Saturday, May 23, 2009

Boots On Ground

Mood: Thinking of Home
Music: Tension; Avenged Sevenfold

I need a moment 'cause I've spread myself too thin
We all need a moment in our lives
Work’s hard, the day’s too long, and that’s just where it begins
Tension has us all the time

She needs a moment 'cause she spread herself too thin

We all need a moment in our lives
Work’s hard, the day’s too long, and that’s just where it begins
Tension has us all the time

The start of a very long day...the end of a very long trip.
(0430 the morning of our last day in Kuwait)

The process that takes Navy IA/GSA’s to Afghanistan wasn’t through with me yet. Nothing is ever as quick or easy as one would hope. After boarding the busses in Camp Virginia at 8 pm, and being deposited at the airfield, we were grouped up and told to go wait in a tent until midnight, at which point the folks running the terminal would tell us when we would board a plane to Bagram, Afghanistan. After all the hurrying up, we would sit and wait a few more hours. A handful of us decided to leave and wander around the airbase. The base was similar to Camp Virginia, in that every “building” was either a tent, trailer, or re-used shipping container. But, whereas Camp Virginia was wide open and full of transients, this place was tightly laid out with narrow walkways, the more crowded of which were delineated by a six inch deep layer of large gravel that ranged in sizes of up to three inches. It made a distinctive crunching and grinding sound when walked upon, and provided ample opportunity to twist an ankle when you stepped on one of the larger loose pieces. The walkways were filled with people that you brushed shoulders against while navigating around looking for the exchange, fast food, and local vendors. Most of the people I passed looked like they worked there, and walked with the stride of those familiar with their surroundings; as opposed to Camp Virginia, where you couldn’t walk to the port-a-john without encountering at least three confused looking, jet lagged individuals scratching their heads, asking for directions to the exchange, DFAC, McDonald’s, etc. There was also the pervasive smell and thrumming of diesel generators, which powered everything, and a light drizzle that dampened everything.

I, and the other Navy guys who left the tent, had managed to find the exchange, bought some cigars and non-alcoholic Beck’s beer and wandered over to a covered pavilion where we smoked and drank. As the rain crescendo’d from a drizzle to a lightning filled downpour, we discussed the finer points of wives, girlfriends, and one-night-stands, in addition to the multitude of reasons we all thought the Army sucked. When the rain slackened, we headed back to the tent and waited to be called for our flight.

At midnight, we were told our flight was delayed. We were still able to load all of our seabags onto a pallet. Uncovered, in the rain of course. Seabags are many things, but waterproof isn’t one of them. Since my bags were likely last off the truck and first on the pallet, they should be buried and dry at the bottom of the pile. Eventually our flight was called and we were lined up alphabetically. At about two in the morning, we walked out of the terminal in single file, and onto the dimly lit parking ramp towards the C-17 cargo plane that would take us to Bagram.

A C-17 is about 175 feet long and almost 60 feet tall. It also has a wingspan of 170 feet, weighs 250,000 pounds empty, and is powered by four turbofan jet engines that are each six and a half feet in diameter and almost twelve feet long. It is a huge hollow beast capable of carrying 300,000 pounds of fuel and cargo over 2,500 miles at 500 miles per hour. We entered the plane through the lowered rear cargo ramp door, and could either sit on the fold down cargo seats that lined both sides of the plane, or on airline style seats that were attached to cargo pallets in the front third of the cavernous airframe. I started in an airline style seat, moved to a cargo seat, back to an airline seat, then to a cargo seat for the second time, and finally gave up on getting comfortable and settled for one of the airline style seats. Once the fifty or so passengers were aboard and seated, the airfield personnel filled the rest of the plane up with pallets loaded with war supplies and our seabags.

A few of the folks on the plane were nervous and didn’t like to fly, and especially didn’t like flying in a military cargo plane headed for a warzone. There was also a rumor that the landing in Bagram would be some kind of crazy tactical type landing that would make everyone throw up. Regardless, we were finally leaving. There was a sense of nervous relief among everyone, we were glad to be through with training, but what would be next? Who on this plane wouldn’t be coming home alive? Would I ever see any of these people again? I put in my ear plugs, started chewing gum (for popping ears) and got out my paperback of Inside Straight by George RR Martin and waited for takeoff. There are no stewardesses, and there are no announcements from the cockpit to let you know what is going on. If the crew thinks you need to know something, one of them will come yell it in your ear. Other than that, they consider you cargo that needs to be flown someplace. It’s best to just to get in, sit down, be quiet, and buckle up.

During the flight, I drifted in and out of sleep. It had been a very long day. Starting with the convoy exercise at Udari, the commotion at Camp Virginia, and the late night gaggle at the Kuwait airfield leading up to getting on this flight, I suppose I had been up at least 24 hours. The landing at Bagram wasn’t as wild as some were predicting, but had the same feeling as going down the first hill of a tall rollercoaster; definitely a much steeper descent than a civilian flight, but not that rough.

After a week in San Diego, three weeks in South Carolina, a week in Kuwait, and all night flying, fifty Sailors, garbed in soldier’s uniforms, stirred nervously in the belly of a C-17. Glancing around at each other, they waited for the cargo to be offloaded. When they themselves were the only remaining cargo, they gathered their belongings, and walked towards the early morning sunlight that obscured the view of anything beyond the end of the loading ramp. Single file, one by one, each lost in his own thoughts, they went down the loading ramp, and took their first steps on the ground in Afghanistan.

Friday, April 24, 2009

"Here... We... Go..."

Music: Becoming the Bull; Atreyu

Back and forth the struggle consumes us all.
Trying to keep a level head, in the most unsettling of times.
Today, I’ll become the bull.

