At Ali Al Salem airbase, Kuwait

I said goodbye to my family on Monday night, and headed down to LAX.  My uncle Akio let me stay at his place, and we woke up at 4Am in order for him to take me to catch my 6AM flight to Dallas, TX (3 hour flight).  From there, we caught the charter flight on North American Airlines to Leipzig, Germany (11 hour flight), and after a short break onward to Kuwait City (5 hour flight).  Luckily for me, I got to sit in first class again, which helped me to catch sleep during this long flight.

From KCI, we took buses over to Ali Al Salem, where I’ve stayed since last night.  It’s basically a big tent-city, and it looks a lot like this:

Ali Al Salem tents

It’s not so bad here this time.  It is extremely hot, and walking outside around noon feels like a blast furnace:

 Kuwait Weather

Aside from being a very long flight, the trip went reasonably well this time.  It’s weird to be back in Kuwait.  The two things that hit me were (1) walking on gravel all the time; and (2) having the strange smell in all the toilets from the odor chemicals that they use here.  Iraq is a bit nicer, in that it has more paved walkways, and no chemical toilet smells everywhere.  I’m actually looking forward to being back in Iraq, a sentiment that is common among folks here.  The only problem I’ve had so far is that when I took a shower last night, someone swiped my PT clothes (physical training clothes), and so I had to walk back to my tent wearing only a towel.  It was midnight, and nobody saw me, so really the biggest problem was losing a set of PT’s and having to buy another today.  You don’t want to wear any more clothes than necessary in this oven.

It’s a desert out here.  Not quite as bad as Camp Buehring, because there are a few blades of vegetation here and there.  But it is hot and sandy for the most part.  Here’s a picture of me at the edge of the base, standing in the 115 degree heat:

Kuwait Desert

When you are in the Kuwaiti desert, remember to drink LOTS of water, and wear chapstick, as you get dried out very quickly.

 Today, I am sitting in the USO tent, where there are dozens of folks playing games, watching TV or movies, talking on phones, or using their laptops and enjoying the free, but slow, wi-fi internet in this tent.  I phoned my family, and everyone is doing well.  The food is good at the Dining Facility (DFAC, which is open 24 hours here), and although I’m a bit jet-lagged again, I’m doing fine.

 I’ll update again when I reach Balad.  Hard to believe that I have 90 days or so left before I can go home for good!

So Much to Do, So Little Time

I’ve enjoyed my 15 days of leave.  Tonight is my last night in the US.  I have to fly back to Iraq tomorrow.  It will be sad to leave.  But on the bright side, when I get back I’ll have about 90 days left before I return home for good! 

 In my last post, we were at Chuck E Cheese’s with my family, celebrating daughter Rebecca’s 4th birthday.  My children have grown up a lot in 7 months.  Judy is 5 and a half, and she can read entire books by herself, it is really amazing to see Judy who is not yet in Kindergarten who can read so well!  Rebecca can talk a lot more, and recognizes all the letters.  She is eager to learn to read also.  I can have conversations with both of them now, it is much better in person than when we are on the phone from Iraq.  Skype video calls are the best way to talk, because my children like to see me, it makes them realize that they are actually talking to me.

 So much has happened during the last 2 weeks!   Here is a partial list of things that I did:

  • Went to Disneyland with my family, and stayed overnight (the kids had a lot of fun on this trip, but Disneyland is EXTREMELY crowded in summer now that school is out, even though we went on a Monday):

Disneyland

  • Went to the Santa Barbara Zoo with my family.
  • Went to the last days of pre-school with my kids before summer break, and attended a singing presentation for both of my kids.
  • Met my friend Lindsay Nielson and others at the Saticoy Country Club:

Saticoy CC

  • Built a playhouse with my kids in the living room.
  • Visited the pet store with my kids (almost as good as the zoo).
  • Fixed several things around the house.
  • Gave my cat a bath.
  • Visited my Grandma in Los Angeles.  She is nearly 100 years old now!

In LA with Grandma

  • Cleaned up my office a bit.
  • Took my kids to a doctor’s appointment.

 And so much more.  It’s hard to believe I did all this in 2 weeks. 

 Anyway, I am flying out of LAX at around 6AM tomorrow.  This will start another harrowing trip to Iraq.  I don’t even mind going back to Iraq, it’s just the uncomfortable and very long trip that bothers me the most.   The weather in Camarillo, CA has been very pleasant.  Mostly in the 70’s and usually cloudy.  It is very different than the 110 to 120 degree brutal sunshine Iraq is currently enjoying.

 I will be missing my family, and they will miss me.  But I’ll be back in 90 days.  Here is a letter from daughter Judy (5 years old) that sums things up well:

Judy Letter

The Trip Home from Iraq to California for 15 days R&R Leave

When you spend a year in Iraq, you get to take 15 days to come home for leave.  The government flies you home at no charge to the soldier.  For months, I’ve planned my leave so that I could come home in time for my daughter Rebecca’s 4th birthday, which was June 7, 2009.  This would be when the kids are out of school, and so this seemed the best time to set up my leave.

