Monday, December 03, 2018

Loose Phrases and Jack London

I believe it was Jack London that said, "The coldest winter I ever experienced was the summer I spent in San Francisco". On the other side of that coin is the saying, "The hottest summer I ever experienced was the winter I spent in Kuwait". At some point last night, or this morning or late tonight, we landed in Kuwait. And now we are in lovely Camp Arifjan. Anyone who has been here knows that "Arifjan" loosely translates into English as "who needs water...or color...or joy!" But that's a loose translation. The real news today is that our difficult relationship with Those-Guys Airlines has come to an end and now we can get on with the business of reaching our final destination. But first, we will have an opportunity to sleep on an actual bed, with an actual mattress, that makes actual noise, and without an actual armrest to crush our hips.

I had a short but restful night that involved a quick shower, a walk through the dark in shower shoes, and an unending battle with dust sticking to my recently clean feet. You don't know the value of a good pillow until you don't have one and I assume the headache will subside eventually.

Still, the adventure continues. We took a bus from Camp Arifjan to Ali al Saleem Air Base which was a quick 3 hour torture fest wherein my tailbone became acquainted with the higher portions of my spinal column due to the excellence of the Kuwaiti roads coupled with the smooth abilities and demeanor of the driver. It was more of an old school roller coaster than an actual bus ride. It really makes my body feel it's age, which is currently 124. So once we were peeled out of our chairs (I use the word "chair" very loosely) we grounded our gear and headed for the dining facility where we were treated to a meal that would make my grandma cry. It was the first of many such meals (here I use the word "meal" very loosely) after which we returned the terminal to hurriedly wait for 6 hours or so. It was during this time that I became acutely aware that my tailbone and shoulder were becoming lovers. Finally we boarded a C-17 and made the flight all the way to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. To offer some perspective, this would be like waiting in San Jose for 6 hours to fly to Fresno in a screaming refrigerator. So, in addition everything from mid-thigh to Adam's apple hurting, my ears are in open rebellion! But, we're back on the ground and that's nice. At least it was for a while. When we first arrived in Al Udeid, we were told we'd have to wait 4-5 hours because C-17s take a while to prep for flight and we seemed to have unexpected materialized out of thin air, so thing was ready for us. But this being Qatar, we were not allowed to leave the passenger terminal for ANYTHING or we could possible by detained and have to go through customs. Apparently Qatari customs doesn't play!

Once we were on the ground for around 6 hours we started to get hungry as our last meal was "breakfast" (I use that word very loosely) in Kuwait. However, the food fairy was hard at work and in "no time at all" (I use that phrase very loosely) our hungry bodies were provided frozen turkey sandwiches (yes, still frozen), bruised fruit, meat sticks, actually open and stale potato chips, and Pop Tarts(r). Needless to say, the Pop Tarts(r) went first. Oh and that coffee we didn't get...we didn't get any! That means I was hungry, had a killer headache, and the Incredible Hulk was about to make an appearance.

As we stood and waited, and sat and waited, and pretended to eat and waited we became acutely aware that the flow of information was somewhat lacking. And that because we had unexpectedly materialized out of thin air, there was no American air crew to fly us in one of the 15 or so C-17 parked right outside the passenger terminal but a fix was in. A Qatari Royal Air Force crew had been identified to fly us to our final destination. I have nothing against the Qatari Royal Air Force but it's not a real confidence builder when we're told they didn't want to take the job because they had never flown so many people at one time. So...after waiting approximately 10-12 hours in the passenger terminal our flight manifest at 0400 and was scheduled to lift off at 0800 for another 3.5 hour tailbone torture time.

Finally, the hour we had worked toward had come. We began the boarding process for the final leg to our final destination. The anticipation in the air was palpable as people came alive with joy. Once in our seats, the Qatari loadmaster said something in extremely broken English which I'm told was "please buckle your seat belts as though it matters." And with that we began to slowly taxi to the runway, where we sat for another 30 minutes while the crew did stuff. Then, out of nowhere the load master said something else which included the words, "return" "broken" and "1 hour". At this point, we had to just laugh while simultaneously crying. But true to their word, almost exactly one hour later we were taking off and headed to parts unknown.

