Al Udeid to Ali Al Salem
I must have slept for six or seven hours. It was midday, and the lights were still off. The two or three other transients inside were sleeping as well. I knew that I should probably get up and eat.
The air conditioner reverberated throughout the bay. Four rows of bunkbeds ran from one end to another. Mattresses squeaked with every movement. My flight wasn’t until later that evening, so I pondered the options before me. I wished that I could just sleep through the entire ordeal, however possible. They could drag me from each base until I eventually awoke in Orlando. I’d say, “Wow, I don’t remember a thing,” followed by, “Where the hell’s my wallet?” But I wasn’t home yet. I had arrived at my first stop of many, Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.
I stumbled outside under the blaring sun with my shades on and the T-shirt and gym shorts I had slept in. The restroom and showers were right down the sidewalk. A tall chain-link fence enclosed the compound of six to eight housing units, with a forty-person capacity in each one. Fortunately, there were far less soldiers currently residing within the premises. I took in the quiet air and continued toward the nearest male facilities. Beyond the fence stretched an empty road aside rock barriers and guard towers. This was an exciting place, like Reno without the booze and gambling.
We couldn’t leave our fenced-in compound or travel anywhere else on base. Our temporary quarantine provided simple amenities and the expectation that we would wear masks at all times. But such instructions weren’t always clear. No one was wearing them in the rooms. Why would they? I “masked” outside with no one else around and began to question its purpose. But I wasn’t about to skirt the rules. I had gone through enough to get there.
I entered one of the restrooms (or latrines) and scoped out the adjacent showers inside. I preferred to know what I was getting into first. There were five showers on each side with wood benches between them. Each shower had flimsy plastic curtains, some with forgotten articles like wash cloths or underwear hanging nearby. I then surveyed the row of toilet stalls behind me. They were readily stocked with toilet paper. The sinks were in good working order, and everything seemed up to code. I finished my inspection and prepared to shower. Lunch time was near. A bus was to meet us outside the gate within the hour to take us to the dining facility (DFAC). I didn’t want to be late and subsequently starve.
Excitement loomed upon my pending departure from Qatar. I was supposed to be leaving that very day on August 26th. This grand turn of events followed a confusing phone call with an Air Force rep the night prior in regards to my flight. The air mobility team in UAE had scheduled me a standby flight for the 27th. When I initially arrived in Qatar, the rep hadn’t a clue about that particular flight. He said, “We have a flight going to Ali Al Salem on the 26th, 7:00 pm roll call. I said, “Sounds good to me,” and agreed to meet at the personnel (PAX) terminal. My diabolical plan for world domination was nearing its final stage–perhaps I’ve said to much. Disregard.
The lunch bus arrived. About ten other soldiers and I walked through the open gate and toward the idling bus across the street. This was the life. We had fresh air, sunshine, and a ride on the open road. The bus dropped us off outside the DFAC. From there, we filed inside, washed our hands, and grabbed Styrofoam to-go boxes. The main course that day was lasagna. Garfield would have been proud.
All dining areas inside had been roped off. We were to grab what we needed and return to the bus. I took chips, cookies, muffins, bananas, apples, and drinks in the spirit of a supermarket sweep. I recalled from my youth perhaps the greatest contest a child could win, the Toys R’ Us shopping spree. This was where lucky winners had about five minutes to rummage through the store with as much as they could fill their carts. I never won contests like that. I’ve never met a single contestant from the Price Is Right either, but I’m sure they’re out there.
We returned to the bus, each of us with a full plastic bag and to-go box. I suppose we were expected to eat back in quarantine. My bed served as a picnic table, where I consumed all but a few items rationed for the trip ahead. What and how much you eat is of little concern when traveling, at least for me. You never know when you’re going to get the chance to eat again. It was soon time to start re-packing for my upcoming flight. I wanted to be there plenty early to ensure that Qatar remained a distant dream.
