Friday, September 16, 2011

How To Spot A Bavarian

When I was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, my friends and I would often spend our off days in Munich. It was only a 40- or 60-minute train ride away and there was a lot to see and do in and around the city. One of our favorite places to stop for a meal and some beer was the world-famous Hofbräuhaus.

One Spring afternoon, my friend, Tom, and I found ourselves at the Hofbräuhaus for lunch. It was early in the day, so the place was relatively empty. We ate by ourselves at one of the large tables in the back of the large room.

As we were enjoying our meal, a man came and sat with us. He introduced himself and told us he was an air traffic controller at one of the nearby Luftwaffe bases. He spoke English a lot better than we spoke German, and we found ourselves conversing in a mish-mash of the two languages.

As a topic of conversation, he mentioned he could readily tell if people were Bavarian or not. The trick, he said, was to "Prost" when someone at the table got their beer. This meant to hold up our beer mugs and shout "Prost" or "Cheers" to the other person. If they responded in kind and "clacked" their mugs against ours, that was a sure sign they were Bavarian.

After he told us this, a couple sat at our table. They looked a little out of place, glancing about like they were somewhat nervous in an unfamiliar environment. When their beer was delivered by the server, our new friend raised his mug and shouted "Prost." Tom and I followed his lead in kind. The couple stared at us like we were from Mars.

He asked the couple where they were from. It turned out they were visiting from Frankfurt. They were certainly not Bavarian.

A little while after that couple drank their beer and left, another couple with their teenage son took sat at our table. When they got their beer, we "Prosted" them. They looked a little taken aback, lifted their mugs and said "Cheers." They weren't Bavarians, but they got the idea. They were tourists visiting from Australia.

The next group was a bunch of young-ish looking people - perhaps college age. When we "Prosted" them, they got up and moved to another table. "They are not Bavarian," our new friend told us in a confident tone. He was probably right.

We sat around and talked for quite a while before the next group sat down. It was an older gentleman with a middle aged man and woman and a couple older kids; again, maybe college age. When they got their beer, the turned to us and shouted "Prost!" We three looked at each other and smiled. Yes, here were finally some Bavarian folk spending some time at the Hofbräuhaus. Our German friend queried the man where he was from, and the man replied that they were from a nearby town and had come to Munich to shop.

Our cultural lesson for the day was learned. We now knew how to tell if someone was Bavarian.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Epic Moving Failure Story

I'm acquainted with Dan and Alison Zarrella though my association with the PubCon web marketing conference and have been following their comments on Twitter about their recent cross-country move. Today, Alison made a couple mentions of things which were damaged by the moving company they hired to tote their stuff. I tweeted back that I could certainly sympathize with her plight, given one moving experience I had which was one gigantic mess. As I tweeted certain parts of the story, I realized it certainly warranted more than just a few less-than-140-character comments. Alison agreed, so here it is in all it's insane glory.

I was stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas in 1992. I'd just finished up a tour in the Middle East as part of Desert Storm with the 3rd Armored Cavalry and came down on orders for Germany. This was my first move as a married man, and also the first time my wife and son had been part of a military family move overseas. We were quite looking forward to the experience.

We lived on the bottom floor of the middle building
here on Parseval Strasse.
My orders stated there was no family housing available in Darmstadt, the city where I was ordered to go. Because of that, I went first, leaving my wife and son to wait until I could get an apartment. Of course, bureaucracies being what they are, I found on my arrival there was plenty of housing. I got a very nice apartment in a building leased by the government in the nearby town of Griesheim. It was a great location, off away from all the "Army" stuff, yet very conveniently located.

Of course, my wife and I wanted to get everyone together as quickly as possible, so then came the mad dash to get the house packed up and shipped over to Germany so my wife and son could fly over and join me.

My wife had never undertaken quite such as task as dealing with "professional" movers. On the appointed day, a legion of packers swarmed the house to wrap, box up, crate and haul off everything we owned. When they were done, there was nothing left except three suitcases full of clothes.

Items shipped in those days were divided into two categories:

  1. Hold Baggage, which consisted of things needed right after moving into a new place. This would include things like kitchenware, bedding, seasonal clothing, small appliances and stuff like that. These items were sent via air freight.
  2. Household Goods, which included furniture and other large items and things which wouldn't be needed right away. These items were crated, sent via ship and then trucked to their final destination. 
When I moved into our apartment, I got some loaner furniture from the Army and set up our home. The hold baggage arrived soon after it was shipped and things started looking more like "our place." The move was going quite smoothly up to this point, but we were soon to hit some major bumps in the road.

Namely, our hold baggage was a long time in coming. What was customarily a wait of several weeks turned into several months. Every time I called the Transportation Office to find out what was going on, I was told they couldn't find my stuff. I finally ended up contacting my Mother-in-Law who worked in the Family Travel Office at Fort Bliss to see if she could contact the right people and find our stuff.

Household Goods Crate #1
She managed to locate one of the two crates into which our things had been packed. It was sitting in a warehouse in Bremerhaven, Germany. That crate was delivered to us within a week of her tracking it down. This had our brand new kitchen table - or at least the top part of it. The legs and the hardware to put it together was missing - presumably in the other, as yet unfound, crate. 

In one box we found our television set. It was a very nice Zenith 18-inch diagonal color model. At least that's what it was before it made the trip from El Paso to Germany in a box packed with a rake and a cinder block. Yes, you read that right: the T.V. was packed in a 5-foot long box with a rake and a cinder block ... oh, and a warehouse club-sized canister of powdered drink mix. Needless to say, it wasn't in working order when it arrived. (The lady at the claims office demanded I get an estimate for repairing the TV before she would process my claim. I ended up having to take the thing to her, pieces in a box, before she would believe it was unrepairable.) Most of our dishes and glassware was broken, too. They were merely stacked in a box with no paper wrapping, padding or anything else in the way of protection.

I'm happy to report, though, that the rake was completely undamaged and the cinder block only received a few minor scratches in transit.

Believe it or not: all the stuff in our junk drawer, including the envelope we kept coupons in, was neatly wrapped in bubble wrap. All of our markers, pens and miscellaneous stuff from that drawer made the move unscathed.

Our mattresses and bed frames arrived, but no headboards. The boy's toys made it, mostly in good condition. There were other odds and ends, including my guitar which was broken even though it was in a case and packed inside another box.

Oh, and half my CD collection was also in this crate. I had them in two of those faux wood three-drawer units alphabetized by artist name. A-M made arrived, but N-Z were missing. Half my VHS movie collection was also unaccounted for. We held out hope they were in the other crate.

Household Goods Crate #2
The other crate was a long time in coming. We'd just about given up on it when I got a call at work one day with the news it had been found. It turns out this crate was on a ship which had been loaded up with supplies for the troops who were operating in Somalia at the time. The situation there caused the ship to be parked in the harbor off Mogadishu for six months. When the ship was finally released, it went on to Germany to drop off my, and presumably others', crates.

When the shipment finally arrived it was quite a welcome sight. Well, at least most of it. The packers in El Paso had been so efficient, they packed up the wastebasket from the kitchen - along with the trash inside of it. You can't imagine the small that issued forth from the box when it was unsealed. This was also carefully wrapped in bubble wrap.

The legs to the kitchen table were in the crate, but the hardware was still missing. Unfortunately, the nuts and bolts designed to hold it together were some custom made ones and irreplaceable (believe me, I tried to find some).  

Also missing were the CDs and VCR tapes along with several other high-value items. These were presumably stolen by the packers back in Texas as I later found that company lost their government contract because so many complaints were lodged against them.

In the end, I ended up with a huge mess and a check for $4500 to cover the damages. 

The Good News
When we moved back to the States, we had no damage and no loss. Even the antique china cabinet we got in Germany arrived unscathed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Debt Free Vacation Story

As many of you know, Jen and I are big fans of Dave Ramsey. Earlier this Spring, the folks who run his web site were asking for Debt-Free Vacation stories. Here's ours ...

I wanted to visit my mom in Michigan this summer. Of course, we planned to "pay as we go." We budgeted some money for the trip and opted to drive since it would have been way too pricey to fly all three of us to fly there.

