Kuwait, part 8 (Homeward bound!)

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After we got back I switched to nights.  It was funny, because when we used to get to work in the morning we always wondered why the night shift people would turn the air conditioning off and open the door.  It was always hot!  But at night time it felt cool.  It was still around 90 degrees out, but by then that seemed cool to us.

You’d see more scorpions walking across the sand at night, too.  I tended to not wander too far from the office.  Working days I liked to get out, even if I had to walk to the other shops (it wasn’t a big area).

The last two weeks I was there we changed our schedule, too.  We shifted from 6 days on, 1 day off, to 4 on, 1 off.  It actually started to feel like too much time off, even though our shifts were always 12 hours.  You needed one day off for laundry and an occasional haircut, but 2 days left you with time and not much to do.  I never did go to the pool.  I only went to the gym a few times.  It was too hot to just walk around, though I actually did quite a bit of that.

When it got close to time to leave you had to keep checking on your flight.  It was annoying because a lot of people who got there after me flew out a week before me.  Once we got home we would get 2 weeks off, but it had to be in the local area.  But I was heading up to see the boys, and already had a set time, so leaving Kuwait late just meant that I’d lose some of my free time off (I still had to take leave to go out of the local area).

When I finally left it was September 11th, 2002.  The one year anniversary of 9/11 was not the best day to fly.  For a week or two leading up to it our security had been increasing.  Part of that was probably due to our impending invasion of Iraq, too.  So I gave up my dorm room, and went to wait for the bus to the airport.  And wait we did!  We went to THREATCON Delta, as in highest security, and they weren’t going to let us leave base to go to the airport.  Eventually we got on the bus.  And then we sat and sat and sat some more.  Finally we took off, with an armed Humvee escort.

When we got to the airport the bus just sat on the tarmac.  We could see the plane, but couldn’t get on it.  Apparently some generals were arguing about whether it was safe to fly on September 11th or not.  The yes vote won, and away we went.  We were only 5 or 6 hours late leaving…

By then I didn’t care if I got shot down, I just wanted to get off the damn bus!

On the flight I had a middle seat.  And then the guy in front of me decided to put his seat all the way back and sleep.  The whole flight.  All the way to Baltimore, including 2 layovers.  It’s so nice when people are considerate of others…

We stopped at Aviano, Italy first.  It was in the mountains and very green.  Beautiful!  They wanted everybody to stay nearby, in case the flight was ready to go early.  Unfortunately they didn’t communicate this very well.  I sat in a crowded, uncomfortable terminal for 2 hours or so, and then got back on the plane.  Of course the guy in front of me went back to sleep.  All the way to the Azores, off the coast of Portugal.  Here we couldn’t even get off the plane.  They asked that nobody even get up, unless it was an absolute necessity.  Fun times!  It was a short layover, and off we went.

We flew in over New York.  I could see the Statue of Liberty all lit up in the harbor.  Gorgeous!  And either the Mets or Yankees were playing a home game, because I saw a stadium full of people.  It was nighttime by then.  We continued flying on down the coast.  We had been due in to Baltimore around 5:00 pm, but didn’t get there until 11:00.

C and D and I got a cab to a hotel.  Shortly after we got settled in, each in our own room, D called.  He needed help.  I went to see what he needed.  Emergency time – he needed his cigarettes and couldn’t get out of bed!  His legs and feet were all swollen from the flight (he’s a very large man).  I was about ready to choke him!

When I got back to my room I called home.  It was great to talk to mom and dad from the same country again!

Johnny Unitas had died that day.  Big story in Baltimore, of course.

