The Long Road Home

One could spend hours in a waiting room like this, but at least this one has cots. (photo by John Goodman)

All around the world, people use different modes of travel to get around, dictated by each community's collective preference and level of economic development. While simpler locales may rely upon pushcarts and sandaled feet to get people and things from point A to point B, most developed countries employ automated transportation of one type or another. Anyone who has ever experienced delays at the airport or other related travel pains certainly knows that even our advanced methods of conveyance experience occasional hiccups, but by and large, getting around the developed world is fairly easy - that is, unless you're in the military. A simple 40-mile trip that should take less than an hour can become an odyssey of undetermined length. Your wait could last hours, but is likely to last days. In the civilian world, I've been subject to delayed flights and had to wait for - gasp - 45 minutes or a couple of hours, but not until I began having to rely regularly upon military transport have I experienced such profound delays and protracted periods of waiting and boredom.

Despite my impatience to get from one place to another, travel with today's U.S. military is still pretty quick when viewed in the broad context of history. The idea of chartering passenger airliners to carry troops and their equipment overseas only dates back to the Vietnam War, the first time such a thing was readily available. Before that, boats, trains, and marching were the preferred methods. When I consider that to be an embedded journalist with a Civil War-era Army unit would have required me to hoof it over all kinds of terrain in all manner of weather with the troops, my current options seem all that much more attractive. I'm sure it took just short of forever to walk everywhere, but considering the other options available in the modern era, military travel is usually a drawn-out waiting game. A cartoon I saw recently in Stars and Stripes - the Armed Forces' newspaper - depicted an old, stooped man with a long beard and a cane, wearing military fatigues, being told that he'd been bumped from another flight. "Sorry, Gunny. You got bumped again," said the travel officer. Essentially, personal travel within the military's infrastructure is ordered according to some sort of priority, based upon where you're going and who else needs to get there. It's like flying standby from a really crappy airport.

My generation - self included - seems to have an insatiable appetite for instant gratification, so the idea of sitting around in passenger terminals and not getting from one place to the next to the next rather quickly can be maddening. Though you've doubtless heard people share those harrowing tales of traveling in third-world countries - or perhaps you have a few yourself - in the first world, we've come to expect comfort and convenience that is difficult to find in the Armed Forces. Sitting on an airplane for a few hours isn't what's difficult about the military transport waiting game, though. The problem lies in the infamous "hurry-up-and-wait" paradigm. Instead of showing up for a flight an hour or two before it departs, you show up many hours early for a flight upon which there may or may not be enough space. Stuck in a limbo between the place you were in and the one you're going to - usually a dusty, sparsely furnished waiting area - you wait for the inevitable to happen, feeling helplessness, and sometimes rage when your number doesn't come up, or your ride is delayed again and again. One of my friends who served for several years as an artillery officer in the U.S. Marine Corps compared the military to a small socialist country. Everything is provided, but the particular thing you seek may be slow in arriving and of dubious quality. "You defend democracy, but you don't get to practice it," is a common complaint.

Then again, there's the ever-so-slight chance that you might experience quick service and a comfortable flight. A trip I recently took from Baghdad a few miles north to Joint Base Balad was just such an instance. The C130 flight we were manifested aboard to get there was two hours late in arriving - and that was after we had already been waiting at the airport for three hours. (As I was to find out a few days later, that delay was nothing.) Coming back from Balad, however, was a snap, and I couldn't believe how smoothly it went. Photographer John Goodman and I were in the right place at the right time, and got on a helicopter flight back to Baghdad after waiting at the terminal for only 20 minutes or so (getting on a fixed-wing flight would have meant hanging around for another eight hours). Throughout the flight, I was gritting my teeth nervously, poised for some excruciating delay to occur as if waiting for lightning to strike, but the whole thing went off without a hitch, and we were back at our home base in time to get dinner. I still can't believe it was so easy, and feel that later experiences were meant to be punishment for accepting such luxury.

Little did I know that all of my mild waiting experiences were meant to temper me for the marathon of misery that was to follow. Four days later, on my way from Baghdad to Kuwait, I found myself sitting on a folding canvas seat aboard a C17 cargo jet - as usual, wearing the ever-comfortable body armor and Kevlar helmet - cursing the U.S. Air Force for allowing such an inept air crew to have crossed my path. They arrived late, which is par for the course, but after watching them struggle with the cargo palates for two and a half hours - with little direction from the plane's load master, and absolutely none from its pilot - we were told it was finally time to go. Two in the morning turned to three, and then four, and we still hadn't left the ground. Something on the aircraft's cargo door had broken, and the crew couldn't figure out how to close it. Eventually, a few of the larger army guys on the flight got up and manhandled the hatch shut. Unfortunately, command and control had become involved by that point, so we still couldn't get clearance to leave. By that time, many of the increasingly impatient soldiers - who were on their way home on leave - were standing up, incredulously watching the bumbling air crew. Some were openly talking trash, and who could blame them? We received virtually no communication from the pilot, who seemed to take little interest in what was going on in the rear of his aircraft.

