CH-53s and CH-47s
Our interlude in Fallujah over we waited in a tent outside the helicopter terminal operations building after RP1 Roland dropped us off. Roland was good and helped hook us up with some of the Marines to get the Gator to put our ton of gear on to get it out to the helicopter. I looked around and noted that both here and a Camp Victory most passengers had a significant amount less gear than us of course all had deployed with units and not as individuals thus the load that had to pack on their person was not exorbitant. I thought of all we had been issued as individuals and the fact that I did not take everything that they wanted me to take and thought crap…what is wrong with this picture? Of course whining about it does no good and if my lot was to suffer dragging all of this around then I would try to do so in good humor. I pondered this and began to think of the movie Kelly’s Heroes and how the character played by Don Rickles Staff Sergeant “Crapgame.” I kind of chuckled as I thought of how he complained to “Kelly” played by Clint Eastwood and Master Sergeant “Big Joe” played by Telly Savalis when after their vehicles were destroyed by American aircraft when saddled with a .30 caliber machine gun and its associated ammunition.
I looked in one tent which was full and eventually found another we a couple of open seats for us. I sat my ass down on the wooden bench grounded the gear that I had with me, a back pack, and two briefcases now with 3 computers. My Mass kit was packed in my rucksack and all of my personal gear that could be placed on my flak vest was there including two knives…I was not allowed to pack a weapon but figured that these were simply to keep my fingernails clean and shave when I had nothing else to shave with. Nelson of course was loaded for bear, dual armed he had an M-16A2 and a Beretta 9mm pistol and packed a significant amount of loaded clips of 5.56 and 9mm rounds in his ammo pouch. He sported two K-Bar fighting knives. He also had his “game face on, the same look of determination that he sports when he fights. Having an assistant who actually could kill someone to protect me was comforting. There are some that I have met in both the Army and Navy that would have been as capable as Barney Fife if they were in a combat zone. Of course Nelson and I knowing that we would be out in isolated areas with small teams of Americans had worked out a deal. If were got into a bad situation he would toss me the 9 mil and we would defend ourselves and the people on our team figuring that since I was a chaplain that if I was captured that I would be used for propaganda purposes and executed on TV. The plan was that if this happened that he would get credit for anything that I hit and no one would ever know that I did it. I would not be like a few chaplains in the 2003 invasion of Iraq who carried and fought and then put it on their web sites, I figured that if this happened I would go to confession and ask for forgiveness rather than having to explain to Judy why I was dead.
The time passed slowly though it was only a couple of hours it felt like forever. The tent was stuffy with a good number of people in it, Nelson found a corner and threw his gear down laid down comfortable. I was a bit on the hyper-aroused side of life despite being tired so I got up and took a walk outside in moonlight. The night air though still pretty warm felt better than that of the tent, as sweat dripped down my face I took a drink out of the liter bottle of water that I had pulled out of a cooler in the tent. The airfield was busy, pairs of helicopters, 46’s, 53’s, and Army MH-60s and CH-47s landed and took off staying just long enough to disgorge their passengers and cargo and then pick up their next load before lifting off. I watched in fascination as Marines and other passengers were led by ground crew staff to and from the aircraft, their shadowy figures blending into the illumination provided by the moon. A couple of AH-1 attack choppers sat down for a few minutes and then took off. I wondered if they would find targets or be called to respond to attacks on Marines or Soldiers in the area. As I walked back to the tent I heard the boom of our artillery in the distance.
