Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Back to the Airport

After getting our weapons issued we headed back to the airport side of Baghdad on the help once more. This time they had the windows wide open due to the heat level reaching 108 degrees today.

As we flew over the city it occurred to me that I wasn't as nervous anymore. With my camouflage uniform flapping in the wind from the rotors I looked over the vast desert city and thought about what I had done for the past week, and considered the job that my boss had laid before me as I get ready to go north to Tikrit. For the first time a feeling I haven't had yet washed over me.

This is cool.

I'm finally looking forward to the next few months. Yes, I would obviously rather be with my family, but my confidence is a little bit higher now--and I'm doing something I thought I would never do.

If in January you had asked me where I thought I would be today my answer would have been sitting behind a desk in San Antonio. Iraq would have been the last possible option.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


Awoke this morning to darkness once again. My clock still has not caught up. Each night I wake up earlier--today I was up at 0230. It is actually working out well--you'd be amazed at what you can get done before 8 AM.

Today is in processing day. Again I amazed, as the last time I deployed the time from departure from home to "on the job" was 3 days. It has been over a week and I have yet to get to my final destination.

It started with yet another overnight bag and a trip back to the airport where I met one of my Baghdad counterparts, another Lt Col who I flew with many years ago. After passing through customs (we're only going to the other side of the city…not sure what the obsession with passports is in this country) we loaded up on a helicopter for the trip to the largest US Embassy in the world. Beyond the fact that I can't remember ever flying on a helicopter, it gave me my first real glimpse up close of Iraq.

Helicopter ride to the Embassy
It is very difficult to describe--both beautiful and horrible at the same time. As with everything else, there is only one color--tan. But across the city you can see thousands on square little houses, and then suddenly a massive mosque juts out of the landscape--beautiful, majestic, overpowering. As we moved closer to downtown Baghdad the buildings became larger, and then I saw it.

The Ba'ath Party Headquarters is home to the majority of the military offices and operations in Baghdad. It is also my most memorable snapshot of the night of "shock and awe." A massive square building, it is larger (as far as I could tell) than any other building in the city. After a drop straight down to the landing pad, we dismounted and were met by my CAST roommate. It was awesome to see someone that I actual knew.

Helicopter ride to the Embassy
The rest of the day was spent throughout the beautiful US Embassy compound, with a good deal of time spent in the massive building doing my inprocessing items.

The HQ building is awe-inspiring. Beyond its size, it is made of unpolished marble and with unreal architecture. To have to have set this building on fire is tragic.

We finished the day with a trip to the bazaar so I could get a better shoulder holster, and then a drop-off at our latest accommodations--square trailers stacked up on top of each other across from the HQ.

As with many other moments thus far, it was very surreal. My room is pretty crappy, no doubt, but it isn't a tent and has a private bathroom. It is also less than 50 yards from a building I watched almost 10 years ago get incinerated by massive explosions by US airpower. Due to proximity and amenities, I can bet that someone very important stayed in this room many years ago--now it is relegated to an overnight stay by me.

Four more days until I finally head to Tikrit.

Monday, May 28, 2012


I was packed into the rear of a C-130 for the 1.5 hour ride north by members of the New York Guard. In all the hours I spent flying one of these I don't recall ever receiving a flight in one anywhere rear of the cockpit. I'm glad I didn't. Sitting sideways on cargo netting between two civilian women who clearly thought perfume was the way to go made for a long flight.

After getting our bags off we were shuttled to a makeshift terminal off the side of the flightline. Several C-130's, a few Beechcraft prop planes, and one or two I didn't recognize was all the sat on the ramp. I had to imagine in my mind what the scene was like five years ago--where parking space was a premium to the hundreds of US aircraft shuttling troops in and out. I then went further back, and imagined what it had to be like on the night we unleashed hell on this city--with massive explosions in the distance, and some here on this very ramp.

The heat was there, but as in Kuwait it is bearable. Now granted, this is not summer and the heat has not reached 130 degrees. But even more so, we are definitely in the desert as there is not a spot of green to be seen.

After dragging our bags in I was met by two officers--the AF site lead for Baghdad and his deputy. Fortunately I have a history with the site lead going back to my Tweet days, so the transition was easy. As I processed through customs I found it interesting that the customs officer claimed that I did not need a visa if I had an official passport--I'm still debating whether or not to bring that up in the future.

Once we left and were on the main compound, an annex of Baghdad International Airport, one thing is abundantly clear: this is a war zone. Bombed-out bunkers, 50' high walls, and armed guards are everywhere. Things are improving as there is construction everywhere, but it is definitely still considered a high-threat environment. As I suspected, the withdrawal of US troops did little to diminish the constant threat of violence this city holds. But one thing is different--its not the military here anymore, it's civilians.

From what I gathered when the military left, civilian corporations moved in to do the job that we were formerly doing--and likely at a much higher price. Americans are still risking their lives here, but now it is for the benefit of the companies they serve rather than their country. Funny how you don't see a whole lot of that on CNN.