A staff duty van dropped me off with all of my bags outside the departure terminal around 5:00 pm. I entered the quaint terminal, using a handy baggage cart. There were three counters past the tape barriers or whatever you call them. Retractable tape herders? Line makers? They needed a simple name we can all agree on. A bespectacled and masked female Airman waved me forward from behind the left counter. I approached with what I thought to be a fairly simple request. I wished to take the next flight to Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait. I had been told the evening prior to arrive before 7:00 pm. She responded with a muffled incredulity of which I could barely decipher. My name, it was explained, wasn’t on the list. “Who did you speak with?” she asked. “Some guy on the phone,” I said. Did I remember names? Rarely ever. It was something I needed to get better at.
She took my ID and engaged in a lengthy aside with another Airman, who looked similarly exhausted. “There is a flight tonight, correct?” I asked. That much wasn’t even clear. I waited as they tried to figure things out. Meanwhile, a line was forming behind me. I leaned against a nearby wall as others checked-in, seemingly without issue. We were all in uniform. The days of dressing like a ragtag civilian under the Special Operations Command in the UAE were over. I had been spoiled. My face itched from behind my blue medical mask. Was there no end to such torment?
I stood and waited as the wall clock ticked ominously from above. I attempted to remain as positive and upbeat as I could under the circumstances. I clarified that my final destination was Fort Bliss, Texas. “I’m just trying to get home,” I told her. It appeared that they would need to form a committee or tribunal to figure things out. I considered slipping her the twenty dirhams left in my wallet, but that only equated to about five dollars. They weren’t going to let me fly for that paltry amount of scratch. I repeated the same information to another Airman who was tall with a shaved head and reddened face from the sun. He said he’d check on it and left me to wait as soldiers continued through. I was the outlier, of the room, the pariah or Morton Downey Jr. among them.
My ID was eventually returned to me after thirty minutes of waiting with an update that I had been cleared to fly. Thrilled upon hearing the news, I checked-in my duffle bag and ruck sack, temporarily relieving myself of their burdensome weight. She handed me some bag tag stickers and signaled toward a baggage scanner in the corner. I placed both bags onto a small conveyor belt and watched them go through. I was then told to wait in the lobby for a custom agent to arrive and escort us to the flight. There were about ten soldiers mingling around. I wondered if they were on the same flight as well. It wouldn’t have hurt to ask, but I instead found an empty row to sit and waited with an hour to spare.
It was ten till seven when I began to get nervous. Where was this supposed agent? The low-talker behind the counter clearly said to wait until they arrived. Or did she? I began asking around. No one else in the lobby was going to Ali Al Salem. But that wasn’t right. I couldn’t be the only passenger. I returned to the counter and asked what was going on? There had been a shift change. Two different Airmen, wearing desert tan T-shirts, camouflaged trousers, and reflector belts around their waists, informed me that I was supposed to be at the other terminal by now. The main terminal, they said. It was right up the road. I could make it if I hurried.
I don’t know what miscommunication had taken place. I know what I was told or at least what I thought I heard. I did notice that the previous lobby was absent a few bodies from before. Had they morphed into vapor and left when I wasn’t looking? I raced into the night, up the road and across a dirt field, where I saw a fancy building of lights and paved parking lots. I entered an empty lobby with two familiar-looking soldiers seated near their bags. I had seen the same male lieutenant and female captain before. I never forget a face… for at least a few days. Somehow they had known where to be. I was decidedly out of the loop.
There were two other soldiers seated behind the counter, absorbed in their cell phones. Out of breath, I presented my ticket and asked if I was in the right area. “Check-in’s at 11:45,” the specialist told me. Time held no apparent purpose, but I hadn’t missed the flight. I’d chalk it up as a win. They had my name. I was one of three passengers. I sat in one of the linked chairs bolted to the tile floor and waited. A few more hours, and I’d be out of there. I had my trusty iPhone and iPad to pass the time. I read, listened to music, and attempted to catch up on a substantial backlog of podcasts, starting with The Phil Hendrie Show.
The hours creeped on. Things got moving by 10:30. We processed through Qatari customs and waited in another room for twenty minutes or so. We then moved outside and to another building where we processed through military customs. Our carry-ons were put through a baggage scanner as we moved to yet another waiting area, this time inside a giant hanger. The two other passengers looked just as fatigued as I was. I said, “This has to be the last place we go before flight.” They remained cautiously optimistic. The lieutenant carried a long plastic rifle case wherever he went. I was fortunate enough to not have any weapons to carry back home. The Captain was returning home from Kuwait, the lieutenant from Iraq. They had both went months past their redeployment date due to the pandemic.
