ONE JOURNEY INTO IRAQ
And the humorous process getting there
A car backfired in the Walmart parking lot. I flinched. But I didn’t hit the ground. I was getting better. More help was needed overseas, and I felt I was healed enough to go. There were two additional factors: the first was that they were gonna send me within the next year, so I might as well choose when; the second was… well, it felt more comforting to be around people who felt what I felt, knew what I knew, lived where I lived. So, I gladly moved my deployment up to the time my civilian contract would renew – I figured that’d make it easier on everybody. I would go and relieve my friends their burden, and for my part I’d be back where at least I knew where I fit in. Standing in that parking lot, I knew the only place I’d feel ok – feel “normal” – was back over there, back where we were all on alert, back where the only thing that mattered was moment-to-moment survival.
All deployments start with a stint at a US base for readiness training and clearance, so it was off to Ft Benning the first week of January to “prepare” me for the months ahead - on duty in Iraq. As I left the cold Northwest for Ft Benning, I was actually encouraged to get out of the 40-50 degree weather we’d been havin’ all December. Imagine my surprise when I arrived in GA to temperatures of 16-30. OK, surprise may be putting it nicely - that was definitely not in the list of words I used at our 5am outdoor formations and training sessions. As many of my friends will testify, I am NOT cut out for frigid weather. Apparently, though, hell froze over or the world turned upside down – or possibly somebody “up there” has a very twisted sense of humor. So…freezing weather it was.
One of the funniest parts to this cold weather in South Georgia is that …well, let’s just say it causes some difficulties. See, the way “inprocessing” and “outprocessing” work generally involve lots and lots and lots of lines waiting for your next medical check, form to fill out or equipment issue. I didn’t say it’s a cattle call, but that’d be a decent analogy. There are briefings, re-briefings, de-briefings and mystery-briefings – where no one knows why we are supposed to be there or for what – including those in charge. Basically, they’ll take that time to spin around, pick something out of thin air and just ramble on until the allotted time is done. Those are sometimes my favorite because you can at least be amused at the circus. Having said all that, since this is Georgia where it should be tolerable weather – 40% or more of these trainings and waiting in lines are conducted outside in pavilions and/or sidewalks instead of buildings with heat and shelter from the elements. Oopsy! At that first morning’s formation it was only16 degrees by 6am. There was some scrambling going on to figure out how to prevent frostbite for the subsequent mornings where formation was at 4 or 5am. Again, if this were a base in Seattle, no big deal, they would have been prepared. Columbus, Georgia, however, was not accommodated to deal with sub-freezing temperatures. Adding insult to injury, where we were training utilized porta potties. Now, imagine racing your frostbitten hands over to the hand wash station only to find the water is frozen. Did anybody think to at least put out some hand sanitizer – no. This deployment was not starting out very well. Fortunately, I had some hand sanitizer in my uniform pocket. I must admit, though, “people” were informed of this travesty – I doubt it did a bit of good – but people… were… informed. Eventually we hoped to identify these “people.” Somehow, I survived, but I was still a li’l bitter. I knew once Iraq heated up to 120° or so, I might change my mind - no, no, I was still bitter just remembering it.
Mercifully, it migrated on up to the 40s in time for “Med Shed” day. As you may gather from our li’l nickname, the “Med Shed” wasn’t exactly a clinic or hospital – or really remotely resembling either one. It’s kinda back to the cattle call analogy. (As I informed my friend Jennifer, the DMV would be an example of efficiency by comparison.) The “Med Shed” did do an excellent job of keeping colored tape on the floor, though, to ensure you follow the proper flow they prefer. My favorite part was that they start with the 4-5 most gay looking women and immediately send them for urine pregnancy tests. Once that’s out of the way, it was off for labs, eye tests and immunizations. Whether you’d just had them or not, you were getting them again. Dental was basically a hand-me-your-paperwork-stamp-stamp-thank you-move along. One of my favorite parts of inprocessing was the audiogram – bless that man’s heart – we have all been deployed enough times to have impaired hearing. However, it was his job to say we were “good enough” to still deploy – kinda like the shrink that has to say we weren’t “too depressed” to still deploy. So, after the blessing from the Physician Assistant and adding PPD and typhoid to my H1N1 and Anthrax immunizations for good measure, I had survived the “Med Shed.”