In preparing for the convoy exercise, we had to come up with call signs for each vehicle. One of the vehicle commanders suggested it be a one syllable word in keeping with streamlining radio traffic. I didn’t want to waste too much time on a small detail, so after momentarily closing my eyes, and thinking of where I was and what I would be doing for the next year, Brick immediately came to mind. Our six vehicles would be Brick 1 through 6. I was Brick 3.

After our short feedback session with the instructor, we got back in our vehicles, performed a radio check, set the vehicle order, and moved out. Like before, the instructor lead the way, then announced over the radio that we were to stay on the marked path, and immediately veered off into the desert, leaving us to continue on alone.

We continued on for a few minutes before the path went up a steep incline of about 100 feet. The terrain changed significantly from wide open dessert to jagged and hilly. There were deep wadi’s and large sandstone formations covering the landscape. Nothing was visible beyond the crest of the hill we were travelling up. Brick 1 crested the ridge and disappeared out of sight. Brick 2 followed and disappeared as well. When our vehicle crested the ridge, we found ourselves in a small canyon. It was 200-300 feet long, with steep, almost vertical walls that ranged between 20 and 30 feet high. It was relatively straight, but narrow. In some places it was wide enough for two vehicles to be side by side, but mostly throughout its length, there were just two or three feet of clearance between the walls of the canyon and the vehicles. After taking it all in, I thought, Here… we… go… And as if on cue, an explosion went off at the end of the canyon and Brick 1 was lost to my sight in a cloud of smoke. All hell broke lose after that.

Brick 1 radioed that they had dead, wounded and that their vehicle was destroyed. Brick 2 disappeared into the smoke in front, and as Brick 4 passed our vehicle on the left I looked up and saw four men armed with AK-47’s coming down the canyon wall from the left. Before I could slap the gunner on the thigh, to tell him what I was seeing, he yelled out that he had multiple targets at three o’clock. (right side). I quickly glanced out my window, but only could see the wall of the canyon a couple feet away. As I was turning away to look back to the left, I heard and saw a metal canister go dinka dinka dink across the hood of our vehicle, fall to the ground and explode into a cloud of smoke. The next few moments were filled with radio chatter; Brick 2 was now the lead vehicle. Brick 4 had moved behind Brick 2, to begin hooking up to Brick 1 to tow it. Brick 5 had eyes on all the bad guys scampering around the tops of the canyon walls. Brick 4 called in that they had been hit, and now had casualties. Brick 5 was directed to take control of Brick 6, and to try to get high ground to engage to the enemy. Brick 2 wanted to know if they should attempt to tow Brick 4 out. No…It was time to make a stand. The final instructions given over the radio were to cease all attempts at towing, cease caring for the wounded and to focus solely on clearing the canyon of bad guys. Brick 5 soon reported that they and Brick 6 were able to loop back around and gain the high ground, quickly followed by Brick 2 reporting that they had killed some bad guys and were no longer taking fire. The instructor then broke in on the radio and told us that the scenario was over, and that we should shut down the vehicles and form up, so he could give us some feedback. After I told the driver to shut the engine off, I glanced up at the windshield and noticed the multitude of X’s, O’s, lines, circles, checks, letters and numbers that I barely remembered scribbling with the grease pencil during the last few minutes. Out of 30 people and 6 vehicles there were four dead, six wounded, one vehicle destroyed, and three damaged. What a slaughter. The entire scenario lasted only three minutes, but seemed much longer. Now it was time to be told how many things we did wrong. Oh well, I guess it could have turned out a lot worse.

Surprisingly everyone in the group was in good spirits, and the instructor had only positive feedback for us. Apparently the last few groups to go through that canyon fared much worse. The instructor even told us of one group that, once the scenario started, sat paralyzed, in complete radio silence for over three minutes until they were all dead. He seemed genuinely impressed with our results, and since the other 29 folks in the group weren’t calling me names or throwing things at me, I’ll just book it and move on.

The final scenario was supposed to be more complex than the canyon, but due the keen eyes of first vehicle commander, we completely avoided triggering the initial phase of the scenario. I won’t go into details because of taloti, but needless to say we went through the final scenario unscathed. We soon found ourselves at the end of the convoy exercise, being told by the instructors how well we did, blah, blah, blah. Everyone was glad it was over, and even happier we did well, but the icing on the cake was that in a few short hours we would be back in Camp Virginia, taking hot showers eating in the ginormous DFAC, and receiving our final travel plans. We did a final brief debrief of the exercise and convoyed back to clean up our tent/classroom, and to turn the vehicles in.

As the class was cleaning up the classroom and loading up gear, the instructor and I drove back to the motor pool to turn in the vehicles, he commented, “Nothing bothers you much, does it? You didn’t seem to get too flustered during all this.”

I replied by telling him that being in the Civil Engineer Corps, I’m usually not the smartest guy in the room, but instead I just try to keep a level head, do what I think is right, and stay in the shadows. It gets me by.

On the bus back to Camp Virginia, there was chatter about the Iraq group and how they had been slaughtered on their convoy exercise. Everyone was upbeat and positive. A few of the folks sitting close by, offered me a, “Good job out there today.” I told them it was a team effort, and that everyone just did what they were supposed to do. They agreed, but added that since I was the convoy commander, that I get the credit for everyone doing well.

When we got off the busses in Camp Virginia, it was about noon. We were told that the travel brief would be at 5pm, and we were free until then. There was also a rumor going around that we would be leaving tonight. Most everyone headed straight for the showers. I don’t really enjoy being crowded into a shower trailer with 40 other men who haven’t bathed in four days, so I did something else. I have a habit of doing the exact opposite of what the crowd is doing. Sometimes it works to my advantage, other times… not so much.