Around 11:30, a staff duty van took us to our plane. We drove to the flight line where a mammoth C-17 waited with its stairway door opened. We shuffled inside the aircraft and sat spaced-out against the walls of its iron belly. I noticed my rucksack and what appeared to be my duffle bag among the pile of bags strapped to the ground in the corner. The crew scurried about to perform pre-flight checks. They were transporting ISU containers and pallets of gear fastened to ground. I dulled the blaring and hisses of the idling plane with my noise-cancelling headphones. I was seated and ready to go. The only thing missing was the in-flight service and a couple of drinks. The plane taxied down the runway and prepared for take-off well past midnight. With Kuwait as our destination, I rested… after a selfie or two, of course.
At just under two minutes, the 1967 song “The Letter” by The Box Tops is perfection from beginning to end. The pulsing bass, up-tempo drums, ethereal keys and strings, and gravelly vocals form a synergetic blaze of rock music. I hold it in the same league as the Grass Roots’s “Midnight Confessions” from 1968. Imagine that, two perfect songs within a year of each other. But those are not years I would want to live through. I had always assumed that the self-explanatory lyrics in “The Letter” were about leaving Vietnam, but that’s never been clear. “Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane/ Ain’t got time to take a fast train / Lonely days are gone, I’m a-goin’ home / My baby, just wrote me a letter.” I guess they would work in any situation. It’s hard to believe that the gruff, raspy-vocals by Alex Chilton were sung when he was sixteen years old. What was I doing at that age?
I fell asleep at the tail end of the two hour flight and felt annoyed as we touched ground. My deep slumber had been disturbed by the inconsiderate landing of the plane. We slowed to an eventual halt after a jolting touchdown. Once parked, the rear of the plane opened as the crew hurried to off-load the cargo. The other passengers and I recovered our bags from the pile. There was no mistaking my outdated ACU-patterned rucksack. It had been with me since Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007. Maybe longer. I searched through stacks of duffel bags, unable to locate mine. “What a curious development,” I said or thought, containing my anger. I stepped back and scanned the area, determined to find my bag. I searched the plane and found nothing. The flight crew confirmed that no other bags were around. I was sure that there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for everything.
We exited the aircraft to where an idling pickup truck waited to take us onto base. I reluctantly ended my search absent one bag packed with all my spare clothes and hygiene products and got inside the truck. How could a bag get lost with only three passengers? With everything else going on in the world, I was dealing with a crisis all my own. I told the driver that they lost my duffel bag. He didn’t know what to make of it. We drove away, as the monolithic silhouette of our aircraft loomed in the distance. I wondered how I was going to make it through two weeks of quarantine at Fort Bliss with no clothes. “It probably never left Qatar,” I thought, seated between the captain and lieutenant. “You think it left Qatar?” I asked them. They didn’t know. No one knew a damn thing.
Our arrival at Ali Al Salem Air Base should have been cause for celebration. Granted, I was happy to be there, but I was also plagued with questions about what to do next. I remembered Al Salem. I had gone through there to get to the UAE. Everything now was like stepping backwards. Al Salem was too hot and crowded with too many military around. Everything was spread out and, and you had to walk everywhere. Worst of all, there was no water park! The truck dropped us off at the same hanger/terminal I had been stuck at the year prior. Its rickety rows of baggage cages across the street were a reminder that nothing had changed.
It was the middle of the night, and I needed a room. The plan, as I understood it, was to take a two-hour bus ride to Camp Arifjan the next day. Arifjan provided charter flights to the US. I didn’t yet know the bus schedule or flight dates or anything else. I hoisted the rucksack over my shoulders and approached the terminal, sweating through my uniform in the warm night air. The itchy mask remained affixed to my face like an Alien Facehugger. Inescapable “Mask Required” signs were posted everywhere. Once inside, I parted ways with the two passengers who pushed forward with their travel plans. The terminal was twenty-four hours, and I was relieved to see it somewhat empty. The few soldiers inside were sprawled about in their chairs, bags piled next to them, waiting endlessly for their next flight.
