From Ali Al Salem to Camp Arifjan
I awoke one Friday morning after a few glorious hours of sleep. It was August 28 in the year of the virus. My mission that morning was to find my lost duffel bag. If you recall, this was the bag with all my clothes in it that had been lost in transit from Qatar to Kuwait.
I had arrived in Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait a day earlier than planned. This fortuitous turn of events had seemed to be in my favor, given the potential delays ahead, but my optimism had waned upon arriving one bag short. The dilemma proved more irritating than the heat or mask mandates or travel uncertainties ahead. My next stop, Camp Arifjan, was a long bus ride away. From there, I was supposed to take a charter flight to the US, scheduled for departure the next day. Nothing was going to stop me. I felt like Charles Bronson as Paul Kersey in the Death Wish series, a vigilante ready to waste some punks. The connection was clear somehow. We were both very determined.
I had spoke with a lost baggage rep from Qatar the evening prior. They had intercepted my bag somewhere and told me that it would arrive in the morning, coincidentally on the flight I was supposed to have taken before I jumped the line. I had learned a lesson about skirting flight schedules. Such hubris can lead to visions of your lost bags being airdropped in some abandoned Bosnian minefield. Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now had visions too. It’s long rumored that his bags had been lost during his Vietnam travels, contributing to his madness, at least in the original script. And that’s the last movie from the seventies that I’ll reference.
Every step that morning was about getting home. Military travel from the Middle East to the US is inundated with multiple stops from one airbase to the next. You leapfrog your way from a Forward Operating Base (FOB), Airfield, or black site until reaching Kuwait, the hub for traveling military personnel. I had been through Kuwait several times before and remembered it being one of the hottest countries out there. The temperature gets in the 120s on a normal day. It’s uniquely hot, Journey to the Center of the Earth hot, Carmen Electra hot. Worse than Florida!
I woke up around six in the morning, knowing that I needed to be at the terminal to get my bag. They had told me to check in around 7:30 a.m. From there, I would sign up for the afternoon bus ride to Arifjan. The minutia of instructions before me couldn’t have been clearer. It was a day of strict timelines and simple action, but for some reason I didn’t feel like getting up. The cool darkness of my transient billets was enough to temporarily disregard the simple tasks before me. I was much more comfortable under the sheets, lying on my cheap Army mattress.
From the early grass bedding designs ions ago, to straw, feather, and stuffed mattresses, nothing beats a good place to sleep. Remember waterbeds? They were all the rage back in the 1980s. A few of my childhood friends had one. You would slosh around on a warm aquatic bladder within a hardwood bed frame, totaling two tons of weight. My Canadian stepbrother had one too, if I recall correctly. They were the kind of beds whose popularity peaked in the golden eighties, big, cumbersome, and indulgent, just how we liked things.
I snapped out of my daze and sat up in the pitch black room. The two soldiers in the bunk beside me were already gone. They had said something about leaving early in the morning, and I was envious of their escape. A hidden soldier snored at the end of the room, past several bunkbeds and wall lockers. I kept the lights off and crept outside into the blinding daylight with my travel hygiene bag. Fortunately, my sunglasses spared me the glare of the merciless sun. I don’t know what I would have done without them.
I walked the long, rocky dirt path to what I thought were the nearest restroom facilities. It turns out there were a few latrine trailers right next door to our transient barracks. I just hadn’t noticed them until a few trips back and forth in the daylight. My hygiene bag was in fact a USO-issued kit that I had wisely placed within my backpack. It included all the generic items one could get at a hotel. The disposable razor and shaving cream came in handy that day. I could finally shave. After I freshened up, no one would know that I was the same weary, haggard traveler from the day before.
I reached the terminal tent around seven in the morning. The place was virtually deserted aside from a few Airmen behind the counter. I inquired about my duffel bag and if it had been dropped off yet from the earlier arrival flight. They had no idea what I was talking about. They were always on the phone or running around real busy-like, so it was enough just to plead my case. One of them talked into his handheld radio and then told me, “A bunch of bags are being dropped off right now outside the bus terminal, if you want to catch it.”
Hurrying outside, I walked a block down the road and found what looked like an entire company of soldiers gathered around. There were over a hundred of them, having just gotten off of one of the many idling buses parked nearby. Two forklifts approached with large aircraft pallets strapped with bags. They staged each pallet onto wood beams, allowing the pallet to be lifted again once it was set down. I saw green, black, and camouflaged bags of various patterns. Each green bag looked liked mine, similar to seeing your mother’s station wagon in every car while waiting to be picked up from school. I made my way through the crowd and began rummaging.
To my unease, a large cargo truck (an LMTV) backed in near the line of pallets. It didn’t take long for me to figure out what was going on. A few soldiers approached the weighty tailgate and brought it down. Others formed a line and began loading the bags into the truck bed under a green canopy. I didn’t know where the truck was going, but the situation wasn’t good.