C and I got up early the next day.  We had a flight to catch, first thing in the morning.  On the way he showed me topless pics his wife had sent him (he was very proud of her new breasts it seems) We flew through Dallas and then on to El Paso.  So close to home!  Z picked me up. It was a little annoying because instead of going straight home he wanted to go to the PX at Fort Bliss.  I just wanted to be home, but oh well.  I did make it eventually…

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Kuwait, part 7

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Somewhere along the way we met with the base safety NCOIC.  She was very good at her job, but had never dealt with explosives.  We passed on some recommendations.  And then we met with her and the base commander (a colonel) and a few other people.  We outlined what we’d found, gave a few suggestions, and emphasized that the base safety NCOIC was doing a good job, and we gave credit to the EOD guys for getting us there in the first place.  I don’t remember much of it, but it went well.  Most of the colonel’s I ever dealt with where pretty nice.  I guess by then they’re pretty secure in their position, and have no need to terrorize NCO’s and airmen.

The overall trip took longer than expected, mostly due to not getting much time in the Bahraini bomb dump.  The bomb dump itself was tiny, and much trashier than we were used to.  There were lots of papers and things stuck in the fence line, which would never fly in an American bomb dump.  They also had a few piles of trash, which looked way out of place to D and me.  Anything that could even remotely be conceived as a potential fire hazard was a big no-no to USAF AMMO.  In any event, the AMMO Flight Chief (actually a SMSgt, but that was his job title) was wondering if we were ever coming back.

On our departure day we got a ride off base to the airport.  There was a water tower on base painted with red and white stripes – it looked exactly like the one I used to always see in the town of Pocahontas, Iowa, as a kid.  Very cool!  And there was a golf course.  Talk about your sand traps!  The “greens” were about the same color as the desert.  Didn’t look like much fun.  Driving into town I could see a lot of billboards with familiar names on them, but Arabic writing.  It seemed kind of strange to me at the time.

We had to spend a long time waiting for our flight.  It was a small military terminal, with absolutely nothing to do.  When we were finally loaded into the back of the cargo aircraft it was a big relief.  And this time we had a direct flight to Kuwait.  We were hoping for a layover in Oman, but it wasn’t meant to be.  We flew into Ali Al Saleem, and were picked up by a couple of MSgt’s from the bomb dump.  I can’t remember if MSgt L was one of them or not – he was the second in command, and I had worked for him at Lakenheath.  He’s no-nonsense, but a great guy to work for.  Like a smart-ass I had kept a couple of labels from beer bottles, just to make people jealous.  They didn’t seem to care, but a few of the people back in the bomb dump were definitely jealous.  AMMO has a lot of drinkers…

Kuwait, part 6 (Oman, Bahrain)

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Bahrain was a little different than Oman.  It was much more humid than Kuwait, but not nearly as bad as Oman.  In Oman we had no problem getting a place to stay and an alcohol ration card.  In Bahrain they acted like it was a major inconvenience.  I don’t remember exactly what was said, but I know the First Shirt was being a jerk.  However, we did get our cards!

The tent we were in slept 12 or 14 or so.  They had huge generators acting as air conditioning units outside each tent.  One long tube ran down the center of the tent, made from the same material as the tent.  There were holes along it in order to let the cool air out.  Somebody had rigged up a few of the spots in our tent – They connected large water bottles together and put them in the holes of the center tube, directing it straight on to the beds.  Much cooler at night that way!  The chow hall was also just a big tent.  It was extremely long, and relatively narrow.  I’d never seen a tent like it.  Without permanent facilities the cooking wasn’t up to the standards we had in Kuwait.  They still had a steak and lobster night, though.  The lobster tails were probably half the size, and the steaks were smaller and tougher, but the gesture was nice.  And one day as I left the chow hall they were giving away books out front.  There wasn’t a whole lot that I’d normally read, but I found an Elmore Leonard western.  Until then I didn’t know he wrote westerns.

In our spare time D and I played a lot of pool.  They also had video games.  Pool was more fun, though.  And he was a smoker, so we’d go hang out in a smoke shack from time to time.  It was in a smoke shack that an Arabic translator told me that Kadous (my last name) is a slang word, meaning a blessing.  You got that right, obviously!

