing and manifested for the flight.  Our group that had began the trip at Fort Jackson was a lot smaller now as the sailors who had gone on to the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan and those assigned to Kuwait were no longer with us.  As we trundled down the tarmac we were guided into position directly behind the aircraft.  We filed into a waiting C-17 Globemaster and sat down in airline style passenger seats which can be added or subtracted by in 10 passenger pallets as needed for the particular mission.  Additional permanent seats lined the bulkhead.  Our gear was loaded at the aft end of the aircraft as we took our seats.  We pretty much filled the seating which at maximum load is 134 passengers and we waited for the aircraft to load.  A loadmaster came through to check that we all were wearing our personal protective gear and had our seat belt fastened.  The C-17 unlike many military aircraft has at least an asthmatic air conditioning capability once the cargo door is closed.   Unfortunately when the door is open it is pretty much like whatever conditions are outside, in our case 130 degree heat with the exception that the sun was not beating down on our heads and that there was no air movement.  It was just a tad hot inside the aircraft.  Eventually the cargo ramp and door were closed and the aircraft prepared for takeoff.  With the door closed we began to feel a little bit of relief from the air conditioning.

For a large cargo aircraft the C-17 has a pretty smooth take off, the four Pratt and Whitney PW2040 engines producing 40,400 pounds of thrust each pushing the hug aircraft which is capable of transporting an M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank or 3 Bradley Fighting vehicles into the blue Kuwaiti sky.  In a few minutes the pilot announced that we had crossed into Iraqi Airspace and that it would take us about 45 minutes to arrive in Baghdad.  When the announcement was made there was an almost collective deep breath knowing that we were now going into the war, this was no longer in our future we were there.  I could feel the adrenalin being released into my body and can remember how quickly I became instantly aware of every noise or movement on the aircraft.

Arriving in the skies above Baghdad International Airport our aircraft circled and received permission to land.  Due to the possibility of enemy fire the approach to airports in Iraq is not like you would experience at a commercial airport in the United States, Europe or most other parts of the world.  Unlike most airports where there is a long and slow approach to the runway the descent is a steep spiral as the aircraft comes down from altitude to land.  If the airfield is under fire the aircraft will not land.  Once we were down we had been briefed to be able to move at a brisk pace in case the airfield came under fire, something that was happening on a relatively frequent basis in 2007.

The tail ramp and door opened as if they were a gigantic rearward facing mouth, or maybe like one of those weird fish that have teeth in their ass.  I think I remember some weird science show that talked about such a creature, if there isn’t one there should be.  As soon as the ass-backward maw opened a rush of hot air killed any semblance of what had been an almost bearable air conditioned compartment. Gear in hand we filed out of the aircraft heading for the ramp. Just for your information, it is easy to slip on these ramps; I came close to such an event but caught myself just in time so I didn’t go ass over tip down the ramp.  Nelson certainly would have made me pay for such a breach of protocol.  As we left the aircraft a ground crewman directed us out of the jet blast area and another led us to the terminal.  At the terminal we were greeted by Staff Sergeant Assi, the Chaplain assistant for the Iraq Assistance Group and an RP assigned to the Multi-National Corps Iraq Chaplain Office.  Sergeant Assi was a mobilized reservist  originally from Nigeria.  At least here our gear was palletized and was brought to a gear staging area.  Once it arrived we gathered a total of 4 EOD Issue super-seabags, two regular seabags, our packs, Nelson’s rifle case and my computer bag.  We were assisted by Sergeant Assi and the RP who helped load our stuff into the back of the white Chevy SUV that they were driving.  One thing about military vehicles in Iraq that are not tactical vehicles  is that there is a strong chance that they are the color white. The white paint contractor at GM must be making a killing on vehicles destined for the Middle East.  Once we were checked off the manifest as having a ride were able to depart walking out through rows of Califonia and Jersey barriers.

