Preparing for the Journey to God’s Country

Training Up

Giving my teammate the bunny ears.

When our company was activated in the early spring of 2003, we had several phases of training and prep before actually leaving the country.  We spent a few weeks at Fort Meade, South Dakota, attending classes to prepare for possible engineer projects.  Fort Meade is a tiny, beautiful historic post established just outside Sturgis in 1878 to enforce a military presence in the Black Hills and Northern Plains during settlement, Indian wars, and gold mining in nearby Deadwood.  Training on a post so steeped in military history was amazing and humbling!  We slept in barracks on bunk beds with wool Army blankets and did much of our training outdoors in the fresh pine scented air. We also had inventories to perform to make sure we had all the gear on our MTOE, or Mission Table of Organization and Equipment.  Basically we had to figure out what we could take and what we needed to reorder through supply channels.  My survey team had more inventory than other sections because for some reason surveyors need ridiculous amounts of equipment to perform various missions.  It seemed to take forever to get through the inventories and compile a list of what we still needed for deployment.

Me after testing out my chemical suit and gas mask at Fort Meade.

Me after testing out my chemical suit and gas mask at Fort Meade.

Finally the big day came for us to get on the bus and ride to Fort Carson for a few more weeks of mobilization training.  As we drove away from the Black Hills we all took one last look at the home that we loved.   Once we arrived we had to live in old World War II barracks that had yet to be demolished because there was a space issue at Carson.  The accommodations were miserable, and rumors went rampant that the building was full of lead, asbestos, and non-potable water.  We stayed in our rather ‘campy’ conditions until our trip out to the field, which was actually a welcome retreat from the smelly, potentially toxic barracks.  Out in the field, we practiced setting up and tearing down camp, running different types of operations such as small construction projects, and reacting to an attack.  The cooks were in full form, setting up their MKT, or Mobile Kitchen Trailer immediately to provide hot meals for us in the field.  If it wasn’t for the hot meals we might have perished on the field after a strange dust storm blew through and practically violated every corner and crevice of our bodies.  Little did we know this was just a taste of things to come in the Middle East.

Charcoal is supposed to protect the skin from chemical agents.  Added bonus - it makes you look crazy too.

Charcoal is supposed to protect the skin from chemical agents. Added bonus – it makes you look crazy.

When we came back we  moved into nice barracks close to a chow hall and a huge field.  We had clean bathrooms with private showers, a day room, and a large yard.  The barracks were within walking distance of the PX, or Post Exchange, where we could buy snacks, CDs, and movies.  In fact, we were in a prime location to walk to many places on post, and we had a taxi service available to take us into Colorado Springs on the weekend for dinner, shopping, movies, and of course, the bars!  One weekend a popular country singer had a concert so close to our barracks that we set up chairs outside, cracked open beers, and listened while watching the sun go down over the Front Range.   It wasn’t all fun and games though.  There were plenty of classes, Combat Lifesaver training, range visits to test weapons, gas mask and chemical suit inspections, a trip to the gas chamber, ID card updates and life insurance changes, and there was also the waiting.  Waiting was the hardest part.

Time to Fly

Getting duffle bags lined up.

Getting duffle bags lined up.

The day came when we had to say goodbye to Fort Carson and board the DC-10 to fly to Kuwait.  This process was quite rigorous.  First we had to line our duffle bags up outside the barracks and wait for transportation to the airfield.  After lugging the bags outside and then waiting for the buses, we crammed the bags into the compartment under the buses and squeezed in wearing our full personal gear.  This did not make loading easy; we felt like cattle hefting ourselves up into the buses and then jamming our bodies into seats that suddenly seemed too small.  I found an entry from an old notebook that I used to record thoughts and observations of the first few days of the actual deployment.  It describes accurately what we experienced.

A comfy place to have a seat.

A comfy place to have a seat.

…I weighed in at 215 pounds at the manifestation center, 85 pounds of gear with my weighted flak vest, DCUs, boots, Kevlar, LBV, pistol, magazines, assorted accessories, the guidon, and my carry on.  After tipping the scales [for accurate weight load estimate for the flight] we lounged around the center waiting.  We were issued malaria pills, cold dinners consisting of sandwiches, cookies, chips, and juice, and we were allowed to pile up our gear and rest.  I was so exhausted I fell asleep almost immediately, curled up with the guidon.  It’s not a cozy sleeping arrangement, but then nothing is in a tactical environment.  Around midnight we got back into our full battle rattle and climbed into the bus to go to the Colorado Jet Center.  I had to smoosh into the seat with another soldier and somehow we ended up figuring out a comfortable sitting situation by linking arms and resting our heavy Kevlar helmeted heads on each other’s shoulders so our gear wouldn’t cause any injuries.  By 0100 we were boarding the plane on a flight to Bangor, Maine.  I can never stay awake on flights, and was too exhausted from all the deployment preparations anyway, so I fell asleep immediately after takeoff. 