I went into our tent and proceeded to pack up all my belongings. If the rumors were true, then I would be one step ahead, if not, then I would have to unpack my crap again for however long we were stuck in Kuwait. As I was stuffing the last of my things into three sea bags and two backpacks, people were starting to trickle back from the shower trailer. I took that as my cue, grabbed my shower gear, some clean cammies and took off for the showers. Since I had waited, there was the risk of there not being any hot water left. The trailer was un-crowded, but filled with trash left behind from the first wave of people. The hot water hadn’t run out, so I was able to get three days worth of grime off of me in relative comfort. After showering, I hit up the DFAC for a late lunch, went to the internet café, ran through the PX, and finally settled into a big black leather couch at the USO to vegetate for a little while. I came across a few of my classmates, and according to them, the rumors were firming up that we would be leaving tonight.

The travel brief pissed me off. We were all seated in the same large tent we had sat in a week ago when we showed up in Camp Virginia at 2 in the morning. This time everyone was wide awake, and in much better spirits. We were getting out of here. The brief started out with various senior members of the Navy staff in Kuwait taking questions from all of us. It turned into a bitch and whine session. Person after person got up and told the Captain and Master Chief every complaint and gripe they had stored up for the last month. Some folks were actually bringing up things that had happened in San Diego. This was dragging on and on and on. I just wanted to know when we were leaving. God! Won’t these people ever shut up! After nearly 90 minutes, people began to run out of things to complain about, and the operations officer was introduced. He said he had Good News and Bad News. The Good News was that we were leaving tonight. The Bad News was that we had to be on busses to the airfield at 8pm. You do the math… the brief started at 5pm, people complained about crap for an hour and a half and now this knucklehead was telling us that we were getting on busses less than two hours from now. Do you think the whiners would have brought up so much petty crap if the operations officer would have gone first? Instead, my last few hours outside of a warzone consisted of listening to the trifling gripes of niggling bellyachers.

Amazingly, once we knew when were leaving, no one had any further quibbles. The tent cleared out as if a bomb had gone off. Everyone hustled back to the tents to pack. I walked.

When I got back to the tent, there was a flurry of motion and activity. People were frantically cramming and jamming everything into sea bags and backpacks. I double checked the locks on my bags, and found the chief who had been designated to make sure that everyone staged their bags in the correct spot to be loaded into the cargo truck following the busses to the airfield. He was packing when I found him. He showed me where the bags were being staged, and when I dropped mine off, there was already one other person’s there. Since my bags would soon be buried by several hundred others, they should be the last on the truck at Camp Virginia, the first off the truck at the Kuwait airfield, the first on the cargo pallet in the plane, the last off the cargo pallet when the plane landed, the last on the truck in Bagram, and finally (and most importantly) they should be the first off the truck when I saw them again. In hindsight I can’t believe I actually spent brain cells thinking that through when I dropped my bags off.

I wandered over to the McDonalds trailer and got a cheeseburger, fries, chicken nuggets, and a Mountain Dew. I sat and watched some Army folks play basketball for a few minutes. I went to the internet trailer and sent home a cryptic email implying that I was leaving for Afghanistan shortly. I passed back through the USO, played Fallout3 on an Xbox for a few minutes, and then begrudgingly began to wander back towards where the busses were supposed to pick us up. The busses were there. The cargo truck was there. I pitched in for a few minutes to help finish loading the multitude of sea bags on to the truck, walked over to the bus, plopped down, and briefly thought, before closing my eyes, Training is over, time to go to work

Monday, March 23, 2009

The End of The Beginning

Mood: Settling In
Music: Seize the Day/Avenged Sevenfold

Seize the day, or die regretting the time you lost
It’s empty and cold without you here, too many people to ache over

Today is March 20, and I have been at my job for almost three weeks now. I have some catching up to do, but am at a point where I have to decide how to keep everyone up to date while being vague enough so that the Taliban assholes lurking on the internet (here fore after to be referred to as taloti) don’t glean anything of value from reading my blog. I’ll try to figure it out as I go.

I left off with me snoozing in my sleeping bag at the Udari range in Kuwait, thinking about the convoy exercise that would, for all intents and purposes, end our training. It was the last training we would get prior to moving on to our final destinations. The weeks spent in San Diego, Camp McCrady, and now Kuwait would all end after we went through the convoy exercise, and took a bus back to Camp Virginia. Everyone was eager to get it over with.

We started waking up, one by one around 0430 the next morning. The early risers got up, dressed, stowed their gear, and went outside into the pre-dawn, desert darkness to visit the port-a-john, eat an MRE, and clean up the best they could. The late sleepers then reluctantly began to stir, and by 0545 the lights were on and everyone was up, eating and getting themselves ready for the day. I ate a cold spaghetti MRE for breakfast, and then took three packets of instant coffee, dumped them into an empty water bottle, added a single packet of sugar, re-filled the bottle with cold water, and shook vigorously. It tasted a little bitter, but I needed a cup of coffee, and it would have to do. I offered some of the concoction to a buddy, who violently spit it out, and acted as if I had played some sort of practical joke on him by letting him drink it. Oh well, so much for sharing…

The first evolution of the day was additional reflexive firing training with our rifles and pistols. It was meant to build upon what we had learned at Camp McCrady. Unfortunately, the King of Kuwait had made some sort of decree about something important to the King and that somehow resulted in us being prohibited from firing live ammunition that day. The training we received was still OK, but at times it seemed comical. The thirty of us going to Afghanistan were lined up in a single row facing the targets we were supposed to be firing at, as the instructors slowly went through footwork and body movements. They built upon each other and slowly got more complex. It looked like we were learning how to country line dance, except we were wearing body armor, and slinging weapons around. The instructors did the best they could, but everyone was disappointed we weren’t firing any ammo.