All went well as we departed in my pre-owned 2005 Ford Taurus (which, by coincidence I paid cash for just like Dave talks about in his Financial Peace University class). Jen and I and #3 son headed northeast on our 1106 mile trek.
Jen and I At Financial Peace Plaza
We spent the night in Nashville on the way. On the second day of the trip, we stopped at Financial Peace Plaza to take our picture in front of the sign. We'd have stopped in, but it was Sunday and the place was closed. No problem, we'll come back another time and visit.

Our first problem came in Sidney, Ohio. As we zipped along, I reading a book aloud and Jen driving and listening to her MP3 player, we realized we had a flat. "A mere inconvenience," we reassured ourselves as we pulled off the highway and into a gas station parking lot. We unloaded the trunk, pulled out the spare and realized we were in more trouble than we thought.

I was smart enough to have the car serviced before we left. I had my mechanic give it the once-over and make sure it was as ready as it could be. I also checked the tires, to include making sure the spare was fully inflated. What I failed to check was whether there were also a jack and lug wrench under that spare tire. It's hard to change a tire without both of those items.

Important life lesson: If you buy a used car, make sure it comes with a jack and lug wrench or negotiate a lower price accordingly.

Ah, but we have roadside assistance coverage as part of our auto policy. A quick call to the insurance company and help was on the way. I was slightly embarrassed to admit I didn't have the right tools to take care of the problem at hand, but it was better to swallow my pride a little and ask for help so we could get back on the road.

We also realized that we'd have to cover the last 200 miles or so of our journey at 50 miles per hour on that donut spare. That wasn't going to work out well. What to do to get a new tire on a Sunday afternoon in small-town Ohio? Go to Walmart! We called the local Walmart, which was only a couple miles away, and made arrangements to get a new tire. (You can read the details of that part of the trip on my other blog.)

We made it to mom's just a couple hours later than expected. No problem, since we really weren't on a schedule.

We had a great week visiting folks, eating all the Detroit delicacies not available in Texas like Coney Island hot dogs, White Castle hamburgers, breakfast at Tim Horton's and dinner at our favorite Polish restaurant. For everything we paid cash. This vacation was not going to follow us home.

After a week we left to head back to Texas. We stopped in Battle Creek to have brunch with an old friend from my Army days. We also tried to meet up with another friend in Indianapolis; but, unfortunately he had to work. Our only plan for the trip home (other than to get there safely) was to stop at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee. Jen and I try to make a pilgrimage at least every other year because she's a big fan.

After spending the night in Arkansas (and having dinner at quite possibly the worst Wendy's restaurant I've ever been to), we got up early and headed to Graceland. We parked, took some pictures at the gate, went through some of the gift shops and got our free poster from checking in on Foursquare. No time for tours, though, we needed to get home.

As we passed into Texas we were in the home stretch (or, at least as much a home stretch as you get driving across Texas. For those of you who've never been here, it's a BIG state). About 60 miles west of Texarkana we ran into another snag. Again, I was reading aloud and Jen was listening to her MP3 player when she noticed some white smoke coming out of the rear area of the car. Since it is an older car, it could have been anything. I suggested we stop at the next gas station to to investigate the cause.

We didn't make it.

At the very next exit, almost literally in the middle of nowhere we lost all power. We coasted off a handy exit and stopped dead. The engine was running, but there was no power to the wheels. A quick check of the dip stick confirmed my suspicions: the transmission was dead. There wasn't a drop of fluid in the thing - it was all over the road and the back of the car.

Another dilemma was at hand. A dilemma which lead to another call to our insurance company for assistance. At least this time it wasn't due to my lack of foresight in making sure we had the right tools. Given my lack of prowess with tools, I certainly wasn't going to MacGyver a solution to this problem.

A state trooper stopped to check on us and was kind enough to tell us where we were. I mean, there were no signs at all, no town, no nothing. All I was able so surmise was that we were on the westbound service road of I-30 somewhere between Texarkana and Dallas - not too exact a measurement. The insurance company was also able to get my location off my phone. Ain't technology grand?

Then we heard the peals of thunder. It hadn't rained in Texas since March and there we were in a thunderstorm. Water pelted down as the tow truck arrived. I mean, this wasn't some Spring drizzle; huge drops were falling from the sky. The driver offered us shelter in his truck as he expertly hitched up our stricken vehicle.

It was quite a sight, I'm sure. There were three adults sitting across the bench seat of the F-250 tow truck. The two who weren't driving had an adult-sized teenager sitting on their knees, his head resting in his hands with his forehead pressed against the windshield and elbows propped up on the dashboard.

We made the 15 or 20 miles to the Ford dealer in Mount Pleasant, Texas in short order. The driver dropped the car at the service department's night dropoff and then took us to an Applebee's where we could wait for Jen's sister to rescue us. Since she lives hear Austin we had to wait 5 hours for her to get there. We're very grateful she was willing to take 10 hours out of her day (and night) off to come fetch us.

The people at the Applebee's were very nice. They referred to us as "That Stranded Family" and made sure we were kept well lubricated with Cokes and Arnold Palmers and that we had enough to eat. #3 son and I played Monopoly on the iPad to pass the time while Jen read and watch some countdown program on the NFL Channel. It was a wonderful family time.

Jen's sister arrived around 10 PM. We finally got home around 3 AM. Thankfully, the next day was Independence Day so we didn't have to go to work.

When I talked to the people at the Ford dealer's service department, they told me the torque converter blew out after the main seal failed and all the transmission fluid leaked out. This pretty much confirmed what I suspected. We opted to have the entire transmission replaced with a factory rebuilt one. This made sense as we are planning to keep the car for a while.

For the cost of the transmission, I could have flown us all up to Michigan first class. Thankfully, Jen and I were in the process of saving our 4-6 months emergency fund and were able to pay cash for the transmission. The vacation was not going to follow us home! Still, it was hard to part with the money we worked hard to save. But, that's what an emergency fund is for.

All in all, though, it was still a great trip. We had fun, visited with lots of friends and family, went to see things you don't get to see here in Texas. Best of all, we won't be losing any sleep worrying about paying the bill for it.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Tribute To Mark

My cousin, Mark Wheeler, passed away yesterday  at age 48 after a long fight with cancer. He is the latest victim in a line of those taken from my family by cancer. His mom passed just a month ago.

Mark was a police officer for many years with the Livonia Police Department in suburban Detroit. I think that's what he was born to do. As a kid he was always interested in law enforcement. I remember listening to his mom and my mom talking around the kitchen table once when I was quite young (maybe in junior high). She remarked how he was never much interested in sports. She related an incident to my mom where some kids from the neighborhood came to the door to see if Mark wanted to get in on a game of pickup baseball.

"No, he's watching T.V. and doesn't want to play."

"Oh, yeah, the Tigers are playing today. Is he watching the game?"

"No, he's watching 'Emergency.'"

That was Mark. When we were kids, his sister Cheryl and I sometimes would get angry at him because he was often bossy and (to us as kids) rather overbearing. Looking back on that now, I can see it's just the way he was wired. That part of his personality is what helped make him a good cop. He was a police officer, not by career but because that was what he just was. It's a kind of a zen thing which my brother-in-law Chad used to say was why he was a firefighter. Perhaps this is a common trait amongst those who aspire to public service.

Don't get me wrong, he wasn't mean or hateful. He was, however, tough and didn't tolerate nonsense very well. He was certainly a "take charge" kind of guy.

And he was good at what he did. Although we didn't keep in close touch, I did follow his career through letters and conversations with my mom and others. Although we didn't serve in the same way, I respected him greatly for being a part of a uniformed service. Police and military are somewhat similar in many ways.

Although he may not have been interested in team sports, he was an avid sportsman. He was always out hunting and fishing. I remember as a kid he and his dad used to go elk hunting in Canada. He always had a good retriever dog, too. Shadow was the one I remember most.

Once when I was home on leave while stationed in Germany with the Army, Mark and I made arrangements to have lunch with our Uncle Dennis in Downtown Detroit. Since Mark knew where we were going, he agreed to drive. I remember we were blasting down I-96 toward Detroit at a high rate of speed, Mark expertly weaving in and out of traffic. "Mark, we're going to be early, you can slow down a bit." "Hey, this is just the way I drive. Force of habit." I still chuckle at that.

