Fear and Loathing: June 27, 2004

chinook chopper

Hello all, I’m back. Sorry I have not written in a while but I was on a (sort of) vacation in Qatar. So I am going to take this opportunity to describe the trip and let you know what has being going on this past week. Hope you enjoy.

Day 1: 17 Jun 04.
I was scheduled to go on a 4 day pass to Qatar on the 21st of this month. I was supposed to leave on Saturday with a fellow sergeant and three soldiers (including my own) to Balad to catch our respective flights out of the country. We were told that the 498th had a helicopter flight (a bird) that we could catch a ride on and avoid doing a convoy. We had one hour to get ready and so we all ran to our c-huts and gathered our bags. We were excited because none of us wanted to drive on a convoy and with a bird we could be there in 40 minutes. We were trucked to 498th and signed on to the manifest. We sat and waited for a couple of hours in the coffee house when we were finally told that the flight had no more room because some patients had to be transported. We trudged back to our area and told them we got bumped. It was going to be a convoy after all.

Day 2: 18 Jun 04.
We brought our bags and gear to the TOC and prepared for the convoy. I told Ortiz to switch with me because I didn’t trust her driving. Things have been heating up pretty badly on the roads and I wanted a more experienced driver for this run. I stowed my gear in the back of the truck and after a briefing we all lined up to leave. I was nervous about this convoy more so than others because of the escalation of IEDs and attacks all over the country the closer the handover deadline approached. It was about 110 and the heat inside the armored vehicles was punishing. I had to wipe sweat off my face and glasses and there was no breeze because of the smaller windows that come with the new armored doors.

We drove the usual route to Balad and there was not an incident the whole way. The only part that was nerve wracking was the driving over what is known as the Samara bypass, an overpass that is attacked all the time. When you drive over it you can see twisted guardrails and holes in the asphalt where IEDs blew up. There are burned out hulks of destroyed vehicles alongside the road and when you leave the bridge you can see dozens of craters alongside the road where past IEDs have gone off. It is by far the most dangerous 1 mile stretch in Iraq and the pucker factor is very high during that part of the drive.

My buddy Coburn once radioed in that a bullet just whizzed past his head. We all white knuckled the steering wheels at that point and looked every where for a “contact.” You could not have stuck a pin up my ass during that drive, we were all so tense.

We arrived in Balad feeling safe to be on a base, but it wasn’t for long. Ironically enough, we drove the distance unharmed but as we were going through the checkpoint in Balad two mortars hit just over the berm from us. It was a thunderous WHOOMPF,WHOOMPF and everyone hit the deck and we all white knuckled the steering wheels again.What are the odds we get attacked when we get to our destination? Well, in Iraq, I guess pretty damn good.

We drove to the CSH (Combat Support Hospital) and then had to go straight into the bunkers. Now the bunkers in Balad are nothing like the ones here on Speicher. They are basically concrete water lines just big enough in diameter for a small human. I stuffed myself in sitting in the Lotus position and saw that there were dozens of people all lined up in the tubes. We sat there for a half hour before the all clear signal was announced over the loudspeakers. When I got out I had trouble standing up and I had no feeling in my knees. Their bunkers suck!

I dropped off my weapon and ammo to 4th platoon and then we were all driven to the PAX terminal where we would be getting our flight assignments. Now the heat was really up there by then and we were all drenched in sweat having driven, sweltered in a concrete coffin and carried around luggage. We entered the check-in tent and put our names on the roster and were given tent assignments to stay in. Now let me tell you about this PAX terminal.

The PAX terminal sounds like an airport or building or something, but it is not. The name “terminal” is just an air force name and has nothing to do with an actual terminal. The PAX terminal in Balad is a small tent city that looks about 1000 years old. The heat outside was hot, the check-in tent was hotter and the tent we were assigned to stay in was fucking insanely sweltering. You see, the tents don’t keep out the heat well, and when the A/Cs break down, like in all the tents there, the heat gets trapped and festers and with no windows or anything there is no air movement and the heat just builds and builds until you die.

Well, this particular tent was about 140, no joke. 140! We threw our bags in and ran back out to the cooler 120 heat. I have not felt heat like that since I sat in a Russian sauna on a cargo ship last year. It was incredible. What was happening was that the diesel generator that powered the pax terminal kept cutting out because it was overheating. Eventually it kicked back on and we set up cots in front on of the working A/C units. We all huddled around it trying to get whatever cool air is spit out. There were six A/Cs in each tent but only three or four worked when the power was on. So with 30 people is a tent everyone took turns sitting in the cool air and then rotating out. It was just hell.