It would be nice to say that's really all that happened on the trip from Sheol. But I can't. Given that we had slept rather fitfully for a grand total of about 4 hours in the past 4 days we were all very tired. So, as usual, once the plane reached its max altitude we unbuckled and found an open patch of floor to stretch out and try to sleep through the flight. Little did we know that the Qatari Royal Air Force seems to enjoy the interior of their planes at a comfortable zero kelvin. It's amazing how hard it is to sleep as molecular motion grinds to a halt. I've been in some cold places before, but I don't recall ever being that cold. It was as though we had passed through Dante's 9th Circle of Hell.

Still, by the end of the day, as we began to thaw, we landed in beautiful Afghanistan for a nice long vacation. And I can't complain. 18 years of warfare means we've had time to improve living conditions, creature comforts, office space and meals. But I use those terms loosely.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Efficient Gagging

It could be argued that every culture has a trait or characteristic that defines its people to the rest of the world. For instance, there are the Kayan people of Myanmar that stretches the necks of its women from an early age as a sign of beauty. Or the Mursi of Ethiopia that put huge disks in their bottom lip as a sign of not being able to use as drinking straw. Or even the Sentinelese tribe of North Sentinel Island that is known for killing you. Then there are the German people of Germany known worldwide for sausages made from anything, driving 200 in a 35 zone, and gagging on their own language. And efficiency. Germans are among the most efficient people in the world. They are so efficient they only need to actually go to work 1 day a month. But what a day. This level of efficiency can be both a blessing and a curse. In a single layover, I experienced both. Our flight on "The Airline That Shall Not Be Named" made what was supposed to have been a quick pit stop in Niderhosen am Obergach (I think I just gagged). The prospect of landing and escaping the jaws of the 737 of Doom was thrilling. Immediately upon seeing the "Fasten Restraining System" sign turned off, I and 200 of my good friends/fellow prisoners stood to our feet in anticipation of waiting. It was almost like when you take your do out first thing in the morning and he rushes the back door as if wedging his nose into the gap between the door and the jamb with 250,000 pounds of pressure will make you open the door any sooner. And then you have to fight him to actually get the door open so he can get out. So it was that we rushed the door where we stood for approximately 6 days. Finally, the door opened and we caught our first breath of fresh, German air. The terminal was well lit and inviting. The snack bar was open where you could buy a cup of coffee for 1500 Pfensters or a sausage made from something. Or you could purchase mementos of your time in Niderhosen am Obergach (I think I just gagged again) such as a T-Shirt that said, "I think I just gagged"! And then we settled in for the standard 6-28 hour wait while our plane roamed around the airport looking for water. However, given the efficiency of the characteristically efficient German people, we only had to wait 7.235 Magna Seconds before we were efficiently stuffed back in to our own personal 737 sized metal sausage. And soon we were in the air again, dreaming of not being in the air again and fidgeting for comfort as efficiently as we could.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Mephistopheles Airlines

As mentioned in a previous post, we gathered on Day 2, after saying "good-bye" to loved ones for the second time in as many days, at 0300. This gave us just enough time to pretend to get 5 hours of sleep before gaining accountability, boarding busses, and heading for the plane once again. It is worth noting here that we have been a nation at war for over 15 years. One would think that would be ample time to develop the deploying process into something of a science. One would be incorrect. Enter Atlas Airlines. They are to travel what sociology is to science. The people of Atlas Airlines (pilots, flight attendants, water dudes) seemed nice enough. However, I think it would be safe to say that the motto of Atlas Airlines should be, "Sit vis nobiscum" which is Latin for "You only had one job". After the debacle the previous night, the universe was desirous of making it up to us, and as luck would have it, the morning went relatively quickly. Here, "relatively" is meant to elicit a comparison to something that stands in direct contrast to the thing being compared. In this case that would be "relative" to every other second since the dawn of man. And so, after a reasonable wait (again as compared to the whole of human history) we were on our plane and airborne. Fortuitously, I was able to procure a seat in the bulkhead with no seat mate to hinder my ability catch up on some much needed rest, which I assumed would be relatively simple (there's that word again). As it turned out, I did indeed have a seat mate. His name was Mephistopheles, and unlike every other row in the plane, the bulkhead seats have much more leg room...and arm rests that are locked in place by the prince of darkness himself. So, for the duration of the first leg of our "trip" I attempted to sit/sleep/fit in a seat I like to call, "The Iron Maiden". The 2 hour flight to Kentucky to pick up some more friends lasted a relatively short 37 hours (see what I did there?). Once on the ground we were informed by the fine people of Sociology Airlines, "We'll be on the ground for 2-3 hours while we refuel and restock the plane, and then we'll be back on our way." As I freed myself from the torturous confines of "The Maiden", my tailbone began what would turn out the biggest fight of my life. More on that later!