 When you go on leave from Iraq, you have to jump through a few hoops.  The unit gives you a briefing, warning you to not drink alcohol until you are back home, and not to get in any trouble on the way home.  The threat that keeps getting repeated is that if you break any rules, you are taken off the flight and sent back to Iraq without being able to go on leave.  After that briefing, the chaplain gives a talk on how to re-integrate with the family.  It’s a short briefing, but worthwhile.  He told me some things, like to say nice things during the first meeting with the family (e.g., you look very pretty), avoid criticizing anything, and keep the family routine going rather than trying to change anything.

 After all that, you get your leave date set.  You must turn in your weapon the day before.  I found this very liberating, because it was the first time in over 7 months that I had not had to carry my weapon with me everywhere (esp. when I go to eat).  Not having a weapon made me feel a bit naked, though.

 On June 3, I showed up with a hundred other people getting ready to go on leave.  They told us all to return at 9AM the following day.  So I did, and guess what?  The plane was broken and we were told to call the next day.  I called later that same day, and found that they had delayed the trip for at least 2 more days.  At this point, I was getting worried about being able to make it home in time for Rebecca’s June 7 birthday party.  People were coming from out of town, and it was going to be a big event, which I really didn’t want to miss.  So signed up for space-available travel, citing my reason, and a nice sergeant got me on a space-A flight the following morning.  I waited another day, spending it working in my office and going to the pool to relax a bit.

 The next day, I showed up at the PAX terminal, where outbound passengers wait for their flight.  That place normally looks like this:

 PAX Terminal

After waiting 2 hours, they loaded us all up into a C-130, which looks like this:

 c130

I was wearing body armor and carrying my luggage, and it was the normal 110 degrees at 10AM in Iraq.  There was no air conditioning in this airplane.  Here is what it looks like sweltering inside a C-130 (some civilian contractor guy is on the left):

 In C1301

After strapping us in, they then announced that our flight to Kuwait was cancelled, and some big-wig was taking over our flight and going somewhere else.  We were all pretty annoyed at this chain of events.  But the good news is that they got us on another C-130 about an hour later, and we in fact did leave Balad Air Base that day.  The only provision was that they asked us if we didn’t mind flying with a coffin carrying a deceased soldier.  Nobody objected.  This was a moving event, because they lined everyone, aircrew included, at the tail of the aircraft as they loaded the flag-draped coffin onto the plane while everyone saluted.

 The normal route to go on leave is to fly from Iraq to Ali Al Salem air base in Kuwait, and then take a commercial charter plane from Kuwait to either Dallas TX or Atlanta, GA.  From there, you take an American Airlines flight to your final destination. 

We flew in the relatively slow C-130 prop plane down south.    Because I asked, the crew allowed me to fly in the cockpit of the C-130:

 In C130

It was great, because I was able to see things (C-130’s don’t have passenger windows), take pictures, and talk with the crew.  It’s also air conditioned in the cockpit.  I was able to chat with the crew, and learn a bit about how the C-130 flies.  Here is a picture taken of us flying over the Persian Gulf into Kuwait City:

 Into KCI

 In our case, we flew to the Kuwait City airport, and then took a bus for the hour drive over to Ali Al Salem.

 Ali Al Salem is an American air base in Kuwait.  It’s a miserable place in a desert.  Very little vegetation and normal summer temperatures of 120 with pretty high humidity.  You turn in your body armor and helmet here, and then they assign you a tent to wait in until they book your flight home. They also give you some briefings where they warn you if you get into any trouble, you will be sent back to Iraq.  Remember, drinking alcohol or various other mischief is forbidden in this combat zone.

 I had to stay over night at Ali Al Salem, which wasn’t really that bad.  They have a nice Dining Facility, and several shops to visit while you wait for your flight home (the freedom bird, as some call it).  The worst part was having to be present at 0900 so that we could fly at 20:30.  They put us into a tent, gave us another briefing, and then made us all clear customs.  Customs involved having everything dumped out of our suitcases and checked, to make sure we weren’t smuggling any drugs, weapons, or other contraband back home.  We then have to re-pack our suitcases.  The people in charge then asked for a flight commander and flight NCO in charge, and because I was the senior major in the flight, I got chosen to be flight commander.  This involved very little work.  Mainly we had to corral all 132 personnel into a tent and wait for our flight for 6 hours while the personnel in charge of us tormented us further from time to time. 

 In Kuwait, the temperature outside was 115F, but inside the tent, even with the air conditioning going, it was still close to 90.  The tent was something of a torture chamber, actually, and I remember it gave me the strange feeling of being tired but not able to rest and hungry but not able to eat or drink most of this day.  Worst, I was the flight commander and technically in charge if anyone got into trouble.  Here is a view of the “freedom tent” area:

 Freedom Tents
Nobody got into trouble, and thankfully we got on the bus to KCI (Kuwait City) airport without incident.  There were 20 baggage handlers from our ranks who did all the hard work.  I signed the manifest attesting to the fact that we had 132 passengers, and my reward for all this was that I got to sit in the first class section.

