Travelogues: From the UAE with Love (Part IV: The Final Chapter)

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From Kuwait to the USA

Military travel can be a lot like bowling. With every movement across the glossy hardwood lane of life, you anticipate a strike, if you’re lucky, but usually end up with a spare or gutter ball.

When headed home, the expectation is often of smooth travels amid minor delays in remote locations. Most of the time, however, you’re just there for the ride. I didn’t want to linger in one place for too long. Any issues with the charter flight from Camp Arifjan to the US would put me in perilous limbo for weeks until the next scheduled flight. The CONUS Replacement Center (CRC), who schedules and organizes travel for deployed military and DoD personnel, had a strict schedule. We were to be outside the passenger terminal with our bags lined up by 11:30 a.m. It was Saturday, August 29, and the long day was just getting started.

I packed and checked around my bunk for anything left behind, as snores reverberated throughout the open bay. I left the barracks with my bags weighing upon me like a one man band and walked outside to another bright, sunny morning in Kuwait. I continued down the wobbly walkway toward the passenger terminal and reached a shaded tarmac. There were some bags already lined up, a good sign, and I placed my rucksack and duffle among them. Step one was complete. I then looked for the plane, skipping the rest of the steps, and realized that wasn’t going to work. Neither would magic powers or teleportation, so I gave up.

Roll call commenced inside. Rows of chairs were occupied with uniformed Army and military contractors in civilian clothes, about eighty in all. I was pleased to find a smaller group this time. Charter planes from Kuwait normally fly about two hundred. Less passengers meant that everything would go faster. I sat and waited in the dimly lit room. A few tardy soldiers wandered inside, nearly missing roll call. Even though I had checked-in the day prior, I still awaited my name with nervous anticipation. Such pre-flight anxiety develops over years of fallible military travel. But my concerns proved unfounded, when they called “McKee” and received a hearty “Here!” in response.   

Step two or three followed next with a customs inspection. We formed rows, took off our coat tops, and emptied our personal belongings into a plastic bin, no different than your standard TSA screening. We retrieved our baggage and then returned to our bins on the ground to enter the customs building through a tiny door. The customs teamed called us through intermittently and then directed us to the baggage scanner. Checked baggage was tossed outside through an open door to be loaded later. We passed metal detectors and took our carry-ons in an endless hustle until the last person was through.

We entered a waiting room stocked with snacks and drinks. Wrapped lunch trays lay in a pile across one table, beckoning me closer. I stuffed food inside my backpack before we were called to an outside waiting area with barbed wire atop high cement walls. The bed rock ground had benches with canopy nets above, providing some much-needed shade. A box truck pulled up outside an open gate, and we began loading bags. Not long after, the buses arrived. Elated, I attempted to break out into a song, but nothing came to mind. Nearby signs also prohibited spontaneous dance numbers, whenever they might occur.  

I found a seat on the bus next to an older woman in civilian clothes. From what I gathered, she was a retired lieutenant colonel, working for the DoD. There were high-ranking medical officers everywhere, captains, majors, and colonels, who all seemed to know each other. Surgical teams often travel in small groups together. We waited on the idling bus for our Kuwaiti police escorts to arrive. The flight was scheduled to depart around 2300 hrs (11:00 p.m.). It was still afternoon, and we had plenty of time to sit and wait. An hour passed before our driver arrived and sat behind the wheel. Groans of impatience increased with the approaching dusk. Police escorts pulled to the front by evening, and we were soon off.

Our destination was the Kuwait International Airport. The buses drove for about an hour under the glowing moon and plethora of stars. We passed through several gates and checkpoints, soon reaching an offsite gated area of large tents and trailers, surrounded by rocky sand hills. We rose with our carry-ons, prepared for the next stop on our temporal journey, perhaps the last before we finally boarded the plane. Once inside the brightness of the tent, we found rows of chairs, bottled water, and multiple charging stations. I found a seat and opened my wrapped lunch. It was a weird combination of tortilla shells, packets of peanut butter & jelly, and a tiny can of beans & rice, everything just like Mom used to make. I wasn’t a few bites into my tortilla PB&J before another roll call commenced and we were told to line up outside.

The Flight NCO and Fight Commander are thankless roles designated at random by rank. Two passengers, an NCO and an officer, are selected to maintain accountability of the group throughout the duration home. There’s some work involved, and in a group of sergeant majors and high-ranking officers, everyone wants to take charge. We formed a line outside the tent and waited in the arid night heat. Sweat pilfered on my forehead and down my back as I stood in full uniform, wearing my patrol cap and grimy mask. I had heard that we would be required to wear masks the entire duration of the flight. It seemed excessive, but we were lucky to be flying at all, given all the pandemic-related travel restrictions.

The gate opened, and we boarded the idling buses once again to take us to the runway. It was the moment everyone had been waiting for. We weren’t quite home, but we were getting somewhere, like waiting for a coleslaw wrestling match before the girls come out. The buses drove for a few miles and soon reached a mammoth plane that read Omni Air International. We hurried off the buses and lined up at the stairwell of the plane with its whirring turbines. The Flight NCO counted as we climbed the stairs to the plane. Inside, there were three separate rows of seats to choose from, stretching far and wide. Keeping with tradition, I moved around several times before settling on a window seat near the front.

A bustle of activity continued for a good twenty minutes until everyone was seated and ready for the long flight ahead. The back of each seat had a small TV screens with plenty of entertainment. Larger screens up front displayed our location and flight tracker. Our first scheduled stop was in Ireland, with an estimated arrival time of seven hours. There were six flight attendants on hand, and our free flight looked ready to go. The plane taxied down the runway and eventually took off into the night, leaving Kuwait behind.

Shortly after takeoff, masked flight attendants wheeled out food and drinks. They’d float past anyone sleeping, so I made a concerted effort to wake up whenever they were near. The quiet, darkened plane flew steadily over Europe as we slept. Some hours later, I opened my window shade and saw a bright sky, radiating majestic blue. Thick, rolling clouds reflected the orange glare of the sun. My watch was still set for the UAE, and I had no idea what time it was. The flight tracker screen showed us steadily approaching Ireland. At last, I could hit the pub!

We landed safely at the Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland. An approximate wait time of two hours was announced over the intercom, so that they could clean the plane and switch out flight crews. We exited the plane and occupied a largely empty terminal in the early morning. I approached the windows overlooking the runway and was taken in by the lush green fields in the distance. Trees swayed in the outside breeze with a serene tranquility that reminded me of home. There was an open souvenir shop between the many gates that sold everything Irish, along with snacks and beverages. I considered breaking away from the monotony to catch the nearest train to Dublin but soon perished the thought. My adventures through Ireland would have to wait for another day.

The two restrooms located within the terminal were quickly mobbed, leading to an orchestra of flushing toilets. I walked the long stretch, sending messages back home via airport WiFi. After strolling through the terminal for a bit, I found a row of chairs near our gate and sat. It was Saturday, August 30th, and we still had a lengthy quarantine awaiting us. A year away from home can be a long time. People change and move on. You find yourself behind on all the latest crazes and fads. I had planned on doing an ice bucket challenge upon my return, only to hear that its popularly had waned. What a gyp.

We soon re-boarded the plane and found our seats, ready for the final haul to the US. There was another stop in Baltimore, where around half the passengers were expected to get off. The rest of us would push forward to CRC, Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas. I rested with my headphones on and rocked out as we flew over the Atlantic. We arrived in Baltimore, disoriented from the constant time zone changes. More confusion followed, as we were told by the flight crew to leave the plane, go through customs, and return in an hour.

Our exploits through the Baltimore airport mirrored the climactic scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, where Pee-Wee rides his beloved bicycle through the Warner Brother’s studio lot, being chased by security guards. Remember that scene? Well, good. We wandered the premises, searching for customs, only to be re-directed back to the plane. We boarded after an hour of waiting and readied ourselves for the final stretch. As our flight departed, various questions loomed. What would our quarantine entail? Would we have our own cushy rooms in the barracks for the two-week duration? Could we take up painting, and would there be room service? Only time would tell.