We met up with the EOD guys, and spent a lot of time hanging out with them.  They were able to direct us to the different units on base that had munitions items (mostly bullets).  The armory was basically connected to the recreation center – where we played pool, hung out, or played games.  The armory included things like grenades and WP rounds (White Phosphorous) that really shouldn’t be stored where people hang out.  The cop commander, a major, didn’t like hearing this.  I remember that he liked to say “I consider myself a combat commander”.  He was kind of an idiot…

One of the things the EOD MSgt pointed out was the placement of vehicle searches at the base entrance.  It was elevated up above the main base, so if there was a car bomb, it could conceivably rain down heavy parts (such as a motor) on to a tent where people were sleeping.  Not exactly well thought out.

The EOD guys had a little robot/car that they practiced with.  It was used to go defuse bombs remotely.  They had all kinds of cool toys.  I used the shower by their tent, though, and that was harsh.  The water was warmed by the sun, so after about 3 minutes it became scorching hot and you couldn’t turn it off.  The showers by the dorms were better, but always crowded.

They got us in contact with the Bahraini Air Force people, so we could have a bay to perform inspections in.  Wow – I wish I could work their hours!  It took a lot of pleading to get a bay for just a few hours a day.  Apparently the 8 hour work day would kill them.  We were always on 12’s – one day was probably about a weeks’ worth for them.

So we brought stuff in and started looking at it.  Mostly it involved verifying that the items were not on hold for any reason, then making sure the correct item #, lot # and quantity were stenciled on every outer container.  Our biggest issue was the lack of time we were allowed.  It made our stay much longer than truly needed.  We kept busy during the days by visiting the other units, counting things in place that were good, hanging out with the EOD guys, and playing pool.  There was actually a McDonalds on base, too.  In Bahrain we could have 2 or 3 drinks every day.  Every night they showed two movies, many of them still in theaters.  The first night it was indoors, but the rest of the time we were there we watched movies on the beach.  They had a huge screen where they projected it, and comfortable chairs and tables, where we could sit and have our beer.  Not bad!  You were not allowed in the water because of pollution, but still a nice feeling.

They even had a mid-tour party while we were there.  In Kuwait there were about 15 people who were permanent party, stationed there for a full year (including the base commander, as well as the bomb dump SNCOIC).  In Bahrain nobody was there for a year, not even the base commander.  They had prizes, including whatever the best new game system was at the time.  They even gave us the first drink for free, and didn’t mark our ration card.  Mine got mismarked on a different round, and I ended up having 5 drinks.  When you haven’t had anything for a few months that feels like a lot!  In Alamogordo Ross and I would have twice that almost every Friday and Saturday night, and oftentimes on Thursday as well.

They did have a chemical attack drill one day.  We knew it was coming, and we were hanging out with EOD.  We all went to a shelter near their tent.  They were a ways away from everybody else, so nobody else showed up.  We hung out with our helmets and gear on, sweating our asses off.  I don’t think we had to actually put our gas masks on, though.  Thank God!  We probably would have passed out from heat exhaustion!

Kuwait, part 5

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About a month into my Kuwait tour I got an email.  It was from somebody I’d never heard of, on a base he wouldn’t name.  He was a MSgt (master sergeant) in charge of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) in Bahrain (though I didn’t know it was Bahrain for a while.  He mentioned that there were munitions on base in various locations and that nobody had accountability of them.  Apparently, he had discovered that they fell under us for that, and that I was the NCOIC (NCO in charge) of Custody Accounts.  It took a bunch of wrangling, and figuring out the logistics, but eventually myself and SSgt D were given orders to go.  D worked Inspection.  An inspector was needed to verify that everything was serviceable.  At the same time I could have probably gone to Afghanistan instead, if I’d wanted to.  The first group had come back.  There wasn’t much of a mission there.  They were mostly working out and eating crappy food.  A lot of them lost 15 -20 pounds in a month.  So maybe I should have gone!  D, too – he was much larger than me.