After we finished line dancing in the desert, the folks who had been selected to be drivers and vehicle commanders for the convoy exercise were sent to the motor pool to draw the hummers we would be using. All of us then went back to the tent for some classes on convoy operations, and to review portions of the exercise scheduled for the next day. Before breaking for lunch, the instructor let us know that the remainder of the day’s training would be directed by what I wanted to do. Huh? As the convoy commander, I was supposed to come up with a list of topics that I wanted to go over to get the class ready for the convoy exercise. Time to start thinking As we were let go to eat MRE’s for lunch, I pulled the other five vehicle commanders aside to get their opinions as to what they thought was needed to get everyone ready. Right off the bat, I made it clear that my top priority was clear communication and proper radio procedures. During the convoy exercise at Camp McCrady, I had sat back and watched as everyone talked on top of each other, held their mic’s open for extended periods of time and basically cluttered the net so that no one could effectively talk to each other. Since it was my show to run, if no one learned anything other than how to calmly, clearly and succinctly communicate on a radio, I would be happy. After making sure all the vehicle commanders (who would also be the radio operator for each vehicle) were on board with communications, we then decided the gunners from each vehicle should get together and come up with a common set of hand and arm signals so that they could communicate with each other independent of the radios while they were standing up in the turrets. We also decided that the drivers needed some additional instruction on vehicle safety, and instead of just hopping into the vehicles and driving around, we would have every one stand in their respective positions next to the vehicles and walk through as many scenarios as possible before even stepping foot into the vehicles.

After lunch, as we were standing next to our vehicles, pretending to drive, and literally walking through different scenarios, the Iraq group passed by and gave us curious glances as they drove out into the desert to rehearse. I could hear unspoken questions from some in our group as to why we weren’t out driving around and why we were doing what appeared to be a kabuki dance in the sand next to our vehicles. After we had walked through as many different scenarios as possible, and spent some time going over safety issues, we mounted up in our vehicles and moved out. Our convoy of six vehicles followed the instructor out into the desert and after we had a chance to get used to driving in formation, and had established good communications, the instructor began calling out different scenarios over the radio. As a group we responded well, but it immediately became clear to me that things got real complicated real quick trying to keep track of six vehicles as the instructor was calling out which vehicle was disabled, who was dead in each vehicle, where the enemy contact was coming from, etc. I tried to keep track of it all in my head, but soon found that I was scribbling in my note book to make sure I knew who was where and who was doing what. After the third or fourth scenario, the instructor told us that we were doing well, and that he thought we were prepared for the exercise the next day. He asked if we wanted to run through any more scenarios, I said we could do one more on the way back to camp, but wanted to make sure that it was still daylight when we got back. It is easier to eat when the sun is up, then it is to fumble around with flashlights trying to eat MRE’s in the dark.

While we were cleaning up from dinner and after the sun begun to set, the Iraq group rolled back into camp. After everyone was settled for the evening, the vehicle commanders and I spent time reviewing some of the scenarios that we had run through earlier. I let them know that after the second or third scenario, I had to start writing things down to keep them straight. I made an offhand comment about how I wish I had a grease pencil so I could scribble on the windshield while talking on the radio and scanning out the window. We only spent about 30 minutes or so going over things, before I went outside for a walk.

I had my boots on tonight, and a jacket. The same group that was standing around chatting last night was there again, laughing, complaining and doing imitations of some of the quirks of the various people we had spent the last four weeks with. As with the night before, some in the Iraq group were still up discussing their convoy exercise. I felt like I could do more, but the things that I and the other vehicle commanders thought important; communication, immediate actions to respond to simulated attacks, vehicle safety, and formation driving, were all covered well enough that going over them anymore would not add any value. However, before going to sleep, I opened up my little green notebook, drew six circles and labeled them 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. I then made the same marks on six consecutive pages. That way, after each scenario ended I could turn the page and start over. Hopefully having a fresh page for each scenario would help me keep better track of the vehicles during the exercise.

The next morning was just like the last morning, except that everyone woke knowing that as soon as we were done with the exercise we would be busing back to Camp Virginia, getting hot showers after three days without, and finally, finally getting our travel plans for moving on to Afghanistan. (or Iraq) This was truly the end of the beginning of our deployments.

After eating an MRE, packing our gear, and cleaning out the tent, we were all anxious to get started. As the other vehicle commanders and I reviewed some last minute details, a commander, who had been listening to us talk yesterday, handed me a black grease pencil, and said, “Do you still want one of these?”

“Absolutely,” I replied, not really thinking to ask where he found one out here in the middle of nowhere.

We loaded into our hummers, conducted radio checks, fell in behind the instructor’s vehicle and drove into the desert to begin the exercise. I hastily scribbled the same pattern of circles and numbers that I had drawn in my notebook the night before on the windshield with my new grease pencil. The instructor called over the radio to let us know that the “game was on” and then sped away, out of sight over the nearest berm. We were to continue on the road (there really wasn’t a road, just tire tracks in the sand to follow) we were on and respond to whatever they threw at us.

The first and second scenarios were some of the basic situations we had rehearsed several times and we responded well. I made marks on the windshield to keep track of which vehicle was damaged, who was towing whom and the number of dead and wounded in each vehicle. After the first scenario, I tried to wipe my marks off the windshield to reset for the next situation, but eventually resorted to spitting on my drawing and rubbing it clean with my forearm before redrawing a new set of vehicle symbols. We were working well as a team and our emphasis on proper radio procedures seemed to be paying off because the radio traffic was crisp, succinct, and to the point. The instructor called a halt and we all dismounted and formed up around him. We reviewed what we had already done and he provided us some feedback on minor things we could have done better, but all in all he said we were doing well, better in fact than some of the Army personnel that had previously gone through the exercise. He let us know that we were about half way done with the exercise, and that the next couple of scenarios were complex and designed to be “no win” situations where the intent was to completely wipe the convoy out. Great. I get to lead us all to our doom.

