As we took off, some people started to cheer.
It had taken some time, but hours after we had checked through the PAX terminal, and after a long day of loading and final ceremonies, we had left Camp Taji for good. I couldn’t resist throwing up the bird at the place–not that it had been a bad spot to squat for the year, but just as a let-loose at the final glance.
Looking out of the back of the Chinook, the sprinkling of lights spun and moved away as the chopper whirled around and started north. After a minute, the ominous Taji refinery creeped into view. I had no idea what they burned there, but the flame was constant, always lighting up the sky to the east, it’s murky orange flame flickering high into the haze, like Mount Doom from Tolkien’s Mordor. Around it was large swaths of black, peppered with the scant lights from random street lamps.
I was tired of the Iraqi nightscape and looked forward to rows of lit streets, trees, pools, grass, and the lack of imminent indirect fire. Ah, it was going to be glorious getting back to the states! A captain I had shared a bench with during our hours at the flight line asked me if I was excited to get back. I hadn’t thought about it much, other than the “not Iraq” portion of my next few months; but, yes, I was getting more excited by the day. I’m sure that as our plane touches down on American soil I’ll drop a tear or two. Sappy? Yeah, but is a big deal after you’ve been away for awhile.
Our time in Anaconda has been swell so far. Things are a little hot, but the skank musk doesn’t seem so bad any more, I suppose because there’s an end in sight, like knowing a dreadful camping trip is nearing the final evening. While the new formations and constant checkups on weapon serial numbers are a bit tiring, we don’t care. Most troops offer up only token bitching, but the leaders are here with us, going through the same crap, just as eager to get home, although more reserved. They aren’t being Nazis about things, “Let’s get through this so you all can go to the movies.” Hearing something like that is amazing.
All year and the months before it has been WAR WAR WAR WAR AAAAAAAAAH THE WAR!!!! And now we have to notch down, return to the world.
I think I’ll be up to learning how to have a weekend again, and holidays every now and then. Nine to five sounds sweet, as does having a car and the chance to see a movie and a mall–maybe catch a show or a concert.
I’m coming home, America. Thanks for not burning the place down while I was gone!
I am an American, fighting in the forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense. I am not a terrorist, nor are my comrades.
Can I be sure? Like REALLY sure? Can you be sure the sun will rise tomorrow? REALLY sure? Be honest.
Today we received one of our “here’s how things will go” briefings on our immanent departure of Iraq. Two and a half hours of jokes and duplicate slides, all to say “drop your bags off at 0600 the day of travel…all else is subject to change.” All in all, a nice way to miss breakfast.
Every time you leave theater, be it for your rest and relaxation leave, or for redeployment back to the stats, they make you earn it.
From bag searches to customs officials to screenings to waiting in lines to stopping off in two or three different regions of the country, all of the paperwork processing and precautions make leaving the war one hell of a headache.
But that’s okay. Most of the time, troops are super psyched to be getting the hell out of here, so a few hours sweating outside of a processing center or in the belly of a bird, idling on the runway, ain’t no biggie.
What begins to chap my grass, however, is the amazing level of scrutiny our personal belongings are subjected to in order to leave–some of it warranted, but some of it just frustrating.
Do we need to make sure soldiers aren’t stealing any ammo, cultural treasures, other people’s stuff? Yes, definitely. Troops are thieving bastards, yes. Do it. Shake down. Dump everything out. We do it frequently.
But, do we need to ban iPods, laptops, CD players, toothpaste, deodorant, lotions, sunscreen and all the other recent airline taboos because of the “threat to airline travel”? You tell me.
How do you think it makes us, the uniformed service members of the United States, feel when we have to play all of these games? When we’re looked at as potential terrorists?
Every time I go through an airport in uniform and with orders and I’m selected for “special screening,” it just blows my mind. Take off my boots, my belt, empty out my pockets…Lord help me if I have a duffel bag.