After a while they called for our flight. We gathered up the gear that we had and Nelson got with the Marines to make sure that we were on the same flight as the “gator” was taking our gear to. When we flew our “ticket” to get on a flight was the two letter code for our destination with the number of the flight such as 26 or 54 or whatever the mission or route number was. In our case it was “TQ” and the number was either 54 or 56 which was from HMH 463 flying CH-53-Ds out of Al Asad. Their flights were known as Kahuna followed by the number. This was written on our left hand with a black marker. As passengers we staged by our flight by young Marines with flashlights shaded by red cones. We got in a line with about 30 other passengers, Marines, Sailors, Soldiers and civilians and moved out for the 53 which had just landed coming in from the east. The companion bird was forward of ours. The Gator move alongside of us and reached the helicopter just before we did. Amid the din of the rotor blades and engines the Marine on the Gator got off and called out “Is the Chaplain that this gear belongs to here.” I called out that I was and Nelson and I moved to the Gator and began the off load of four “super sized” suitcase shaped canvas sea bags and two flight bags. To get an idea how big our bags were you have to think of something about a third bigger than the biggest suitcases that you can buy only soft sided with no wheels. No they did have straps that you could try to carry them with, but they were not the greatest. Also note that we had a full deployment worth of gear in those bags and were expected to lug them across Iraq and you can see that this was a less than fun evolution and why I thought of Staff Sergeant Crapgame. We dragged our gear aboard the aircraft moving toward the center of the bird placing it on the deck under the rotor blades where we took our places in jump seats and strapped ourselves in. I felt something warm dripping on me and looked up, it was hydraulic fluid coming from the transmission of the bird which was located above me. There is an old joke among those who fly in Marine Corps helicopters: “How do you know when a Marine Helicopter is low on hydraulic fluid? When it stops leaking.” I thought of the joke but this time it wasn’t funny. I’ve never been a big fan of rotary wing flight and the fact that I was exhausted, sweaty and sitting in a cramped hot, leaky, dark and heavily loaded helicopter in a combat zone made the experience less than fun.
It was about 0200 when we lifted off into the night on what we understood to be a short flight to TQ. Admittedly it was, if you only count the flight time from Fallujah to TQ itself. As we flew in I could see the sprawling airbase below but we flew off to what looked like the other side of the airfield. As we flew in I thought of the Army bird that had gone down earlier in the day. I wondered what had caused it to crash and my pucker factor went up just a bit higher as I wiped more hydraulic fluid from my face.
When we landed we told to exit the bird without our gear. We released ourselves from our seats and stumbled over our gear and that of the rest of the passengers that was in the middle of the deck. We exited out the rear of the aircraft down the ramp into the rotor wash. Turning left we moved off about 70 yards from the fifty-three and looked around. A few crew members and ground crew personnel moved in and out of the bird. At first I wondered if we had been moved off to refuel but there was no fuel in view. We waited for about 25 minutes in the dark as Marines moved in and out of the fifty-three. Finally a crew member came over to us, and motioned us to follow him back into the aircraft. Once again we negotiated the gear and found our seats. Once we were back in the fifty-three lifted off and flew a short distance across the airfield where were instructed to exit the bird with our gear. For most of the passengers this was a fairly easy evolution, for us it was not so easy. We had to take one bag at a time down the ramp and get each a decent distance from the bird before returning for the others. We got our gear off the bird and found that the rest of the passengers were already being herded the 200-300 yard hike to the paved area near the terminal. Nelson and I each packed one of the large bags on our back and began to pull the other bags behind us as another group of Marines walked out to the fifty-three. Eventually about a third of the way to the terminal a Marine on the ground crew came and asked if we needed assistance. I replied that it would be appreciated. He instructed us to wait where we were and about three minutes later a forklift with a large plywood box on the forks. The Marine who had asked if we needed help instructed us to place the gear in the box and proceed in the direction of the terminal with another member of the ground crew. As the birds lifted off behind us we set off for the terminal area. When we got there we had to wait again. A Marine collected our ID cards and walked in the building telling us to remain where we were.
About this time, our gear on the ground again with us there with our helmets off and sweat pouring down our faces a female petty officer came up to us. It was the 2nd Marline Logistics Group senior RP. Nelson knew her from Afghanistan so our welcome was pleasant. The RP had a Chevy SUV in front of the terminal. The Marine came back with our ID cards, I grabbed a bottle of water and the three of us began to move the gear to the truck which was about 50 years away via the closed route through the terminal. After loading the gear she drove us about 10 minutes to the other side of the base where the billeting area was. She got the truck as close as she could and once again we lugged the gear about 100 yards to our new homes which were called “cans.” These are like a storage container with a window and linoleum floors. Unlike some of the places I had been recently this also had a small wall unit air conditioner that worked. It was now about 0315 and I stank to low hell. I dug through my bags, found my shower gear and towel and got a shower. Finally about 45 days after we detached from EOD with stops in Norfolk, Fort Jackson, Kuwait, Baghdad and Fallujah we could get to work. On my return to my new home I did the office of Compline from the Book of Common Prayer, laid down on the bed and passed out.