When the day finally came caught a flight in a cargo plane headed to Oman.  Oman was kind of a central point for flights.  We would get there and check every day for a flight to Bahrain.  We sat in the back of an ungodly loud, extremely uncomfortable aircraft, and spent 4 hours flying to Oman.  Oman was actually well on the other side of Bahrain, but there were no direct flights available.  When we got to Oman the first thing we noticed was the humidity.  As soon as we stepped out my glasses fogged up on both sides.  Not just a film, but actual drops of water.  My arms too.  Blah!

We checked in at the orderly room, and received our alcohol ration card.  Kuwait was alcohol free.  In Oman we could have 2 or 3 drinks, 4 days a week.  We got there on one of those days.  Oman was used for R & R for lots of units in the Middle East, not just Air Force.  We were directed to a humongous tent that seemed about the size of a football field, and really dark.  We found some bunks and stowed our bags.  We headed out for some recreation!  Mainly we played ping pong.  We also watched some movies with a group of people sitting on couches.  We had our few drinks.  They had a Pizza Hut on base, so we had that.  We hung out and watched people play volleyball.  Nice and relaxing!  Every time I stepped outside it was the same thing – glasses fogged, arms soaked.  I went and bought a tee shirt commemorating the September 11th attack on the Pentagon.  It wasn’t necessarily a patriotic act – I wanted a darker shirt that didn’t show sweat so easily.  There were other options though, so I shouldn’t downplay the September 11th angle I suppose, especially being in the Middle East less than a year after the attacks.

The next day we went to check flights and they actually had one.  We weren’t exactly excited about that, but there wasn’t much we could do.  I remember walking up the narrow stairs at the front of the aircraft, and moving into the back.  It was crazy hot sitting there, our cargo plane baking in the sun on the hot flight line, high humidity, and no moving air.  We sat quite a while, too.  Eventually we took off for the 3 hour flight back north to the tiny island nation of Bahrain.  Everybody on there was soaking in sweat.  All the DCU shirts were off.  When we got up to altitude it felt significantly colder.  We all tried to bundle up.  I’m sure it was actually still quite warm, but as the sweat dried in the cooler air it was like air conditioning.

Kuwait, part 4

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I did get to leave base a few times.  Two days in a row I went to another nearby base (I can’t remember which one).  The highlight there was that they had a much bigger BX, with an actual food court!  I was able to get a Hardee’s Mushroom and Swiss Burger!  And then some KFC the next day!

One thing I learned was that when wind blows sand across the road it looks an awful lot like snow drifts.  Probably a bit warmer, though…  Just off base there was the “Kuwait Camel Racing Club”.  I’m not exactly sure how often they raced, and how big of a deal it was, but still, not something you see every day.  When we’d leave base we weren’t supposed to go in uniform, or at least not have your uniform shirt showing.  We had to be in uniform since we were going on official business, but we drove with our DCU shirts off.  I’m betting any alert terrorist would see three white guys with really short hair, no beards, wearing black or brown tee shirts riding in a big pickup truck (called a 6 pack, as in 6 passengers) and figure out we weren’t exactly local.  That could just be the cynic in me…

One time I had to go to Ali Al Saleem Air Base.  When your directions include “Turn right on the only paved road on base” you know you’re not exactly going to the nicest place.  My dorm room was probably a better stay than the base commander had here.  I’m thinking he was probably able to get his own room, though.  Our senior NCO rooms weren’t bad, though.  They’d share a trailer, each with their own room, 2 sharing a bathroom, and a big common room as well as kitchen, plus washer and drier.  Not exactly the Ritz, but certainly much nicer than the football field sized tent I spent the night in in Oman.

We had a pretty decent chow hall at Al Jabbar.  You could get omelets made to order, and the food was good.  We had a steak and lobster night every week, and many weeks we had chicken Cordon Bleu.  Not exactly great quality, but pretty decent.  It was also open 24 hours for snacks.  At Al Saleem it was…not as nice… The people there were great, offering us food thought they were about to close.  The facility was a bit run down though.  Al Saleem is where I got my picture taken with the Predator drone.  We were there to inventory the Hellfire missiles.  They were pretty small, weighing in at only 66 pounds.  They loaded very easily, too.  We saw a few of the drone “pilots”, sitting in comfy chairs, out of harms way.  None were in uniform, so they were probably civilian.  The unit commander was a full bird colonel, though.  I thought it was funny that he wore a flight suit as his uniform.  Pretty sure he didn’t need it to ride a desk.  I’ve heard that uniform is extremely comfortable, though, so I can’t really blame him.  He was probably a real pilot, too, just temporarily flying from a leather chair.