And for all those out there with the “well…you never can be TOO careful” attitude–yes, you can be too careful, it’s called 1984. Remember that gem of a society?
How many attacks have occurred from uniformed service members?
It’s the same thing that got old over here where I had to show my ID card to eat, shop and enter half the buildings on post every day of the week. Why am I under so much suspicion? Are there clean-cut, uniformed, weapon-carrying, American-accented, pale-skinned, terrorists roaming through our camps?
Is there a test or a form I can mail in to certify myself? How many years do I need to spend in the desert before I’m certified “Soldier, defender of freedom”? Is there a fee that I overlooked?
Because if for all the years I am to spend in the crucible of war, if I can’t win any modicum of trust from the government or people to which I have pledged my life, then I fail to see the point in the War on Terror.
Or maybe, like the never ending war in 1984, we aren’t supposed to win. Maybe the war is meant to perpetuate itself forever. That way, we have profitable contracts and political levers to use against our enemies.
All this high-minded crap aside, can’t I just keep my toothpaste and my iPod? Twenty-plus hours of flying to get home from fighting in your war is a long time without music or funk-fighting lotions and gels. Damn AXE and their sweet-smelling toiletries!
I knew it had to come—the load of incredible BS that was overdue.
Days in the service are like hurricane seasons. You can have “mild” seasons for years, but eventually you’ll get hit with storm after storm that leaves you neck deep in crap.
Storm 1 (Category 3)
Yesterday I was wrapping up another wonderful, mesmerizing briefing, made much cozier with two times the personnel now in attendance with our replacements. The new XO saw me putting up the chairs and straightening up.
“Sgt. Salmons, aren’t you staying with us?” he asked. Uh oh! I thought this had been resolved.
“Sir, I had been trying, but no one ever worked the paperwork after it left my hands,” I explained. To catch people up: They asked me to stay months ago, I said “sure” and completed all the paperwork, then they blew me off, now I’m going home.
“We could really use you.” He got that puppy dog, ‘your country needs you’ sort of look that seniors put to enlisted just before asking them to start a work-intensive “good idea.”
“Well, sir, I tried, but no one ever gave me an answer, so I’m preparing to leave.”
“Hmmmm. We’ll get on that.”
A call to division today confirmed that things were in motion once again. And this is usually how things work. Military cats wait until the last possible second before acting to fix something. And they have to be the ones to see a shortage…no amount of advice or foresight will do.
All the back-and-forth stuff before today was just some silly sergeant trying to plan ahead.
“So…do I ship my stuff home or what?” I asked my boss.
“Well, we won’t know until after we get back,” she said.
Ah…back in limbo. Nice. Get an apartment? Get a car? One month back in the states? Six? Here it comes all over again.
Storm 2 (Category 5)
A couple of weeks ago, there was a transfer of authority ceremony for the Iraqi unit that we used to manage. They were finally being integrated back into the Iraqi army—meaning they wouldn’t use us for maintenance or intelligence and would rely on existing Iraqi sources…ha! Good luck with that. But, anyway, the ceremony was a chance for the brass to show off their stuff, with cameras rolling.
Our lack of cameras was a challenge, of course. We had worked to get some of our journalist higher-ups to send down a crew—a process requiring several weeks of planning, room reservations, haggling with our command as to why they had to put up with more “media,” and all that business. We also had scored some Arabic media, which was cool. Although it was just a ceremony, it was one of those more visible symbols, showing Iraqis doing their own thing.
The ceremony itself was slightly-controlled chaos—busses with the journalists were late, there were changeups to the program, etc. But we pulled it off, by God. We got the Arabic journalists in and out without them blowing up anything, as was the fear. “You watch them close,” I kept getting told. “Yeah, got it.” Terrorists. All of ‘em. Yeah.
Afterward, my division asked us to get them the footage so they could use it for some propaganda films and flyers. We obliged and I thought it was a good day of public affairs work.