Finally, at 5 a.m., we were told that the plane was cleared to leave - to Qatar! We didn't leave for another two hours, finally landing in Qatar's perfect blend of white sand and white sunshine at seven. I didn't arrive at my destination in Kuwait until almost two that afternoon, thoroughly exhausted, and not looking forward to the next batch of flights back to the States.

For the time being, I had to wait around in Groundhog Day-land; Ali Al-Salem - the transition base where troops wait for indeterminate amounts of time either coming or going to and from the Theater of Operations. Nobody likes being there. The base's "residents" are always in transit, so the sense of ownership that you'd see on a regular base just doesn't exist. No unit-specific artwork. No barbecue grills and lawn chairs outside of the living quarters. No sense of home, as strange as that sounds (although the notes scrawled on the bathroom stalls by passing troops occasionally capture hilarious bits of dialogue about every subject under the sun). Aside from the unfortunate few who are assigned to work there, everyone there is waiting to get out of Ali Al-Salem. Having to stay there for only two days was a blessing since, according to some soldiers I talked with, it can be much longer. John got stuck there for four days on his way into Iraq, and said that every day felt like a week. One guy related his two weeks at another similar base in Kuwait, where, luckily, the camp command had organized classes and educational activities to get soldiers ready for their time in Theater.

I spent my days at Ali Al-Salem waiting in line for e-mail access at the MWR tent, trying (unsuccessfully) to concentrate on writing, and avoiding sleep. The tents they had available for transitory lodging were packed with migrating soldiers and Third Country Nationals (TCNs). The cramped, unkempt quarters smelled like dirty socks, and the TCNs were loud and unfriendly. I decided to take matters into my own hands and make my stay slightly more comfortable by sleeping in one of the VIP tents, which are reserved for high ranking officers and civilian staff. I'd tried to get booked in one of these tents, as they came equipped with normal beds and quieter people, but the guy at the billeting desk informed me that although I was neither a military officer nor a civil servant, I did not qualify as a VIP. The loophole was easy: at 2 a.m., when I was done checking e-mail and wandering around aimlessly, I toured each VIP tent with a red-lensed flashlight until I found one with an empty bed. It was dark and all the generals and colonels were sleeping, so nobody could tell if I was a general, a private, or a janitor. Besides, I had a camouflage blanket, so I was probably invisible.

Official lockdown for my flight home from Kuwait began at 11:30am on a Thursday morning, and the rest of the day was spent - you guessed it - waiting. Aside from the U.S. Navy Customs "don't stop until you feel the back of his teeth" luggage inspection eating up about an hour of the day, the rest involved lining up for various roll calls and being counted again and again. Once we left the razor wire-ringed waiting yard to get on buses to go to the airport, there was more waiting involved. During one of the many head counts, it came to light that there was one too many people aboard the buses. "OK, are any of y'all goin' to Atlanta instead of Dallas?" a sergeant yelled into my bus. "Everyone here should be going to Dallas, so if you're supposed to go to Atlanta, speak up now or we gonna have to do another roll call." His request was met with silence, followed by a tedious roll call, in formation outside the bus, by everyone's last four social security number digits. The Atlanta-bound soldier surfaced at the end of that headache. When asked why he hadn't said anything, he smiled dumbly and said he couldn't hear. There were more than a few people in the crowd, myself included, who would have liked to do something to make sure he'd pay better attention next time.

Even though I still had hours of travel ahead of me, leaving the ground at about 9pm marked the end of a long week. I'd left Baghdad on Monday evening, and didn't arrive in California until Friday evening (Saturday morning by Iraq time). Once I boarded the flight out of Kuwait, the rest was a blur of layovers and waiting, all of which seemed much less intense due to my month-long experience traveling on military flights. Now comfortably back in Santa Barbara, I've found it easy to just being able to go anywhere at a moment's notice, fully enjoying the fruits of living in what is, for all of its flaws, one of the greatest places in the world.

event calendar sponsored by: