…sitting in the belly of a C-130 with 54 other soldiers, side by side, idling at the end of a runway in Kuwait at three in the afternoon.
Your butt hurts because of all the gear, your legs hurt because you’re packed so tight against the cargo pallet that you can’t move anything, and your head is about to explode because of the scorching unbearable heat. Another five minutes and I would have gone for my ammunition, but probably wouldn’t have been able to reach it.
After takeoff things cool down and your stomach settles. Not being able to see out windows makes me more sensitive to motion sickness, I guess.
Now I had heard of “tactical landings” several times before. When enemy fire is expected in a landing zone, an aircraft will conduct random evasive maneuvers before screaming toward the ground in an effort to frustrate any bad guys trying to get a missile lock. It involves a lot of banking, climbing, and diving.
What I hadn’t expected was how crazy all this plays out when you’re locked in the dark underbelly of a cargo plane, nor how nimble those damn planes were! Yikes. I almost puked, but managed to keep it down, much to the relief of the 20 or so in my spray area.
The ramp opened and I noticed that it was dark — well, I noticed after a construction vehicle had pulled up to the aircraft and unloaded the pallet, giving us our first glance at Iraq.
The air was more humid than Kuwait, and it was still pretty warm, even though the sun had set. There were no lights on the airfield, save for the headlights of a couple of vehicles moving in the distance.
A civilian man in an armored vest appeared out of the night, “Get your gear and get on the bus, you all are here at a bad place and at a bad time. Move it!”
Jumping down from the ramp, the props blew away the motion-sickness bag I was going to keep as a souvenir. Damn, I thought, and kept huffing it to the buses, waiting just outside the light shining from the rear of the plane.
I stepped on the bus to see a Vietnam-era man, with long, gray hair, and an American flag for a bandana. “Howdy,” he said, smiling.
We all hurried in, tucked our rifles in between our legs and packs as best we could, and sped away from the C-130 as it started down the runway again, eager to get off the vulnerable ground.
Fires burned across several blocks of the area beyond the airfield. For all I know, it could have been a big trash fire, but it seemed awfully close to the airport. I didn’t have time to ask what was going on. Tracer fire flickered at the other end of the runway, random fire into the sky by insurgents, trying to hit some of our aircraft, someone said. “They usually don’t hit anything — or it could just be a wedding or something.”
“Now when we get to the processing center, you’ll need to get your people in to the tents as quickly as possible,” the civilian worker said to our plane commander. “They’ve got that place zeroed in as well.”
We drove down the streets, turning enough times to make me lose all my points of reference.
Concrete barriers were everywhere, surrounding buildings, trailers, perimeters, everything. Bits and chunks were missing from a lot of them, evidence of the “continued random mortaring” that this place has endured for the past several years.
As we pulled in to a fortified series of tents, the civilian went on. “Just last night we had a rocket hit between tents A and B. There are 120 people in those two tents. It’s a goddamned miracle that thing didn’t go off. I caught some Filipino lady with a GPS in here about a month ago, so they know what the coordinates are. Keep your helmets on and get inside. Good luck.”
Once we were off the buses, things didn’t seem that bad. Several units used this place as a staging area for leaving and coming, whether just on leave or leaving for good. Many didn’t have any armor on at all, and the order for us to keep everything on made us seem like daisy-fresh rookies, which we were.
So the year starts.