The ride was interesting as we wove our way around the ever present California and Jersey Barriers as well as “HESCO’s,” which are large wire and canvas containers standing anywhere from5 to 8 feet tall filled with dirt, rock and sand.  All of these are designed to minimze the effects of incoming ordnace by preventing the explosive force of them and teh associated shrapnel from spreading outward. We transitioned through a number of checkpoints where armed soldiers kept a wary eye out on our way to Camp Victory.  Victory which is the home of Multi-National Force and Multi-National Corps Iraq lies next to  Camp Liberty.  They are on the north side of Baghdad International Airport.  As we looked across the runway the only aircraft visible were military transports and contracted cargo carriers.  Unlike a major airport its size anywhere else in the world Baghdad did not have regularly scheduled airline service from any major carrier yet.   We wound our way around the compounds which blended together almost as one, much like the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles.  Passing palaces and villas that ringed a lake in the center of the compound we continued on.  In the center of the lake connected by a causeway sat the massive Al Faw Palace, built by Saddam Hussein to commemorate Iraq’s victory in retaking the Al Faw Peninsula at the close of the Iran-Iraq War, a victory that resulted in Iran deciding to cut a peace deal with the Iraqis.  Despite a Shi’te majority in Iraq there is no love lost between Iraqis and Iranians.  Iraqi Arabs refer to the Iranians almost contemptuously as the Persians. This goes back centuries to the times when Persian occupied parts of Iraq and treated the Arabs badly.

We turned down an asphalt road which quickly became a packed clay and gravel road over which a tanker truck sprayed water to keep the dust down.  into a pulled up to a wooden building near a tent city where personnel coming in and out of theater were billeted at Camp Victory.  Row upon row of tents, each surrounded by a HESCO barriers were to our right. The ground was a mixture of hardened clay and rock which when driven over or walked upon emitted a cloud of dust which Sergeant Assi told us turned to a sticky goo which is almost impossible to get off of boot when it rains. Overhead helicopter gunships patrolled the skies occasionally flying quickly to the sounds of gunfire just off the base not far from where we were. In the background we could hear the sound of heavy machine guns and automatic weapons.  Not far from our billeting area sat a Navy Manned CWIS, or as we call tehm Sea Whiz.  This is a 20mm gatling gun which directed by radar is designed to shoot down incoming missiles or rockets. Nelson and I looked at each other and almost on cue he said, “Chaps I think there might be a war going on out there.”  I looked back and said, “Don’t you know it partner.”   The area to the east of the tent city was bordered by a line or shower trailers and heads, all protected by the large 15 foot high California barriers.  To the north of the tents lay a large Dining facility or as the Army calls them, a DFAC.  After getting signed in we drew an odd mixture of linen for our beds. I ended up with a couple of sheets, pillow cases and a multi-colored comforter. If I recall Nelson got some superhero on his blanket, which suits him fine as he is a big comic fan and can tell you more than you can imagine about all the different super-heroes. Instead of being together Nelson was assigned to a tent for NCOs and I ended up further away in a tent for field grade officers.

Once we had secured our stuff we met back together and walked to the DFAC for dinner.  This DFAC was not as large as it appeared as it had a large protective roof designed to keep mortar shells and rockets from impacting the building itself.  Two Ugandan soldiers working for security on the base checked our ID’s after which we washed our hands as we entered the building.

Upon entry we were almost overwhelmed by the amount of food present.  These DFAC’s were definitely feeders and the number of soldiers that should have been wearing wide-load signs across their asses was amazing.  But then who could blame them, many were on a second or third trip to Iraq of 12-15 months each. Maybe for the first time they were not in some isolated FOB with a poor quality of life, in a place which all things considered safe except for the occasional incoming rockets and mortars.  The quality of the food was better than in Kuwait as was the dinning area.

As I was finishing stuffing my gear underneath my bed a young Army Major came into the tent.  He looked at me and I looked at him as if we had met before and we greeted on another politely.  I saw his shoulder patch which identified him as a member of the Maryland Army National Guard.  We struck up a conversation and I asked to what unit he was assigned.  He replied  that he worked at the National Guard Bureau and had been attached to the Maryland unit as an operations officer for the deployment.  He remarked that I looked somewhat familiar and I asked if he had ever served in the Virginia National Guard.  He replied that he had and I asked what unit.  His response about floored me “1st Battalion 170th Infantry” located at Fort Belvoir, Virginia just south of D.C.  I told him that I too had been in the battalion and then he figured out where he knew me from.  With a look of near amazement on his face he replied “You were our Chaplain back in 1995!”   I patently acknowledged this fact  while he continued saying that he had been the TOW Anti-Tank Missile  Platoon Leader in our Headquarters Company. Our conversation meandered through old times at AP. Hill Virginia, talking about our careers, people that we knew and life in general.  After a couple of hours we both realized that we needed to take care of a few personal things to settle in for the night.  Eventually my old lieutenant fell asleep and I began what was to become a persistent pattern of insomnia which plagues me to this day.  Since I couldn’t get to sleep I walked through the darkness to the DFAC which had a late meal.  I was standing  in line amid a few Americans, some British soldiers and contractors when Nelson appeared beside me. He said “Hey boss, can’t you sleep?”  I said “nope” he said “me too, so I thought I would get some chow in this place.”  We had our meal together and when we were done picked our way through the darkness over the rough ground to our tents aided by our red lens flashlights.  After looking for about 5 minutes we found Nelson’s place and I headed off to my hooch only becoming disoriented once. Patently the Deity Herself must have kept me from tripping on a tent rope or some hole in the ground and I arrived back in my place at about 0145 and finally got to sleep.

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Going to War: Planes, Pit Stops, Patriots and Pubs… the Flight to Kuwait

cape san juanWWII Troopship USS Cape San Juan 1943

Going to war now days is certainly different than it was a generation or two back.  Back in World War II and Korea the primary manner in which troops deployed to and returned from war was on a troopship.  Troopships in the Second World War ranged in size from the great British Ocean Liners the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary down to small and often ancient passenger ships.  As the war went on the United States adapted a number of ship designs to serve as troop transports as well as built ships specifically designed to transport troops to combat.  There was one thing that all of these ships from the might Queen’s to the lowliest tramp steamer had in common was that they were really crowded.  Every in of space that could be made to fit a bunk was used.  The Queens, which in peacetime might carry 1500-2000 passengers routinely carried up to 15,000 troops.  Talk about cramped quarters, these ships made the steerage passengers on the Titanic look like executive class travelers.  The smaller the ship the worse the ride and many times soldiers would spend their entire voyage seasick.

qeen mary troopsTroops on RMS Queen Mary

Well times have changed.  We still have ships that carry troops, amphibious ships that can hit from both sides of the plate which carry the Marine Corps Expeditionary Units on their deployments.  However, it is seldom that much more than a MEU is ever carried to a war zone.  In the Gulf War and Build up from OIF a good number of Marines were brought over that way, however many of these in the Gulf War never went ashore and were kept at sea to keep the Iraqis thinking that they would be used in an amphibious operation.  The bulk of the troops who have deployed since Vietnam have done so by air, either military aircraft operated by the Air Force such as C-130s, C-141’s, C-5A Galaxy’s and C-17 Globemaster’s or alternatively civilian contract aircraft mostly run by non-scheduled airlines which specialize in just this sort of thing.  Airlines such as World Airways, North American Airlines, Miami Air, and the now defunct ATA have been the primary carriers of troops dating back to Vietnam while other commercial airlines also do charter work.  When large numbers of aircraft the DOD activates the CRAF, the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet, which is composed of aircraft from the major airlines used on an emergency basis.

world airways dc10World Airways DC-10

The military and chartered aircraft are the closest things now in the world of transportation to the old troopships.  On military aircraft troops often fly with cargo in large cavern like fuselages on seats that can be reconfigured to about any way imaginable.  The -17 is the luxury bird of the military air fleet, but certainly not a paragon of comfort when fully load with troops and gear.  Of course the military aircraft were designed for utility and maximum use of passenger and cargo space.  The charter aircraft are a different matter.  Most of the aircraft used regularly by the charter carriers for deployments are older DC-10s, B-757s and occasionally a B-767 or L-1011.  With rare exception these aircraft are configured to get the most passengers on the aircraft, comfort is not terribly important.  There is no such thing in these aircraft as a true “First Class or Business Class section, merely front of the aircraft or back.  The seats are the same and as far as leg room there is no such thing as “Economy Plus.”  Simply put we are in steerage almost any time we get on one of these aircraft.