They grabbed duffel bags, rucksacks, tactical bags, and rolling suitcases and passed them along. I watched as the different colors and patterns blended together, searching for my bag like a page out of Where’s Waldo? I moved along the line in a desperate frenzy and saw a masked First Sergeant standing to the side. If anyone could help, it would have to be him. “Good morning, First Sergeant,” I said. “I’m looking for my bag that was sent on your flight. Could you help me?”
He stood with his arms crossed, wearing a boonie hat and sunglasses. I thought that he might tell me to take a hike, but he was actually very helpful. He called out to the group and told them to look for a duffel with the name “McKee” on it. The line slowed as they put forth the effort. A short, stocky sergeant with a shaved head and a mustache then approached, having heard my dilemma. “One of the buses had a special delivery bag on it,” he told me. I rushed to the five buses parked across the street, galvanized by the revelation.
I searched inside each bus from front to back and came up empty handed. Hope dwindling, I ventured outside toward a small group of mingling soldiers who had driven the buses. I asked them if they had encountered a missing duffel bag, codename: Special Delivery. A young, skinny soldier with a radio at his side knew something about it. “We just dropped a bag off outside the terminal,” he said. It had been tagged for immediate delivery to some hopeless schlub at Al Salem. He escorted me through the enclosed loading dock of the terminal, where I found a plain green duffel bag with my name on it, resting in the back of a pickup truck. I snatched the bag like it was on sale on Black Friday and showed the soldier my ID. They seemed just as glad just to get it off their hands. Victory was mine.
I journeyed back to my room and placed “Duffy” next to the other bags at my bed. That was his name. I had some time before the bus trip but also remembered that I had to sign up first. I walked back a mile through rocky sand and down the long concrete steps past the quarantine tents to find the bus terminal on the corner. I donned my mask like always and entered a lobby of empty chairs and several offices. There was sign-in roster tacked on the wall for the next shuttle departure at 1400 hrs (2:00 p.m.). Breakfast was over, but it wasn’t quite lunchtime. I could superfluously travel the base for fun. The unmarked buildings, tents, trailers, smoking gazebos, and endless roads to nowhere were worth a gander or two . Instead, I decided to shower and change my clothes while I still could.
I later located the dining facility for lunch, wearing a fresh uniform, my patrol cap, sunglasses, mask, and large novelty clock around my neck. With the next stop in my journey hours away, I felt restless. Or maybe it was hunger. There was a line inside the DFAC that reached far back to the entrance door. All the chairs had been removed from the dining room, leaving only empty tables roped off from usage. Someone really didn’t want people eating inside. The line eventually split into two for main line and short order. We couldn’t tell what was being served in either, so it was a gamble. I opted for the short order line and filled my styrofoam to-go box with fresh chicken strips and a salad. I had chosen…wisely.
There was nowhere outside to sit. I watched others carry food to their vehicles in the parking lot across the street and leave. My choices consisted of the steps around the DFAC, of which many were already seated and eating, and my trailer. I chose to get out of the heat altogether and return to my sanctuary, utilizing my bunk as a picnic table. The lights were still off when I arrived, and I could hear my roommate snoring at the other end. Was that guy ever awake? I flicked a nearby switched and turned on a single light above me. Once seated on the squeaky mattress, I proceeded to gorge without reservation. The food would hold me over until the next long interval, which was rapidly approaching. A brief glance at my watched showed that it was close to 1:00 p.m. I needed to get moving.
I walked to the bus terminal with all my bags. The rucksack fit snug over my shoulders and against my back, while my duffle bag hung to one side. My two carry ons teetered from both shoulders and kept sliding down my arms. I lumbered across the rocks and dirt under the blazing sun and soon reached the familiar grand steps leading down a hill. A few extra arms would have been nice, but intelligent design saw fit to provide us only two. I pondered as much as I hobbled down the steps like Frankenstein’s Monster. The bus terminal was in sight, and with it, my chance to leave.
I fumbled inside my cargo pocket and pulled out my mask before entering the terminal. The same empty chairs greeted me in the lobby. I tossed my bags over a row in the middle and continued toward the transportation office in the corner. The sign-in roster remained on the wall with my name at the top and two others listed below. The departure time was still the same, and all was good, so I hoped.
I was approached by a young specialist with shadowed facial hair exposed beyond the edges of his mask. Perhaps he had a shaving profile. He asked if I was one of the passengers on the bus. They were already getting ready to leave. “I sure am,” I told him. Two men entered the lobby with their bags, a lieutenant and a colonel. They were loud, boisterous, and looked eager to get somewhere. It turns out they weren’t on my bus. The two other mysterious passengers never showed. I hoisted my bags and followed the bearded soldier outside to a tall, rumbling bus with curtains over the windows.
