A universal theme common in the movement of armies, true even before Hannibal brought his elephants across the Alps, is ‘hurry up and wait’. This was certainly true when my flying elephant, (I’ve seen a rubber band, a shoe fly, and a moth ball, but never seen no elephant fly), actually a 767, took me and a couple hundred of my soldier comrades from Kentucky to Afghanistan.
We began the movement last Sunday afternoon with gear, bags, and weapons in hand ready to move, but due to the silly rules regarding mandatory down-time for the flight crew, we ended up spending the night at the terminal with an adjusted wheels’ up time later the next morning.
It was clearly not the first time such a delay had occurred as there was a ready supply of cots and blankets to be distributed. Soldiers being soldiers, with a bit of obligatory moaning and complaining, simply made themselves comfortable on cots or the floor with a rucksack as a pillow. Quite a few took the opportunity to use mobile phones to call the family and friends they had said their good-byes to several hours previously.
The next morning, Monday, we eventually boarded the commercial charter and stowed our helmets, protective armor, weapons, and carry-on bags – our respective rucksacks and duffle/flight bags were in the belly of the plane. I was seated at nearly the last seat in rear and was able to see row after row of soldiers and thought to myself, this would certainly be the wrong flight for someone to try to hijack.
We were in the air shortly after noon and the civilian air crew began distributing a meal that was greatly appreciated by the hungry soldiers. As soon as the chow was distributed, they handed-out free ear sets for the on-board movie(s), which began with “Get Smart” and continued throughout the entire flight with “The Blind Side”, “Taken”, and numerous others.
Several hours later we made our first refueling stop in the far eastern corner of Canada. We were not allowed off the plane, but they made up for that by providing more drinks and snacks although there were quite a few grumbles from the smokers.
More hours in the air and we landed in Scotland for yet another fuel stop, but no smoke breaks for the addicts.
A couple of hours later we landed at a small airfield in the middle of Germany where we were allowed to deplane and were bused to a small terminal where the locals made a killing selling souvenirs, snacks, and wursts. And, the smokers were finally able to saturate their lungs for nearly two hours.
At this point I was curious why a 767 had to make so many stops and was told by an experienced First Sergeant that with approximately 200 soldiers with approximately 400 pounds of gear each, the plane burned up fuel at an alarming rate.
From Germany we flew to Poland, for yet more fuel, and then northeast to Turkmenistan where we said goodbye to the civilian aircraft and hello to a multinational military airbase where, after 24-hours of travel, we were finally ‘in theater’.
Our stars were in alignment and a short six-hours or so later (versus the two or three days some other troops spent on site), we were on a good ol’ C17 ‘making a one-way trip’ to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Kandahar Air Field (KAF – although it seems only the people stationed/working there call it KAF and everyone else calls it Kandahar) is a large sprawling grayish-brown dust ant nest of activity - a high-transient zone where a multitude of soldiers passing through are classified as ‘pax’ (passengers) and are manifested to various fixed and rotary wing aircraft to their final areas of operation.
It is difficult to convey the labyrinth of concrete barriers, ongoing and seemingly abandoned construction, tents of all sizes and function, and dry hot air. Piled at nearly every intersection of the tents utilized for sleeping quarters (it wouldn’t be accurate to call them living quarters), are stacks of bottled water; which dehydrated soldiers would grab in passing and drain in moments. The ecological green liberal part of me cringed at the thought of the thousands (millions?) of plastic bottles that would be dumped, but better the landfills than the intestinal and other woes resulting from drinking the local water.
The most striking element for me was the odor – immediately noticeable and nearly overwhelming near the water/waste treatment center. For those of you who have spent time in Korea, imagine the fertilization process during the spring months at a multitude of 10. For those who have not been to Korea, imagine being locked in an over-utilized porta-potty at the State Fair in July. The dreadful mantra running through my mind the whole time I was there (and still quietly reverberating in the back of my mind): the sense of smell is particulate in nature.
On the positive side, the chow was tasty, varied and in great quantity. The mess hall (pardon me, dining facility) workers were friendly and more than receptive to a request for a wee bit more - although I resisted and have been trying to eat as healthy as possible with lots of fruits, salad, and little carbs versus the plentitude of cheese burgers, corn dogs, etc. readily available.
After 48-hours or so at Kandahar, I made the manifest for a Chinook helicopter to Tarin Kowt -31 soldiers on each side of the bird with all of our gear (and some ‘space available’ mail) strapped down the middle of the craft. Wearing our helmets and body armor with our carry-on bags on our laps, and rifles held between our knees (with the barrel pointed down “so you don’t shoot a hole through the roof of my bird and take out the rotors”) we lifted off the airstrip and made our way north approximately 200 kilometers to TK.
We flew about 300 meters above the surface of the moon. Or at least the grayish brown, craggy and somewhat mountainous terrain made it seem that way. The flight was fairly smooth and the only discomfort was the 1,200 pounds of gear strapped in the middle of the bird directly in front of me that kept leaning over and trying to crush me.
After a smooth and soft landing at the TK airstrip, we walked the 400 meters to the headquarters where we signed in, turned in our personnel folders, and were given a short briefing on the layout of the base.
We then piled into buses (actually 18 person elongated vans) and were driven over to the US portion of the base where we were unceremoniously dumped along with our gear (remember 400 pounds each), which had been brought over in large trucks (LMTV’s in military parlance).
I was able to track down some soldiers from my platoon who had arrived several weeks earlier and was able to reach my Platoon Sergeant who took me and two other soldiers from our platoon to the mess hall for lunch – again with pretty tasty food and generous servings – and then showed me where I would be living for the next year: a 8’x20’x8’ rectangular box that I share with another soldier.
I unpacked most of my gear, made my bunk (which is constructed out of two by fours, but does have a mattress that was probably new when the war started), and did my best to keep my dazed mind and tired body awake until 2100 as I was going to have to get up at 0500 and wanted to start getting adjusted to the time zone as soon as possible.
That was yesterday. After a little over five days of travel, SGT Corbin has his boots on the ground of TK and is reporting for duty.