It’s strange to be back in the US. Everyone has been dealing with the pandemic and lockdowns, and here I show up, ready to party. There’s lost time to be made up here, about a month, by my estimates.
That’s how long it took from the time I left the United Arab Emirates to reach Orlando, FL. The average flight from the UAE to the US is around fourteen hours. Granted, there’s some jet lag involved, but you can still get home in under twenty-four. Military travel, however, and all its protocols, is considerably longer. You’re in it for the long haul.
The big day came one Tuesday afternoon. I was packed and running around like an escaped lunatic trying to tie up loose ends. This is common among leaving any job you’ve invested time into. I wanted to ensure that my replacement had the tools needed to run things. I called contractors on my country phone, backed up files, and sent out emails in an effort to leave a clean slate, a “peaceful transition,” if you will. Perhaps it was all in vain. I could already feel my control over the logistics section fleeting.
For the past fifteen years or so, the UAE has served as a staging point for US crisis response operations. I supported teams equipped to deploy within a twelve-hour notice, engaging in everything from hostage rescue to security patrols, wherever necessary. During my tenure, we pushed out response forces to Iraq in October 2019, following the Turkish attack against the Kurds along the northern Syrian border, and prepared for WWIII during the height of tensions with Iran in December of the same year. Then came the corona virus, and everything seemed to slow down.
I said my quick goodbyes to the team, other co-workers, linguists, and my civilian counterparts. Not everyone cared, given the constant rotation of incoming and outgoing personnel. I did make some good friends in the end. It would be the last time I saw our row of identical warehouses, the hot oil-stained pavement outside, the gravel-covered sand, the adjacent helicopter pad, and the skyline of Abu Dhabi in the distant haze. Things had been quiet on our Emirati base for the most part, but that was changing. It was getting crowded. Additional Seal Teams, surgical teams, EOD teams, Boat teams and others were pouring in. There was no better time to leave.
A small plane awaited me on the Emirati flight line, just outside the camp. A few other passengers and I boarded with different destinations in mind. The only way out of the Middle East for most of us is through Kuwait. To get there, I had to go through Qatar. We flew from the UAE to Jordan and then to Yemen. I was elated just to be leaving, even after four hours of flight. I blasted music through my headphones and dozed off a dozen times. I listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall in its entirety, as I’m apt to do when the mood calls for it.
Many people aren’t aware that the song “Vera” was based on an actual person, Vera Lynn, the popular singer, songwriter from the 1940s, who was big during World War II. I only discovered this months ago. Some might recognize her song, “We’ll Meet Again” from the closing scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Cold War satire, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Roger Waters of Pink Floyd likes to name drop sometimes, and his lyrics referencing Lynn are said to be about children of post-war Britain, including Waters, who never “met” their fathers killed in war. It’s a brief song that further connects the grand album’s majestic themes.
We eventually arrived at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar in the middle of the night, with me as the last passenger. I was well aware of the COVID precautions in place at most military instillations and the baffling inconsistencies ahead. I assumed that I would be herded to some contained area. I had about a dozen disposable face masks in my backpack. I should have just bought one of those sleek cloth masks like everyone else. First, I must mention packing. When traveling to and from theater, it’s best to pack as light as possible, contingent on the inevitable weeks it might take to reach your final destination. I had shipped home most of what I had acquired over the year, leaving me with a duffel bag, rucksack, backpack, and laptop bag to bring along. That’s just how I le rouleau.
You can’t pack too heavy, otherwise you’ll be inclined to toss such cumbersome appendages into the river. It’s also wise to pack a 72-hour carry-on bag with extra clothes and hygiene products, just in case. And what did I pack in said bag? Electronics of course. I packed my Kindle, headphones, chargers, adapters, and some books for good measure. This stuff takes up more space than you might realize. My clothes and hygiene bag were in my duffel bag, promptly lost in transit, but we’ll get to that later.
I was left inside a flight hanger upon my arrival at Al Udeid, waiting for staff duty to pick me up in their van. I was starving and had already ate my “emergency snacks” of beef jerky and chips during the flight there. Rationing was for chumps. The flight crew had gotten me to Qatar, the rest was up to me. I took the van to the personnel (PAX) terminal miles away. I gazed upon familiar surroundings, as I had been there before the year prior, en route to the UAE. The Middle East is a litany of wide-open spaces. The full moon abounds, looming above in perfect symmetry. Heat engulfs the air, coupled with intense wind. Nothing is still, despite the desolate, vast darkness before you.