I gladly threw my large bags in the lower compartment of the bus and boarded. There was a Kuwaiti national at the wheel, dressed in his custom attire of robe, sandals, and taqiyah cap. I was told that he was in a hurry, hence our earlier departure. There were indeed two soldiers seated at the front but not as passengers. Their job was to accompany the bus back and forth between destinations. Rasputin, the bearded specialist, was one of them. They acted as escorts to Arifijan and back. It seemed like an easy enough job despite the monotony. I would probably get bored with it though. They sure looked bored.
I changed seats a dozen times, which was a habit of mine when given unlimited options. I found my way toward the back of the bus where a connected row of seats formed a perfect layout spot. “How long is the drive?” I asked the two soldiers in the front. The female scrolling her cell phone screen turned her head and told me, “About two hours.” The bus kicked into gear and we were off. I lifted the flimsy blue curtains at the window a few times to check my surroundings. We ventured onto the highway amid buses, bongo flatbeds, and pickup trucks occupying different lanes. The most common cars I saw on the road were Toyotas, Nissans, and Mercedes. It was like that in UAE too, but they also had Porsches and Range Rovers everywhere.
Wealth in these small oil-based Middle Eastern countries was something afforded to certain people, citizens, who were well-connected, at least in my humble observation. The UAE monarchy bestows fellow Emiratis with special privileges, including financial assistance and positions of power. It’s an interesting class system that we often think we understand, or even face, in some cases, until seeing it actually played out and institutionalized. It might be shocking for some in the sheltered West to behold.
As the bus continued its trek, I lay down upon the back row during the bumpy ride. I rose up intermittently to pull the curtain back and glance out the window. I saw an ocean of white and yellow sand, flat lands, and rocky hill tops, all desolate for miles. We passed endless concrete structures, adjacent homes surrounded by thick walls, power lines, and manufacturing plants. The cloudless sky radiated various shades of blue. Window gazing complete, I laid back and rested. Music blared through my headphones as potholes shook us every so often during the quiet journey to Al Salem. Lengthy, uninterrupted travel where no one can bother you is often the best part of any deployment, not to be taken for granted.
I awoke to see that we had reached the base after an hour and a half on the road. I had been promised two hours of sleep and felt cheated. We drove past concrete barrier walls and warehouses, arriving at Camp Arifjan’s main terminal. It was another building, just like all the others, where everyone checked in upon arrival. I recognized the place from coming through there the year prior. I grabbed my carry ons and exited the bus to see Gandalf the Un-Shaven outside with my other bags already on the pavement. He walked me toward the terminal under an aluminum canopy and brought me inside. I masked up and stood patiently as they took my temperature. Everything checked out, and I was soon granted access to Camp Arifjan, land of infinite limbo.
My next step involved finding the CONUS Replacement Center (CRC) desk and getting the soonest charter flight to Fort Bliss, Texas. CRC is a military organization that trains and processes mobilized personnel in and out of theater. They reside in different US bases, including Fort Bliss, where a week-long ordeal awaits individuals traveling overseas. I had mobilized to the UAE on individual military orders under the Special Operations Command (SOCCENT). They were based in Tampa, Florida where Busch Gardens is. I hadn’t been to Busch Gardens since the early 2000s for Howl-O-Scream. It was a wild time.
A long row of identical buildings stood before me, separated by a cement walkway. Each building was numbered and served different purposes. Most of them were open bay barracks for transient personnel. Behind the flat-roofed buildings were latrine trailers. Further behind the trailers was the rest of the base, expanding for miles. I walked to the second building on my right, where dozens of stations were set up behind long counters. As I entered, I found the room check-in counter and was promptly handed a bundle of linen and bay number after presenting my military ID.
I proceeded to the next counter and found the CRC. A staff sergeant and a sergeant first class sat at their desks, facing one another and typing on their laptops. I had called the day prior to learn of the pending Saturday flight. The man who answered had a deep, gravelly voice. SFC Harmon was his name, and I saw him behind the counter. He had been friendly and cordial on the phone but less enthused when I had finally showed up. “I’ve traveled far to be here,” I announced in a joking manner. He approached the counter and asked for my paperwork. “Fine,” I thought. “Since you want to be like that.” I rifled through my backpack and produced my orders, signed released memorandum, and 401K investments.
SFC Harmon huddled with his counterpart and examined my paperwork as I stood by in suspense. No matter where you’re going, the fear of forgetting some crucial documents looms over any voyage. They then handed me some red tags and provided further instructions for the flight ahead. “Showtime’s at 1330 tomorrow. Label each one of your bags with your last name and last four. Bring your bags under the pavilion outside the terminal an hour prior and wait for roll call.” A customs inspection would follow, and we wouldn’t be permitted to leave the premises. All that mattered to me was that I was on the flight. The rest was just filler.