Mark, you will be remembered by those who love you. Rest in peace.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My Favorite Memory of Aunt Leola

My Aunt Leola passed away recently. She was a wonderful lady, vivacious and full of life. She will be greatly missed. Here's one of my favorite memories of her:

One summer when I was about 12, my Mom and my Aunt Leola planned a trip from the Detroit Area to Sea World, just outside Cleveland, Ohio. One afternoon my, Mom, my brother and my four cousins loaded up in Aunt Leola's Buick Roadmaster station wagon and made our way south and east to the wilds of Cleveland.

We headed down the Ohio Turnpike, the Roadmaster expertly piloted by Aunt Leola. All was going well and we were having a great start to a great vacation. That is, until Aunt Leola turned to my mom and said, "Rosie, it's getting really dark and I'm having trouble seeing." The trouble was, the sun was setting, but it really wasn't all that dark yet.

Aunt Leola turned on the headlights, leaned forward and seemed to be peering out into the dark. She said, "Rosie, I'm not kidding. I can't hardly see a thing." My cousin Mark and I looked at each other. He looked worried, and I was started to get worried.

"Rosie, I must be having a stroke or something. I really can't see anything. I'm going to pull over so you can drive." As she said this, she turned to look at my mom.

"Leola! You've got your sunglasses on! No wonder you can't see."

She took her sunglasses off, and all was well again.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Desert Storm - Postlogue

Finally, back to "The World," back to life as we knew it. We were reunited with friends and family, back in our homes and our warm beds with clean sheets. Well, at least I got to my warm bed after I found an apartment and bought a bed.

The first order of business was to take some leave time and head up to Michigan to visit family and friends there. I had a great visit, and even got my name and picture in the Downriver weekly. I went to my sister's school (the same grade school I went to) to thank her class and the other kids for all the wonderful support they gave us. It was a very nice time spent with the kids. The reporter from the newspaper came to the school so we could do an interview when I was done visiting with the kids. It was very strange, though, being welcomed home as a "hero." I certainly didn't feel all that heroic. I was just doing the job I signed up for. Still, it was all very nice.

It took several weeks for our equipment to get back from the Middle East, so much of our time was spent taking it easy. For the first few weeks, we worked half days. We'd spend about 2 hours in the gym in the morning working out and running. Afterwards we'd go into the office to do paperwork. At lunchtime we took the rest of the day off.

On those afternoons, I went to the Sun City Amateur Radio Club (K5WPH) and put the club's radio station on the air. I made hundreds of contacts during that time. It was a great opportunity to practice my Morse code skills, and I managed to get up to about 10 words per minute or so. I could never seem to crack the level so I could upgrade my license, though. It was still a blast being back into my radio hobby.

We had a Military Affiliate Radio Station (MARS) station assigned to our squadron while we were over there. I can't remember my call sign any more, but I joined Army MARS before the war started. Since I was already a member, it was pretty easy for me and our signal officer to get a station. It was a TenTec rig fitted inside a portable container along with an antenna kit and a small generator. We set the radio up at the airfield we ended up at in Iraq so the Squadron Commander could contact hams in El Paso to relay messages from people in the unit. I found it interesting that I wasn't allowed to use the thing since I was the one who got it for them in the first place.

Look! A Parade!
The people of El Paso had a huge celebration a few weeks after we returned. The entire Regiment, plus soldiers from the other units headquartered at Fort Bliss were invited to march in the parade. We marched down Montana Avenue from near the airport all the way to downtown El Paso. It was another great welcome home, though I think most of us would have rather been in a truck rather than walking that whole way. Still, it was great for the city to set that up.

Minor Adjustments
The first odd thing I did when I got back was on the first day back in the world. After emptying my friends' hot water tank for the third or fourth time taking a long, hot shower, I headed to the PX to pick up some stuff. As I walked in the store, I realized I had to pee. Without even thinking about it, I headed back outside to the parking lot. It was so natural just to walk outside and pee in the sand, that I didn't even catch myself until I got outside and realized it. I thought to myself, "Hey! I'm back in the world of porcelain and tile. What am I doing out here?" That would have been very embarrassing had I not caught myself.

I was out with some ham radio friends who had also been over there as part of one of the air defense units. We went to Denny's to drink coffee and tell lies. As the time to head home came, we all headed out to the parking lot to finish our conversations. As we were standing out there, a truck backfired on I-10 very loudly. We all had a good laugh as we crawled out from under someone's jacked up pickup. Even though I had never been shot at directly, the hyper-vigilance thing still kicked in.

Wrapping It Up
I thought I'd wrap up this series with some random memories which I didn't mention in previous installments.

Our sister platoon's Platoon Sergeant was a wise and learned man, especially in the area of air mobile operations. He had an uncommon accent, though, and sometimes was hard to understand. He had this word he would say instead of FUBAR or SNAFU when things were messed up. I didn't understand it until many years later when I was watching a Three Stooges short, "G.I. Wanna Go Home." Moe gets into a cab and tells the driver to go to an address on "Mishugina Avenue." THAT's what he was saying, "That's mishugina."

One of our number had a CD of Garth Brooks' "No Fences" which we often listened to in the evenings before going to sleep. When I got back, I found I had trouble sleeping so it occurred to me to get a copy of that CD and play it when I went to bed. The familiar songs helped me sleep.

Speaking of that CD: we made up lyrics to some of the songs on that CD to reflect the situation we were in. One line that sticks in my mind was "I'm shavin', shavin' with another guy." We did everything together, including shaving.

One of our group was describing how a septic system worked. Having lived in the city all my life, I found it rather interesting. Pondering on that thought, I came up with a urinal system using water bottles. Instead of peeing by our living areas, I buried these water bottle and duct tape monstrosities out away from our tent areas to keep the waste away from where we were living. It had mixed success.

It's always interesting to meet with others who were there at the time and exchange stories (read: lies). In 1993 I met a Lieutenant in the Czech Army who was the personal Chemical Defense Officer for one of the Saudi Princes. He said his duties were mainly to be in the Prince's retinue and travel around with him. He said it was interesting, but not very exciting.

This is part 19 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Desert Storm - Homecoming

It was such a relief to arrive back at the port of Dhahran safe and sound. We were back sleeping on cots in the relative comfort of a warehouse building within the port itself.

There was a lot of work to do to get the aircraft ready for their boat ride back to Texas. We had to uninstall and pack up the gear, fold the blades and shrink-wrap the entire body. I didn't get to participate in this operation when we prepared to leave for the Middle East because the aircraft were flown to the port and then prepared for the trip. It was a lot of hard work, but made much easier because we knew we were headed home soon.

From our vantage point at the dock, we could look north towards Kuwait and see the effect of the "scorched earth" policy instituted by the retreating Iraqi army. The oil field fires started as their troops retreated were still burning and sent dark, black smoke high into the sky. When the wind would blow our way, the sky would turn dark and gloomy and the smell of burning oil filled the air. If you've ever been near an oil refinery, think about that smell times ten.

Hot showers were the first order of the day upon arrival. We hadn't had a decent shower since we burned down the one we built when we moved up to the Iraqi border. I think I lathered up and rinsed off a dozen times during that first shower at the port. Almost hot water combined with real soap and shampoo and a clean uniform really boosted my morale. I remember soon after opening up my sleeping bag to get ready for bed and being hit with the most awful funk you can imagine. "This is horrible," I screamed, "Did I smell like THAT?" The sleeping bag went into a large plastic garbage bag and was summarily tossed into our shipping container. Without proper clothes washing facilities, there was no getting that kind of stench out of the fabric. It was warm enough to go without a sleeping bag for a time, so I didn't suffer at all. We had been issued some poncho liners, which were nice, quilted fabric that made a nice makeshift blanket. We dubbed these items "Wobbies" after the kid's blanked in "Mr. Mom."

The U.S.S. Tarawa was docked at the port and was open to visitors to shop in their exchange. I would have loved a tour, but there was a limited area open to the "public." Even as a "smaller" aircraft carrier and Marine assault ship, it was huge.

