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.