We arrived at the El Paso International Airport in the late afternoon on same day. From Kuwait, it had been roughly a sixteen-hour trip. We filed off the plane and down the stairwell to the open runway. A line of buses and a box truck were parked to the side. I assumed, like many of us, that we were going to Fort Bliss, but they had other plans for us.

CRC cadre stood around with clipboards, taking names. I wasn’t on any of their lists, but they added me anyway. There were about fifty of us left. Some had traveled in groups or platoons from their respective companies. Others, like me, were traveling solo. We filled the buses, eager to reach our next destination, unclear as it was. Our bags were taken from the plane and loaded inside the box truck by runway personnel. With the distant mountains of El Paso in the horizon, I was far from home but drawing closer with each passing day.

The buses drove for over an hour, which was strange considering that Fort Bliss was only twenty minutes from the airport. There were plenty of training sites spread throughout the area, but our journey trended farther than anywhere I was familiar with. We eventually arrived at an isolated quarantine compound in New Mexico. The remote location had surprised just about everyone. Tents, trailers, and old Quonset huts like the ones seen on Gomer Pyle USMC littered the area. It was to be our temporary dwelling, and there wasn’t a Steak ‘N Shake in sight.

We herded off the buses and into the dry, dusty air. A National Guard unit was in charge of the site. Masked soldiers in latex gloves directed us to form up by alphabetical order. Makeshift lanes roped off with engineer tape stood near an enormous welcome tent. Guard soldiers took our names and checked our temperatures with forehead thermometers. Masks, they said, were required everywhere on the compound, as though we hadn’t been wearing them enough. It was no Super Mario Brothers, but we had to play the game. Any notions of residing in comfy Fort Bliss barracks soon diminished, but for a secluded quarantine site, phone signal was surprisingly strong.

A lengthy welcoming brief occurred inside the clamshell tent. We sat and viewed slides, explaining the rules of the camp and other general information. Boring. A female captain introduced herself as the Commander. She passed the microphone to her staff, and they explained more, with muffled mask voices. Each day, it was explained, we would be relegated to our barracks, approximately four huts, cordoned by engineer tape. Hot food would be delivered in thick plastic containers known as Mermites for breakfast and dinner. Lunch was MREs. Food delivery was also an option for fifty-dollar minimum orders. Males and females would share a restroom and shower trailer, and laundry would be collected and returned in forty-eight hour intervals. That was quarantine in a nutshell.

The situation was manageable. In addition to scheduled briefs and paperwork, nothing else was required of us, beyond lounging in our barracks, counting the days. Cadre would arrive twice daily to record our temperatures and also escort those interested to the “gym” and computer lab at certain times. That was the routine. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere on our own. We were to be contained like wild animals in the midst of a pandemic. Once inside our huts, I was disappointed but not surprised to see twin-sized beds lining both sides of our dome-shaped villa, twelve or so in all. I had been spoiled with a single room in the UAE and stood flummoxed at the lack of privacy before us.

There were doors at both ends of the hut and no windows. The sandy concrete floor was a reminder of our surroundings. Everything was sandy. We had sand in our clothes and gear. I could feel it in my teeth. I dreamt in sand. I chose a bed somewhere in the middle, sandwiched between two soldiers. We each had power outlets, which was good. There was a bespectacled, quiet sergeant to my left and a short and stocky sergeant first class to my right from Alabama. Everyone else filled the other huts inside our roped off perimeter, and we soon settled in before the bag truck arrived later that evening. I was eager to reunite with my bags, so I could change out of uniform and relax. We were officially on Day One of quarantine, which left thirteen more days surrounded by the same faces, every waking hour.