The Scounger, always at work, wangled some invitations for us to dine on the ship which was to carry our aircraft back to the U.S. That was the first real home-style meal we had since Christmas. I don't remember much about it other than it was very welcome and enjoyable. The crew were quite hospitable, except for one person. It may have been the cook. Still, one person didn't spoil our good time.

We were at the port a week or so when we got word we were to fly out soon. We lined up in formation in front of the warehouse we were sleeping in and told we were to be issued some desert camouflage uniforms to wear on the flight home and that we should shower at least twice before getting on the plane. These announcements were met with just a little derision. First, it seemed a little late to get uniforms we should have been issued before we left. Second, if anyone needed to be told to shower at this point, they should be dumped unceremoniously into the waters of the port! Certainly we would have noticed anyone still stinking, especially in light of how bad my sleeping bag smelled.

Homeward Bound
We were bussed to the airport and loaded up on a Pan-Am 747. I remember thinking about the hard time I once had with Pan-Am's customer service and swore I'd never fly them again. Of course, I put aside old grievances ... just this once. I would have been happy on the jump seat of a C-130 if it would take me back "to The World." The officers in our group were put in First Class upstairs behind the cockpit door. Of course, us enlisted and junior NCOs were relegated to steerage in the main cabin. That didn't matter much, our odyssey was almost at an end.

Our first stop on the way home was the airport in Rome, Italy. It was great to see the sites as we landed, and those were the only sites we would see there. We weren't allowed to leave the aircraft while it refueled in a special section of the airport set aside, I surmised, for flights bound to the U.S. from the Middle East. Italian soldiers were guarding that part of the airport, and some came on the plane to exchange insignia and patches as is often the custom when meeting members of other armed forces. They were an amiable bunch, though none of us understood what they were saying.

From there, we flew over France and England, north to make a half-circle cross of the North Atlantic. As the sun was beginning to set somewhere half-way across the ocean, Digger came downstairs. "Guys, you have to come upstairs and see this. The Old Dog is flying the plane," he told us in whispers. Of course, we had to see this.

It turns out the captain of our flight was an Air Force Vietnam vet. He and the Old Dog struck up a quick friendship talking about aviation during that era. He offered to let the Old Dog sit in the pilot seat for a time. Up we went and there he was, sitting in the left seat grinning from ear to ear. He wasn't really flying, of course. The co-pilot was on duty and the plane was on auto. His arms were folded as he turned to us and shouted, "Man, this is great!" I have no doubt, though, he could have flown the thing if he'd had a chance to really do so.

Rain Main Returneth
Sometimes you find a theme that runs through a part of your life. One of the themes running through our time in the Middle East was from the movie "Rain Man." I don't remember who started it, but one person did the Dustin Hoffman thing, imitating him doing Raymond in the movie saying something like, "Ten minutes to guard duty, gotta go to guard duty. In ten minutes, guard duty in ten minutes." From there most of us would do our impressions of that voice talking about the mundane things we had to do.

"Gotta wash my uniforms. Uniforms are dirty, gotta wash them. It's wash day. Thursday is wash day."

"Gotta do the pre-flight. Pre-flight checks are important."

And so on. It was way to add a little humor to the situation.

And the in-flight movie was ... "Rain Man." We laughed so much at this wild coincidence, and enjoyed the movie as we may never had enjoyed prior to this experience.

Not Again!
As we neared the East Coast of North America towards our next destination at JFK airport in New York City, the pilot told us over the intercom that we were running low on fuel and that we were going to land in Gander, Newfoundland to gas up. I don't know what it was about me and aircraft running low on fuel, but here was yet another instance. At least this time we knew where the airport was and that there was going to be fuel there.

We were in a Boeing 747, an aircraft which has the interesting characteristic of being able to carry more weight than can be physically fit in volume-wise. Because the plane was loaded to near it's max capacity and the runway at Gander isn't all that long, we were asked to assume crash positions because he was going to have to slam on the brakes as soon as we touched down.

And, he did. Of course, everything was fine. We slowed down and taxied to the end of the runway where the aircraft was topped off enough for us to get to New York. I remember it was snowing like crazy. Thankfully it wasn't enough to keep us from continuing on.

We had a layover of several hours in New York, so they let us off the plane. The area where we disembarked was roped off and we had the area to ourselves. I walked out towards the end of the concourse and saw, beyond the stanchions holding velvet ropes and the police, were dozens of people. They were holding signs reading "Welcome Home" and such. I was quite blown away by this.

There was a bank of phones along one wall with a large banner indicating they were there courtesy of AT&T and free calls to anywhere were available. I took them up on it, calling my mom, my girlfriend, my friends in El Paso who were babysitting my truck and I even called some friends in Germany just to see if the calls were really free. That was a great way to pass the time.

Finally Back Where We Started
We boarded the plane once again for the last leg of our flight to Biggs Army Air Field, Fort Bliss, Texas. We were all exhausted after being on the plane already for almost 24 hours. The jet lag was incredible and I think I slept the entire way until just before we landed.

Being part of a helicopter crew, I got to see quite a bit of the area around El Paso from the air. The anticipation was palpable as we neared the airport and saw so many familiar sights. The incredible adulation of returning home was indescribable. I know, at least for me, I couldn't wait to get off that plane and get into a bed. I was exhausted, and full of adrenaline at the same time.

Of course, we couldn't just get off the plane right away. Someone had to come on board to tell us about the pomp and circumstance of how we were to deplane, greet the post Commanding General, check in our weapons and gather our luggage. Yeah, yeah, whatever ... just let us off this plane!

As the briefings were coming over the plane's PA system, we all peered out the windows at the huge crowd gathered between the hangars. I thought the group gathered outside the concourse at Kennedy in New York was big. That was nothing compared to the hundreds of people cheering and waving signs of welcome. It was quite a reception.

When they finally started letting us leave the plane, we lined up in the aisles and shuffled out the door. The post commander was at the top of the stairs and shook the hand of each trooper as he or she walked out the door. The crowd was cheering and band was playing. It was rather like the scene at the end of the movie "Heartbreak Ridge" when Clint Eastwood and his "Marines" returned to Camp Lejuene after their trip to Grenada.

As I walked down the stairs, I didn't notice at first that The Old Dog was right behind me. You may remember I related the story of his homecoming from Vietnam in part 8 of this collection and hinted at the happy ending to this. As we got to the bottom of the stair and stepped onto the tarmac, The Old Dog put his hand on my shoulder and started at the crowed. He choked a little as he said very slowly, "Uncle B, this makes up for last time." I got a little choked up myself as he said this. Indeed, I still get a little "misty" when I think back on this event. I'm very glad he could come full circle and be welcomed home properly.

We went through the routine of checking in what we needed to check in and gathering up our stuff. Our platoon's office just happened to be in the hangar where the check in and baggage claim area had been set up. We made ourselves at home, sitting at our desks in the office we'd left just a few months before. They were exactly as we'd left them, except they were a little dustier. At one point an MP came in the office to chase us out until we convinced him it was our office and we weren't going anywhere.

My friends John and Jeanie picked me up and took me to their home to stay until I could find another apartment. On the way home, I got on their radio and let all my ham radio friends know that KB5NJU was back in town. It was a great welcome.

When we got to their house, I jumped into their shower and emptied their hot water tank. In fact, I think I did that for the next several days. Those were the best showers I think I ever enjoyed. You don't know how much you take things like hot water (or any running water for that matter), electricity, TV, etc. for granted until you don't have it for a while.

This is part 18 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Monday, May 02, 2011

Desert Storm - Back To Saudi

With the ground war wrapped up and the cease fire agreement signed, we were ordered to return to Saudi Arabia and set up camp near the Iraqi border where we spent the weeks leading up to the ground war. In order to allow those who were on flight status but didn't fly the regular missions to get their hours in, Slim, T.D. and I were assigned to drive back in a CUCV so the others could fly.

"CUCV" was the acronym for "Commercial Utility Carrying Vehicle" and was used to describe either a Chevrolet Blazer or a GMC Pickup Truck. Either model had an 8-cylinder diesel engine and an automatic transmission. These vehicles had supposedly been "toughened" to meet military specifications, but the only real differences I could see to differentiate them from their civilian counterparts was the paint job and the modification of the electrical system to accommodate the 24-volt radio systems.