We loaded our gear onto waiting trucks at Fort Jackson and boarded military operated “Blue Bird” buses like you send your kids to school on.   Unlike your kid’s bus these are white and driven by soldiers that are in some kind of transient status or Army civilians.  The air conditioning on a hot and humid southern day is asthmatic at best, especially when the busses are full of troops who are much bigger than the kids these buses are designed to carry.  I guess it could be worse; we could be traveling in the old un-air conditioned cattle cars.  When we got to the airport we did not go to the commercial side, but rather to the private side.  Our aircraft, a white World Airways DC-10 sat on the strip in front of the tiny and woefully undersized terminal where most of us ended up waiting in the open and un air conditioned hanger, our Desert Uniforms sticking to our bodies in the sultry South Carolina summer.  We formed up, the baggage trucks arrived with our sea bags and we were organized into teams to load the aircraft.  You guessed it, no airline staff to do this, just us.  Now since there were a couple of hundred of us finding enough people to do the work was not much of a problem.  Nelson and I both volunteered and with the others we stripped off our tops and in our brown t-shirts we organized for the task.  The small guys like me and Nelson got to go up into the belly of the aircraft where we waited for guys on the ground to send the bags up the conveyor.  Bag after bag they came, most were the tradition sea bag or duffel bag, but others like Nelson and my bags were oddly shaped and some were even large cases issued by individual’s units.  Weapons cases were also loaded, each weapon locked inside a lowest bidder plastic case that certainly would not last more than a few trips across the pond.  As we loaded the aircraft a rain shower passed by, the humidity was atrocious and the heat did not subside very much.  Eventually Nelson looked at me and asked, “Boss you alright?”  I assured him that I was and we kept loading the aircraft until there were no more bags to load, shoving bags and stacking them so that nearly every inch of space was taken in the baggage compartment.

One done loading we mustered again.  The pilots arrived and began their inspection of the aircraft.  At this point we were informed that there was a mechanical problem and that we would have to wait.  A couple of more hours waiting around the terminal we finally began to board the aircraft.  Finally we got underway and found that we had to make another stop.  We had to land at Pope Air Force Base in order to pick up an Army Transportation unit heading into theater.  The flight up was short and we expected that after a short delay we would again be in the air.  We were wrong.  We de-boarded the plane to allow it to be fueled.  As we waited in the terminal, once again a rather Spartan affair we found that the crew had exceeded their allowed flight or work hours and that we would have to remain overnight.  Unfortunately the contracting staff at the Air Mobility Command had not anticipated this situation and we were stuck.  We had already been up most of the day and there were no sleep facilities in this terminal except wooden benches and concrete floors.  With our gear loaded aboard the plane and unavailable it looked like things would not go well.  Vending machines were quickly emptied and like any sailors marooned anywhere we made the best of things.  Sailors broke out decks of cards, DVD video players, made phone calls home or found places to try to sleep on the benches or against terminal walls.

At first it didn’t look like we would be getting any assistance from the Air Force.  However, we were fortunate to have as our senior officer and Officer in Charge a Navy Captain who was a jet fighter pilot and wasn’t going to let “his” sailors let overnight in such conditions while still in the United States.  After a while our Captain secured box lunches and pillows.  He then continued to push and eventually some contracting weenie was rustled out of his waterbed and got us rooms at a Hampton Inn somewhere in Fayetteville.  As the hands on the dial of my watch worked their way past midnight the ubiquitous Blue Bird buses pulled up to the terminal.  A few people elected to stay behind and for some unknown reason the Air force required some of our sailors to watch the aircraft.  Mind you they could only watch it.  Our weapons were stowed in the belly of the aircraft.  The irony was that the airfield a Pope is secured by USAF Air Police and probably one of the most secure places in the area.  The Captain lost that argument and a number of sailors volunteered to remain along with sailors who had somehow made themselves comfortable and didn’t want to move.  In my younger days I would have been with them, but I had tried to sleep on those same benches when I went to Jordan earlier in the year I knew that I couldn’t hang with them.

