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