Saturday, July 17, 2010
May 30, 2010: Camp Bastion, LSA Leatherneck, Headquarters IMEF
The twelve hour non-stop flight from Dulles to Kuwait was cramped. I cursed myself for not spending the extra $148 for a seat up forward with the extra five inches all around; won’t make that mistake on the trip home. The plane was packed with both US military and civilian contractors heading to both the Iraq and Afghan AOs. Most seemed to be seasoned travelers-well equipped with sleeping accessories, reading material, and extra food and drink.
Before the plane left the ground I’d exhausted the seat pocket literature; the airline’s periodical, the emergency instruction card and the in-air shopping magazine. A former wife thought I had ADHD, which a subsequent test refuted, but none-the-less I found myself sitting there desperate for stimulation. The gentleman sitting next to me, a Naval Reserve officer on his first deployment, was reading a book on computer language. My neck craning rewarded me with pages of unintelligible logarithmic equations and calculus matrixes….why couldn’t I at least be next to some enlisted kid perusing some soft-porn mag like FHM?
These six thousand-plus mile flights chasing the spin of the Earth always leave me completely disoriented with regards to time. Chasing the sunrise at over six hundred miles per hour somehow makes twelve hours seem like twenty-four. We arrived the next day, the 28th, around 1700 local time, and made our way through customs and immigration. My retired military ID card gave the Kuwaitis some cause for confusion, but in the end my passport was stamped and I was able to gather up my luggage.
Just as I was leaving Dulles Janis, my fiancé, realized she had Kuwaiti dinars in her wallet from one of her trips, in fact well over $260 dollars worth. With this money in hand, and a porter lugging my gear, I headed out of the Kuwait International Airport terminal building to the taxi stand designated for transport out to Ali Al Salem Air Base. A familiar wave of heat greeted me as I joined a civilian contractor in engaging a cab ride. By 1830 I was standing in the Military Air Terminal at Al Salem presenting my invitational orders to a transportation clerk, who in turn informed me that a flight to Kandahar was leaving in one hour, and that I would be on it. So much for being held up in Kuwait for a couple days.
The military flight to Kandahar was aboard a massive C-17. On this kind of flight you’re more cargo than passenger. Our “stick”, other than myself, was composed of two dozen fresh faced regular Army soldiers from a Germany based Stryker unit. For most this was their first trip to a war zone. In full body armor and helmets we sat strapped into our seats trying to find a place for our feet among the tie-down chains securing a line of massive CONEX boxes filing most of the cargo bay. The next four hours would be spent staring at those containers trying to decipher the stamps, markings and packing lists plastered all over them. One of the labels I found particularly cryptic. Every container had one and it stated in bold white letters on a blue background Lloyds Certified Container Schedule. Each container also sported a menacing black stencil of a horned demon against a tan background, no doubt the logo of the unit expecting them. By the time the flight was over I was fixating on the pattern tiny water droplets had made in the thin coating of dust on their green sides. Jet lag was setting in.
The highlight of the flight came when the cabin lights went to dim blue and the Air Force loadmaster announced that we’d just crossed over into Afghanistan, a war zone. A nervous buzz and some high-fives made their way among the soldiers even as the airman sat back in his chair and picked up the movie he had paused on his laptop to make the announcement.
A couple hours later the airman announced our decent, which was steep, ear popping and sudden. The diagonal chains running forward grew noticeably taunt while the rear ones drooped slightly. In the wee hours of the 29th we landed uneventfully at Kandahar, gathered our gear and loaded ourselves onto shuttle busses awaiting us on the tarmac. After checking in at the terminal building the soldiers went their own way and I found myself alone in what seemed a largely deserted base. Now fully jet lagged I struggled through my gear trying to find the map the NATO/ISAF media embed folks had sent me with their location marked. I needed to report in to them. Out of the dark a Canadian soldier appeared and asked if I needed help and transport and next thing I knew I had my own bus and a Filipino driver. Together we deciphered the map and located the Media Center.
The first glow of dawn was starting to stretch across the eastern sky and a couple early risers were out jogging. I humped my gear into the Media Center compound and reported to the soldier on duty. He promptly put me in a room and I immediately fell asleep. I was now into the third calendar day of travel without rest. Jet lag had me in its teeth shaking me violently side to side.
No sooner had I nodded off a knock came at my door. I had a flight to Camp Bastion in one hour. My ride to the terminal was waiting. This flight would be on an Australian C-130. It would be loud, hot and blessedly short. By noon I was stumbling off the plane, being greeted by an IMEF public affairs officer and deposited in an air conditioned tent. By now I’m wired to the gills. No idea of the date or the day. Short term memory non-existent. Can’t find a thing. Hungry and dirty.
The public affairs officer, Navy Lieutenant Caires, led me to the nearby dining facility (DFAC) and we ate. After chow he points me in the general direction of my tent and departs for a meeting. I get lost. Completely. Camp Bastion’s Leatherneck LSA is a flat expansive maze of very similar looking buildings and tents. I leave the DFAC in the right direction, but that’s about it. I know I need to find the orange port-o-johns, the only distinctive landmark near my tent. I’m five years old again and lost at the zoo.
Eventually I find my tent and fall into a coma. The next morning I’m informed I have a flight set up later in the evening for Camp Delhi, the main base for the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Marine Regiment.
Somewhat rested, I head out to explore Leatherneck and see the Marines stationed here. Just down the gravel street border by concrete barriers is the compound of 3rd LAAD. It’s here that I find my first subject, Lance Corporal Chris Baker. Baker, a native of Greenville, Michigan is tall, wiry and sports a ready smile. A turret gunner, the lines of his goggles define the pattern of dirt and sunburn on his grinning face. I draw my first portrait of this trip. He’s everything this place is-raw, dusty and full of good humor. And I find myself a little embarrassed at my complaining over recent and relatively minor discomforts. I’ll blame the jet lag.