“Sgt. Salmons, be sure I get a copy of that video,” my battalion commander told me after the ceremony. He and a couple others had been interviewed by the gaggle of media. Everybody wanted the video. They always want the video. What do these officers do with all these ceremony videos? Show them at parties? To their kids? Yeesh.
“No problem sir, I have to wait until our guys get back to their base and edit it, but they’ll send down a copy.” Our visiting Army journalists were from up north and had to get back and edit together a story for their own deadlines.
We finally got the copy of the DVD yesterday. I had copied a few runs of the footage and gave them to my boss to deliver the goods.
Now, remember, this was for a news story. My guy and all the visiting journalists were all over the place, getting close-ups, wide shots, crowd shots…all to be spliced together into broadcast pieces.
“Sgt. Salmons, what’s with that video?” my battalion commander asked today while I was at the pisser. Oh, hey there sir!
“Did it not work?” I asked. What the hell could have been wrong with it?
“It’s all choppy. He goes from the interviews to shots of the speaker to the vehicle pass and reviews. It’s all over the place!”
“Sir, it was for a news story. The first bit is the story itself then he included all the rest of his footage.”
“You didn’t have a camera rolling for the whole thing?”
“No sir, we just had one camera and he needed it for a story.”
“Well it’s jumpy.” Actually, we call them “cuts” in the video-production world.
The sentiments were echoed by the rest of the footage recipients. Even when we get it right, in our command’s eyes, we’re f*cked up.
Storm 3 (Category 2)
“Sgt. Solomon?” the new brigade sergeant major called out to me. I was hanging outside in the smoking area for a few minutes, taking a break from the 11-plus new people in the office.
The colonel and most other higher-ups call me “Solomon,” which I answer to. Nametapes be damned! It’s easier to just respond.
“Sergeant Major N*** is on the phone for you.” Ah, one of our battalions needed pictures taken…hopefully it wasn’t in the next ten minutes.
Walking into the brigade sergeant major’s office, I walked around behind his desk and answered the phone.
“This PAO?” he asked. I had worked with this guy countless times before and he didn’t know my name either. Nice. I affirmed and he continued. “Saturday at 0800 we need some pictures…”
Basically I am to be hung from a crane to take a glamour shot of one of our battalion’s command staffs, arrayed in their combat gear, surrounded by some of their vehicles. I was assured I’d have a safety harness on.
Being how I have to fight through five or six of their cameras when covering one of their ceremonies, why don’t they just take the pictures? I guess the whole “hanging from a crane” thing thins out the numbers.
I can just see it now…Soldier paralyzed after crane fall days before redeployment. Catchy.
Storm 4 (Category 3…expected to strengthen to 5 before landfall)
Normally, when going home, several weeks before departure, containers are loaded up with a whole mess of personal gear. These containers are shipped off and arrive in the states a month or two after the unit makes it home. The long delivery time is due to the huge amount of crap floating around the world and the fact that getting stuff home isn’t nearly as high a priority as getting stuff to war. So it’s no biggie to have to wait a bit to get your stuff out of the containers.
There is again the possibility of me serving a second year in Iraq—but not a certainty. Meaning I can’t leave my stuff here, but that I can’t ship things home in the containers, as I may come down on orders back to Iraq long before the stuff arrives in the states. Enter the normal “commercial” shipping funds from our supply office, meant to handle these sorts of situations.
“I need to ship some stuff through DHL,” I told one of my supply sergeants.
“Why?” That’s the question any supply person has about anything asked of them, so I had a response prepared.
“I may be sent back a few weeks after we get back and I can’t wait for the containers.”
“Well, you’ll have to bring in a list of what you want to ship. We’ve been sending a lot of people’s stuff home and we’re almost out of money. I don’t know…”
Well, yes, but this is because I’m COMING BACK TO WAR. Not because I had connections and didn’t feel like waiting for the containers on the back end.
If push comes to shove, I guess I’ll just pay to ship it, but damn! Days like this make me want to go career! Yes, Dad, you were right…shoulda joined the Air Force. I think about that every day.