We decided to leave and catch a bus to the DFAC to eat. The bus had A/C and so we decided to take the long away around the base to cool off. After dinner we came back to the Dante’s terminal and checked to see if the generator was on or off. It was off. So we cooled off by sitting in the sun with our boonie hats on and our BDU tops off. We were notified that there were no flights for us that day so we decided to sit in the sign-in tent and watch a movie. When The Matrix was over we went back to the tents (but not after going to the refrigerator and grabbing as much warm water as we could carry) and decided to tuff it out.

By now it was about 8 pm and the temperature had fallen to about 95 and it was only very uncomfortable, not blisteringly hot like before. We lay on the bunks and toweled sweat off our bodies for an hour before the A/Cs finally came back on. We all fought for space in front of the cool air and laughed like school girls. It was fucking comical we were so miserable.

Eventually we cooled off enough and decided to go and take showers and change into PT shorts and Ts. The shitters and showers were air-conditioned and so we sat on the toilets like we were going just to cool off. After a shower we all felt better and we headed back to the tents. We sat on the cots and told war stories. Later on I stepped outside to watch the sun set down on some aircraft hangers.

A cool thing happened while I was trying to capture a moment of Zen: an F-18 Hornet fighter jet took off and I got to see it. It was wild! A long purple/pink/blue/white cone of flame shot out of the jet and the roar it gave off shook the ground. It was one of the loudest noises I have ever heard. The jet left the ground and rose straight up and then banked to the right. It was amazing how loud and powerful it was and I was glad to see it. A few seconds later there was an identical jet, his wingman, taking off to join him; it was just as loud and impressive.

I leaned against the concrete wall and watched the runway activity for a while and decided to go to bed. The tent was still very warm but luckily I snagged a cot in front of the A/C and Sgt Faugtenberry and I lay cool as can be until we passed out for the night. We were awoken by the same cool-ass jets about every hour on the hour as they took off for patrol missions. They were getting less cool the later into the night it got.

Day 3: 19 June 04.
After a pitiful night’s sleep we awoke for morning roll call at 6:30 and sat in tent A-2 waiting to be called for the manifest. The three going on leave to the States were called but Sgt F. and I were not. We sat in that hot ass tent for two hours just to be told we are not going anywhere that day. We were not happy. We bid farewell to the soldiers going on leave watched as their plane took off. You would think we were unhappy about their getting to leave by the way we were giving the plane the finger as it flew off, but you would be mistaken; It was a sign of love.

Now we had to figure out how to escape the heat for another day. We could ride the bus for 18 hours, or sit in the DFAC and eat all day and night, or we could just lie in the sun and wait until our flesh burnt off. We were too hot and tired to commit suicide so we decided to a take a couple of laps around the base in a bus. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner, rode the bus and fought with the A/C all day. It was a rotten day and we soaked another set of BDUs with sweat. We decided that if we don’t get called for tomorrow we were going to put on turbans and join the Mujihadeen. We would probably get A/C in Abu Gharib prison!

Day 4: 20 June 04.
The day began the same as the day before, except we were told to come back at 12:30 and we would find out if we got a flight or not. At 12:30 we were called on the manifest and told to wait outside with the others going on pass. We cried like little girls and held hands as we skipped out the door. Needless to say we were happy to leave this shithole. We were bussed to the airstrip and saw our plane. We were going to be flying on a C-17, a huge two story plane meant to carry tanks or cargo or whatever else. We walked onto the plane and we glad to see it was based out of Charleston, SC and it looked brand spankin’ new. It was awesome to go in see all the exposed wires and insulation and heater coils and electronics. This plane was huge! We sat in folding seats along the sides and had plenty of leg room—like 30 feet of it!

We were told to hang on because all aircraft that leave the base take off at what is called a combat take off. This is where you take off at full throttle and then bank sharply to the right or left. Now the C-17 has monstrous engines and it was empty except for about 20 soldiers, so it was going to take off like a rocket. We were told to lean toward the front of the plane so we don’t fall back as the plane goes up. The plane did take off as powerfully as they said it would and if it were not for our ear plugs we would have gone deaf. It was a wild flight up and we loved every minute of it. When we finally leveled off we got out of our seats and sprawled out on the sprawling floor and slept.

The inside of the plane was nice and cool and the flight was only an hour and a half long. When we landed in Al Died airport in Doha, Qatar we got off the plane and walked into some serious heat. It was about 10 degrees hotter in Qatar than it was in Iraq and we felt the difference right away. Were bussed to a hanger and went into a nice, cool room where we sat for a couple of hours waiting for instructions.