We emerged outside, shrouded in darkness, and walked toward the rumbling box truck parked in the dirt road. The bags were unloaded and placed in rows. I kept a watchful eye out for my duffel and rucksack, unable to relax until I had them in hand. We took our bags inside and prepared for bed as seasoned soldiers grumbled about the stupidity of everything. “Stuck with these jokers for two weeks,” I thought. “I’d better get used to it.” The mask mandate followed us wherever we went. We’d been instructed to wear them inside the hut, but that was disregarded in moments. I changed into shorts and a T-shirt and awaited the opportunity to shower. The leadership had designated different times for males and females. With ten showers between fifty people, it was bound to be an ordeal. By midnight, I snagged a coveted spot. The water was still warm, so I had no cause for complaint.

A line of huts ran behind our perimeter, filled with different arrivals from other places. It was the military’s way of keeping us distanced and, as far as they knew, limiting any potential spread of the virus. A lot of work had gone into making us miserable, but we were almost done. I lay upon the thin mattress within its wooden frame, surrounded by a crescendo of snores. My bags rested neatly on the dirty ground. My cell phone sat charging atop one of the metal footlockers placed next to each bed. I drifted to sleep, thinking that the place wasn’t that bad, once we got used to it.

We woke up around six in the morning for breakfast. I exited our hut at sunrise to see a vast desert terrain of orangish sand, patches of weed, scattered rocks, and power lines for miles. The mountains stretched outward in the distance, appearing as near illusions of depth. A water tower stood in view, near unpaved roads, where vehicles traveled with dust trails in their wake. I saw contractors building additional tent structures across from us, seemingly expanding the base.

Breakfast arrived in Mermite containers filled with scrambled eggs, sausage patties, waffles, hash browns, and grits. They dropped off juice, coffee, cases of water, disposable food trays, utensils, apples, oranges, muffins, and paper plates. There were ketchup packets too. We scheduled food serving and bathroom cleanup details within our the group to keep things orderly and efficient, but it wasn’t without its share of incidents. A high-ranking female officer insisted on having trash bags taped over the urinals, blocking their usage. The males would see this when cleaning the latrine and tear them off. Before we knew it, they were back again. The petty battle continued over a few days, and I remained neutral as the bags eventually remained.

The so-called gym was available twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Cadre would escort us to a dirt mound in the middle of a running track, where we could use equipment stored inside mobile gym BeaverFit units. The two containers had benches, weights, mats, barbells, and a bunch of other crap. I started working out with the guy from Alabama who slept next to me. He was nice and personable, but he was also particularly fond of squats. He was prior infantry and pushed me hard. By the end of our third day, my legs were Jell-O. I started exercising on my own, though it was always tempting to just lounge around and run the clock out. One guy in our room slept all day for the entire two weeks, only getting out of bed to eat.

Our scheduled briefings continued, with a litany of paperwork and additional requirements for out-processing. We were never short of some random certificate or records printout. The laptops in the welcome tent ran painfully slow and could take an entire hour just to upload one document. Most days had the same routine. We woke up, ate breakfast, exercised, did temperature checks, laid in bed, ate lunch, attended a briefing, used the computer lab, ate dinner, did a second temperature check, laid in bed some more, took showers, and then went to sleep. Dear diary, guess what I did today. The answer was always the same.

I reactivated my phone service and was quickly inundated with junk calls and spam messages. There were some cold days and nights in the desert, albeit brief. When it was hot, there was no refuge from the blaring sun beyond the barracks. We endured a few merciless sandstorms that battered down our outdoor canopy. It was an unusual redeployment in a most unusual year, a microcosm of order among the chaos. Our quarantine reached its celebrated end on a quiet Saturday morning. We cleaned the barracks and latrine and brought our bags out to be loaded. We were soon led down the road toward buses to take us to Bliss. We each had memorandums stating that we had completed quarantine and were officially COVID free. It was a victorious end to a routine undertaking.

A lengthy bus ride followed through New Mexico and toward civilization. On base, we would have pavement at our feet, stores, dining facilities, rooms, and single bathrooms. Bliss also had a huge shopping plaza with restaurants and a movie theater, but there was no telling if anything would be open. Of course, recreation was the least of our concerns. We desired nothing more than to breeze through out-processing and get our plane tickets home. Arriving on base, I saw the same indistinguishable buildings, motor pools, and old warehouses that I had seen the year prior, mere weeks after the El Paso Walmart shooting in August 2019. The base itself was massive and easy to get lost in, especially when everything looked the same. A grand mountain ridge loomed past the base between El Paso and Juarez.