Another trip off base was to go count munitions at the armory located at the airport.  That time I rode down there with some cops (not in cuffs though).  The airport was just a bit more secure than most of them you see in the states… They had plenty of small arms munitions (bullets I guess I should have said), and grenades (both frag and stun).  I’m sure they had a few other things that I don’t recall right now.  There were lots of barricades to prevent a suicide bomber from making it near any aircraft.  I don’t think the threat level was seen as very high at that time; people were allowed to make trips downtown if they wanted.  You had to go through a few hoops, and it didn’t sound like you could do much, so I never went.  I’m pretty sure that hanging out in a mall in Kuwait City isn’t really any more exciting than it sounds.

I’m thinking the only other time I left was when I flew home and when I went to Oman and Bahrain.  I’ll cover both of those later.

Kuwait, part 3

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Every month they had a bazaar on base.  They had really good deals on gold.  I never did buy any, though.  They had tons of video games.  I don’t remember what system they were for back then.  You had to buy a little chip in order to convert them.  Lots of people did.  I always liked video games, but I never wanted it to be a life style like it is for so many people.  I was content to not get any (though I did buy a PS2 when I got back).  They also had souvenir type stuff.  Cliff bought a turban.  I passed on that as well.  I did buy jewelry boxes for people for Christmas presents.  They weren’t too fancy, but I liked them.  I got myself one as well (with a camel on it!  Made out of shell!).  The top selling items were bootleg movies.  You could get DVD’s of movies that were still in the theater.  We watched Men in Black II one night at work.  I don’t know if it was the DVD or the computer, but it was pretty dark.

Some people got illegal souvenir munitions.  Our base had been taken over by the Iraqi’s when they invaded Kuwait, and then we took it back, so lots of bombs were dropped by both sides.  There were still areas that were roped off and you couldn’t go, in case of unexploded ordnance.  The actual souvenir ones came from Afghanistan, though.  We were sending people on 30 day stints, and some came back with old Russian artillery.  One guy at work had a hollowed out mortar round.  He spent hours scrubbing and polishing and sanding it.  He also soaked it in bleach to kill the smell of any residue.  Why?  Because they had dogs go by and sniff your luggage before you headed back to the real world.  He made it safely off base.

We had a big shredder in our office (as all AFK offices do).  We were always told to shred anything with writing on it.  I wanted us to start shredding our Mountain Dew cans, but it never happened…

Early on you couldn’t get enough water.  They had humongous water bottles everywhere and told us to always stay hydrated.  As we acclimated we drank less and less.  They gave us Gatorade packs we could put in our water.  Much better!  Grape ruled.

They had rules about food in the dorms.  They wanted no crumbs!  The theory was that crumbs would attract bugs, which would in turn attract mice, which would then bring the snakes.  A few months before I got there a baby asp was loose in my dorm.  Fun for all!  We had to turn our boots and shoes upside down and shake them out every time we went to put them on, in case of scorpions.  I was already in the habit from New Mexico, so it wasn’t hard to remember (one of my first nights in Alamogordo I’d killed 2 scorpions in my apartment, in the exact same spot, hours apart).

The view outside my dorm window was a sandbag bunker.  You never see that in your travel brochures!  In the dorm lobby there were 3 or 4 computers, a big screen TV, and some books.  It was just a tiny little book exchange, but that’s where I read my first James Patterson novel.