During our time in the Middle East, I developed a taste for the MRE Ham Slice meal for breakfast. Even cold, it wasn't a bad way to start the day. It was a tasty thing after some lemon pepper seasoning had been sprinkled on top. Every time we opened a new box of MREs I tried to snag the ham slice meal for my next breakfast. Leading up to the convoy back to Saudi Arabia, I had collected four or five and stashed in a box in the back seat of the vehicle.

T.D. drove, I rode shotgun and Slim was in the back seat. The vehicle assigned to us was a dog. It would run just fine for several miles, and then the engine would stop unexpectedly. After sitting for several minutes, it could be started again and then run with no problems for a several more miles. The malfunction seemed to get worse as the day wore on. I wondered if the heat had something to do with it. This, as you can imagine, didn't work out well when driving in a long convoy.

As we made our first rest stop, I checked the back seat for one of my ham slices, only to find they were gone. Slim noticed I was looking for them and told me he'd thrown them out to some people we'd passed earlier in the morning. I was rather upset; first because I didn't have my favorite breakfast and second because he'd tossed them out to people whose religion forbade them from enjoying my favorite breakfast food. I'd have thought someone specially trained in Arabic language and culture would have thought of this.

Added to that the stress of this broken vehicle ... Of course, I have more colorful descriptions of it which I won't share in a family space. As the morning went on, we would end up at the back of the convoy because of the constant starting and stopping of the engine. The mechanics assigned to our convoy group would pour over the engine to try to figure out what was going on to no avail. In the past they had changed out the fuel filter, the fuel lines, and other assorted parts with no success. They were still stumped as to the cause and solution to it's woes.

When we caught up with the group at the lunch break, I was on my last nerve. I complained to whomever was around that the situation was totally unacceptable and that we should be allowed to ride in another vehicle and the thing we were assigned to should be blown up in place or towed back to our camp in Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, there were no seats in any other vehicles and the tow truck already had another vehicle hitched up to it.

One of the motor pool staff came up with an idea. They took a brass aircraft tie-down chain, hooked it up to the tie-down shackle on the driver-side front of our vehicle and attached the other end to a tie-down shackle on the back of a fuel HEMTT.

While not an ideal arrangement, it seemed better than the alternative to being stuck in the middle of the Iraqi desert waiting for someone to come back for us. (Does being stuck out in the desert sound familiar?)

The problem came as we were pulled along, at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour. Since the chain was attached at the "corner" of the vehicle, T.D. had to constantly steer to keep us behind the the towing truck. Because the engine wasn't running, this was hard to do because the power steering not operational. Stopping was even more problematic. The driver of the truck in front of us would often stop short, leaving T.D. to react quickly lest we smash into the back of fueler. Without the engine running and the power brakes working, he had to really stand on the pedal to get the vehicle to stop. There was more than one occasion we hit the back of the truck hard enough to slam us against our seat belts. The fact that it was a fuel truck towing us didn't make the situation any better, to be sure.

That's why I say this was probably the most dangerous part of the war. This whole situation was totally unsafe from the get go.

At one point, the driver side tie-down shackle was sheared off when the truck which was pulling us took off rather quickly. We attached the chain to the passenger-side shackle and kept on going until it soon pulled off, too. No one wanted to attach the chain to anything under the vehicle lest something would break to make the truck totally unrepairable. In my mind, it was past the point to worry about that.

So, there we were stuck someplace in the middle of nowhere, in the desert of Iraq. Dozens of vehicles passed us on the road and dozens more in the sands of the desert off the road, too. Even vehicles with a penchant for breaking down all the time were going past us under their own power (anyone remember the TACJAM?).

We would wave at the trucks as they passed. Every so often someone would stop to ask us what unit we were assigned to so they could report our location. I let them, figuring that the more people who knew about our plight the more likely someone would remember to come back to get us.

Finally, a tow truck stopped. They were from Support Squadron, the Muleskinners, a nickname hearkening back to the old days of the cavalry. A sergeant and his driver hopped out and offered to try to get us going. The sergeant climbed under the hood and started messing around with the fuel lines. I described what had been happening with the vehicle all day and the history of changing out just about the entire fuel system. His solution was to try to bypass the fuel filter as this may have been the cause of the problem.

As he was working on the engine, I was chain smoking. I was nervous about being stuck there and really wanted to get going again. The driver of the tow truck eyed me intently. "Hey Sergeant, can I have a smoke? I haven't had a smoke in two days."

"Sure," I replied, "have the rest of the pack. I have more."

While I was digging around in my duffel bag for another pack of smokes, Slim came up to me at the back of the truck. I don't remember his exact words, but he said something to me like, "I don't like what that guy is doing. I think he's making unauthorized repairs to the vehicle."

Now, I'm normally one to follow the rules and regulations. Under some circumstances, though, one has to look beyond the letter of the law and look to what is best in a given situation. Certainly the Army's rules about unauthorized repairs were not meant to prevent us from getting a safe location before sundown. I told Slim to keep his mouth shut and that I'd take the heat if anyone in authority made a big deal about it.

Unfortunately, the sergeant wasn't able to get the vehicle running again. He tried a few tricks, but nothing would get it going. I asked if he could tow us back to our camp.

"Well, I'd like to. But I'm the last guy in the last convoy in our Squadron. If I tow you back, I won't be able to tow one of my own vehicles back."

"Well, could you at least tow us along for now. You can unhitch and leave us if one of your vehicles breaks down. At least we'd be a little closer to where we need to be."

He pondered that, and eyed my cigarette. His driver had already given him a smoke out of the nearly full pack I'd given him earlier. Then it hit me - a trade!

"I'll tell you what. I'll give you an entire carton of smokes if you take me back to my camp. If you have to leave me on the way because one of your squadron's trucks breaks down that'll be OK. Just, please take us as far as you can."

He thought about that for about two seconds and agreed to the offer. That was the best trade I ever made. Thank you, Mom, for sending me smokes during that time. We've all wised up and quit since then, but at the time it was certainly a good habit to have.

It turned out that we had stopped only about 30 or so miles from our camp in Saudi Arabia. Thankfully, none of the other squadron's trucks broke down and we were towed the entire way back. We were reunited with our cohorts within a couple of hours, just before sunset. All was well with the world again.

Until the next morning, however. Our Troop Commander came by and told us he'd worked out a way to rig a chain to the truck again so we could continue on to the port. I told him in no uncertain terms (but with all military courtesy, mind you) that there was no way I nor anyone under my authority was going to do that again. I explained to him the problems we had and how unsafe the action truly was. I ended my speech on the topic with something like, "The war is over, there is no need to risk our lives over getting a broke down truck back home."

He didn't like that answer, so he sent the First Sergeant to try to reason with me. He and I saw eye-to-eye on the safety thing, but he was falling on the side of following orders. In my mind, this order was illegal (and pretty darn stupid) because of the risk to life and limb. I don't think I'm exaggerating the danger we really were in being towed that way.

Finally, our Lieutenant (and I think The Scounger) went and worked out a plan with the Captain. The dead truck was loaded up onto a flatbed trailer which had been brought in to take a few other broken down vehicles to the port. Off it went, to probably end up in a junk heap somewhere.

Thankfully, the last leg of our journey to the port was via helicopter. It was a pleasant, smooth flight.

Next - the trip home.

This is part 17 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Monday, April 11, 2011

Desert Storm - Wrapping Up The Ground War

Very early on the first morning after the cease fire, we were ordered to occupy an air field within the Regiment's area of operation. Now, my memory is a little fuzzy on the exact location, but I believe it is the Iraqi Airbase located near Jalibah, which is about 60 miles or so west of Al Basrah. We set up our camp on the far western end of the taxiway.

Rush Limbaugh used to say that the purpose of was was to "kill people and break things." Regardless of your opinion of the man, you have to admit to the truth of that statement. Truer words were never spoken and I was able to see a small part of this first hand.

Immediately evident was the destruction potential of U.S. cratering ordinance. Our aircraft were parked right next to a hole blasted into the taxiway. The hole was about 10 feet across and about 10 feet deep. Surrounding the hole were thousands of tiny scraps of metal, probably schrapnel left over from the cluster bombs which were dropped into the area. Asphalt had been thrown into the air and was scattered over a very wide area. There were dozens of these large holes all over the place, rendering the airfield pretty much unusable (except for rotary-wing aircraft). Considering most of Saddam's air force retreated to Iran and other nearby countries in the first days of the war, the airfield probably wasn't of much use anyway.

