It started at our home base. As we ran around with last-minute errands, I decided to pop into the medical clinic to see if I could get something for my stomach, thinking they’d have some over-the-counter stock. I was wrong – they required me to sign in and be seen by a doctor. Time was ticking, but there was no way I wanted to be up in the air over Iraq trying not to crap myself. (Sorry to be so blunt, but that’s the truth!) So, I sat behind the curtain of the examination “room” and listened as those around me got seen first. One Airman was being treated for second-degree burns to his face from working out on the flight line. Another guy had an infection along his eyelashes. Nothing pretty.The doctor – a captain who looked like a very tired 18-year-old – listened to my case, felt around my abdomen – and immediately prescribed me some antibiotics along with the over-the-counter stuff.
“It’s a bacterial infection from the food,” he said. “We see it all the time here, especially within the past few weeks.”
Great. At least he said the meds would help during my travels.
So, with only about an hour to spare, I joined my team and we headed over to the terminal.
Of course, it was hot and humid, but to add to the fun, all of us had our gear to carry. This included all the camera equipment, our personal bags (I had one backpack and one duffel), plus our body armor, which is incredibly heavy. It makes that green one I had for combat training seem like a little, green tank top. Plus, we had our weapons.
Lugging all that INTO terminal was a trip. By the time we got to the check-in desk, we were all dripping in sweat. Not just the little wet line across the brow, but the ‘dripping off the nose, soaking the socks’ kind of wet. The Airmen on the other side of the desk were helpful and cheerful, though, and were in high spirits when they told us, well, we can’t get on the aircraft just yet.
There was paperwork missing. Isn’t that always the case? Fortunately, our management team was only 10 minutes away and after a few phone calls, the issue was resolved. But we had to wait until the very last possible second to board the aircraft. In the meantime, I was making trips to the bathroom every five minutes. The medicine was kicking in, of course, but not immediately.
We had to walk out to the aircraft across the very wide, expansive flight line underneath the scorching sun. This was really a physical test for me – not only was the gear heavy, but I was feeling weak from the dehydration (even though we were constantly chugging water) and from a lack of food. I hadn’t been able to eat a full meal for two days, and now I could feel it.
We got onto a large cargo aircraft and sat in the bucket seats along the side. Sitting down and dumping the gear felt great, but the feeling of peeling off the body armor was awesome. It was still hot as hell in the aircraft, though, since we didn’t take off right away, and as the body heat of the others started contributing to the outside humid heat, all of us were once again beginning to sweat horribly. One of the sergeants next to us had a mini-fan with a water spritzer, which he passed around. It felt nice, but half the water evaporated before it even hit our faces.
The flight wasn’t too bad. The seats aren’t very comfortable, but I managed to sleep. I didn’t wake up until we were about 30 minutes till Baghdad. That’s when I got my first feeling of nervousness.
Having flown into a war zone before in Kosovo, I knew what to expect. But at the same time, I didn’t know what to expect because Kosovo in 2000 was not like Baghdad 2007. I looked around at the people next to me, to see if they looked as nervous as I felt.
Surprisingly, nobody looked nervous. Some people were sleeping. Others just stared right in front of them. We had all our body armor on again, so you couldn’t really move around, but I noticed JB jiggling his leg next to me. The aircraft lurched into a steep descent. I gripped the bottom of my metal seat, white-knuckling it until we were on the ground. The entire time, nobody made a face, nobody made an expression that even hinted to the same nervousness I felt. Hopefully, my face didn’t give a clue, either.
We got off the aircraft quickly and I could immediately sense the difference between this location and the one we came from. The air wasn’t as humid. It was dark. The whip-whip-whip sound of helicopters filled the air. There was a hum of activity all around as we walked to the terminal, lugging our gear once again. I followed JB, carefully watching the ground where we walked. I thought it strange that a flight line would be so uneven, so pot-marked, but then it dawned on me why those holes were there.
We met up with the officer who is helping us during this visit. He welcomed us and went to get a truck for all our stuff. Two others were with him to help us load our stuff.
Even though it was night, he pointed out things, to include the various palaces Saddam built in the area, as we drove to the place we’d be staying at. I was expecting a tent, but then he pointed out a building on the horizon.
“See that over there?” he asked. “That palace? That’s where we’re staying. Saddam built that for one of his family members.”
Sure enough, a large building appeared. I tried not to gawk as we parked. It looked like something out of one of my daughter’s storybooks. In fact, I made a note to mention to Miss C that I was going to be staying in “Princess Jasmine’s palace” since we explained to her I was going to a land like that in Aladdin. When I walked in, I saw that it wasn’t that far of a stretch.
There are still chandeliers hanging in the main entry way. The floors are marble, as are the fireplaces and columns alongside the rooms. The molding around the spiral staircases and ceilings are beautifully handcarved. You can’t help but imagine what it would be like to live in such a place, but this is a war zone and it’s made its mark here. Some of the original furniture remains, banged up and torn. The plumbing sort of works, and the lights only work half the time. Massive rooms are sectioned off for various work centers.
There is an elevator in the building, but it doesn’t work, so we had to climb several flights of stairs to get to our quarters. Because I’m the lone female, I get a whole room and a half-operating bathroom (the toilet works, the shower doesn’t) to myself. From my window, though, I could see the horizon, and I watched as helicopters flew all around over the distant lights of the city.
The officer took us to the local dining facility. We were the lone Air Force people. The rest were Army. It was a mix of characters. Some had faces that were slightly shell-shocked; their hair messed and dirt lining the sweat trails on their cheeks. They ate their food quickly and quietly. It made me wonder how their day had been. Other folks, while just as worn, were more upbeat, chatting with their friends. I noticed a few female soldiers sitting together, talking animatedly. One girl was flipping through a bridal magazine while eating, her M-16 resting at her feet.
We ate quickly and returned to our quarters. I went to sleep quickly.
I set my alarm for 4:50 a.m., but I let it go off twice before waking again around 6 a.m. to the sound of rat-tat-tat-tat-tat off in the distance. It was constant, and I assumed it was coming from off base. It sounded far enough away that I didn’t give it much thought as I stretched and pulled out my items for the day. I actually felt really good, having slept very comfortably for the first time in awhile.
We all met down in the lobby of the palace before heading out for breakfast and for the showers. The food selection here is a lot bigger, and it’s all imported from the states so I can pretty much trust it, but I didn’t want to risk it just yet. So I ate Corn Pops cereal. We headed to some trailers for our showers. I had my own space once again, which was nice. Amazingly, it had warm water. I was done with everything – shower and changing into my clothes – in five minutes.
We got back here and I did some laundry for the team. There’s a washer and dryer, but the washer has to be filled with water manually, so I spent about 15 minutes carrying water back and forth to fill it up. I ended up separating all our whites and hand-washing them in a sink with shampoo in a room with no working lights. I actually enjoyed it.
We’re going to be busy here and I’m glad about that. What a way to start our deployment.