Waiting to load our gear.

Waiting to load our gear.

The stop in Bangor was short and uninteresting.  We were confined to one area of the airport where we couldn’t distract civilian travelers, get lost, try to buy beer, or do anything that might get us in trouble of any sort.  I had been thinking of my family the whole flight, mostly of my son, and also the guy waiting for me in Texas.  I kept looking at the picture of him that I was using as a bookmark.  He had given me Colin Powell’s autobiography the day he left Fort Carson, and I took it on the flight to ease the boredom.  So far I find it fascinating. 

Stretching out a bit during the long layover in Ireland.

Stretching out a bit during the long layover in Ireland.

We arrived at our second stop, Shannon Ireland, at 1835 Ireland time.  The layover was supposed to only last two hours, but it turned into four because France didn’t want us in their air space, the dirty bastards.  Again we were confined so as not to “disturb” the other travelers.  This time our area was much better than what was provided in Bangor.  There was a small pub and although we were not allowed to order alcoholic beverages, we took notes on what we would indulge in on the return trip.  The gift shop was a well equipped tourist trap.  We ransacked it and bought trinkets to send home.  I found something for everyone.  I chose an absolutely gorgeous Celtic cross made of Waterford crystal for my sister, a vibrantly enameled pin shaped like an exotic bird for my mother, a plush pug for my son, a tiny leprechaun for my father, and Guinness souvenirs for assorted friends as well as for myself.  I love Guinness!  I also purchased this little notebook that I am writing in now…

"No Ma'am, I cannot serve you beer, but I'm available," says the adorable bartender.

“No Ma’am, I can’t serve you beer, but I’m available!” ~ Adorable Bartender.

When it was finally time to leave the airport we boarded excitedly, jittery, chattering, and hopped up on the chocolate and coffee we had overdosed on during the layover.  Those of us with a bit more caffeine in our systems broke into Steve Miller Band’s ‘Jet Airliner’ as we boarded: “Oh big ol’ jet airliner, don’t carry me too far away, ooohhh, big ol’ jet airliner…’cause it’s here that I’ve got to stay!”  As we took off, the last symbol of western civilization blazed brilliantly in the night sky in huge golden letters: SHANNON.  The airport sign was warm, glowing with comfort and tenderness. a stark transition to the world we were about to embark upon.  Another entry from my notebook describes the way our world changed as we traveled east:

Hell on Earth

At 2100 (home time) the darkness of the DC-10 was broken by shards of bright morning light as one by one the soldiers lifted their shades and looked out the windows at our new home for the next year.  It was early morning in the Middle East.  A soldier let me borrow his window seat for a while so I could take some pictures of the topography.  I had met a woman at a cosmetics counter at the Citadel Mall in Colorado Springs who gave me her address and asked me to write her a letter.  “You are going to God’s country,” she said.  “The Garden of Eden, the Red Sea, everything that God made first is there.  It’s the most beautiful place on Earth.”

A glimpse of land below.

A glimpse of land below.

As I looked down from the plane all I saw was pink hued sand, a huge river system and little mountains, then suddenly the coast line of the Red Sea.  We marveled at huge white caps breaking thousands of feet below.  They exploded like great stars in the water.  As we approached our destination, we saw another coastline, then Saudi Arabia below.  We flew over a huge chain of nothing but sand and mountains intertwined.  Where was the Garden of Eden?  Soldiers were plastered to their windows all over the plane, curiously gazing at the strange new world.  I spotted a tiny village along a thin, snaking road, and then there was nothing at all for a long time.  I had never seen so much desolated land.  It seemed to go on forever.  It was immense and frightening. 

When we landed at Kuwait City Airport we were immediately herded onto little City Port buses (no time for bathroom breaks!) and shuttled to Camp Wolf.  The camp was a very well manicured place where we were allowed to rest for a few hours before getting back on buses and hurtling at terrifying speeds across completely barren desert to our temporary home in Kuwait.  The heat in Kuwait felt like an oven blast, and riding the tiny lurching bus was almost sickening.  We had no air conditioning, no water, and even less space for movement than on the American buses.  Before anyone threw up or passed out we arrived at Camp New Jersey and unloaded.  Everyone was in good spirits.  Some of us laid out on hot stones that were used as pavers.  The stones felt good on our aching, travel weary bodies, and after the rollicking drive through the desert, the breeze was beginning to feel refreshing…

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