Ft. Benning actually did a pretty good job considering they’re tryin’ to run 470+ soldiers, DOD, and contractors through all the checklists, training sessions and equipment collection in less than 7 days. Again, while it was technically known as the CONUS Replacement Center, the CRC… it’s more commonly referred to as The Church. That’s partly because of its acronym and partly because it is physically located where Harmony Church used to be. Most of us were at The Church from 3-7 days before shipping over.
Anyway, we went through a lot of reminders about the conditions with both the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. They reiterated the IED threat, particularly with the increase in suicide bombers. There were lectures on bombs and kinds of bombs and pictures of bombings and sounds of bombings and even randomly blowing up stuff (without warning) inside the lecture room just for effect… we got it: we’re gonna get bombed. Enough already.
After processing through medical, dental, legal, finance, personnel, etc., we got duffels and armor and weapons and chemical warfare suits. This lovely exercise was known as Rapid Field Issue. I assure you there was nothing rapid about it. At one point there was a 45-minute lunch break, so they just shut down and let us stand there with half full duffels (and, no, we did not get lunch).
Next we did the usual marches. We marched to training; we marched through lanes rigged with booby traps; we marched to chow; and we marched to the range. I swore I was gonna leave there with frostbite. On the plus side, they instituted a new policy that was a lot of fun – all health care providers got issued red dog tags. That translated: we got out of doing a lot of training – the others spent 5 hours in CPR training (that we obviously already had in our civilian jobs) while we got to do laundry, call home and pick up extra Benadryl for the 15-17 hours of flying we were in for to get to Iraq. Then we qualified with our weapons – I got sharpshooter :~ . I’m pretty sure the lady next to me had a drill sergeant shooting her targets for her behind her back. We had to get everybody deployed somehow. They gave us a brief on security, the Geneva Convention (which no one honors in guerrilla warfare) and the flight we were about to board… and then it was time for final preparations.
First, there was the packing. Let me just say, some of those duffel bags had to be wrestled into submission – no seriously. You have to work ‘em step by step: get one corner closed; lecture it a bit; then you left it. When you felt it had been long enough, you returned to see if it had learned its lesson. If you could get the crossways closed, you succeeded. If not, you enlisted your weight, your will, your roommates, your fellow deployees and even total strangers. Everyone pitched in to sit on, shake, pound on, stretch, pull and push until by the power of the Great Lord above, we got that damned duffel tamed into submission: locked and loaded. Whatever wasn’t in there by then, wasn’t goin’ – and the search team better not even dream of opening that thing!
This began the “giving phase” – shirts, boots, uniforms – you name it were graciously donated to whomever needed/wanted ‘em. The next morning began the “cleansing phase” which sounds like: “I think this shirt is a li’l worn thin, dirty beyond cleansing…” garbage; “I don’t really need all these socks…” accidentally left in the barrack drying machine; “I bet I can round up notebooks and envelopes somewhere along the way…” casually left under a cot in the bunker; and “I’ve already read this book twice while waiting in the never ending lines….” dropped off in common room.
After that we went on lockdown, got moved to Lawson Airfield, were searched by dawgs (can’t get the UGA out of me), and were fed our last American meal (for awhile). Then the Chaplain prayed over us, and we boarded that big ol’ DC10. The touching but eerie part came next: all the airmen on the ground stopped what they were doin’ and saluted us as we taxied and took off for Kuwait. It’s an honorable tradition, but sends chills up your spine – not the good kind. It was more real and inevitable than ever at that point.
We had to stop in Bangor, Maine to refuel which allowed us to stretch our legs and wander around a special section of their airport. Let me tell you – those people love their military. Men and women – some Veterans, some civilians – shook our hands one-by-one as we exited the plane and cheered us off as we left. There were also the Freeport Flag Ladies. They offered coins, prayers, food, coffee – love and appreciation, really. They even let me play with legos to distract me :~). It was a bright spot in the midst of a bleary journey.
Finally, we made it to Kuwait and went through the long line of checking in and finding our bunks. However, my stay in Kuwait (usually 3-5 days) was shortened considerably. As soon as we landed, our LNO informed two of us that we’d be leaving for Iraq almost immediately. My comrade and I no sooner landed and transferred bags in Kuwait before we were reloaded, sent back to Ali Al Salem and flown into Camp falling in on the 915th FST (Forward Surgical Team).
And thus began my second tour in Iraq.