I left the building and ventured down the uneven walkways between barracks, searching for the room number on my ticket. I found building 1154 at the very end (naturally) and walked inside with my heap of bags and bundle of linen. Multiple bunkbeds and wall lockers spread far and wide across the open day. Soldiers lay sprawled in their bunks with their numerous bags placed around and sheets hanging from their beds like curtains. I walked between the bunks and soon found mine somewhere in the middle, staking my claim.
Unpacking commenced, followed by the ceremonial hanging of privacy bed sheets. I settled in and grew hungry. I remembered Arifjan’s outside food court with a Pizza Hut, Subway, and even a Burger King only a short walk away. I masked up and traveled the base at dusk. The radiant orange sun filled the sky in the distance. It seemed harmless at that hour as opposed to the merciless daytime, where it was intent on burning flesh off skin. I ventured past buildings, clam shell tents, and volley ball nets to reach the sacred food court, only to find most of it closed. Perhaps it was the late hour or something else. I suspected the bastard pandemic for having a hand in it and soon noticed signs outside most windows, citing “Closed for COVID,” or something like that. I managed to find a Charleys Philly Steaks open for a few more minutes.
I approached the steps and waited as the sign outside the door had instructed. Two soldiers lined up behind me, all of us trying to get our fix before closing time. An Indian man opened the door and shouted for my order. I was taken off guard and had no idea what to say. I hadn’t even seen the menu yet. I glanced through the windows to the menu on the wall and said, “Uh, Teriyaki Philly Chicken.” He shut the door and raced inside as I pondered my decision. Was it really what I wanted?
They soon let me inside to pay for my order, handing me a large plastic bag with a carryout box and a can of Coke. I paid and left the store whilst taking in its heavenly aroma of grilled onions, steak, and chicken. Once again, I was left with trying to find somewhere to sit and eat. The outside benches had been removed, leaving the area empty. It all seemed foolish, but some general somewhere had probably gotten a promotion out of it. I found a spot in the shadows between a closed Starbucks trailer and a jewelry store. I sat on the steps near a rattling air conditioner unit and attempted to eat while swatting at a whirlwind of merciless flies. My sandwich was large and messy. Its juices dripped on my chin and hands with every insatiable bite. Stray cats gathered as I wiped my face with the cheap, thin napkins provided. I was largely hidden from view from passing soldiers, a ravenous animal at one with my alley cat brethren.
Walking through the base at night, I imagined the day when I would finally get home. My year in the UAE had seemingly passed with ease. The biggest challenges I had faced, logistically, were the limitations placed on improving things, at least in ways I thought they should be improved. The status quo exists in all walks of life, no matter the profession. I had dealt with a lot of outside contractors and had to supervise and rate them accordingly, but it didn’t seem to make much difference what I said or did in the end. The language barrier was often an issue, but that was more my fault than any foreign national I was working with. Either way, a year of constant trivial battles is enough to wear anyone down.
I walked back through the outstretched cement paths between buildings under spotlights and across volleyball fields, past latrines and showers, and finally made my way back to the barracks. I was plenty sick of wearing a mask and my uniform, two requirements absent during most of my time in the UAE. I felt an attachment to the old job, despite knowing that my team had moved on. That was good. I needed to move on too. I showered and changed for bed, ready to embrace the next day’s travel. People walked in and out of the barracks at all times, but I was just glad to have no one on the top bunk. In less than twenty-four hours, I would be on flight to the USA.
What had I learned in my time overseas? What things had I accomplished, and what differences had I made? I had learned that the mission had played out somewhat like I had envisioned, being that I had no real idea what I was getting into. It was a decent time, and I had met a lot of good people. I certainly learned a lot about response times and Navy Seals operations. I had also learned that everyone in the military is younger than me, so it seems. That’s how it goes. Every new assignment or mission is filled with fresh-faced soldiers in their twenties, reminding you of your own withering age. Military life, and the people you meet and who make an impression on you, is a lot like life in general. We develop friendships and bonds and sometimes never see one another again. A lot of relationships are a matter of time and place, and it’s just enough to move on, knowing that, at one point, you were friends.
Two weeks of quarantine awaited me in Fort Bliss, and an unknown amount of days to out-process after that. My focus was obviously just getting out of the Middle East altogether. I wasn’t completely adversed to the idea of returning, but hoped that it wouldn’t be for a while. A strict timeline awaited me the following day, one most likely rife with delays. Patience was the key… and ensuring that all of my electronics were properly charged for the travel ahead.
To be continued in Part IV: The Final Chapter