During which we walked to a DFAC and got to-go plates and ate the lunches in the hanger. The walk there and back was about a mile long and we were all soaked in sweat — again. After a quick briefing we boarded buses to the base where we were going to be staying for the next four days. We were about 20 minutes away and it took us an hour and half to get there because of all the security checks and inspections we had to endure.

I looked out the window trying to get a view… but there wasn’t one. Qatar is the flattest country I have ever been in. There is nothing to see but flat, open desert. It was barren and dry and looked just like Mars, if Mars were covered in khaki sand and white limestone. The Qataris are strict Islamists and wanted our bags searched for guns, booze, drugs and porn — all the things we wish we had but didn’t.

Here is a bit of info on Qatar. Qatar is a small country (about the same Sq Km as Hawaii) and has a population of about 800,000 (about the same as Montana). Qatar is located south of Kuwait on the Persian Gulf, bordering Saudi Arabia and a little ways from Bahrain. The country is quite wealthy with a GDP of about 17 billion dollars (the same as Mc Donald’s) and out of the 800,000 or so population, only 40% are Saudi. The rest of the country is made up of a slave-like labor force of 18% Pakistanis, 18% Indians, 10% Iranians and 14% of others. Out of the 800,000 population the labor force is 280,000. So about 60% of the population sit back and pay the 40% to do all the work. As I said, the Qataris are fabulously wealthy and make all their money of oil and gas (there’s a shock). So out of about 500,000 people that are not in the labor force they share the 17 billion dollars. Not too shabby. Well as most rich people, they are boring, lazy, self-righteous and dumb. But they do know who butters their flatbread so they treat us well and get revenge but imposing harsh rules for weary troops on 4 day passes.

We were told the base is like a resort and when we finally arrived we saw that we were told wrong. Camp Al Aslyiah (or something) in Doha, Qatar is nothing more than a small camp full of warehouses and shipping containers. Its main setup is for the CENTCOM headquarters in the Middle East and is the main supply point for medical supplies and truck parts.

When we finally made it inside the base we were herded into an auditorium and given a briefing about what to expect during our 4 day pass. Everyone was excited and kept talking about how much there is to do in the “resort.” We had to watch a quick movie about how important we are and how everyone thanks us for all the hard work we are doing and blah, blah, blah. Then we were told the rules. No drinking off post, no smoking off post, you must wear pants off post (!), don’t show the soles of your feet, women don’t show your ankles (or higher), men can’t talk to the women, no photos, no porn, no breathing and keep your eyes closed at all times.

The country was happy to have us, but not enough to make us feel welcome. We were told about the pool, the hot tub, the Burger King, Chili’s, Subway, Pizza place, gift shops, tennis, phones, computers, books, movies, DFAC, and the off post trips you can take. Most of it sounded good and I was eager to hurry and relax, plus I stunk to high heaven from a day’s worth of accumulated sweat and I wanted a shower. I got in line to sign for sheets and blankets and headed out.

I caught a bus to the PX and bought some civilian clothes to wear. The PX was the size of a 7-11 (something they didn’t tell us) and there were no clothes for me, the selection was almost nonexistent! I was too big and tall for almost everything! They had no pants my size which means I would not be able to go on any of the off post tours they offered. I was mad and getting madder. No one told me about needing pants until I was already in the damn country. I found pair of loud surfer shorts and a t-shirt that said “Who’s Your Baghdaddy?” on it. When I changed I felt like a total fucking idiot.

By now it was late and I just wanted to go to bed. I found my warehouse that had our sleeping rooms. All the things to do are in the warehouses to keep them nice and cool. Our rooms were C-huts just like here on Speicher but stacked two high with stairs. Each room had bunk beds and was warm because there was not enough ventilation for the cool air to get into the room. I took a hot shower and went to bed.

Day 5: 21 June 04.
My first official day of vacation. We were herded into the auditorium again for the final briefing about the off post tours available. It turns out that our group could not do half the tours because the timing was off, so we had three tours to choose from. There was a boat cruise along the coast, a trip to a mall and water sports day with jet skis and stuff. Well when we were told we couldn’t do the safari trip or the fishing trip or the museum or anything we were not happy and everyone ran to sign up for what they could.

