We boarded the charter flight at Volk Field on a drizzly evening, at the very same hangar in which I last stood six years ago, on the day I returned from Iraq. As the DC-10 taxied for take-off, we had to wait as another flight landed. The passengers were almost certainly members of our sister brigade, the 2nd BCT from Iowa, returning from Afghanistan. Crossing paths with them wasn’t unexpected; they had been arriving in waves for the last few weeks of our stay at Fort McCoy. Still, it was poetic, or cinematic, or dramatic somehow that our planes should literally pass on the tarmac, a closing credits montage rolling for one brigade and the opening credits rolling for another.
The first two legs of the trip were uneventful and vaguely uncomfortable, as airline flights always are: always too cold or too hot, not enough room to stretch despite being only 5’6″ and the plane being half-empty. We stopped in Ireland and had an unpleasant surprise: a security checkpoint, complete with emptying of pockets (of which soldiers have many) and stripping of belts & blouses. Thence it was into the controlled area of the terminal, where we mingled with French schoolgirls and American tourists and other travelers, like wayward souls temporarily slipped from the demon world. I felt disoriented after hours of flight and the time change; that combined with the sterile, windowless dungeon of the terminal and the sideways glances from the civilians made me feel like a wary animal on the way to the vet.
Underway again, we cruised over Iraq as the sun set, following the Tigris towards Kuwait. As night fell, the lights of the cities along the great river appeared like dim stars, clusters of blue-white strung out against the blackness below. It looked nothing like the orange blaze of America as seen from the air, but the lights were on nonetheless. An improvement, perhaps, from years past?
Landing in Kuwait, the TV screen inside the plane said the outside temperature was 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I knew it was true, but my mind rejected the number. My face couldn’t reject the reality, though, stepping outside into the night into a blast of hot air. If you didn’t know where the plane had landed, one would think that another aircraft was parked with its engines facing the door. Not so – just a summer night in the desert.
We boarded buses and drove for a couple of hours to a camp to check in to theater; by the time we arrived it was after 11pm local time. While we waited for check-in, we had to separate our baggage, since various groups on the flight were going to different camps. This entailed unloading two shipping containers (on the backs of trucks) worth of baggage in the dark, hot night, then organizing the stuff, then reloading everything onto the correct vehicles bound for each group’s respective camps. Somehow, no one got injured and nothing got lost in the operation, despite the onset of fatigue-induced delirium and flight-atrophied bodies.
Somehow (or perhaps inevitably), our little crew from the HQ (the most important group! the ones who planned the whole movement!) got lost in the shuffle and wound up with no ride to our final destination. Luckily, another crew was headed that way and had room, so we rode with them. Typically, field-grade officers and sergeants major don’t have to beg for rides anywhere, but no shit, there we were, scamming a lift from a subordinate unit. Naturally, though, we couldn’t just drive off – we had to await escort, which wasn’t scheduled to arrive until about 6:30 am. That was three hours away, so we did what everyone does upon arriving in a combat zone: we drove to Starbucks.
I expected a setup much like everywhere else: a ratty little trailer with a Starbucks sign on top, a place bearing only a passing resemblance to its namesake. Instead, it was like stepping through a dimensional portal to an actual human coffee shop, with all the accoutrements and decor of a stateside Starbucks. I watched, bewildered, as a guy ordered a giant whipped cream-topped coffee drink with an M-14 EBR slung over his shoulder. It was almost too much to handle: it’s four AM, I haven’t slept for twenty hours or more, I’m in Kuwait, and I’m in Starbucks with a bunch of dudes with rifles.
Outside, the day broke with no discernible sunrise, just a gradual turning of the sky from black to milky white, and we set off on the buses again, for another few hours of driving. Arriving at the camp, we were dropped at our living area, got our bags from the truck, and began our first day with little fanfare or even orientation. Here you go, welcome to Kuwait – now figure it out!