09 December 2014

The Long Road Home from Afghanistan

As we stacked hundreds of duffel bags and ruck sacks on the driveway just off Doughboy Loop, I remembered pretty vividly a group of Soldiers doing the same thing seven months earlier.

At that time, we were getting ready to head to Afghanistan, from where they were coming back. I wasn’t jealous, more excited to get into the fight. Now we’re on the other side.

We had been in transit, which for the Army means, “mostly waiting,” for more than a week. Our exit from the Afghanistan theater of operations meant some time in the Persian Gulf. The same cargo jet that took us first to Al Mubarak Air Base—the “Gateway to Kuwait”—delivered us down the road to Ali Al Salem Air Base. Total flight time of the second leg: 12 minutes.

The bus ride was longer than the flight, only by time. I was glad for it, because the seats were infinitely more comfortable, and I gratefully caught a nap. When we arrived, the western sky turned from tangerine to rust, and it was officially twilight by the time we get our bunks at a place called Camp Arifjan.

It’s strange how you can imagine fairly vividly a place you’ve never been, then totally forget your imagination’s version once you experience the reality.

If Kandahar’s environs reminded me of southern Nevada, then Arifjan reminded me of an old Las Vegas suburb. There’s even a Starbucks, an indication that we were getting closer to the comforts of the Western World.

The dining hall at Arifjan was about a half mile away from our barracks. We lived in Prefabricated Concrete Buildings (PCBs) and when you walk between them, the sound of rocks reverberates between the corrugated concrete walls in a laser-like sound. I know that lasers are soundless, as long as they make Star Wars movies I’ll refer to the sound of blasters as “laser-like.”

In our warehouse barracks—mostly during sleeping hours—we were continuously interrupted as our beds were right next to the door. It happened to be the world's loudest door, and Soldiers, who are famous for being able to sleep like Rip Van Winkle on a Nyquil overdose, are for some reason getting up at 5:00 am regularly now.

There is a distinct segregation between those American Soldiers in ACUs, and those of us in multi-cams. At least so it seems. They don’t mingle in the chow hall, and as they move around in packs, they act as differently as they look. The ACU wearers are deployed, too, but haven’t been deprived of as many creature comforts, at last this time around. They seemed more relaxed than I remember Soldiers back in Afghanistan. But we were the relaxed ones at Arifjan.

On my first full day there, I took a three-hour nap. On day three, another one. I suppose part of the grand plan is getting deserved rest after a tough deployment. There was a swimming pool there, and I was able to resist for a few days. But after my last long run, I decide to take the plunge, and I didn’t regret it. Went again the next day.

Monday morning was our final wake up. I walk the 300 yards to the shower trailer and enjoy the crisp Gulf air on my walk back, a cleaner man. I put on a fresh uniform, probably the cleanest I have worn since this my OEF service began, and get ready to go back the U.S.

My last meal in CENTCOM was a disappointing Indian affair, but we did do Chili’s on our second to last night, so the food rating was net positive.

Nineteen hundred hours finally rolled around and we found ourselves listening to briefs and waiting more. Customs was easy enough, and by 10:00 we were loading several tour buses—the nice kind like the one that brought us to Arifjan eight days earlier. SSG Etheridge was my Bus Captain. I will address him as Bus Captain for the duration of our Title 10 time.

We rolled out at 11:00, driving on dirt roads and through complex security chutes. We don’t pass a single power line. Everything here, down to the standard, brightly lit Chili’s, seems to be powered by diesel generators.

Kuwaiti police cruisers and National Guard gun trucks escorted us along the wide-open highways to the international airport. In the distance—way up by bus one—the flashers pulsed and illuminated the late night dewy fog, like a distant rave celebrating our departure.

I napped, and was rudely awoken at 3:00 am by an Air Force security dude who ushered us off the bus at a security checkpoint. Dogs sniffed away at the vehicles while we waited in the “Freedom Cage.” It was getting cold, but our exhaustion made us compliant.

Bus Captain Etheridge pointed out the Atlas Air 747 aircraft being loaded up that was ours. After getting our boarding passes, we finally met up with the rest of our crew at the aerial port of departure, or “APOD.”

It took way too long for the flight crew to reconcile their list with the number of actual, living passengers they counted on the airplane, but after some painful roll calls and grade-school-style accountability measures, they got it and we were off. Half filled to Germany, where we picked up the remaining load at Ramstein Air Base.

Somewhere over the eastern Atlantic we reached the 24-hour mark from when our travel out of Kuwait began. I slept in fits and starts, eating bad airline food whenever it was presented. At 4:30 Eastern, we touched down, and two and a half hours later had our bags.

But it wasn’t until midnight that those bags made it to our new home for the next couple of weeks. Fort Dix welcomed us with the same cold drizzle that I remember on March 23.

We will go through the rigmarole that First Army has devised to keep Soldiers gainfully employed while our warfighting wanes. And we’ll experience a serious downgrade in the quality of free food. And being so close without actually seeing our families yet will be challenging.

But we are back on U.S soil. And it feels great.

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