I sat back to avoid the rush and found out it was first come first serve! I ended up on the alternate list for the cruise and the mall. But the alternate lists were 50 names deep. There was no way I would get in. And when I told them about the pants situation they said they have a room filled with clothes and I could borrow some until I left. I checked out the room and saw one t-shirt and about 10,000 women’s dresses. I went back to the lady in charge and said no go; I was not wearing a dress to get off post. She said she would keep an eye for a guy my size and ask to borrow his pants. Are you kidding me!

I decided to drown my sorrows in Chili’s and went to eat a greasy lunch. I took the bus there had had the best lunch I have had in a looong time. It felt good to have a waiter and to get refills and to pay for a real meal. I left Chili’s full and satiated and headed to the gift shops. There were three of them and they all sucked. It was Pilipino clerks selling crap made in the Philippines and India and China. It was like the cheezy junk you get at tourist traps all over the world. I wanted to get you all hand carved trinkets and hand woven rugs. I wanted to see local art and memorabilia you could not find anywhere else. Instead I found t-shirts with soldiers riding cartoon Harleys in Iraq, glass cubes with laser etched golfers in mid swing, ashtrays with palm trees painted on them, and mass produced brass knickknacks that were all tarnished. Just crap on top of crap. I found a couple of brass welcome signs in Arabic and a brass sextant and walked away fuming.

I went to the MWR warehouse and drank a smoothie and watched a part of some movie in the couch/movie room. I signed up for a massage but it was so busy I could not get on until my last day there. The computers were all booked up and the phones had lines all over them. The library had all junk: Danielle Steel and other cheezy romance novels. I went back to my room and decided to take a nap.

I woke up later and decided to get dinner… at Chili’s. I ate well and then sat in the hot tub for an hour or so. My back has been sore lately and the hot water felt good. I got back later and decided to get a beer; A real beer with alcohol. We were allowed three beers a day and the two drinking holes were computer linked so you couldn’t get around the system. I had some foreign beer I had never heard of and sat on a couch listening to country music. I was relaxed, but not really happy. It did beat the desert shit in Iraq, though.

Day 6: 22 Jun 04.
I woke up bored and tried to think of what to that day. The options were pretty slim. I ate pizza for breakfast, rode the bus on a couple of loops and went back to bed and read. I went back to the hot tub and sat for another hour and then swam a little. I ate lunch at--you guessed it—Chili’s. I then went to look at the gift shops again browse the PX… again. I then went to the MWR and watched another movie, drank another smoothie and when I was done… well, I went and got another smoothie. Dull day.

Day 7: 23 Jun 04.
See above and then add:

  • Went to the post office and mailed a box to myself so I didn’t have to carry so much stuff on my back.
  • Checked Email but was not in the mood to reply to anyone.
  • Saw another movie, this time at a makeshift theater with folding chairs. The movie was a Cedric the Entertainer flick and it blew dog.

Day 8: 24 Jun 04.
We had to be at the auditorium at 4 am to turn in linen and get roll called. So I got up at 3am to pack and be ready to go. We got manifested and sat around waiting for a bus to take us back to the airport. A few hours later we headed out and sat in a hanger waiting for a flight. We ate breakfast and when we got back we were told they had a flight ready. As we were led out the door I saw another C-17 and was glad to have the chance have A/C and a floor to sleep on.

As I headed to it I was grabbed by the arm and led to the right, it was not our plane. Ours was a C-130, a smaller prop plane that you see all the time having soldiers parachute out of it. It is the workhorse of the Army and a hunk of shit. We were crammed in there facing each other, packed in so tight our knees protruded between the other guy’s knees. We sat on nylon strapping and were very, very, very uncomfortable. You could not slouch, extend your legs, nothing. And then the heat kept rising until we all started to sweat profusely. C-130s have no A/C, no creature comforts of any kind. When the doors closed the heat went up dramatically. It was soooooo hot we thought we were gonna die. We had no room to take off our tops; we just sat there and had sweat pouring down our faces. By the time we leveled off the plane began to cool a little, but it was still so warm and uncomfortable and I couldn’t stand it.

And the best news was that a C-130 is much slower than a C-17 jet, the trip was just over 3 hours long! When we finally landed in Balad we poured out of the plane gasping for air and trying to get feeling back in our legs and asses. It was the worst flight I have ever experienced and I vowed to never get on another C-130 again. I was absolutely exhausted, dehydrated to the point of collapse and now we had to walk off the runway to the… you guessed it… the PAX terminal!