There were a few Iraqi aircraft left on the airfield. They were in an area which hadn't been cleared for unexploded ordenance, so we were forbidden from getting too close. From what I could see, they were trashed anyway. I imagine they were inoperative and stuck there when the air war started.

There were a number of tanks buried around the perimieter of the airfield; some quite close to where we parked our aircraft. Since spare parts for the older T-54/55 tanks were in short supply, it was common practice in the days before the war to dig a hole and park a tank in the hole. Once the tank was in place, they would pull the motor out and strip it of all parts not required to actually shoot the main gun. This turned the tank into an effective, expedient pillbox-type emplacement.

Other vehicles we saw were captured Iraqi ones. It was interesting to see tanks, armored personnel carriers, trucks and other such weapons I'd been reading about for years up close and personal. There were vehicles ranging from towed four-barreled anti-aircraft guns to T-62 tanks, to BMPs and numerous trucks from the various Warsaw Pact armies. Most of them were full of holes from various calibre of U.S. weapons.

We had some time to walk around and check out a few portable buildings which had been lined up along the taxiway in a grassy area between the taxiway and would would have been the active runway. The portable buildings were mostly toilet and bath facilities. In one building I went into, there was a small hole opposite where people would be standing in front of some urinals. There was a blast pattern on the floor and a huge hole from about shoulder high to the roof of the building and about 12 feet wide. It looked like if had someone been standing there taking a leak their head would have been taken off and blown out the building. Again, I was very happy to have not been on the receiving end of the barrage which was launched against these folks.

It was during this time that we experienced the only casualty our squadron was to have. Two of our guys in the maintenance troop were goofing off near the roped off areas which hadn't been cleared of possible unexploded ordinance. One of them picked up an unexploded part of a cluster bomb and tossed it to his friend. It was innocent horseplay until the bomblet exploded and killed one of the men. It was a sad and totally avoidable accident.

Soldiers are taught almost from day one of basic training not to mess around with unexploded ammunition found during training. No matter how old it is, it might be unstable enough to explode by just moving it. We were all taught to leave it be, mark the location and report it so someone who knew what they were doing could come and disposed of it properly (often by blowing it up where it was).

I remember once when I was in Third Squadron back in the 80s when the Squadron Sergeant Major came and gave us a talk after one of the troopers killed himself trying to knock the primer out of a .50 caliber round. The soldier was attempting to make a necklace for his girlfriend. The Sergeant Major told us he had to write one of those terribly difficult letters telling his mother was a great solider this man was when he really wanted to tell the truth and write that the man was a fool for not following instructions. Sad, but true.

Sometime in the late morning we received word that Ahmad should pack up his stuff because a truck was coming to take him to Kuwait. He was very excited to get going and see what happened to his family. He hadn't heard any news from any of his loved ones since the invasion the previous August. Just before he left, we took this picture of all the members of our platoon, with Ahmad sitting right up front and center. Many of us exchanged addresses with Ahmad, but I don't remember anyone mentioning they'd heard back from him after we returned to the U.S.

The Platoon in front of one of our aircraft. For privacy, I blurred out all the faces except mine and Richard "Flickster" Flick who was killed in an auto accident in 2006. The person who took this picture was standing with his heels right on the edge of one of the deep holes I describe above.
During the time we were sitting on the airfield, representatives from the Iraqi government and the coalition forces signed the formal cease fire agreement. Once that was completed, it was pretty much all over but the shouting.

Not long after, we were told to head back to Saudi Arabia and on to the port to go back to the States. This would be, perhaps, the most dangerous part of the whole war for me and two others.

This post is dedicated to SGT Christian A. Garcia a member of Maintentance Troop, Support Squadron (Muleskinners), 3rd ACR. SGT Garcia was killed by mortar fire in Babil Province, Iraq on April 2, 2011. I pray comfort and peace to his family and friends and to his fellow troopers in the Regiment of Mounted Riflemen.

This is part 16 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ground War Day 3 - Cease Fire Declared

I woke up on the morning of Day 3 drier and quite a bit warmer. I draped my sleeping bag on the stabilator of our aircraft and let the wind dry it out. By the time we had breakfasted and gotten ready for our day of missions, it was completely dry. One advantage of living in the desert: if you hang your clothes out to dry it doesn't take that long.

We were set to leapfrog our missions with our platoon's other aircraft just as we did the previous day. I don't recall if we had been officially told at this point, but I do remember having the feeling that a cease fire would be called sometime soon. Reports from our leadership as well as the BBC confirmed the war was progressing quite steadily and Saddam's forces were well on their way to defeat. "Auntie Beeb" seemed to know everything that was going on.

We flew what turned out to be our only mission of the day first thing in the morning. It was rather uneventful for the most part.

During the first hour or so, one of us spotted a bright orange piece of cloth lying on the ground next to what appeared to be a box. When we approached and hovered over the object, we found it was an ejector seat from an plane. There didn't appear to be anyone nearby, so we landed nearby to investigate. My fellow crew member jumped out and confirmed the seat was empty and there was, again, no sign of anyone hiding nearby. So, up we went and we reported the location to our headquarters just in case.

A little while later, something else caught our attention which caused us to land again. Once on the ground, I jumped out to see whatever it was up close. We noticed somewhat quickly that we were in an area surrounded by yellow plastic tape - similar to crime scene tape you might see on one of the "CSI" shows. We never figured out if we were in a mine field, a contaminated area or something else. It didn't really matter, whatever we were in the middle of, we certainly didn't want to be there! I hopped back into my seat and we took off, thankful we weren't blown up.

Towards the end of our flight, we flew near a building out of which poured a half-dozen or so Iraqi soldiers with their hands up looking to surrender. We certainly weren't prepared for that, so we radioed the location back to the headquarters. As the Scrounger said, and I quite agreed, "We don't have enough people to take that many prisoners. Besides, it only takes one idiot to change his mind and start shooting to take us down." Collecting POWs was certainly best left to ground units.

The Squadron's refuel points weren't moving around nearly as quickly as they were the day before. As we wrapped up our flight, we found the one closest to the headquarters and spent the rest of the day listening to the war play out on the radio. We mostly tuned into the BBC World Service, though we did catch some news via Saudi and Kuwaiti Radio stations which Ahmad translated for us.

One of my favorite lines from that day was from one of the BBC news readers. Before the war, Saddam kept promising in his propaganda broadcasts that if coalition forces attacked there would be the "mother of all battles" that would mimic the battle of Armageddon told about in the Bible. As the BBC man talked about the utter defeat and mass surrender of Iraqi forces, he said Saddam "has painted himself into the mother of all corners ... ." I still laugh at that line today.

As the day drew to a close, we set up camp in the  middle of nowhere - again. We listened in as President Bush announced the cease fire and spelled out the details of getting the formal Iraqi surrender. Needless to say, we were all quite happy to hear that news. Our joy soon turned to panic, though.

As were making coffee and digging into some of the goodies we had from home, to the east we saw a tremendous flash, which was followed by a fireball floating up into the sky into a mushroom-shaped cloud that resembled a nuclear blast. Of course, none of us had ever seen a nuclear blast up close and for real, but we were convinced that this was one. After a few minutes came the tremendous "BA-BOOM" of the blast along with a concussion wave that staggered me.

I don't remember who yelled, "Let's get the hell out of here, mount up we're leaving," but I think it was the Old Dog. It was like a bunch of kids running around with their hair on fire. We were struggling to put on our protective masks while running in a blind panic towards our aircraft. Jed, one of our augmentees, just before the blast, was relieving himself behind a sand dune. We later learned he had to change his flight suit because in the panic of being mid, well let's say, business, he pulled his clothing back on and ran for his assigned bird.  (Not to be out-done, I had my own similar embarrassing moment once a few years previous to this.) Someone in the darkened night after the glow burned out yelled, "Shit! Someone nuked the bastards before we had a chance to leave!"