This seems like a good place to break. I swear, in the next post I’ll finally get to Afghanistan.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Purgatory Continues...

After a seemingly mind numbingly endless four days at Camp Virginia, we
each packed a few things in our backpacks and headed out to the Udari
Range. The Udari Range is even more desolate than Camp Virginia. There
are about a dozen strong back tents, a small arms range, a couple of
port-a-potties, and the wide open desert used for convoy training. The
strong back tents are used as class rooms during the day, then when
instruction is over; the chairs are stacked up in a corner so we can put
down our sleeping bags and spend the night on the floor. There are no
showers or sinks, nor any running water at all. Personal hygiene is
accomplished by baby wipes and bottled water, or not at all, since we
would only be there for three days and two nights. We would be issued
MRE's to eat for the duration. Our class was divided into two groups,
those going to Afghanistan were in one, and those going to Iraq were in
the other. We would stay split up for the entire three days in Udari.

The first day was spent in the class room learning how to detect, avoid
and respond to IED's and suicide bombers (both the walking and driving
types). After classes were over, we ate MRE's, and laid out our sleeping
bags on the classroom floor. I had brought a paperback with me to help kill
time. I was reading Inside Straight by George RR Martin. It's a
bit cheesy and predictable, but interesting enough to pass the time.
After sunset, and reading for a few hours, I got bored and went for a
walk. When I exited my sleeping bag and went outside, I stepped into
cold sand and realized I had forgotten to put my boots on. I almost
turned around and went back inside, but the sensation of my bare feet
sinking into the sand let my mind conjure up images of other times and
other places; Ocean City, Myrtle Beach, Solomons Island, Diego Garcia,
family and friends, so I kept walking. Over by the port-a-johns there
was a group of about ten trainees standing in a circle laughing and
talking. It had the feel of folks sitting around a campfire, drinking
beer, and telling half true stories; except there wasn't any beer and there wasn't any campfire. I avoided them, and walked out and over the top of the twelve
foot sand berm that surrounded the site. Once I started down the other
side, I was clear of the ambient light of the compound, and in complete
darkness. I walked half way down the berm, plopped into the sand, and
leaned back so that I was lying flat out lengthwise staring at a
cloudless desert night sky. There was very little light pollution, and
once my eyes adjusted I could see a thousand pinpoints of light
overhead. I scanned them and found both dippers, Orion, the North Star,
and what I thought was Mars. If I had paid more attention in astronomy,
I would have easily found dozens more. As I sat digging my bare feet
into the sand, staring off into space, I thought of home, past mistakes,
possible futures, and pondered how an insignificant speck of life like
myself fit into the enormous infinite universe spread out above me. My
reverie ended when I noticed I was shivering. It was about forty
degrees, and I was lying barefoot in the desert, flat on my back,
wearing nothing but a tee shirt and cammie trousers. When I stood up, I
couldn't feel my ass. It had grown numb from the cold sand.

I scurried back up and over the berm and was greeted by curious glances
from the guys still standing in a circle laughing, gossiping and
complaining about life. I guess I may have looked a little odd
scampering over the top of a berm barefoot in the dark wearing nothing
but a tee-shirt, since most of them were wearing fleece jackets and
boots. I joined them, pretending not to be the least bit cold. They
were a mixed bunch, a few from both the Iraq and Afghanistan groups.
The Iraq guys were ridiculing the poor sap who had been chosen to be the
convoy commander for their group, but when I walked up the topic changed
to scorpions, snakes, poisonous spiders, rats, mice, and packs of feral
dogs, as one of the guys glanced at my feet, and reminded us all of the
safety brief we had gotten earlier on the hazards in the desert. As the
memory of the class slowly came back to me, and as my ass began to thaw,
I had an almost uncontrollable urge to start patting and slapping the
back of my legs and torso to brush away the tens of spiders and
scorpions that I thought now must be crawling all over me. Instead, I
jammed my hands into my pockets and tried not think about creepy crawly
things running up and down my back. One of the guys offered me a
cigarette, and since I was cold and silently obsessing about my
impending death from a multitude of spider bites and scorpion stings, I
accepted. After a pull or two from the cigarette, I brought the topic
of conversation back around to the other convoy commander and why they
were all mocking him earlier. Apparently, he and some of the others
from the Iraq group had been discussing and planning their convoy
mission for the last several hours, and were really, really getting into
it. Some in the Iraq group got annoyed and just went to sleep, while
others (the ones I was talking to) had come outside to vent their
annoyance to their friends in the Afghanistan group, who replied that at least
they had the cool convoy commander. I mumbled something unintelligible
through a clenched, almost chattering jaw in response, looked away,
noticed that the cigarette in my fingers had burnt most of the way down,
unsmoked, and nonchalantly dropped it in the sand. I was getting cold
again, so I bid them goodnight and walked off towards the tent.

As I rounded the corner and got out of sight, I quickly pulled my tee
shirt over my head, shook it vigorously, and then, in the cold,
hurriedly used it as a whip and a brush on the backs of my legs, neck,
and torso to get the hundreds of imagined creatures off of me. When I
was satisfied that I was bug free, I put my shirt back on, went into the
tent and crawled into my sleeping bag. I thought about earlier in the
day, when I had pulled one of the instructors aside and asked if there
was something I could do to get the group ready for convoy training. He
had replied that, no, it could wait until tomorrow, after we had
finished a couple classes on convoy operations. Was I missing
something, or was the other group just a bunch of over analytical dorks?
I was pretty sure it was the latter, but as I lay curled up, shivering
in my sleeping bag, drifting off to sleep, I mentally reviewed all of
the lessons learned from the convoy exercise at Camp McCrady, just in

Friday, March 6, 2009

Purgatory; Part One

pur-ga-tor-y: -noun; any condition or place of temporary punishment, suffering, expiation, or the like.