My luggage was lost on the way.  It got there a few days later, thankfully.  It was nice not having to be in uniform, but I was about a day away from having to get a generic, no patches, no stripes, and no name tag uniform.  I had brand new luggage for the trip.  Something had happened though.  I saw a hole through the front of it.  Something had pierced my bag.  Somehow it hit just the wrong spot; it tore open the plastic bad with my giant bottle of Head and Shoulders shampoo, hitting the top of the shampoo bottle, forcing it open.  Shampoo washes out of clothes just fine, but I had brought pictures of all my immediate family members and they were ruined.  Blah!

As I mentioned, our base had been in Iraqi hands for a while.  We stored munitions in old aircraft shelters that we’d bombed out during the war.  These are concrete, reinforced with rebar, and we had torn huge holes in them.  It takes a powerful bomb to tear through 2+ feet of concrete and steel, but we had done it.  Good thing it rarely rains over there!  In fact, I never saw a drop.

It got a little humid one day, and we all thought we were going to die!  I think it only hit 114 on the thermometer that day, so it wasn’t nearly as hot as normal.  I think the top official temperature I saw was 128.  However, we had to make a few trips to hangers on the flight line, and the temperatures were much higher there.  Nothing but concrete and sunshine!  I remember going in one office there and seeing a reading of 143!  That’s fairly warm.

Kuwait, part 2

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My job in Kuwait was Custody Accounts.  Basically, most munitions items in the warehouse are held on accounts, with a primary custodian responsible for accuracy, and 1 or more alternate custodians who can also sign documents.  We would hold some items for them in storage, and other items would be with them, depending upon the nature of their job.  I tracked everything, arranged inventories (lots of change of custodian inventories at a deployed sight), processed issues and updated local procedures.

In our office we had a secure computer.  On it we could watch delayed feeds from aircraft and bomb/missile cameras.  Two of them stand out to me.  The somewhat funny one happened when the base commander dropped a bomb on what he thought was a group of terrorists.  The “terrorists” turned out to be a flock of sheep.  Oops!  It seemed funny on the face of it, but really it’s not.  Those sheep probably represented most of the worldly possessions to somebody.  And what kind of control do we use when we drop bombs on anything that moves?  Is the assumption that every person in the country is a terrorist?  No wonder they all hate us!  Shortly before I arrived in country two pilots from Springfield had been flying a night mission and saw muzzle flashes from gunfire on the ground.  They were safely out of range and in no danger.  The official procedure was for them to not take action on their own.  One of the pilots (a former Navy Top Gun instructor) didn’t like that idea, and dropped a bomb on them, just assuming they were all bad guys.  Well they weren’t.  In fact none of them were.  It was a Canadian unit performing night exercises.  I don’t know how many he killed, but there were deaths.  I remember reading letters to the editor in the Air Force Times a few months later, where the writers were ripping on the Air Force for not standing behind the pilot.  I found that appalling.  The man broke from procedures for no good reason, resulting in the deaths of innocent allied troops.  The Air Force is supposed to support that?  I think not.

The other video was much more compelling.  It was footage from the infrared camera on a guided bomb.  He incident happened in southern Iraq, as part of our ongoing Operation Southern Watch.  Saddam used to have mobile radar and anti-aircraft units, in violation of the UN orders.  We bombed a lot of them.  That’s what this footage was.  You could see the small campsite getting bigger and bigger as the bomb flew in.  As it got closer you could see the individual tents, and then a truck with a mobile radar dish behind it.  The bomb was guided into the back of the truck.  As it got close you could see a man walking and then stopping right at the tailgate of the truck.  He must hear his oncoming death, because he suddenly looks up and starts to run.  He gets maybe 3 steps until the bomb impacts the truck and the screen goes all fuzzy (seeing how as the camera was in the nose of the bomb).  It was a little disconcerting to see the final seconds before a man died.  Later we saw video of the campsite after the strike.  Nothing but a big crater.  Nobody could have survived.

We also watched a lot of footage of gunships taking out terrorists.  It’s hard to hide from infrared.  You’d see a lot of them go under trucks, or try to drive off in one, but the big guns would just tear it apart.  Those videos kind of run together in my mind now.  The bomb hitting the tailgate and the man trying to run from it are much more vivid in my mind.