Communication can be precarious during military travel. Cell phone service is nonexistent, leaving you reliant on the limited Wi-Fi spots available in most bases or camps. Fortunately, I had the number for the Qatar terminal on my ticket. I located a service phone in the corner, pulled up a chair, and began my investigative search for the missing bag. A female Airman answered, and I got right to business. I told her that I departed Al Udeid about two hours prior to Al Salem and that my checked bag wasn’t on the flight. Was there someone in lost baggage I could talk to? She seemed sympathetic enough to my plight and promised to look into it. “Let me check around here, and I’ll let you know. Call back in ten minutes.” I was hopeful at this point that the bag would be recovered.
I waited ten minutes and called back. She answered again. “Hello, yes sir. About your bag… We didn’t find it, but they’re going to check the holding area outside and see if it got mixed up with other bags. Call back in about thirty minutes.” Fingers crossed, I thanked her and hung up. I had time to spare and decided to check-in with transient billeting about a room for the night. Their office was brisk walk up a nearby hill, if I remembered correctly.
I left the terminal and placed my rucksack in one of the baggage cages across the street, using an extra lock I had to secure it. This alleviated the load for my lengthy trek to billeting. There were a set of enormous concrete steps leading up the hill and an equally long ramp beside them. I walked up the ramp like in full sherpa-mode, squinting in the darkness. Random spotlights illuminated certain areas of the base. I saw a row of giant tents, designated for quarantine. I hurried past them lest I be accused of starting an outbreak.
I located the billeting hut behind all the tents. A giant sign on the door read “Masks Required,” which I clearly understood by then. I entered the lobby and stopped at a taped line six feet from the desk. There were bins of used and fresh linen on both sides of the room. I greeted the masked soldier on duty and told him that I needed a room for a night or two. He obliged and asked for my military ID. I waited as he flipped through his binder and assigned me a bunk for the night. I wondered how the pandemic had affected the living arrangements. Ali Al Salem was known to house a constant overflow of transient soldiers like myself. He handed me a ticket with a trailer number and door code and sent me on my way. “There’s only one occupant in there right now,” he added. I rejoiced in the news.
I was to go past the latrines and gazebo and continue between the two rows of buildings where the falcon circles the moon. “Just keep straight,” he said. I walked outside and tripped over rocks and holes, venturing past the latrines and between the buildings. I reached some trailers ahead with no discernible identification. I paced back-and-forth in a huff until I eventually discovered numbers on each one. Mine was somewhere in the middle. I climbed the steps to the door and shined my cellphone flashlight against the key pad. The code wouldn’t work. I tried again and again until the door opened, revealing my sleepy shirtless roommate in his boxers and flip flops. “Sorry,” I said. “I almost had it.” He trudged off to bed without response. I found an empty bunk at the end of the room and relinquished my backpack. But my night wasn’t over yet. There was a duffel bag to be found.
I returned to the terminal approximately thirty minutes later and made the call. The same female rep answered. “There’s good news and bad news,” she said. “We searched everywhere, and we’re certain that it’s not here. Did you check everywhere on the plane?” I confirmed that I did, though her certainty had me second-guessing. She transferred my call to a lost baggage specialist. He explained that the bag could have been placed on another flight by mistake. “Is there anyway of tracking it down?” I asked, increasingly desperate. “I’ll make some calls and let you know. Check back with us first thing in the morning.”
I returned to my sanctuary hopeful for a bus ride out of Ali Al Salem the next day. The only impediment was my missing bag. Fortunately, I had a toothbrush kit in my backpack. After a quick walk to the latrines and back, I was finally in bed. I lay in the thick darkness as the air conditioner hummed and rattled. The day had been a grand adventure, and I was prepared for inevitable delays to come. I drifted off, grateful to have a bed to sleep in. I dreamt of open fields and beaches and theme parks, a pre-COVID world where anything was possible. Some friends who had returned from the UAE earlier than I warned me not to go home yet. “It’s crazy here,” they said. There were many stops left in my travels. I estimated a brief journey back to the US, followed by a fourteen-day quarantine at Fort Bliss, Texas. The rest, I would worry about in the morning.
To be continued…