We got into our assigned aircraft and cranked up in preparation to leave. Later, the Old Dog told us he was trying to tell T-Bird to get into the cockpit because our Lieutenant was nowhere to be found and someone needed to be his co-pilot. In an emergency, a crew chief is better than no one according to the logic he was processing at the time. The Lieutenant wasn't really missing, though. He was at a meeting at the Squadron operations center when the explosion went off and was out of contact as we were prepping to leave in a hurry. Just as we were ready to pull pitch and head out of the area, someone spotted our platoon leader running towards us waving his arms. He put on his flight helmet and plugged into the intercom cable of the first helicopter he came to and told us to stand down. I think it was Digger who passed the word via radio that we didn't need to leave because the blast was "one of ours."

"One of ours?" I thought to myself. Something didn't see right.

Well, everything was right, and the blast was one of ours. It wasn't, however, a nuclear device at all. The explosion resulted from a Fuel-Air bomb being dropped in order to clear out a mine field which had been discovered earlier in the day. The Lieutenant was supposed to get out of his meeting in time to come tell us to expect the blast so we wouldn't panic thinking it was something it wasn't. In typical Army SNAFU fashion, that didn't work out very well since he was delayed getting out of the meeting. Another minute or so and we would have been gone!

Once we shut everything down and climbed out of the aircraft, he told us the whole story and let us know there would be another dropped soon. After we had a chance to calm down, we set up the coffee pot again and made ready for more celebration. The atmosphere became more like that of a Fourth of July evening with everyone sitting around waiting for a fireworks show. Only we were sitting around the Coleman stove waiting for a single explosion.

When the second fuel-air blast came, it was a lot more fun to watch. Still, when the shock wave came I was not expecting the concussion to be as strong as it was. This was another time I was glad to be on the delivering side of this kind of weapon and not on the receiving side.

That night, we learned that some of the Iraqi forces had either not heard about the cease fire or chose to ignore it. We watched from a distance as the Regiment's Second Squadron was in a pitched battle with some Iraqi Republican Guard armored forces. It was quite spectacular to watch the muzzle blasts from a distance as the battle went on for a couple of hours.

We spent the night in the new-found peace in the Middle East. The next day, we'd get to see the resulting destruction of the war first hand.

This is part 15 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Friday, March 04, 2011

Ground War Day 2 - Another One of Those Days

We woke up on the morning of Day 2 to learn that the war was progressing much faster than had been anticipated. The pre-war predictions indicated the Regiment should have advanced a certain distance into Iraq by the morning of Day 2. In reality, they had gone about twice as far as planned. Not that you ever really can follow a plan in a real war, if you could we would have been a week ahead of schedule.

We turned on the radio to hear reports on the BBC World Service of entire Iraqi units trying to surrender to their reporters. So many Iraqis were surrendering that the biggest problem the Coalition Forces had was keeping up with the influx of prisoners of war. The second biggest problem was extending supply lines to keep up with the rapidly advancing forces - a problem which affected us in a quite personal way.

Our mission became to one of observation and radio relay. Since things were moving so quickly, it was thought an airborne radio-relay would be a good idea. We were also to act as spotters and report any enemy activity in the rear area. The three aircraft in our platoon were going to "leap frog" the missions. Each of the three aircraft would take turns flying a 2-hour mission. At the end of the 2 hours, the next aircraft would take off, the mission would be "passed on" to them and the first aircraft would go to the Squadron area to wait until their next turn.

Ah, but the plans of mice and men ...
We took off from our camp in Saudi Arabia and headed north. If you remember from a previous installment, we weren't allowed to tell Ahmad what was going on until it actually happened. He was a pretty smart guy, though, and I figure he had to know something was up. Still, as we flew over the berm marking the border and crossed into Iraqi airspace, I told Ahmad "officially" that the war had started and we were in the process of liberating his homeland. He was quite excited and mentioned he was happy to be a part of kicking Saddam out of Kuwait.

We spend the next two hours flying around Iraq looking for suspicious activity. Most of what we found were U.S. Army vehicles which had broken down during the advance's first day and night. We didn't see any Iraqis, but we did see a lot of Americans. There were dozens of broken down vehicles ranging from small to large all over the place.

We passed over a 155mm self-propelled Howitzer and the crew burst out of the gun's rear hatch and waved frantically at us. Thinking someone might need medical attention or there might be some other emergency, we landed nearby and I hopped out to assess the situation. It turned out that the gun's engine died and they were merely stuck. Their battery commander left them with 1 round for the main gun, 20 gallons of water, 3 boxes of MREs and enough small-arms ammunition to hold off a wave or two of enemy troops. They hadn't heard anything about what was going on and were merely curious as to how the war was going. When I told them how far I heard we'd advanced they were all quite surprised at our success and equally disappointed to have missed the action. They were also afraid of enemy forces sneaking up on them. I reassured them that most of the Iraqis were surrendering and they had little to fear. This lightened their mood quite a bit. After our exchange, I ran back to the aircraft and we took off again.

We flew around reporting positions of the broken down vehicles we spotted. It really wasn't all that exciting, but we were helping the overall effort so it wasn't totally useless. After about two hours the next aircraft met up with us. I radioed the other crew what we were doing and let them take over. Once that was done, The Scounger pointed the aircraft in the direction of the Squadron's nearest refuel point.

Last Chance For Gas Next 100 MilesWhen we arrived where the fueler was supposed to be, there was no one to be found. To be sure, they had been there. There were telltale signs of garbage and tire tracks all over the area. The pilots radioed the Squadron Headquarters reporting the missing fuel point only to be informed that they had, indeed, moved and were now located elsewhere.

We flew to "elsewhere" and found no one there, either. Again, there were sure signs someone had been there, but they were gone by the time we arrived. Another radio conversation took place, this time with The Scrounger getting a bit impatient as we were quickly running out of fuel. The location was relayed to us, and off we went again.

But, again, there was no one to be found. The war was progressing so rapidly, that the fuelers had to move quickly to be in position to take care of the Squadron's Cobra attack helicopters, which got priority over other aircraft. Since they were miles north of us at the forward edge of the Squadron's area and we were at the very back, we were running way behind them.

Another location was relayed to us and off we went. Meanwhile, we were in contact with our partner aircraft letting them know what was going on. As we approached where the next fuel point was supposed to be, the low fuel signal started beeping. For obvious reasons, this alert is very loud and comes with a very bright flashing light in the cockpit area.

At this point, I was starting to get a little nervous. The loud alarm had the desired effect to get our attention and it wasn't very reassuring that no one seemed to know that the fuelers were moving around so quickly. Someone must have known, but in the chaos of everything in the Squadron's headquarters the word wasn't getting to us quickly enough.

Scrounger called back to us over the intercom. "Guys, we're low on fuel and I don't want to risk trying to make it to the next refuel point. We're going to land here. Elmer, radio the other guys, tell them where we are and ask them to contact HQ to send a fuel truck out to us." As we descended, I did as I was asked. The other crew acknowledged the location and flew over to us to make visual confirmation of our place in the desert.

Just as the wheels hit the ground, the engine above me stopped. I got on the intercom and mentioned to Scrounger, "Hey, that was a good trick shutting off the engine just as we touched the ground." His reply: "I didn't turn it off, it flamed out on its own." I guess we really were that low on fuel.

We climbed out of the aircraft and started to assess our situation:
  • We had plenty of food and water to last us at least one day.
  • We had weapons and ammunition to defend ourselves if necessary. Though with the dearth of Iraqi soldiers around and the fact that most were giving up, we weren't too concerned about that.
  • Someone knew where we were and they would relay our position to the headquarters.
  • But, we didn't know how long it would take for someone to rescue us.
So we waited. I remember in the distance on a short rise we saw a large, black bird. Even Ahmad didn't recognize what kind it was. I guessed it might be a vulture and thought it rather ironic that we were stuck in the desert with an operational multi-million-dollar aircraft which only needed gas and we were in a scene like one in an old western movie.

We decided to eat lunch, each of us looking out in a different direction watching for anyone approaching. After a time, an OH-58 helicopter from our squadron landed nearby. Scounger went over to talk to them. He had a hard time convincing them that we'd merely run out of gas and only needed fuel. Once they were convinced of this, they took off with the promise they would relay our position to the headquarters. That was good - now two groups of people knew where we were.

