Or…..What I did on my summer vacation.
It may not be entirely fair to call this an ‘Afghanistan story’ since most of it takes place in Qatar. But, it’ll give you a taste of what the troops get for ‘R&R’ after a few months in a combat zone. I originally wrote this in October of 2003.
After spending 90 days in country, all soldiers are entitled to four days of R&R (Rest and Relaxation) which is basically a free vacation. Now in past wars, soldiers were essentially given transportation to some place (Paris, Tokyo, Seoul, Saigon, etc.) and told to come back at a certain time. A lot of old timers look back with fondness to a time of wild parties and the ultimate in cutting loose.
Those days are over.
We got to spend out R&R time at an Army base in Qatar. Now don’t get me wrong, there were some very nice amenities there (like flush toilets) but it was still an Army base. The last thing I want to do if given a little free time is spend it with a few thousand soldiers. So I’m feeling like I’ve been given a four day pass from a medium security prison to go to a minimum security prison. And I don’t even get those conjugal visit privileges!
It all started at the building in Bagram where all outgoing personnel have to sign in and wait for their flight to leave. It’s one room, about 25′ by 25′ with a TV against one wall, five or six rows of plastic lawn chairs and tons of dirty, tired, uncomfortable soldiers.
A group of five of us were going together and had to be there by 12:30PM. We weren’t told what time we would be leaving but hey, this isn’t JFK or anything. No complicated baggage procedures here. No thousands of planes competing for air and runway space. One landing strip. A plane lands, refuels, takes off. Simple, right?
Six hours later we were finally on the plane getting ready to take off for a five and a half hour flight for what we all assumed would be, at best, the worst four days off on record, exceeding even the four days in 1957 experienced by David Kugelstein of Jeema, Illinois who won a four day vacation for being awarded Employee of the Year at Bill’s Bigger Boy restaurant. David, who planned to spend his time off cataloging his Xavier Cugat record collection and displaying his vast collection of used bubble gum wrappers inexplicably found himself, instead, at the nexus of a conflict between two rival gangs in his hometown. A notorious motorcycle gang (the infamous ‘Beelzebub’s Bakers’ a group of pastry chefs gone bad) was attempting to move in on the territory of another group called ‘Sara Lee’s Soldiers’ (who were well known for using Tupperware in twisted and often deadly ways). Both groups met accidentally in David’s kitchen and the resulting battle, in which both groups baked without regard for innocent human life, resulted in a confectionerÂs catastrophe of almost biblical proportions. When the flour finally settled, twelve people had died and that National Guard had to be called out to put down the riots. Poor David’s house along with all of his possessions were completely destroyed with the one exception of the rare Cugat cover of Iron Butterfly’s ‘In-a-gadda-da-vida’.
But I digress……
By the time we landed it was about 12:30 am, we hadn’t eaten in over 12 hours and it didn’t look like food would be in our future anytime soon. My ass was numb from being crammed into the seat of the transport plane. Things weren’t looking good.
So we funnel off the flight line and into a building where we get our orientation briefing. NOTE: The words ‘orientation briefing’ when used in connection to a vacation should be like a huge red flag indicating a ‘no fun zone’. First, this being the Army, we were given a long list of things we better not even think of doing. Nothing like getting psyched up to have a good time by being threatened with courts martial while suffering from sleep deprivation and hunger pains.
After that cheery little interlude we got down to business: activities and things we could do for fun! I had been beguiled by some information I had received prior to coming here. In a slick presentation, the R&R people had mentioned a variety of cool things to do: culturall tours, dinner cruises, jet/water skiing, going shopping, etc. etc. Certainly hearing more about these things would get us out of our funk and put us in the mood to have a good time.
‘Now, we only have a limited number of seats for each tour’ our guide (I’ll call him Sergeant Virgil after the guy who guided Dante through the nine circles of Hell)said ‘so we’ll have a lottery for who gets to go on trips. Let’s see….there are 35 of you so we’ll pick 7 to go on trips.’
