Day #1 - Moving Out
I said my last goodbyes to everybody at the hospital today, had one last waffle for “Waffle Sunday”, and then loaded my gear up to head to the airport. (Just realized that I never explained waffle Sunday to you all. May have to work on that for tomorrow.) On the way out the door I got to update my “Where’s CPT Wise” board on my CHU one last time.
At the airport, I learned that Army aviation is no different than flying civilian. I showed up early, checked in like I was supposed to, got ferried out to the flight line, loaded up the craft… and then sat there on the runway for 2 hours while we waited first for some sort of administrative clearance and then for some mechanical issue on a different vehicle. At the end of the day, it was still pretty cool. I got to make the flight in a Blackhawk helicopter, (my first time actually flying in a helicopter) so I had a great view of the Iraqi “countryside” (i.e. salt marshes and miles of empty desert).
Once in my new location, I got a whole new appreciation for just how much stuff I’d dragged over to Iraq… as I had to carry every bit of what I owned on my back as I walked from the airport to my temporary housing here (while also wearing full body armor). Thankfully, it wasn’t too far of a walk, but it definitely made me appreciate the SUV we had to haul my bags to the airport on the way out.
Day #2 - Outprocessing and Waffles
I started my “outprocessing” today, which seems to be even more inefficient here than it was back stateside. My activities today consisted of a 45 minute briefing, 30 minutes of walking around the hospital finding various soldiers to sign a checklist, and then being told that I’d completed my tasks for the day and was essentially free to go by 8:30 AM. So, I had some time to walk around and explore my new base. I quickly learned that this place is MUCH bigger than my old base, so figuring out the bus system is going to be key. It took me almost an hour to walk to the PX and then make it back to my CHU. (I also learned that, if you don’t really know where you’re going or how long it’s going to take, exploring somewhere in the middle of a middle-eastern desert at 11:30 in the morning is a good way to get really hot really fast… probably should have already known that.)
As promised yesterday, I’ll tell you all a bit about Waffle Sunday. In Basrah, Waffle Sunday has become a hospital tradition. One of our senior NCO’s started the tradition before I arrived by acquiring a waffle-maker and some economy-size bags of waffle mix. Every Sunday, she shows up early, fires up the waffle maker, and serves breakfast for everyone who shows up. Waffle Sunday has become a great way for soldiers throughout the hospital to come together and hang out on a down day, chat/gossip some, and get a chance to relax. Waffles even started to serve as a unit of time. (i.e. a unit who had 2 months before they got to go home would have a count-down listing “8 waffles to go”) You’d think that getting the raw materials for supplying half a hospital a waffle breakfast every week would be tough to come by in a war zone, but somehow the waffles kept on flowing. I believe that there was some donated waffle mix from a company stateside, and there was always a steady flow of bottles of syrup and various homemade jams from care packages. One of our nurses brought back a full ½ gallon of Canadian 100% pure maple syrup when he came back from leave. (I didn’t even know they made syrup in Canada, but it wasn’t half bad. It was a little thinner than the corn syrup fortified stuff that I’m used to, but it certainly tasted good.) Anyways, that’s about it for waffle Sunday. One of the things I’m actually going to miss about Iraq.
Day #4 - Tent City
So, I’ve moved on to the next stop on my tour of the Middle East prior to getting back home. We flew out yesterday with a fairly uneventful flight. Unfortunately, due to fallout from the recent volcano eruptions, we’re going to be stuck hanging out here for at least 4 days before we finally fly out. We’re living in a small city of tents, 14 guys to a tent, with nothing to do but wait. As you can see from the picture, it's fairly close quarters.
I can tell this camp is going to get old fast, but at least there’s a bare minimum of activities to keep me occupied. I managed to get on a computer to talk with Cristin on Skype last night (only a 45 minute wait to get a computer!), and they’ve got a gym that I’m going to check out today. Otherwise, I think the biggest draw here is the fast food. I’m not a frequent flyer at fast food places back stateside, but it has been 6 months since I had a good hamburger. They’ve got a McDonalds and a Burger King here. I think there’s going to be a Big Mac with my name on it for lunch.