Sugar Ray is Born
I made a joke about the bird and how we were in the odd position to be stuck in the middle of Iraq because we ran out of gas. When I said this, Ahmad looked over at me and his mouth dropped wide open.

"You mean, we're in Iraq? I thought we were in Saudi Arabia."

"No," I replied, "Don't you remember, I told you when we flew over the berm at the border that we were going into Iraq to liberate your homeland?"

"Yes, I do. But I thought we were going to fly to Iraq, do our mission, then return to Saudi Arabia. I didn't know we were going to stay in Iraq. This is very, very bad."

He started pacing back and forth along the tail boom of the aircraft, muttering to himself in Arabic.

"Ahmad, Dude, you have nothing to worry about. People know where we are and help will come soon."

"I'm not worried about being stuck in the desert. My father and I used to camp in the desert all the time. No, I am worried about being captured by Iraqis."

"But there probably isn't an Iraqi soldier around for miles. You saw all the broken down American vehicles. The Iraqis have either run away or have surrendered. I don't think you need to worry about that."

"You don't understand! You are Americans, they will let you live. But I am Kuwaiti, they will kill me!"

He paced back and forth a bit more. I could see from the look on his face he was very concerned. My words were not reassuring to him at all. I was pondering how best to help him when he stopped suddenly and pointed his finger in the air as an idea came to him.

"I have a great idea. If we are captured, you will tell them I am 'Sugar Ray' Ahmad from Bronx, New York. Then, they will let me live."

I tried not to laugh, because I could see he had been genuinely concerned, but "Sugar Ray" was pretty funny. Although I felt that, given the situation, capture was probably the remotest possibility, creating the persona of the guy from the Bronx brought him a bit of comfort.

My main concern was getting stuck out there for days and running out of food and water.

To put his plan into action, Ahmad took the plain, green "hook and pile" patch off the front of his flight suit and wrote on it "Sugar Ray Ahmad, U.S. Army, Bronx, New York." He even drew some wings to make it look "official." He visibly relaxed after he showed us his handy work.

Just as I was considering starting to dig defensive positions, just in case, a fuel truck came lumbering over the rise where we'd seen the large bird. Our rescue was at hand.

As the fueler crew filled our tanks, they made sure to let us know we were the morale booster for the day. Apparently it was quite humorous to everyone else that we'd run out of gas. We didn't find it nearly as funny considering it was more their fault than ours for not keeping track of where the fuelers were. At any rate, we were glad to be rescued.

Once we got the aircraft fueled up we flew to the location the Squadron command picked to bed down for the night. We weren't allowed to fly after dark, so our day was done.

And The Hits Just Keep On Comin'
It looked cloudy and threatened rain, so Spiff and I set up a nice lean-to type shelter over our cots. On the one hand, it was good we did because it did rain very hard during the night. Unfortunately, my foot was touching the bottom part of my shelter and the water soaked through and was absorbed by my sleeping bag. By the time I noticed, the sleeping bag was wringing wet up to my chest.

I was freezing. It wasn't all that cold outside, perhaps in the mid 40s. But the water pulled the heat from my body to the point where I had hypothermia. How ironic was this? A few weeks ago I was flat on my back with heat exhaustion and IVs poked in my arm and now I was suffering from hypothermia. I climbed into the helicopter and sat in my crew seat with my head leaning on the radio rack. I shivered uncontrollably for at least two hours. My crew mate, TD, loaned me his nylon blanket (a nice, soft, quilted thing issued to each of us before we left El Paso which we dubbed the "Woobie" after the kid's blanket in the movie "Mr. Mom").

That was a night to remember - and possibly to forget.

Next ... Day 3, the final day of the ground war.

This is part 14 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ground War Day 1

As the time drew close for the start of the Ground War portion of Desert Storm we started to get some details about our part in the whole operation. Ahmad, our Kuwaiti augmentee, was assigned to my team at this point. As we started to get briefings on the expected happenings we were told we weren't allowed to tell Ahmad anything. I felt bad not telling him what was going on because I thought he might be more helpful if he was clued in. However, I did understand that from an operations security viewpoint that he was a foreigner about whom we knew very little.

Ahmad was great for giving us background information about the countries in the area. As we dialed around the radio dial he was able to tell us what languages we were listening to as well as what their country of origin was. For instance, the Persian Language programming by the BBC sounded very different to him than the Persian Language broadcast originating in Iran.

We weren't supposed to sleep on the ground and each one of us was assigned a cot to lie on. The regimental leadership had this as a policy dating back to when I had been a part of the 3rd ACR in the mid-80s. Ahmad preferred to sleep on a blanket rolled out on the sand. When we offered him a cot, he was almost insulted. "I used to sleep in the desert with my father like this as a child. I do not need a cot." He thought it silly.

As I mentioned in a previous installment, we were at the far western part of the operational area. General Schwartzkopf came up with what I describe as a variation of the Von Schlieffen Plan in order to drive the Iraqi forces out of Kuwait. The idea was to drive an attack into Kuwait to overwhelm the Iraqi forces there while other coalition forces ran around from the west in order to cut them off from retreating back into Baghdad. Our part of this was to be part of the force to surround the retreating forces.

This plan was almost messed up. We understood that the Iraqis weren't supposed to know we were there. Colonel Starr, the 63rd Colonel (Commanders of the 3rd ACR are numbered in order of their command) engaged some Iraqi forces who had attacked a Saudi Army unit over the berm the Iraqis had piled up on the border. The Saudis called for help while the 63rd was out on a patrol with an armored platoon from I Troop, 3rd Squadron. According to the rumors we heard, General Schwartzkopf flew to the Regimental Headquarters to personally chew out the Colonel for possibly giving away our positions so far west. I don't know if that's true, but it was an interesting rumor.

Squadron Muster
Just before the ground was was to start, we had a Squadron Muster so the 63rd Colonel could come and give us a pep talk. Personally, I was just looking forward to getting the thing started. I wasn't so much looking forward to going into battle as I was to just getting started so we could get it over with. After sitting around for six months, I doubt I was the only one who felt that way.

Back at Fort Bliss, when we had a Squadron Muster, it was usually held at one of the theaters on post. We would sit and wait for the Squadron or Regimental Commander to arrive and he would give us a talk about one thing or another. When I was in the 66th MI Company, which was assigned to 3rd Squadron, the musters were usually somewhat interesting. In those days, in the mid-80s, it was rare to have women assigned to a combat unit. Because of that, the 66th MI was the only unit in 3rd Squadron to have women assigned to it. When the Squadron Commander would come into the theater, everyone would stand at attention until he reached the stage. He would always yell out, "Gentlemen," and then continue a little more quietly, "and ladies of the 66th Military Intelligence Company," and then yell again, "take your seats!" I always found that to be quite humorous.

This particular muster was a bit less formal. The 63rd stood in a big clearing in the middle of the Squadron's encampment, and we all gathered around. He delivered his speech:
Gentlemen, we are about to engage an enemy who has invaded a peaceful neighbor. We are going to oust him from that land according to the directives of the United Nations and the orders from our Commander and Chief.
I cannot tell you how this battle will go. I am sure that some of us will not be here when it's all over. However, keep this in mind: We have the best equipped and best trained army in the entire world. Our tanks can see and shoot at their tanks before they can even see us. So this is my battle plan, and it's simple:
We are going to get close enough and poke holes in their shit before they can get close enough to poke holes in our shit.
And, after we all shouted the Regimental Accolade, he left.

Now, I may not have remembered the whole thing exactly word for word - except for that last line. I will never forget that part.

And so the ground war began. Well, at least for the rest of the units. On the day everything kicked off we were stuck all day in a sand storm. We were grounded and left once again listening to the war on the radio.

It was heartening to listen to the stories of Iraqi soldiers lining up to surrender to anyone who wasn't on their site. One BBC crew was credited with capturing over 100 prisoners of war. We were quite happy things were going well. Night came and the sand storm abated. We knew the next day we would be in the thick of things.

This is part 13 in a series. Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9 | Part 10 | Part 11 | Part 12 | Part 13 | Part 14 | Part 15 | Part 16 | Part 17 | Part 18 | Part 19