The air held the light like a misty winter evening. Were it up to only my eyes, I would think the scene was from my window back in Maryland as I glanced outside, ignoring my homework.
But the hazy smoke spoke to my nostrils also—a mixture of chalk and…something acidic, something along the lines of bug spray.
There’d be no running this evening. Pounding pavement was unpleasant enough with the heat squeezing out extra liters of perspiration, but the smoke choked out what little breath I had after a spell of a quickened pace. And who knew what life-shortening carbons and industrial residues we were wheezing through already, without the labored breathing adding an extra ration.
Our new quarters were a few clicks off the beaten path. While most whined, I actually looked forward to the time apart from the drone of bitching soldiers, walking alone in the evening. It was officially hush-hush, of course—we were never to be without battle buddies and all that business. But no one wanted to walk, and preferred to spend 40 minutes waiting for the shuttle rotation instead of the 15 actually getting home. Besides, by the time I was off of work, there were naught but one or two cats left at brigade. So, I went anyway. Crazy foolish? I suppose, but soldiering is not without its risks, eh?
Most of the post is dark, for tactical reasons, but some lights blaze on. A microwave tower off post is near our barracks, its throbbing red lights undulating through the haze. That was my beacon as I cut through unfamiliar motor pools and company areas.
Our living areas were long rooms, portioned off by some metal framing and particle board. I had settled in and set up white Christmas lights—a favorite of mine, to add a warm, homey glow to the space. It didn’t take much. Something like my lights made a huge difference since most of us had given away all but our essentials.
Getting back to the room, I changed and headed back out into the night, toward the gym—another solo jaunt, with the potential partners culled further at the mention of exercise. For as physical as the war business is, Americans have grown very averse to conditioning, preferring rather to snack on ice cream and treats—not much different from stateside life, I suppose.
The late crowd at the gym was always subdued, more of the dedicated workout types verses the tourists, although we had seen an influx of new cats trying to make up for a year of snacking in the closing weeks of the deployment.
There was that same rubber sweat smell, the same “work it” posters along the walls. Damn, I have been here a long time—twice as long as I was at Fort Hood, even.
Part of me is glad to be almost done, but part of me will miss Taji. How many people can say they were in Iraq? How many can point to a page of history and say “That’s me right there?”
Things will get a little busy in the next few days. Don’t worry, all, I’ll keep on plugging away. Next time I’ll try to actually have something to say, rather than just a little narration. I was just flexing the ol’ descriptive muscles and writing from the office is a little tricky with all the yakers and visitors the personnel office gets.
Sorry that I can’t see your comments. My boy Seth is forwarding them to me, so thanks for the encouragement to keep writing. I’ll have more freedom of the Internet as I leave Taji and head toward the states.
As a part of the heading out process, we’ve moved out of our abodes to make room for the new arrivals.
Which is fair—our rooms were available when we came rolling in. But for all the bitching and griping about having to leave the comforts of our settled-in quarters, you’d think we were being forced out onto the streets.
And our new spots are out there, distance wise. We had been spoiled at having rooms situated just a minute or two walk from the offices. Now, we’re the more-normal 15-20 minute stroll to the rooms, which is inconvenient, yes, but for God’s sake, it’s just a little walk.
I don’t like it. My feet are hurting. I’m tired. I can’t go to the room through the day. On and on, you hear people complain and complain. The seniors are mad as hell because instead of their private rooms, they have to share spaces with the younger guys. The dining facility is now farther away…blah blah blah. And as an aside to those cats complaining about the DFAC—now you can start to drop those pounds you put on during deployment. Honestly, I never thought I’d see so many fat people at war! They don’t enforce weight standards while deployed, so some people have just gone ape-crazy with ice cream and burgers, four times a day!