I liked how the towns and cities were spread out in the UAE. Granted, I was relegated to a mere sliver of the entire country, but I got the gist. Its landscapes range from mountains to rippling oceans to endless sand dunes of orange. The famous capital of Dubai could be a nightmare of congestion and confusion among the labyrinthine roads, but for the most part, I traveled with ease.
Speed cameras or “radars” posed a problem, as they’re placed every ten kilometers or so on the highway. It’s best to get used to the metric system while you’re at it. Speeding fines start at about 200 dirhams ($55 USD) and only increase from there. Imagine getting four of five of the fines a day, quite possible if you drive like you’re still in the US. And don’t get me started on speed bumps. They’re a national treasure across all seven emirates.
I loaded my bags into the staff duty van, donned my mask, and prepared for the journey ahead. We jettisoned past the flight line dominated by C-17s, C-130s, Chinook Helicopters, and other bustling aircraft. I always wondered what it would be like to be a pilot in the Air Force. How many flights consume their weekly schedule? What’s it like dealing with endless cargo and personnel under strict timelines? Who am I kidding? The Air Force are rarely on time. Kidding!
The young sergeant driving me to the PAX terminal revealed that he had less than a month left in Qatar. “It sucks,” he said. “They’ve completely locked the base down.” We had to deal with COVID travel restrictions in the UAE but nothing like he was describing. Apparently, they hadn’t been permitted to leave the base since March. Working for a Special Operations Command, like I did, was much different. They didn’t give a shit about the rules.
I arrived at the crowded PAX terminal with one goal of getting to Kuwait in mind. I set my bags outside the building and followed an Air Force representative inside. He advised me to steer clear of a nearby lobby where “dirty” soldiers had convened for the evening. I was confused by the terminology and soon realized that such lingo was bestowed upon units returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Apparently, these are areas where the per capita of corona cases is high and/or questionable. Iraq, for example, has some 340,000 cases to date amongst a population of 38 million. Not bad but suspect, for some reason. I didn’t care about the semantics. I just wanted to get home.
I was led to a room apart from the returning Iraq unit and asked what I wanted. I had long learned to never make demands when flying military air. I asked when I could get the soonest flight to Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. The masked gentlemen made a phone call, spoke for an eternity and then handed me the phone. A movie blared from the crowded lobby next door, where poor souls sat in limbo for untold hours. On a bright note, they were watching Coming to America.
I spoke with the Air Force rep on the phone about my flight. I fumbled with the documents in my hand and provided my social security number, DoD ID number, birthdate and fantasy football lineup. I was a re-deploying soldier en route to Fort Bliss, Texas. If they could just get me to Kuwait, I would be forever indebted to their graciousness. I promised to write voluminous articles of their valor if they could just heed my request. I knelt and prayed for salvation–you get the idea. I could be stuck in Qatar for days, even weeks, depending on what flights were available. Miraculously, they had a standby flight available the next day at 1900 hrs (7:00 pm). All I had to do was to show up. I just needed a place to stay for the night.
I was led through customs, where they took my temperature and checked my passport and orders. I was already sick of hauling my lethargic bags and cursed myself for packing so much. A van met me outside customs and transported me to fenced-in transient compound. They had strict penalties from wandering outside the designated quarantine site. Twenty lashings, last I heard. I would don countless N95 masks in HAZMAT gear and live in a plastic bubble for the night if it meant getting home. I checked in at the welcome trailer around five in the morning. They took my temperature again, shared the rules, and showed me to my room in one of the adjacent open bay barracks.
I searched my way through the darkness to one of twenty bunkbeds, using my cellphone flashlight for guidance. The air conditioner roared with fury, drowning out any would-be snoring. The bathrooms and showers were set up outside, crucial amenities I always search for upon reaching any transient billeting.
There was only one other person in the spacious bay, texting on his cellphone. I had been fortunate that morning to be housed in such a vacant space. I made my bed, changed my clothes, and found the necessary outlets to charge my five or so electronic devices. I was immensely pleased that my travel through Qatar would only take a day, but there was much more to the journey ahead. In some ways, it was only the beginning.
TO BE CONTINUED…