We dragged our asses into the sign-in tent, signed in and then went to tent A-2 to get on a manifest to get a bird out of there. We put our names on a list, called the company to let them know we were back and then went outside to decide what to do next. Sgt F. and I stood there for a second and were thinking if we should sleep there or sleep in the 4th platoon TOC at the hospital.

As we stood there we heard this woooOOOSSSHHHH…BOOM! A mortar exploded a hundred yards from us! We ducked down and heard another woooOOOSSSHHH…BOOM! We got up and ran to our gear to get our flak vests and helmets on when we heard another WOOOOOSSHHHBOOOM right behind us! We dove to the ground and grabbed our heads. A fucking mortar landed on the other side of the pax terminal! We grabbed our gear and ran across the street into a concrete building and joined dozens of others escaping the shelling. Another mortar fell, then another, and another and another and another. In all ten mortars fell in an area the size of a football field. Sgt F. and I barely got out in time and were shaking with nerves when we got into the building. What kind of welcome home was this?

A few people were wounded and evacuated by ambulances. We had to sit in the building for an hour until the all-clear was given. When we were released we decided to get the hell out of there and stay in the 4th TOC. We grabbed our bags and grabbed the nearest bus. We were stunned and weak and coming down off the biggest adrenaline highs we have ever had. I was really scared shitless.

It turns out that that was the second attack of its kind for the day. We were told that as we got closer to the handover date things have been getting worse; and Balad, which gets attacked every day, was now getting attacked 3-4 times a day! We flew back into a shit storm and were almost killed in it. We heard stories that convoys are getting attacked more often and three days before the hand over and three days after all convoys will be on hold.

The country is buttoning down for the handover and there might be chance we would be stuck in Balad for a week. Fuck that, we said, we needed to get out. We called the 498th and asked if they had a bird we could get out on and they said yes but not until tomorrow morning. We agreed and decided to sleep in the TOC that night. We went to a movie at the new theater on the post and saw Garfield (which really sucked) and during the movie we got attacked again. The lights came on and we all had to get in our gear and sit tight. We could not leave the theater for an hour and when we finally made it back to the TOC we collapsed on the floor utterly exhausted. I ended up sleeping in a friend’s C-hut and took a shower. It was nice to sleep in a real bed after the day I had had and I went right to sleep. I dreamed about my death.

Day 9: 25 Jun 04.
We ate breakfast, went to the sign-in tent and checked our manifest for our bird. We then sat outside until we were called for the bird. A few hours later we got the call and got on a bus to meet the bird on the runway. We boarded a Blackhawk helicopter and we took up every seat. Eleven people on the bird with luggage — it was packed. We all sat there with are arms in the air resting on stacks of gear and bags.

They left the doors open and we got an amazing view of the country from the air. The flight was wild fun. It swooped and climbed and dove and turned. It skimmed the ground and leaped over power lines only to rocket towards ground and level off again. It was fun as can be and I enjoyed every minute of it. The heat was intense and all the sweat was blown away by the extreme wind. The wind was incredible! It actually hurt at times. The wind would go up your nose and you felt like it was going to rip off the tissue. Your eyelids flapped and your ears popped. It was so much fun I didn’t care. It was cool to see all the sights I normally see on convoys from above. I saw farms and fields and little villages and towns. I saw people milling about and kids waving. I saw water holes and plane wreckage and cows and sheep. I saw the Tigris up close and from above and the mosques and homes along it.

It was the best part of the entire week. Who would have figured a helicopter flight home would be the highlight of a week of dread?

We landed on the Speicher airstrip and walked to our C-huts to drop off our bags and gear. I checked in with the TOC and then went to take a shower and looong nap. I was home and it felt really good to be back in surroundings that are familiar and to see friends I missed. It is amazing how institutionalized you get out on a deployment. No matter how much you hate it here you are used to it. You know it inside and out and the people there are your family. When you leave it you miss it. Sounds weird right? It is a basically psychology of war and any soldier will tell you: we are not here for the war; we are not here for the mission; we are not here for fucking G.W.; we are here for one thing—each other.

Well that was my week. Overall I am relaxed (or at least more so) and I am happy to be back. If offered to take a pass again I will turn it down. It was not worth the trouble. I would rather have 4 days off here and stay in my hut.

For those of you who E-mailed me wondering where I was, thanks for the concern. Sorry I didn’t get back to you but I just wanted to be alone for a while. Thanks for all the care packages and boxes of goodies that were sent, it was such a treat to see them when I got back. Thanks again everyone for everything, I really appreciate it. I miss you all and you are in my thoughts.

Only 6 months left.

Take care.

--Chris Sachs