(Written 9 September)
The journey began with a loud rap on my door, waking me from my nascent slumber. “We’re leaving at 0200. Get packed up.” I glanced at my alarm clock: it was about 2300 – three hours to get ready and move out. Luckily I was already mostly packed.
Three hours later, we piled onto a caravan of tiny Nissan passenger buses, off-white with lavender trim and running on wheels that seemed far too small for any real vehicle. The buses were packed full, so full that they lumbered uneasily over the bumpy roads, swaying crazily on their inadequate suspension. As we drove to Camp Striker, I leaned my head back and closed my eyes, letting the cool night air wash over me. I was almost reminded of driving on a summer night in Minneapolis, window down and amber streetlights flashing by.
Buses. Every Army experience, it seems, involves at least one bus ride. Riding to MEPS on my way to basic training, riding from reception to the basic training barracks, riding to Fort Polk from the airfield, riding to the MODRE site when our unit was mobilized, riding to Camp Buehring from Kuwait International when we arrived in theater…
Once at Striker, it was – of course – a long wait for something to happen. Then whatever needed to happen happened so we moved again, this time to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport). There, more sitting – for about 3 hours, until the appointed time came and we moved out near the loading area.
I had preemptively popped a Drammamine tablet, figuring another rough ride on a C-130; as it turned out, it was unnecessary, as the distinctive anhedral-winged form of a C-17 corkscrewed down to the runway for landing. I got a little dorky titillation from this, since the C-17 is the Air Force’s newest cargo plane and, well, it’s just so much more glamorous than the crusty old C-130. The sun was just rising over the airfield, silhouetting the plane as it taxied by – once again, wasn’t there supposed to be theme music for this?
We filed onto the plane, a snaking column of armor-clad soldiers all thinking the same thing: we’re leaving Iraq for real. The interior of the C-17 was spacious, shiny, and new – and they had real seats (instead of the torturous web sling seats of the C-130)! Imagine my astonishment, then, when the crew chief got on the intercom and actually apologized for the uncomfortable seats and said the crew would do their best to make the flight more comfortable. Were these guys really in the military? They even gave us the pre-flight safety briefing, complete with where to find your emergency oxygen mask and to “secure your mask before helping others.” Per the “original ass syndrome” (which is a discussion unto itself), I’m sure many people wondered what the in-flight movie and beverage service would consist of.
Tired after basically not sleeping all night, I nodded off as we sat on the tarmac waiting to go. The whine and howl of the big turbofans woke me up, though, and soon we were lined up and ready for takeoff. I heard – and felt – the engines spooling up to full throttle, but oddly we weren’t moving; then the pilot released the brakes and the big plane lurched forward, barreling down the runway. We gained the air quickly, and aside from a steeper-than-normal ascent, it could’ve been any regular airline takeoff.
An hour or so later, we slammed onto the runway at Ali Al Salem airbase…
(continued in part 2)