My room is much like it was in Kuwait--a sparse trailer with a bed, a refrigerator with water, and not much else. The difference between here and Ali Al Salem, however, is that this trailer is surrounded by 50' high concrete walls and a giant roof to protect from falling mortars. Very kind of them.

Tomorrow I will head out with an overnight bag (again) to the embassy via helicopter to meet with my bosses and inprocess the country. Hopefully the reasons I am here will begin to crystallize and I will finish the day closer to getting to my final destination.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Sleepy Hollow

My first real taste of the desert came at the hands of the country of Kuwait. Because my flight was so long I missed the connection into Iraq, so I was dropped off to wait the weekend out until the next flight happened, on Monday.

Ali Al Salem Air Base is divided into two sides--one controlled primarily by the Army, and one by us. The one I stayed on was the Air Force side, fortunately. I was given a small trailer with four beds, a refrigerator with water, and not much else. When the sponsor I was picked up by dropped me off at 8 am on Friday I asked her what was expected of me.  "I don't know, catch up on your sleep?"

Excellent. Three more days of my life to spend doing absolutely nothing.

One thing they do have here is reliable internet. I was able to Skype with SW and the monkeys quite a bit. The first time I did it, Princess was curled up on SW's lap and refused to talk to me. Half way through the conversation she began her silent crying, what she does when she's genuinely upset and trying not to lose it. I guess seeing me on the little computer screen let her know that I wasn't coming back for a long time.

On the first day I woke up at 3 am. After watching movies on the laptop for a few hours I decided to go exploring. The first thing I noticed was the lack of people. I made it from one side of the base to the other (it's relatively small) without seeing a single person. I did, however, see the movie theater, coffee shop, rec center, gym, huge chow hall, several internet cafe's, a decent BX, and a church, as well as several independent eateries that sell arabic food and pizza. All of this led me to a single question:

Why the hell is this base here?

Down in Al Udeid they have a bonafide mission: to flow personnel into theater, and to run the air operations from their CAOC, where I was deployed in 2005. Here? I have no idea. I left here after three days still having no idea. I went to see "Hunger Games" at the theater on Saturday and it was packed. My impression is that we have a few hundred airmen there that are working very hard to justify the existence of a base that has no reason to exist.

When I departed at 0330 (effectively destroying all attempts I had at getting my clock back on schedule) on Monday morning, I went to the Army side. Now they have a mission. Three flights went out that morning fully loaded, and a huge tent city resided just outside the terminal. It was run extremely inefficiently (I showed there at 0345 for a 0800 flight) but at least there was a purpose.

I'm not sure if I would be happy or pissed if I was deployed to Sleepy Hollow for 6 months to a year. After three days I was so bored I was making stuff up to do.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Day Two Timeline

0700 EDT: Arrive Leipzig Germany. Exhaustion starts to set in. Managed to send a couple of emails and have a couple of beers.

0900 EDT: Depart Leipzig for Qatar

Enroute: Close out "Nikita" Season 1. Good ending.

1430 EDT: Arrive Qatar, almost immediately told to expect a 4 hour delay due to weather. They stick us in a tent with a few power cords, and the promise of WiFi. WiFi barely works due to there 100 people trying to send messages home.

1830 EDT: Depart Qatar for Kuwait. Sleep the whole way.

1930 EDT: Arrive Kuwait Intl. Immediately told I was the chalk commander, responsible for all 100 or so airmen on board. We then proceed to unload the bags and load up on two busses after I select two bus commanders. They then take us to a holding area while we await police escort to take us on a 1.5 hour bus ride to Ali As Saleem Airbase. Remnants of a dust storm are settled all over everything, indoors and out. After lengthy wait, we depart for the airbase.

2115 EDT(0415 Local--21 hours after arriving at Terminal in Norfolk): Depart for Ali As Saleem with blacked out windows and a police escort. We are instructed not to use headphones and to avoid going to sleep to stay alert. Didn't realize there was that much of a threat in this country.

2230 EDT (0530 Local, Friday): Arrive Ali Al Salem. Fortunately the PERSCO team knew I was coming and hustled me along to get my body armor and chem gear, and got me to my room as fast as they could. Arrived my room at 0700 Local, roughly 30 hours after waking up in Norfolk).

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


I awoke on the Wednesday morning bright and early--too nervous to sleep. To occupy myself I watched "Game of Thrones" (awesome, by the way) and double checked that I had everything.

I arrived at the terminal at 1130 via shuttle. The first thing I noticed was that the atmosphere was significantly less charged than the last time. In 2005, when I arrived at the hangar to head out they had rock music blaring, families around, and a super-charged atmosphere that motivated everyone to go. This time it was different--more like everyone was waiting to get on a prison barge. Why? Beats me--it could be one of many reasons. All but three of the 150 of us were going to Kuwait or Qatar, technically not war zones. War fatigue is another possibility--most of the people there were on the second, third, or fourth deployments.