Nearly twenty hours after leaving South Carolina we landed in Kuwait around 1 AM local time. Since I had volunteered to help off-load our 20,000 pounds of luggage from the plane, I, and thirty others waited while the remaining ninety passengers disembarked, boarded buses and disappeared. A fellow named Matt came aboard next, and told us that we would be helping him get our bags off the plane. We were led to a bus, given a safety brief on how to safely unload luggage from a plane, then allowed to crawl into the baggage hold and start passing off, one by one, the 600 or so sea bags we brought along. When we had unloaded about 575 of them, Matt frantically told us we had to stop what we were doing and get back on the bus. A Kuwaiti fuel truck had just pulled up and decided that since there were thirty people inside the cargo hold of the plane, almost done unloading baggage after spending 20 hours flying and crossing 7 time zones, now, at this very moment, would be a good time to refuel the plane. We were led back to the bus and told to wait while the plane was refueled. After about five minutes on the bus, people started moaning and groaning about having to go the bathroom, and being hot, sweaty and thirsty from the exertion of unloading 95% of 20 tons. I looked around the bus. There weren’t any captains or commanders, and the other couple of lieutenant commanders were either reading a book or playing with I-pods, so I reckoned I should do something. I got up and left the bus looking for Matt. He found me as soon as I stepped off and demanded I get back on the bus. I told him that half the bus had to go to the bathroom and that the other half wanted some bottled water. He answered by telling me that he has been doing this for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for the last two years and we had no options but to wait on the bus. Wrong answer. After a few more minutes of discussion he agreed to get us an escort, and the folks who needed to go to the bathroom were led off in single file across the flight line. He then brought us a case of bottled water to pass around. After an hour, the fuel truck left, we finished off-loading our bags, got back on the bus, and left the airport. We drove for a half hour before arriving at Camp Virginia.

After getting off the bus, all 120 of us were herded into a tent and given a series of briefs on all the things we were no longer allowed to do. They seemed to revolve around drugs, booze, gambling, and taking pictures of dead people. We were then given tent assignments and some basic directions as to where things were on the base, before being dismissed to find our tents and to offload a truck containing the 20,000 pounds of seabags. It was 4 AM when everyone was in their tents and settled with their bags.

Jet lag sucks. My watch said it was 4 AM, but most of us decided to stay up until the DFAC (dining facility) opened at 5:30, for what felt like a late dinner. We were in Kuwait for a couple reasons. The first is that its a travel hub for everyone heading to, and coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Everyone has to stop here, check in, before continuing on to other places. We were also here to get our final bit of training. We would be heading to the Udari Range for three days of more intense convoy training and additional training with our weapons. At this point I should probably describe Camp Virginia a little bit.

Camp Virginia is in the Kuwaiti desert, near the infamous highway of death that runs north to Iraq. There is nothing (I mean absolutely nothing) there, nothing but sand and Camp Virginia. Picture an empty desert, then picture about 10,000 concrete jersey walls of various heights lined up end to end until the last one touches the first one again, to form a large, oddly shaped enclosure- in the desert.. Then there are more concrete barriers inside the oddly shaped enclosure which delineate where to drive, where to walk, and I don’t know what else. There is no asphalt, only some token gravel in places where really heavy things need to travel. Hundreds of canvas tents, each capable of holding 40 or more transients, are arranged in neat columns and rows, in the sand. There are no permanent structures in Camp Virginia. I think the U.S. has some sort of agreement with the King of Kuwait that we can use the land, but aren’t allowed to build anything permanent. This has resulted in a sprawling landscape of tents, trailers and temporary facilities scattered haphazardly inside the oddly shaped enclosure of concrete barriers- in the desert.

Don’t get me wrong. There is a Starbuck’s, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Movie Theater, PX, a modern gym, basketball court, internet café, phone center, library, chapel and an enormous DFAC. There is even a USO where you can surf the internet and play XBOX 360, PS3, and Wii games for free. All are just either in tents or trailers, and when you go from one to the other, you trudge through six inches of sand, and are blasted by the same sand as it is carried along on 50 mph winds. I wore goggles just about my entire time at Camp Virginia. The sand is everywhere, and gets blown into everything else; including your eyes (even with goggles), ears, nose and mouth. At the end of each day, I would use Q-tips to scoop the sand out of my ears, and then use some more to dig it out of each of my nostrils. Everything you eat is accompanied by the grittiness of sand. I must say though, that the food at Camp Virginia is outstanding. The DFAC is a huge conglomeration of connected trailers, which can easily seat a few hundred folks. There is a main line that serves two or three entrees and half a dozen sides, a quick line that serves pizza, fried chicken, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, chicken sandwiches, and Philly cheese steaks, and even another area set up as either a pasta bar, taco bar, or baked potato bar depending on what day it was. And don’t forget about the wide assortment of breakfast cereals (available all day), fresh fruit, soup, and enormous salad bar. Oh yeah, they also had a dessert case full of freshly baked pies, cakes, and cookies, a guy serving Baskin Robbins ice cream in the corner, and a self serve, soft serve ice cream machine with chocolate, vanilla, and chocolate and vanilla mixed together. None of us was going hungry. I even had prime rib for lunch one day.

