Thursday, February 17, 2011

Leaning Forward In The Saddle

When we moved north, near the border, our camp was pretty much prepared for us. Before we arrived, engineers plowed up the soil and made some three-sided bunkers where we could park our aircraft. Each of the three walls was about 7 or 8 feet high. I recall seeing just the rotors poking out over the tops.

Since we knew we wouldn't be staying there very long, we didn't set up as sophisticated a camp as we did down south. We did set up our large tents (GP Large for those who know the Army lingo) and squeezed over twelve people in each of them. That wasn't terribly crowded, but certainly not as spacious as the setup we had before with some folks sleeping in hootches instead of the tents.

The (In)famous Saudi Flood
While we were there in the Middle East it rained a lot. I don't know if this was a verified fact, but we were told more rain fell during those months than in the previous several years combined. When it rained hard enough, areas which consisted of lose, powdery sand turned into quagmires something like quicksand. That muck hardened into a concrete-like state when the sun came out again and baked it dry. Vehicles stuck in that mess required extrication with heavy equipment.

The rain got us one fateful night.

Little did we realize, at this new camp we had put up one of our tents in a dry stream bed. Unfortunately, this happened to be the tent I was sleeping in. Something we should have known being stationed in the desert near El Paso and most of us having experience in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, California is what a dry steam bed looked like. Somehow we missed this one. We also didn't notice that the great bunkers set up by the engineers to protect our aircraft also acted as earthen dams blocking the dry steam bed in which we had set up our tent.

One night it started raining like crazy. Sometime around Midnight a flash flood hit our camp, and specifically our tent. We were asleep and didn't realize the water was rising, and pooling, until someone, probably whoever was on guard duty, came and woke us up.

While we in the one tent were rushing around in the dark trying to figure out what to do, the guys in the other tent were having a party. I distinctly remember hearing "Break On Through" by The Doors playing loudly on a boom box. At one point I stuck my head through the flaps of their tent and saw Flickster spraying glow stick juice all over the inside of the tent. He cut the top off the plastic stick, which allowed the glowing liquid to shoot out the end and stick to the inside of the tent. It looked like a psychedelic concert going on in there with glowing yellow, blue and red liquid lighting up the canvas ceiling.

After a while of us panicking at the rising water, Sergeant T figured out the problem of the sand bunker blocking the stream bed. We grabbed out our entrenching tools and shovels and broke out a hole in the berm to let the water out. Once that was accomplished, the water level quickly fell and all was well. All except for Sergeant T, that is; he lost some of his stuff which was washed away in the flood.

The Night Sky
Doing guard duty at night out there in the middle of the desert offered some of the best views of the sky I've ever seen. You can't imagine the number of stars you can see when there is no ambient light pollution from city lights. It made me wonder how our ancient ancestors were able to pick out constellations. It's easy to pick out Orion, Cassiopeia or the bears in a city, but the stars which make up those formations were almost lost in the endless myriad of stars visible out in the Saudi desert.

Another thing which really struck me was the brightness of the moon. During a full moon, not only did it cast a very visible shadow you could just about read by its light. The desert has a beauty all its own, and that particular desert has a unique beauty at night.

Carpet Bombing
Something else you could see quite well at night were the fighters and bombers headed over to Iraq on their missions.

The in-flight refuel aircraft were seen as bright, flashing lights flying back and forth to the south. Other flashing lights would come join them for a time. Then they would drop away and fly in our direction. When they were just about over our camp, the flashing lights would turn off and only the sound of the jet engines would indicate they were still there.

One night, I was lying in bed listening to the B-52s flying over the camp. As I lie there reflecting on things, I remember feeling the ground shake accompanied by a low rumbling sound. I lived in California for a time, so when I describe the sensation as a small tremor, folks who have experienced that will understand what I mean. Of course, the rumbling was not from natural means; it was the result of tons of explosives being dropped on some unsuspecting Iraqi soldiers.

I remember pausing in my thoughts. Part of me really felt sorry for those guys getting pummeled. Many of those people weren't really trained soldiers, but were regular guys grabbed off the streets, handed a rifle and stuck out in the desert somewhere. At least someone with proper military training might know what to do in an air raid to increase their chance of survival. On the other hand, perhaps a bit selfishly, I was VERY grateful to be on the side delivering those bombs instead of the receiving side.

Not Again?
Another one of "those flights" happened during this time. It wasn't a border trace mission like I described in an earlier installment. I don't remember why, but we were just flying around the desert.

All of a sudden we found ourselves enveloped by a sand storm. It seemed to come out of nowhere and we were flying just about completely blind. After about fifteen minutes, The Scrounger decided to slowly descend so we could land and wait for the storm to blow over. When we got on the ground we found ourselves on a road. So, thinking it safer to troll along the ground rather than try to fly blind, we headed down the road. We weren't going too fast, but we were at least making some progress.

Sandstorms like those in the Middle East desert are something like fog. When you're in a fog bank you go through parts which are thicker than others. There are parts where visibility is better than others. It's the same in a sandstorm, there are places where visibility is better than others.

We moved into one of those areas. It cleared up enough for us to see, coming from the opposite direction along the road, a convoy of four or five Hummers. I could see looking out the front window as we did one of those high-performance takeoffs, this was a Stinger team. As we pulled up we pitched nose down just enough and long enough that I could see the faces of the two guys in the front seat of the lead vehicle. Their eyes were as big as saucers and their jaws were hanging down in their laps. That must have been quite a site to see a helicopter looming in the fog/sand and just missing them. Ironic, too, because they were an anti-aircraft team.

The ground war was looming. We'll hit that next time.

This is part 12 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

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