With a planned 1300 departure, we didn't have much time to hang out. I called and said goodbye one last time, and waited for the boarding call.

At 1245, we were advised that the boarding call wouldn't come--until 2100 that night. 150 people in a hot terminal, with no transportation.


By 1600 I decided I was hungry enough to spend the $20 to go eat at a restaurant. I took a taxi to Chili's, by myself, and directed the waitress to bring glasses of Blue Moon as fast as she could. An hour and half later I was back at the terminal, feeling much more relaxed than when I left.

2100 came and went. And 2200. By 2300 we were finally boarding and I got the first perk of the trip--first class. I always thought those seats looked comfortable (and yes, they were better than coach) but they're not as good as I imagined.

After a 30 minute taxi we were finally airborne into the midnight sky. I looked across the aisle, thinking of the kids and how this was the furthest away I had ever been from Ben and Lilly. The thought lingered on my mind until I saw the lights from the eastern seaboard drift into darkness.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012


When I left to go to Qatar in 2005, Monkey was 6, Cowboy was just over four. It was Patriot Day 2005, and we were departing from my home-station at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona. Dropping me off consisted of a 20 minute drive to the base, so we decided to drop the kids off at their school first.

They both knew I was leaving--Monkey had broken down a few days earlier because we told her I was leaving after my birthday, which we had celebrated. As we dropped them off at school, with me wearing a desert uniform that they had never seen before, Sammy gave me a hug and ran off to his pre-school. He clearly had no idea. Sarah, however, did, and it was a very difficult separation, with both of us crying pretty hard. Eventually, she was strong and went into her classroom, and I cried the rest of the way to the base.

Just before the waterworks were turned on
This time was much different. First, we had been expecting this day for a long time due to the delays in getting me out of there. Having a deployment hanging over your head is very difficult because you never really know when your "last" will be--your last real meal, your last outing with the kids, your last beer, etc. Second, we live 3 hours from the nearest large airport--so we had to get up bright and early and drive the whole way out there--knowing what awaited us on the other end. Third, we now have four kids, with the younger two almost the same age as the older two were last time. And lastly, the drop off has to be quick--as we pulled up to the curb and the San Antonio Airport police don't care if you're donating a kidney on the curb--you have 5 minutes.

I was overwhelmingly nervous, since I was alone this time, versus one of three hundred deploying last time. Like shaking nervous. On top of that I was an emotional wreck due to the fact that I was separating from all of them for the first time. After the bags were on the curb, Ben lost it first. He actually got out of the car crying and was hysterical by the time I was pulling my bags away. Sarah and Sammy were as expected, as we had gotten the hardest parts out of the way the night before. SW was holding her own, and I was too, until I started pulling away and something happened.

Lilly, in all her three years, figured it out.

With all her siblings and mother crying around her, on a busy side street with daddy hauling over 100 pounds of bags, something HAD to be amiss. As I was walking away she very quickly ran after me to hold my hand, as if she thought she was coming with me. I kissed her on the head and brought her back to mom. As I walked away she did the same thing again. She didn't cry, she didn't pull me back--she had a very serious look on her face and appeared that she thought it incredulous that I would go anywhere without her.

I lost it.

Eventually I made it into the building and just sat down for a minute to collect myself.

This is going to be a long six months.

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Monday, May 21, 2012

Deployment Eve

Despite all of my preparations, I decided to repack one last time the night before, scared to death that I was going to forget something.  On my last deployment, we had a definitive list of stuff to bring--which I had packed and sealed weeks before I left.  This time, since we are going back into a country that we "quit" six months ago, no one really knows what to bring, so I spent my last day (unfortunately) repacking all of my stuff to make sure I had what I thought I needed.

At about 10pm, when I was in the garage finishing up trying to zip my bags closed, the door opened and Sarah came out.  At first I just said hello over my shoulder.  When she didn't answer, I turned.  She was sobbing and holding a card out to me.  She had colored in a felt cartoon cardstock of a princess with a rainbow in the background.  On the back she wrote:

Dear Daddy,
I love you so much! If you were here I'd give you a hug. But, know that me and the kids are safe. We just want you to come back home safe.
Be Careful,
P.S. I've gotta say it again I LOVE YOU!

For ten minutes we just held each other in the garage and cried.  It was so hard for me to see my oldest this upset about anything, let alone something I was having to do.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In the Interim

Good Lord what it takes to deploy someone these days.

We bailed out of Iraq, and I am constantly reminded of how irresponsible we were as a service in doing so.  My experience thus far has been that we bailed and didn't leave anything behind to lead the support structure in regards to what the plan was after we left.  It was (and should always be) obvious that when we leave a war zone we are not actually leaving.  We will always plan to have folks that stay behind to take care of business.  And thats what we did this time.  We just took all the play books with us.