We would be spending four days in Camp Virginia prior to going to the Udari range for 3 days, then returning to Camp Virginia to find out our travel arrangements to Iraq, Afghanistan, or Djibouti. The first four days, we had no responsibilities, except for an occasional 30 minute brief late in the afternoon. Other than that we sat around getting our internal clocks adjusted, overeating at the DFAC, sleeping in our tents, or wandering around in sandstorms going from the USO to Starbucks to the PX and back again. The thousand or so sailors, soldiers, airmen and marines spending a few days in Camp Virginia were biding their time, waiting to leave, waiting to go someplace else. The staff did pass out some information about what we would be doing at Udari. They gave us a roster of who would be doing what for convoy training. I looked for my name and saw that they had me listed as the Convoy Commander. Are you freaking kidding me?? Was this some sort of joke? Couldn’t I be a driver, or at the least an anonymous Passenger Number Two? Convoy Commander was the absolute last thing I wanted to do. However, later that day, one of the other lieutenant commanders in my group approached me and asked if I was comfortable being convoy commander, that it would be OK if I didn’t want to do it, or if it was too much for me to handle, he would do it for me. For the second time that day I thought Are you freaking kidding me?? He probably had the best intentions, but I don’t take condescension and/or patronization all that well, so regardless of whether or not I actually wanted to be the convoy commander, there was no way I was going to be anything but the convoy commander.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Something to Hold You Over

This link goes to a site that one of the chief's set up online to deposit his photo's of our training in South Carolina. Some of the pictures have a small white arrow on the corner of the photo. That means they are actually short videos. Just click the picture to start the video.

I am getting settled in at Camp Eggers, but am still using a public terminal with a time limit to type this up. I should have my laptop hooked up in the next day or two, and then I'll get caught up with the rambling musings.

Stay Tuned...

Sunday, February 22, 2009

A First Class Nap

The final two days at Camp McCrady included a memorial service honoring CDR Salkeld, the convoy exercise, rifle turn in and getting briefed by the Navy staff on our travel plans.

The memorial service was very nicely done on such short notice. We found out that CDR Salkeld had already submitted his retirement paperwork, and was on is way out the door when he found out about the IA opportunity. He pulled his retirement papers so he could go on this tour. He didn't need to be here. He wanted to be here. CDR Salkeld literally "wrote the book" on Marine Corps Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) warfare.

The convoy exercise was uneventful. I was assigned as "Passenger Number 2" in the Convoy Commander's vehicle. Since I was absent when crew assignments were made, I didn't know how they assigned who as what for the convoy. The convoy commander was a first class petty officer, and the vehicle I was in had a lieutenant commander as a driver, a lieutenant as a passenger, a chief as a gunner, and myself (a lieutenant commander) as the second passenger. As each scenario unfolded, the first class was verbally peppered by the LCDR driver and the LT passenger with, "tell vehicle one to do this", "tell vehicle 5 to do that", and every variation of "do this" and "do that" that you can imagine. The first class took it in stride, but you could tell that the combination of trying to manage the other 5 vehicles, the verbal barrage of his passengers, and reacting to the scenarios began to show on his face. I quietly sat back and played my role as Passenger Number 2, both resentful of the fact I wasn't driving, and relieved that I wasn't the convoy commander. I later told the first class that he did a good job as the convoy commander, and let him know that he showed great restraint in not telling the LCDR and LT to shut their pie holes.

The final day was a flurry of packing, last minute bus rides to the PX, and what seemed like hourly musters. It began though, with rifle turn in. A lot of folks had stayed up pretty late the night before cleaning their rifles. I was still slightly annoyed that I put about 300 rounds through my rifle with a cracked bolt face and missing locking lug, so I procrastinated cleaning the thing until the absolute last second. The drill sergeants told us that weapons turn in could be a stressful event because the weapons custodians were very finicky about the cleanliness of the rifles and would refuse to accept them until they were spotless. They let us know that most folks got turned away two or three times to re-clean their rifle before it was finally good enough to be turned in. Still, the night before, as my squad mates stayed up late cleaning their rifles, I went to sleep early with a filthy rifle tucked away in my locker.

The next morning, after breakfast, people began lining up to turn in their weapons. I walked right by the growing line of fifty or so folks outside the armory waiting for them to open, and went straight to the cleaning tent. The cleaning tent was completely empty. There was table space for about forty people to clean weapons at once, but right now there was only me. I methodically broke the weapon down and went about a very selective, cursory cleaning of the major areas of the rifle that I, as an armorer, would expect them to check. I was working for about 5 minutes before the first reject from turn-in showed up. There was a steady stream of them thereafter, mumbling curses under their breath and with bitter resignation after spending all night cleaning their rifles, now started the process all over again. Ten minutes after the first reject showed up, I put my rifle back together and headed over to the armory to turn it in. By now a drill sergeant had positioned himself outside the armory and was going up and down the line doing a sort of pre-inspection. There were about fifteen people in front of me, but the drill sergeant was going through, kicking most of them out of line and sending them to the cleaning tent, to save some time. The drill sergeant got to me and gave my weapon a once over. I waited until he started his inspection, then distracted him with, "you know they never replaced my bolt." "look at it, its still cracked." I tried to be slightly annoying, with animated hand gestures while going on and on about my cracked bolt. It seemed to work because he spent about twenty seconds looking at my bolt, handed me back the rifle and let me stay in line to turn it in. When I got to the weapon custodian, I already had my rifle broke down shotgun style with the cracked bolt in my hand. She was sitting at a table and I thrust the bolt at her and said in an annoying tone,"this is broke...its been broke for a week...I kept coming over here to get it fixed and you were never here...I hope you don't let anyone else use this..." As she was looking at the bolt face intently, I nonchalantly sat the weapon on the table, turned and walked out. I slowly walked away, and waited for her to call me back, but after three seconds went by, I had a mental image of the Road Runner in my mind and thought, beep! beep! and kept right on walking while Wyle E. Coyote was left holding my broken rifle. It took another three hours for folks to finish cleaning their weapons, during which time I finished packing my bags, and took an hour long nap.