Let me just tell you what constitutes a trip here in Qatar. Two people got to go have lunch at Fuddruckers, two got to go to Bennigan’s (by the way, Qatar is a dry country. No alcohol), one got to go to the mall and two won the grand prize of the jet/water skiing. Everything else (cruises, tours, hotels, etc. was canceled). The rest of us were on our own to try to find something to occupy our time here.
Things were further complicated after learning that the only way you could get off post was to get a ‘sponsor’, someone stationed at Qatar who, out of the kindness of their heart, would become a tour guide for us. “Yeah, right. Fat chance” I thought. Fortunately I ended up being wrong about that but it’s still a crap shoot. You’ve got to be in the right place in the right time.
I resigned myself to spending my time submitting slogans for this wonderful R&R program. I thought an appropriate one might read:
‘Abandon all hope ye that enter here’ (I know, that one’s been taken but it seemed appropriate).
Actually, it wasn’t nearly that bad and we, in fact, had a very good time. We were allowed a maximum of three beers a day (of which I hardly drank any) which was kept track of by issuing out little chits that you could buy for $3 a piece. Then, when you wanted your brewski, you’d turn in your chit. A little black market was created (ah…economics at work) and I was able to sell my chits for $10 a piece (giving me a hefty profit). I heard rumors of some people selling there chits for $30 or even $40 each but never saw that first hand. $10 seems quite steep to me for a beer and if you’re willing to pay a lot more than that you really should think about a twelve step program.
The R&R was also interesting in that I had my first ever ‘professional’ massage (no, not the kind you get in those seedy places that the cops raid all the time. A real one). It felt kind of weird and a friend of mine told me ‘You feel a little violated the first time you get one.’ Ain’t that the truth! I think in some cultures I would have had to marry that girl after what she did. Although I do have to admit that it bugged the heck out of me when she was rubbing my feet. Ick! I really have to look into getting hooves….
Eventually this good time had to end and we prepared to hop a flight back to Afghanistan. If you think airlines are unreasonable in asking you to check in two hours before a flight, the military’s procedure would probably give you a stroke. We had to show up at 4:30am, to get to the flight line around 5:30 am and wait for a flight that would leave around 10am. Now, in my experience I’ve never seen a military flight actually take off on time. Our flight, for example, actually took off around 2PM. During all that waiting time, you aren’t allowed to go anywhere but the latrine because ‘The plane might take off any minute.’ Never mind that the plane isn’t even there yet. You’re still stuck.
About half way through our five and a half hour flight, we got word that something on the plane ‘broke’ and we’d have to turn around. By the time we made it back to Qatar we’d spent a majority of the previous 18 hours in either some cramped, uncomfortable room waiting to get on our plane or in our cramped, uncomfortable seats on the plane. I had mentioned before that upon arriving here my butt was numb from the flight. At this point it was past numb. I was worried I might suffer some permanent damage to the derriere.
But, tired though we were, I have to admit we were pretty happy. Maybe we’d get an extra day by the pool or get some more good food before we had to go back. In fact, maybe we’d hit the R&R lotto and get a few extra days off! Things were looking up.
Once we hit the ground things continued to look good when the word was put out that there were no scheduled flights for the next day and we might have to wait a day or two before we could get out. We were so busy dancing on the deck that we never saw the iceberg coming.
Disaster took the form of a middle-aged (hey! I just realized, I think I actually fit in that category now.), overweight warrant officer who suffered from something I call ‘WOF Syndrome’ (for Waste of Flesh). People who suffer from this are under the delusion that they are so vital to the war effort (or, in the civilian world, the company’s existence and productivity) that victory hinges on their presence. The severity of this disease seems to be inversely proportional to the person’s actual importance. I think in some cases people find themselves in a combat zone and feel a little guilty that their job consists of counting rolls or toilet paper and so have to inflate their importance in order to feel better about themselves.
Others are just butt-heads.
