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.