Limping into the terminal I looked forward to the day I could begin to look forward to the day I would retrace my steps home. The 2-3 hour wait quickly became 5-6 hours and the natives were growing restless. After much inquiring we were told by the fine people One Job Airlines that we could not depart because...wait for it...the tank for flushing the toilets was not full enough for a trans-Atlantic flight. So as we sat watching it rain water everywhere, we couldn't help but note the irony in the dry interior of said plane's septic system. But not to worry. After much consideration, thought, and counsel, the good people at Dry Flush Airlines decided to purchase several cases of bottled water and put them in the lavatories as something of a manual flush system. Brilliant. It was at this point that they began to discuss the vagaries of "Crew Rest" and the impact of two hundred angry and tired travelers. And so, we finally headed back to the plane, double in number, hungry and tired, pretending we didn't need to use the latrine. The coming 8 hour flight would cure us of that. As for me...I gingerly remounted my dear friend "The Iron Maiden" and waited for the spine searing pain that was most definitely in my future.

Once airborne for approximately 1 hour the crew began serving "dinner", which consisted of 3 ounces of fruit cocktail in "juice", the choice of a soggy baloney or soggy ham sandwich, and what I believe was meant to be a random condiment. So it was that after dinner I settled in for what would prove to be a relatively short nap a war raged between Mephistopheles, The Iron Maiden, and my tailbone.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Pending A Two Step Journey

The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. When deploying that single step is saying good bye to kids, spouses, and even dogs. For even the hardest among us, the hours leading up to those last few moments are an emotional ride on a generally bumpy road. So with that in mind, I and approximately 100 of my closest friends arrived at the appointed time, in the appointed place, wearing the appointed uniform, with the appointed stuff. This initial gathering was early enough in the day so as to allow maximum lack of sleep the night before as well as ensure we had the required 26 minutes to check in and draw more required gear before spending the next 3 hours taking that first, painful, awkward step. This is not a random occurrence but a carefully calculated huddle designed to ensure that everyone begins their thousand mile journey as asleep deprived, emotional cripple. Final good-byes were said and final kisses bestowed as kids cried and spouses cried and warriors stoically walked to deny crying because I got something in my eye. At last, with a final glance we loaded busses and pulled away, bound for the airport and a quick flight to the bowels of the Middle East.

Once at the airport the fun began in earnest, starting with a lecture from the lecture guy (that's his official title) about how it's ok to take rifles and pistols on board our pending aircraft, but knives, nail clippers, and shivs would be promptly confiscated. Safety third, after all. Finally we were weighed with our gear and ushered into a large, hollow, very echoey hanger like concrete room for a brief wait before boarding our pending plane. Soon thereafter a delicious stake lunch (the term "steak" would be a misnomer) with a side of something resembling extraterrestrial life was provided as we stared at our pending plane blithely staring back at us from the taxiway 300 meters away. A mere 8 hours into our brief wait before boarding our pending plane, we were again loaded into busses to drive the last 300 yards to our pending plane (safety third, after all) followed my more blithe staring.

At long last the moment arrived. Have reported to the family torture chamber at 0700 we were ready to board the pending plane at 1830. Which would have been great. Instead we were informed that an unknown part was broken, or damage, or working fine, and that the crew were mandated a certain amount of rest before they could fly our pending plane anywhere (insert wild cursing and breathless groans here). So instead of boarding our pending plane we went back to the family torture chamber and told to go home until 0300 the next morning. At which time we would cautiously attempt to again board our pending plane, but not until we took a second first step on our thousand mile journey.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

At War With Groundhogs

The official count is 37 months. Officially! The real count is probably much less than that. It works like this...when calculating months deployed, the Army counts a day in country as a calendar month deployed. So when they say, officially, that I have been deployed for a grand total of 37 months, they mean that I've been deployed for some portion of 37 different calendar months. The real count is probably much less than that.