Our buses parked outside the four-story CRC building, where uniformed staff stood outside, waiting for us. We formed up and were welcomed by their First Sergeant. He introduced some of the staff and explained the daily formation times, without offering a definitive schedule for the week. We were dismissed to sign for rooms and bring our bags in. The official process wouldn’t start until Monday, which was a real kick in the teeth. We lined up inside the first floor of the building to get our room assignment and fresh bundle of linen. Inside my spacious room, on the second floor, I found two bunkbeds, four wall lockers, and one dude slumbering away. I took my bags to the corner of the room and staked my claim. I then went outside to make some calls home, arranging my pickup from the Orlando, whenever it was supposed to be.

When I returned to my room, I found my previously sleeping roommate packing to leave. I didn’t want to get too excited, but the prospect of having the entire room to myself thrilled me. He left without so much as a grunt, declaring our joint tenure at an end. I unpacked and made my bed while pondering my plans for the day. A DFAC visit was in order for lunch, followed by some extensive lounging. The only thing that I needed to keep track of were formations. In the meantime, I could build a bed fort or jump around the room in a moronic flurry, if needed.

The following week was standard redeployment fare. We had our daily formations and then dispersed in a mad dash to get everything completed. Buses transported us to the Soldier Readiness Processing Center (SRPC) building, where out-processing was initiated. We completed health screenings, vision, immunizations, legal, finance, and administrative briefs with plenty of paperwork to follow. By Wednesday, I had completed everything required but still didn’t know exactly when we would leave Bliss for good. It was the million-dollar question on everyone’s mind.

Our final packets were signed, stamped, and completed Wednesday evening, and with it came our long-awaited flight itineraries. I had a Thursday morning flight to Orlando. The news caused me to summersault and backflip through the parking lot, spraining my anklet. I hobbled up the stairs to my room, promising to never get that excited again. I packed my bags and turned in early for the big travel day ahead. Our lengthy confinement hadn’t proved so bad after all. It was like that George Harrison album, “All Things Must Pass.” Truer words were never spoken, until Ringo Starr’s album, “Ringo,” shortly followed.

Thursday morning came, and I brought my bags to the outside curb, awaiting the shuttle van. I checked my paperwork to ensure that everything was in order and that I had the correct flight time. A van arrived with plastic over the seats and a hanging divider between the front and back. I arrived at the airport gate to find every other seat near the gate blocked off for social distancing and suicide booths on-hand for those fed up with it all. At the time, there was barely anyone else around, but as it got closer to departure, masked crowds swarmed. The plane arrived on time, and we boarded without issue, the only issue being my designated seat in the middle next to an empty window seat. I switched over as the plane taxied down the runway and took off with gusto.

The flight touched down sometime in the afternoon. Passengers exited the plane in a lumbering fashion and splintered off once we emerged from the gate. I was happy enough to arrive and ready to unwind. I had ditched my apartment in Orlando the year prior and would be staying with my Dad and Stepmom in Palm Bay, for the time being. The Orlando International Airport was the same as I had remembered. The dated green carpets and scuffed tiles beyond the gates remained a blissful sight. The old monorails were still in operation, taking passengers to and from the main terminal. The mayor’s pre-recorded greeting still rang over the intercom.

I retrieved my bags from the carousel and headed outside into the warm, dense air. My brother picked me up outside the Main Arrival terminal. He drove me home as we discussed all the latest. The UAE mission was over, and I was ready to go to Disney World, if they were open. I had hoped that everything would go back to normal once I returned, but pandemics don’t start and stop at our convenience. I would need to hunker down like everyone else and join the ranks of dissolution. Above all, I felt the same way I had upon returning from previous deployments. There was no country I would rather live in, and I was fortunate to be home.

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