The rest of us mustered again, accountability checks were made and we loaded ourselves on the buses.  T rip took about 15 minutes and we were deposited at the hotel.  It was about 0130 by this time.  The hotel staff was great.  Since like our toiletries like most everything else we owned were safely secured in the belly of our aircraft we were now tired, hungry again and pretty stinky. The hotel night manager opened up his stocks and gave us toothpaste, tooth brushes and shavers. He also gave away snacks.  I think I got a muffin out the deal. We stood in line and since there were a lot more of us than rooms we were assigned 4 to a room and at 0200.  My roommates were four youngish junior officers.  There were two beds and a cot in the room, and since none of us wanted to share a full size bed, something I think was a good idea not to do, two got the beds, one got the cot and the third grabbed all the extra linen and a comforter and lay down on the floor.  The young guys deferred to my age when I volunteered for the floor, they told me that “because you are a lot older than us sir you get a bed.”  I felt like applying for the AARP at that moment but I took a bed which felt really good as I sunk into it and passed out.

We had to be up early to head back to the airfield, the time in bed was too short but better than I had hoped and the shower was great.  I felt almost human and was glad that I had packed a clean undershirt socks and briefs in my backpack.  We got back to the terminal and box lunch breakfasts were on hand. We still had about 4 hours before the flight and it was Sunday morning so Chaplain Fauntleroy and Chaplain Rodriquez and I arranged to conduct two services.  Kyle and Dave did a more Evangelical style service while I celebrated a short field Eucharist.  We did this outside the terminal, the weather was not too bad, and probably half of the sailors as well as a good number of the soldiers who had joined us participated.  Since there was no Catholic Priest my service was better attended than I thought it would be as in such times I usually pick up a few Episcopalians, Anglicans and Lutherans and maybe a stray Catholic.  In these settings I do not interrogate the people that show up as to their background, I do ask that if they are not baptized Christians not to partake of the Eucharist, but figure that God and His grace in the Sacrament will do what needs to be done.  I learned this from a Missouri Synod Lutheran Chaplain in Germany supporting the Bosnia operation. Since the Missouri Synod practices “closed communion” meaning that you have to be Missouri Synod to take communion in their church I asked what he did in field settings or chapels where it was not a denominational service.  He told me, with great wisdom “Steve, you have to trust that God’s grace in the Sacrament will do His work.”  That was an epiphany and I have never forgotten it.

The services concluded we again mustered and finally were able to board the aircraft.  We had a stop at Portland Maine to refuel the aircraft in preparation for the trans-Atlantic flight.  Now this is a highlight for any serviceman or women being deployed or returning home.  The folks in Portland, veterans groups like the VFW, American Legion, Fleet Reserve and Marine Corps League have banded together to meet flights as they come in.  They have been given a space in the terminal in which they have computers, cell phones, land line phones and calling cards for troops.  They also hand out small “goodie” bags with snacks and home baked cookies.  These folks and their counterparts at the former Pease Air Force Base are amazing.  It is an example of small town America at its best.  Some are World War II vets, others from Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm.  They are still others who have never served but feel an obligation to help.  They span the political, religious and ethnic spectrum of the country.  After they personally greeted each of us as we entered the terminal, they had a small ceremony and thanked us for our service.  Many engaged us in conversation and their hospitality was simply amazing.  The Maine Troop Greeters have greeted over 800,000 troops from over 4000 flights in the past six years.  They are Patriots in their own right and what they did for us was amazing.  I felt a wave of emotion go across my and my eyes get a bit moist as these wonderful people, young and old greeted us, shook our hands and blessed us.  It is something that until you experience it you cannot comprehend and I wish that the  men and women who served in Vietnam had been greeted like this.  It makes you feel that you are not completely alone.

maine troop greeters 1

maine troop greeters 3Maine Troop Greeters

Eventually I decided to wander the terminal to see what was available.  I saw a small pub which featured the local micro-brew ale which our good Captain permitted us to have since we were still in the Continental United States.  I had a sandwich and chips as well as two pints of this local Amber Ale which would be my last drink until the Marine Corps Birthday in Ramadi.  The brew was quite good and if I saw it again I would probably buy some.  We were then called back to the aircraft.  Our flight to Germany was uneventful and we landed deep in the night in Leipzig where a small area had been set up for refreshments, souvenirs, television, games and internet access.  We were not allowed any alcohol at this stop as we were now under an 8 hour flight to Kuwait.  Our stop completed we got back on the aircraft for the flight to Kuwait which awaited us with temperatures of 120-135 degrees.  Something that I wonder how the Deity Herself allows unless it is to give us a chance to preview hell.

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