What is certain (a better word would be "accurate") is that my last deployment ended 3,209 days ago. That's 8 years, 9 months, and 14 days. So it's probably about time I got back in the game and paid my dues. The problem is that during those 3,209 days this war (if it can still be called that) has turned into Groundhog Day...again. Each day nearly identical to the last. So, today I begin 9 months...real months...calendar months...back in the game. My job will be to coordinate Religious Support throughout our Area of Responsibility (AOR), to ensure American men and women have a hope that someday this war (if it can still be called that) will come to an end and we will get to enjoy the day after Groundhog Day.

Prologue

Providence would dictate that the relaying of events be done in as close a proximity, time wise, as practicable to the actual occurrence of aforementioned events, given the propensity of human memory to delete or insert details as may evince a greater appreciation in the reader of the accuracy of the writing insofar as the writer pens his thoughts with minimal delay...to whit...

Saturday, October 24, 2009

God, Words, and Lima Beans

There are a lot of ways to say things. For instance, instead of using the word “rich” you could say “affluent”. Or instead of using “gossip” you could use “quidnunc”. One might say, “I like waffles!” Or one might say, “Waffles are massively preferable to lima beans.” It is the art of wordsmithery, which may actually not be an art at all, at least not in the sense that you might visit a Wordsmithery Gallery. Rather, it is a way of saying or writing things and events, in such a way as to make them more readable. Generally, when I retell the story of something that happened to me I try to put my readers in that place. I want them to see it, feel it, and smell it. And I spend a lot of time with my good friend Roget in an attempt to do just that. And while it’s usually worth the effort to help people understand what life is like from my perspective, it’s almost never easy. In fact, many times I’ve not relayed something simply because I could not find the right words. Today, I’m at a loss for words. But I’m going to write it anyway because it just feels important enough, in light of my job as a chaplain, to tell the story.

Recently, we’ve had some personnel changes, as is normal in the military. People come and people go and just this week one of the chaplains I work with here went home. So besides being happy for him and his family, I now find myself having to absorb many of the duties he fulfilled around here until a replacement arrives. Today we had another call to come to the hospital as there were wounded US soldiers inbound. I and one of the chaplain assistants headed there to find out what we could and wait. What we found out was that no one knew much of anything about this particular situation. So I didn’t know if I was waiting to anoint a young American body, or pray over a new amputee, or console a gunshot victim. So the waiting was a little unnerving. As we waited, we chewed the fat about life before, during, and after this deployment. Finally, after about 45 minutes we could see two choppers on the horizon approaching our FOB. When they landed the sense of relief was immense as we watched 3 young American GIs walk off the birds. They had been in an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicle) that had a mine roller on the front. Naturally, it hit an IED, as it is meant to which did some pretty serious damage to the vehicle. But as is always the case with the wonderful MRAP there was no real damage to the people inside. Just 3 young American GIs walking off a helicopter. A little shaken but none the worse for wear and in need of a check up to make sure all was well. I thought, “God is good!”

At the entrance to the hospital we stood and talked, while they removed their gear. I tried to calm and comfort them as best as I could and we started to walk into the hospital. The assistant I was with stood just outside and decided to head back to the office as this event was pretty much over. At that moment, I heard what I believe is the loudest single noise I've ever heard. A rocket fired from who knows where impacted approximately 25 feet from my assistant and about 35 feet from me. Everyone rushed into the hospital, as it is a hardened facility, to escape any additional incoming ordinance, which never came. For the next 30 minutes we waited for the “All Clear” so that we could resume our “normal” day.

Once we were able to leave the safety of the hospital, curiosity dictated that we go check out the impact site. That’s when it became very clear that we had been watched out for. As far as I can tell, my assistant, Michael, was the closest to the impact. I may have been the second closest, I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the impact was in a storage area on the opposite side of several concrete barriers designed to stop shrapnel that flies around willy nilly during an explosion. They seemed to have worked quite well. It could have landed on our side, but it didn’t. In the debris was the shell of an oxygen cylinder with a 3 inch hole in it. It didn’t explode. If it had I don’t think I’d be typing this. But it didn’t. Instead of acting like bottled oxygen usually acts, it just vented and the releasing pressure sent it flying somewhere.

In the end, no one was hurt while my assistant and I walked away with little more than a slight ringing in our ears. I can’t wordsmith it any more than to say God is good and waffles are way better than lima beans.