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


  1. Elmer ... OMIGOD ... The memories are just FLOODING me right now!! We convoyed from the desert wastes into Al Jubail, & spent almost a week just getting our vehicles & equipment clean enough to pass inspection. We ended up taking all of the HUMVEE's & trailers to a local high-pressure car wash, & made the local owner a mint in the process!! After the vehicles were "done", we were quartered in "Camp Victory", re-named from "Camp Cactus" there in Al Jubail!! It was just an incredible feeling to be in an actual barracks, sleeping on an actual bed, eating in a mess hall ... & visiting the "camel burger" stand every day ... sometimes several times a day!! During that time, we were also issued new desert camo uniforms, & REAL DESERT BOOTS (I had ended up buying a pair from The CAV STORE!!), so we would look nice on our return home!! We finally got the word, & we were stuffed on arab buses, & taken to Daharan air base, where we were locked in a hangar, & underwent the customs microscope inspection of our gear!!
    After what seemed like forever, we finally boarded a Delta Air Lines Lockheed L-1011, & the roar of cheering as we left the ground was just as I remembered reading about in books about Vietnam!! The WONDERFUL flight attendants kept us well supplied with food & drink, & just the sight of these american women after so many months in the boondocks was an inspiration!! They made out like bandits, as they traded kisses for pieces of uniform attire, patches, & badges!! By the time we got to Frankfurt, you would have sworn that THEY were the ones in the Army!! We stopped in Frankfurt only long enough to refuel, & we were supposed to fly directly into El Paso from there, but we ended up landing in Cincinnati, Ohio, because of ENGINE PROBLEMS!!! We were released into the terminal, & told to listen for an announcement of our flight!! As we we entered the lounge, everybody passing by stopped in their tracks, & began to clap & cheer, & I looked around to see who was the celebrity, until I realized they were applauding US!! Of course, the majority of us headed directly for the airport bars, despite instructions to the contrary!! I finished my first REAL beer in over 9 months, & was reaching for my wallet, when the bartender placed another in front of me, & pointed to a group of men sitting to one side, & told me to put away my wallet!! I went over to thank them, & spent quite a few cold ones just sitting there talking with them!!
    Four hours later, they called our flight, & ONE LARGE bunch of very wobbly soldiers made their way back to the gate!! Somehow, everybody got back aboard, & 2 hours later, & MANY cups of coffee ( The flight crew had probably anticipated our airport antics, & had more than triple the normal amount of coffee on board!!), we were landing at Biggs Army Airfield at 0300 HRS!! I could not believe that at such an early hour of the morning, that there were literally THOUSANDS of people to welcome us back to El Paso!! Once again, even though we were told to go immediately to the terminal for the formation, I succeeded in "bucking the system" ... at the bottom of the ramp, I got out of line, got down on all fours ... & KISSED THE GROUND!!! I was really laughing at that point, because the entire huge crowd started cheering even louder when I performed my act of homage!!!

  2. Hey Tim - Thanks for stopping by and sharing your experience.

    The flight to New York was well planned, so the bars and restaurants were closed. Some of the local pizza places did have some complimentary pies available, though, as I recall. Other than that, there may have been some sodas there. It sounds like you had a much better time in Cincinnati. :-)

    Wasn't that welcome at Biggs great, though. The people of El Paso really went all out to welcome us back. From what I understand there were hundreds or thousands there for each flight coming in no matter what time of the day. Truly a great welcome home.

  3. We first went to the isolation area in Riyadh for what seemed like forever before getting on the Kuwaiti Airlines 747. From there, we went to Dharan, and sat on the tarmac like forever. The next leg took us to NAS Sigonella on Sicily (btw, at neither place were we allowed to deplane. At both places, they opened the emergency exits so there would be some cross ventilation.). Finally, to Ramstein, where we went through stringent customs and an Iraqi 122mm shell casing was seized from the person who brought it. No ceremnoy, just "move along, move along."Finally, we got on the same Domberger buses that took us to the field and brought us back to Augsburg, arriving at about 230am.

    Our families were there (so incredibly cool) and the unit. We turned in sensitive items and were told what a great contribution we had made to the war effort. LTC Bowers, our Bn CO, who wasn't allowed to join us in the sandbox, then said something to the effect of "I can't give a five day pass, oh wait, today is Wednesday; well, I guess your duty day is done; Return for duty Monday morning." The stay behinds were less understanding, giving us comments like "Don't think you're special because you went." we didn't think we were special; we just wanted to sleep in our own beds. I still have my yellow ribbon.

  4. Thanks for leaving your memory of that day, John.

    Yes, getting into a real bed was a great feeling.

  5. Ha, Spiff, you need to go back to the beginning. :-)