Day #9 - On the Move… for a while
Well, the trip so far has been interesting. After waiting around for days, our time to leave finally came. I squeezed my stuff into my bags, we had all of our gear waiting outside our tent to be picked up… and then they announced that our flight was delayed by 6 hours.
6 hours later (now around midnight), we started getting ready to leave, which involved sitting through some mostly useless briefings and then a visit to the customs tent, where we had to completely empty all of our luggage and then re-pack it after customs agents had sifted through its contents to ensure that we weren’t bringing any contraband (ammunition, bootleg DVD's, Cuban cigars, > 1 TBS of Iraqi dust) home. We were shuffled into a holding tent and then put on lockdown to wait for our flight. After a fitful night of sleep, we finally flew out around 10:00 the next morning. Thankfully, this flight wasn’t nearly as packed as my flight on the way to Iraq, so there was some room to stretch out.
Things progressed as planned through a brief stop in Germany for refueling, and then we proceeded to Ireland for one final stop before heading home. Here’s where things got interesting. I’m still not sure the exact reason why, but our flight was forced to stop here. Initially, we were told it was related to the volcanic ash issue that’s been stopping flights for the past week. But, the story was changed after a few hours and we were told that both of the engines needed repairs and they were waiting for parts. Either way, it became apparent that we weren’t going to be going anywhere for a while, so we were shipped off to a hotel for the night. I suppose I shouldn’t complain, as they could have just as easily told us to sleep at the airport for the night, but it’s now noon the next day, and we’re all still sitting in the hotel waiting for some good news. I managed to get a good night’s sleep (first time I’ve slept on a normal mattress in 6 months), and the hotel’s got free wireless internet in the lobby, if you can tolerated the “All Lion King and Elton John Hits – Muzak style” radio station that’s playing in the background. The countryside around us is beautiful (if you look closely in the 2nd picture, you can see a small castle/really old church in the distance), and it’s kind of weird to see all of these green hills after 6 months in the flat brown desert.
Unfortunately, they won’t let us leave the hotel grounds. (As they weren’t planning on having us leave the airport in our initial itinerary, I think we might be classified as an invading army if we leave the hotel grounds.) Ditto with enjoying a pint of Guinness or Murphy’s while we’re waiting, as none of us have civilian clothes to change into, and General Order #1 (no drinking, no misbehaving, etc., the usual deployment restrictions) still applies until we get back to Ft. Bragg.
Either way, the trip’s not over yet. We’ve been told that, rather than fly directly to Ft. Bragg (where we left from), once the plane is fixed, we’ll be flying into Baltimore instead and taking a bus down to Ft. Bragg from there. (I think this is related to us still having our weapons with us. Disabled or not, I don’t think there are many domestic carriers that would appreciate 50 folks, uniformed or not, bringing firearms onto their plane.) I’m not super thrilled about a 7 hour bus ride immediately after flying in a plane across the Atlantic, but more on that later.
Day #10 - Finally There
So, we finally reached Ft. Bragg at about 0200 this morning. As promised, when we got off the plane and cleared customs in Baltimore, there were 2 charter buses waiting to take us on an additional 7 hour bus ride down to Ft. Bragg. When we finally got there, they made us go into some huge warehouse to turn in our weapons and stumble our way through a short redeployment ceremony. (If there’s anything funnier than seeing doctors and nurses attempt to march doing drill and ceremony, it’s doctors and nurses attempting to do drill and ceremony when sleep deprived after more than 48 hours on the move. Also adding to the comedy was an attempt to have us sing the Army Song during the ceremony. I’m pretty sure I don’t know all of the words to it even when I’m awake and alert. At 2:30 in the morning, none of us did.) Either way, I finally got to bed in my hotel room at 0400 this morning and then got back up around 0700 for an exciting day of paperwork and outprocessing (i.e. waiting in lines). But, home, Cristin, and Drew are only a few more days away.