We have a lot of people that play these stupid, brown-nosing, macho games like “Let’s see how long I can look like I’m working so the commander thinks I’m important”, and “I know I’m coughing up blood but sick call is for sissys”. You can always pick these people out because they focus on HOW LONG they work versus what they actually do. In fact, they do very little and just take up huge amounts of time doing it. Sometimes they try to make others as miserable as themselves by trying to pressure you into feeling guilty and hanging around the office longer. I try to make it a point to get under their skin and look like I do less than I actually do.
So this knucklehead starts throwing a hissy fit about how he needs to get back as soon as possible or Bin Laden is going to make a big comeback and kick us out of Afghanistan or some such nonsense. The rest of us were exhausted and not at all looking forward to getting up at 3am and starting this whole thing all over again. I thought that this guy was looking a gift horse in the mouth and that to not stay would be tempting fate. I mean….what kind of idiot would turn down an extra day of vacation??
Apparently THIS guy.
All of his complaining paid off and we were told to be back at 4:30am and we’d be on another flight. Upon gathering the next day we were told that the plane could only take half of us and the other half would fly out in the afternoon. Our group was slated for the afternoon flight so we were facing another day of waiting in Purgatory. By the time we eventually did get to our plane we were anxious to get back to Bagram. Maybe that was the whole plan of the R&R program. Wear you out so much that going back to the combat zone is a relief.
So we loaded up on the plane and strapped ourselves in. While the crew were dong their pre-flight checks they encountered a little problem that had to be fixed. Off the plane we went while we waited for the repairs to be made.
I should mention here that Qatar is hot. Damn hot. And humid. So all this time we’re sitting around, we’re sweating like pigs (or whatever animal sweats a lot). You don’t want to drink to stay hydrated or keep cool because you don’t want to have to go to the bathroom in a C-130 (just trust me on this one. You can do it but it’s not the best experience in the world). The result is everyone gets a little pissy and just wants to get the show on the road already!!
After a short while we’re told that the problem is fixed and we get back on board. I note, in passing, that above the door to the plane is written ‘The Gambler’ and ‘Do you feel lucky?’. It seems to me that these probably aren’t the most comforting thing to write on a plane. I guess it’s better than ‘What the hell? Let’s give it a shot.’ but not much.
So we lumber off the runway and head out to our Afghanistan.
Not so fast partner….
About 45 minutes out, one of the crew tells us that something on the airplane is broke and we have to turn around. Ok….no big deal. We’re all a little annoyed that we’ll probably be delayed another day but what can you do? I figure that it’s something minor and that they have to return to base due to regulations more than any real safety issue. Then they tell us they have to shut down one of the engines. A C-130 has four of them so the loss of one isn’t critical but it sure indicates a more serious problem than I thought. The final piece that topped it off was the crew-man’s instructions to us: ‘When the plane stops, we’re going to open the door and you have to run straight ahead 300 meters then wait for us. Don’t run anywhere else but straight ahead!’
Uh, oh. This couldn’t be good.
The flight back was tense (at this point I was feeling neither rested OR relaxed) but uneventful and as we were taxiing down the runway we got up and moved to the doorway and waited. The plane came to a halt and the crew shut off all power in the plane throwing the cabin into total darkness. A few of us had small lights and turned them on helping a bit but it was still dark. And quiet. And we waited for the crewman to open the door so we could get the hell out of there.
After a few seconds of struggling, the crewman yelled ‘I can’t get it open!’
Great. I knew we should have taken this day off.
Now things were really getting tense. Here we were, stuck on a plane with a serious problem (at some point during this little drama I found out that an engine had caught fire), in near complete darkness and we couldn’t get out. I started looking around and thinking that if this was a cheesy made for TV movie we’d start seeing smoke or flames right about then. The crew chief ordered another door opened but before that could be done, the first door came free and everyone was ordered out there.
As we ran away from the plane we saw several fire trucks, emergency vehicles and personnel standing by. Everyone got off safely, if a little wound up and ready for a drink.
So, back to base we went to try our luck the next day. They actually had us scheduled to get right onto another plane and fly out that night but it was clear that a number of us would have simply refused to get on a plane after the day we had up to that point.
I guess it’s true that the third time’s a charm because our next flight went well and we made it back to the (relative) safety of Afghanistan.