Monday, November 10, 2008

Part III: Travel, Training, and More Travel

The flight overseas was a military charter flight. We met the plane at a cargo terminal on the fringes of the Columbia airport, but first we got to spend a couple of hours camped out inside an empty hangar. We were met there by every sort of military support group you could ever imagine. They ranged everywhere from the Veterans of Foreign Wars to the Blue Star Mothers. They brought out coffee and doughnuts and snacks and gift bags and for the most part, it was really great to see them there. The only ones that bothered me a bit were the members of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. There was something ever so slightly disconcerting about being greeted by a man in shorts with a prosthetic leg or shaking hands with a couple of Korean War veterans who were missing a few fingers. But I digress.

Now it's a rare thing when you'll see someone on a plane with a firearm. I'd imagine it's even more rare to see everyone on the plane with a firearm. Many of us even had two. It made for an interesting trip:

"Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard. We're about to take off, so I have to remind everyone to place your seatbacks and tray tables in their full-upright and locked positions. Make sure your carry-ons are securely stowed in the overhead bins on under the seat in front of you. Place your rifles under your feet with the butts toward the aisle and feel free to remove your sidearms and place them in the magazine pocket in front of you. Thank you and have a pleasant flight."

The plane stopped in Bangor, Maine for a couple of hours to refuel. This was the first time I'd ever been to Maine, but I'm not sure I should count two hours of wandering through a terminal being thanked for serving by dozens of local veterans and military moms. To be honest, that part was starting to wear on me a bit.

After Bangor, Maine, the plane continued on to Shannon, Ireland. There we got off of the plane for a little under an hour. This is where I learned that I cannot plug my laptop's power cord into Irish sockets. Instead I spent the entire time wandering around looking at a bunch of overpriced souvenirs I didn't need and liquor I couldn't have.*

From Shannon, Ireland to Kuwait I slept. Upon arrival we were loaded onto a bus with covered windows. We were joined by three other busses and a couple of gun trucks and convoyed out to Camp Virginia, a quaint little patch of nothing in the middle of a quaint big patch of nothing.

Once there it was time to sort out our luggage. This is what they mean at the airport when they tell you to check your baggage claim tag, because many bags look alike:


While I was in Kuwait, this tent was my home away from home:


Believe it or not, the tent actually had a central air conditioning system and electricity. And inside, this is what my own personal accommodations looked like before and after the luggage bomb went off.


We got about a week in Camp Virginia. This time was set aside to serve two purposes. First, the final bit of combat training at a shooting range and convoy exercise area in a different quaint big patch of nothing. Second, to help us get acclimated to the type of environment we'd be living in for the next few months.

The combat training was a good time and had some definite value. We were bussed from our tents out in the middle of nowhere out to a different group of tents a little to the right of the middle of nowhere and spent two nights out in the desert. My tent had a mixed bag of 68 people which included male, female, enlisted, and commissioned officers. The tents themselves had been there for quite some time and had been layered over with some sort of sprayed-on insulation foam that made them look like bits of archtecture from Tattooine.

During daylight hours the tent was used as our classroom space. At night, all of the chairs and tables were folded and stacked so we could sleep on the floor. There was no running water and only limited electricity, so every meal was an MRE and bathing was a quick PTA scrub** using unscented baby wipes. It's the sort of thing I would've called an adventure when I was in junior high school. Of course, I was younger and dumber then.

The shooting portion of the course was fun, but it was also very short. In all we only got to shoot sixty rounds. I could've spent all day out there running back and forth and plinking away at all of the targets, but I guess that's why there's budget constraints. It's all about the Man keeping me down.

At about the same time we were finished, we also got the first ever period of instruction that detailed exactly how to best adjust and fit our gear. Prior to this I'd only had anybody take a moment to show me how to put my body armor together. There was no mention about how the armor was supposed to fit. All I knew was it's big, it's heavy, sucks. Now I've learned that it's supposed to be tight enough that you have a bit of trouble breathing and that most of the weight is supposed to sit on your hips. Instead, I'd been hanging 45+ pounds of armor, a full Camelbak, ammunition, and whatever's in my utility pouches on my shoulders. So unless I can get a chance to swap my armor out for a smaller size, I'm probably going to come back from the deployment about three inches shorter.

Come on spine… Work with me.

Anyway, the rest of our time in the middle of nowhere was spent on a convoy exercise. The idea was to drive a pre-planned route through a series of mocked-up villages scattered throughout the countryside. The villages were staffed by local Kuwaitis who were hired to play the part of innocent bystanders as well as the occasional insurgent or suicide bomber.

There were a lot of unpleasant things that happened along the way. These included roadside bombs, mines, suicide bombers, snipers, and a whole host of other nasty stuff. Supposedly we did pretty well. The one thing that really stuck out in my mind was that this was the first time I've ever seen camels in their natural habitat. Sadly, I didn't get any pictures of them.

I did get this picture of me posting security during one of our convoy halts. I'm the guy in the foreground wearing my super-cool ninja mask so I don't have to eat all of the dust (only most of it):


And me enjoying a nice hot latte with breakfast at some ungodly early morning hour:


Here's a nice shot of the open desert. Usually it was a lot brighter, but otherwise it all looked like this:


The other reason for our week in Camp Virginia was to get acclimated to the time zone and weather. This pissed me off a bit. Camp Virginia is in a desert, a few hundred feet above sea level, and the highs while I was there were all above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Where I would be working in Kabul, Afghanistan is a city in the mountains, 6,800 feet above sea level and the highs were to be in the low 70s and dropping significantly over the next few months. I would've been better served by being sent to a camp in, say, the mountains of New Mexico for a week. Oh well.

The other stuff we did while we were there included a lot of wandering around and trying to stay busy. I got a familiarization tour of an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Proof) vehicle. It was a bit small on the inside:


But on the outside it's huge:


I've decided I want one. I'd want it in a different color though. I'm thinking a nice satin black. And some nice custom chrome 42" rims. Oh, and spinners. Ooh, and a thumpin' 4,000-Watt subwoofer where the gun turret goes. That's the ticket. Of course, considering the vehicle's $1,200,000.00 price tag, I may have to hold off until I get signed to produce my first rap album.

I had a good time there and couldn't have asked for a better crowd to be stranded with in the middle of nowhere. Among there number was Steve Lewis, a fellow Petaluman who is now serving as a Navy Supply Corps officer, Leon Scoratow, one of the nicest guys I've ever met, and Darren Lee:


Darren, like me, is a Surface Warfare Officer in the Naval Reserve on involuntary mobilization orders. We've had a lot of fun comparing notes on how much we both don't belong here, but his plight is actually much worse than mine so far. More on that some other time perhaps.

Otherwise all I did in Kuwait was play video games and foosball and watch a lot of movies. After a week of wandering around Camp Virginia bored out of my gourd I was ready to move on. It would've been nice to have a drink or two, but there was no liquor available. Not that it mattered.* At this point I still had no idea what my job would be when I finally got into Afghanistan.

*Throughout the period where I have a firearm signed out in my name, I fall under General Order 1B*** which stipulates, among other things, that I am not allowed to consume alcohol. So I've got over 230 days of sobriety to look forward to. How awesome is that?

**PTA Scrub- a field expedient version of bathing where you only clean the pits, tits, and asshole. You had to go looking at the footnote, didn't you?

***General Order 1B also prohibits me from possessing or making any pornography. I'm still looking forward to the addendum that precludes me from using foul language.

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