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.