I woke to the sound of banging metal wall locker doors and people filling their seabags with all the gear we had been issued. I got up, went to lunch and waited for the 1400 shuttle to the PX. On the bus ride there I made a final phone call to Carolyn, then ceremonially deposited the phone and charger in an envelope to be mailed back home. After dropping the phone off at the UPS store, I went through the PX and bought a can of Pringles, a big bag of Good 'n Plenty candy, a bag of sunflower seeds and some beef jerky for the flight later. I then went to the food court and ate two chicken soft taco's from Taco Bell and a double cheese burger from Burger King.

We had a final round of meetings, briefs, and musters before being loaded onto buses for the drive to the airport. At the airport, the buses stopped in front of a large hangar, whose door was mostly closed. A strip of white light four feet wide came from the slightly open door and lit the area around the buses. One of the Navy staff then told us that we needed to go through the door in single file, and that there were some folks inside who wanted to say good bye to us. I was about 20 or so from the front of the line and as the first few entered the hangar I heard an eruption of cheering and applause rivaling the end of a rock concert. As I passed through the opening I was immediately hugged by one of the couple hundred of folks that were waiting for us behind the door. The cheering and clapping continued in earnest until the last one of us was through the door. It took a few seconds to grasp what was going on, but apparently the local VFW, American Legion, Purple Heart Association, Blue Star Families, several churches and television stations had come out to wish us a safe journey. Each group had a table set up inside the hangar and gifts for us. Some made bagged lunches, some gave out teddy bears, candy, etc. We mingled, chatted, hugged and thanked the folks for about thirty minutes before we had to leave. I ended up with a plastic shopping bag full of food, trinkets, stuffed animals, and about six bottles of water, in addition to the food I bought at the PX.

When it was time to go, the navy staff lined us up by rank to walk single file out to the plane. It was odd because for the last three weeks, there was no mention of rank. We were all trainees, now they were putting us back in line so that the more senior folks would get on the plane first. I apparently didn't notice the fact that the handful of captains and dozen or so commanders were already gone, because when they lined us up, the lieutenant commanders were at the head of the line. The community of Colombia, South Carolina had one more surprise in store for us. When we walked out of the hangar there were about forty folks in two lines of twenty, each holding a seven foot staff with a large American flag whipping and snapping in a strong breeze. Some of the folks were obviously struggling to keep a grip on their individual staff as the wind tried to send it flying. It was a little emotional walking down the two rows of snapping flags while the people holding them reached out for a last handshake or hug as you passed by. I took my time and thanked them all. I was through the gauntlet, and looked up to see the 767 that would be flying us to Kuwait.

After walking up the stairs and being greeted by the stewardess, I turned to find a seat. When I passed through first class, the captains and commanders were already pretty much settled. I guess they snuck them out of the hangar early. I also noticed that there were at least five of the seats unoccupied. When I got to the coach cabin I took the first available seat and waited patiently with my carry-on bag and grocery bag still in my lap.

There were about 120 of us and the 767 would seat well over 300, so crowding was not a concern, and loading went quickly. Once everyone was aboard and getting settled one of the commanders from first class popped his head back in to coach and said, "Are there any lieutenant comman..." That was all I heard before I brushed past him and plopped down in an open seat in first class. "...ders that want to move up to first class?"

The first class seats were nice, very nice. There was sooo much leg room that you had to unbuckle your seat belt to reach the seat back pocket in front of you. I made myself comfortable, and listened to the stewardess tell us we would get fed within an hour after taking off, and then breakfast about an hour before landing. It was scheduled to be an eight hour flight. I decided to take a nap until the first meal was served, and as the plane was taking off, I used a remote control with several preset buttons to put the over sized leather seat into the full horizontal position and drifted off to sleep.

I woke up to the serving cart bumping my chair. Good, just in time for dinner. However, when I looked at the cart and the people around me, I found that the stewardesses were cleaning up the breakfast meal! What the ?! I did the math and realized that I had been asleep for over seven hours. I was starving and convinced the stewardess to at least let me have a bowl of cereal and some orange juice this close to landing. As I scarfed it down, the captain sitting next to me finally said, "I didn't think you were ever gonna wake up." I told him it felt like I was only out for a few minutes, I guess I needed the sleep.

We landed at Hahn, Germany to refuel. It was a shut down Air Force Base, and as we were shuttled to the terminal, you could see that most of the buildings had been re-utilized, except for row after row of empty, abandoned three story barracks buildings. Most of them still had unit insignia's painted on the side, and an occasional busted out window or missing door. We stayed in the terminal for about an hour before being bused back out to the plane. After take-off and after I had watched Body of Lies on the personal, on-demand service included on the personal video monitor attached to my seat, I got up to go to the bathroom and noticed the the cockpit door was standing wide open. I glanced in, and to my surprise, the pilot waved and said come on in. In I went, and felt vertigo when I looked out the windshield into a cloudless sky. The lack of clouds provided a clear view of the snow topped mountains we were flying over. There were no sings of civilization to put the mountain range in perspective, just the jagged snow covered landscape. The pilot got up and invited me to sit down in his seat. I sat down and the co-pilot pulled out a camera to take a picture of me "flying" the plane with the Alps in the background. He then asked for my email adress so he could send me the picture. I walked back to my seat, scratching my head, thinking, did that just happen? A few minutes went by, and I realized that I had forgotten to go to the bathroom.

I spent the rest of the flight watching a downloaded episode of Battlestar Galactica on my lap top until the battery died, and then snoozing off and on. We landed in Kuwait at about 0200 in the morning local time.