There’s no pleasing some. I’m just damn glad to have more and more of our replacement unit showing up. Those new patches are beautiful! Every evening, there seems to be a new crop of faces, sparkling new equipment, ironed uniforms (or at least new), all of them poking around and eager to start their adventure.
Bring ‘em on!
So, friends, what’s next for this here blog? I’m still not sure what will become of it when I get back to the states. Since it’s still up in the air about me serving for a second year, I suppose I should keep it going until then, at least.
Life back in the states is pretty cut-n-dry. There are the typical screw-ups and infuriating policies to deal with, but I don’t know if any of it is blog-able. We’ll have to see, I suppose.
I’m facing the fact that I am going to lose a bit of marketability once my time at war is over. Isn’t that weird? It’s like an aging model, slowly slipping out of the mainstream and into the “clinging on to fame” circuit.
I’ll probably start to work on more introspective pieces, rather than experiential, although avoiding the overly political—there are plenty enough of those by far more eloquent writers than I.
So what do you think? Lemme know.
It’ll be a little bit before I can see your comments. I have to post to the blog through a chum of mine, as I’ve lost my uncensored Internet source when I left my trailer. No blogs from work, remember!
I’ll still try to give everyone updates as the time approaches for me to flip Iraq the bird. Booya!
I’m out for now.
Talking Salmons turned one year old on August 8th.
Whoops, missed that one! Will I ever forgive myself? Well, maybe.
To commemorate, here’s some pre-military Salmons from yesteryear. Get a haircut, hippie!
“The lights are on! Let’s go check it out!” one of the admin cats said, grabbing her hat and heading out the door.
Across the street on the basketball courts, two light sets had been set up, their generators pratting away, illuminating the square of seldomly-used pavement against the black of the unlit lot around it.
I went out and looked also. It was weird seeing my first experience on Taji recreated.
Eleven-odd months ago, after whooshing in to camp on a series of Chinooks, we grabbed our bags, boarded some shuttle busses, and were carted off to this same blazingly lit scene.
It was night then, also. We were tired, hot and exhausted from the hops and stop-offs that it took to get us to Camp Taji, our camp for the coming year. Of course disoriented, we had no idea where anything was, and walked around the penned-in yard, waiting for all of us to arrive and unloading baggage trucks as they pulled up.
Unbeknownst to us, we were on display for all to see. Although the troops wouldn’t pour in for a few hours yet, several late-nighters were on the scene to watch as a segment of our replacements was to arrive. I surmised that we were the subject of the same evening show those months ago.
A couple people asked if I was going to stay and watch. “Naw,” I said, “I’ll have the chance to see ’em in the next few days.”
They were excited. We were just a few days away from skipping town. There was still a lot to do, moving out of the trailers, selling our stuff, attending the “here’s how to act back in the world” briefings, all that business; but we were close.
Still, I admit, it was a good feeling to see that new unit patch walking around in ever-increasing numbers. The people before us played the same game of “If I see you, I’m almost done.” It’s a rite-of-passage sort of gig. We’ll do our best to get these guys settled in before going home.
It’s hard to imagine home–not to get all melodramatic. It’s going to be some strange stuff with weekends, holidays and all that sh**. And I guess the reduced risk of death will be a bonus too.
“Are you glad to be going home?” is a question I get a lot. Well…yeah, now that it’s here. Remember, up until about four days ago it was a done deal that I’d be here for two years straight, so I wasn’t planning on spending much time back stateside–and there’s still the chance that paperwork will finally change hands in the great admin desk of the sky and I end up here quick-like, so I’m not going to get too comfortable.
But, yeah, it does feel damn good to be done. I try to downplay it, you know, to make it seem like I could care or not care. It’s my small way of speeding the time along, but for as thug as I is (word), I’ll probably start bubbling like a madman as we take the last few steps toward movies, restaurants, ladies and normal clothes. I can definitely relate to all the sentiments of soldiers returning from conflict abroad and just wanting a quiet corner to live out the rest of their days.
There are still years of fighting ahead, but for now…a short reprieve.