 The flight from Iraq to Kuwait was on a military plane.  From Kuwait to Dallas TX, it was a civilian plane with stewardesses chartered by the military.  Only military people in uniform were on the plane (including a few civilians, such as shop workers or the like).  We flew from Kuwait up to Leipzig, Germany, where we had a 2-hour layover.  Here is a picture of our plane at Leipzig/Halle airport:

 Leipzig Airport

Leipzig is a very nice city, and I visited it in 2003 to see Auerbach’s Keller (where Faust rode on a barrel of beer).  But we did not get to do anything but sit in the waiting area in the middle of the night.  Solider went to the gift shops to blow their money on trinkets and snacks, even though there was free food on the plane.   As you may have guessed, I did not spend a penny.

 We got back on our plane for the 11+ hour flight to Dallas, TX.  We flew very far north, over polar ice fields, and clouds.  Here is a view somewhere near Greenland:

 FLying

When we arrived in Dallas, we were warmly greeted.  The Dallas Fire Department greets the daily incoming flight with a cascade of water shot up in the air from two fire engines.  There is a group of people who come out every weekend to cheer on the returning soldiers.  It was very moving, and I am very grateful to the people of Dallas who came out to welcome us all!  Here is a link to the video from this wonderful event:

  WELCOME HOME

It was 8AM in the morning, Sunday June 7 when I arrived in Dallas.  Rebecca’s 4th birthday party was set to start at noon in Ventura, CA.  A nice “ambassador” volunteer lady directed us all to the earliest possible flight to get home.  I was able to get bumped up to a 9:30AM flight from Dallas to LAX, and arrived in LAX at 11AM.  My friend Greg Rozsa picked me up and whisked me to Ventura.  It took several VERY unpleasant days, but I had finally made it home.  I was able to arrive at about 12:30, and see the family I had been missing for seven months:

Chuck E Cheese

Coming Home on Leave

I am flying home today!!  We fly from Balad, Iraq, to Kuwait (hour and a half flight).  Then get on a military charter to Leipzig Germany (6 hour flight) and on to Dallas Texas (11 hour flight), where I get on a regular airline to LAX (a bit over 3 hours).  Including stop-overs, it is a long day of flying. 

It will be good to see my family again!  My lovely wife and adorable children are waiting for me at home!

The Joint Base Balad Plastic Model Club

Joint Base Balad (JBB), is about 60 miles north of Baghdad. It’s the busiest military airport in the world, and the second largest airport in the entire world. It has a population of 30,000 people, military and civilian. JBB is a key logistical hub for the Iraq theater of operations. Almost everything comes into or out of our base, and then on to other bases, including the small FOB’s (forward operating bases) surrounding Balad and Baghdad.

When I arrived in Iraq back in November 2008, I was amazed at the number of things there are to do on JBB. There are recreation centers, at least four indoor gyms, two pools (one indoor and one outdoor), fifty different religious services, various dancing lessons, a full movie theater with free movies running every day, and bulletin boards filled with information on things to do. To see a pretty good list of the activities offered, just check out the base newspaper, which can be downloaded at: http://www.dvidshub.net/?script=pubs/pubs_show.php&id=140 (or search for “Expeditionary Times”).

One thing that caught my eye is the Joint Base Balad Plastic Model Club.

IMG_3421

I hadn’t built any models since I was a teenager, and was eager to give it another try. I’m not sure when the club was started, but for about a year before I got here, it was run by Major Andy Taylor, from the 555 Engineer Brigade. The idea behind the club is that on Wednesday evenings, we’d get together at the East Side Recreation Center, and build plastic models for about 2 hours. We have several boxes of models to choose from, and a supply chest filled with a selection of paints, brushes, knives, sandpaper, and various other modeling tools.

Most people come for a few meetings, just to build a model or two. Some people take the models and build them at their CHU’s (containerized housing unit, which is where most military live). There are several members who are regulars, and who come to every meeting, and these tend to encourage others to work on their models, and give tips on good techniques. It’s a fun way to spend time, hang out, socialize, and of course build plastic models. We keep a copy or two of Fine Scale Modeler magazine around to inspire folks. Most of us are not nearly good enough to make models like those seen in this publication, but we try. Over time, I’m becoming better. Like I say, though, the main purpose of the group is just to relax and have fun building plastic models. 

We have one father-son team that comes regularly.  Some guys are really good.  Here is Air Force Master Sergeant Raynor, and another AF guy who I think is an O-5 (Lt. Col):

IMG_3424

There are clubs like this around the various bases in Iraq, but I believe we are the largest and most organized in Iraq. We are lucky to get some great support from modeling groups and shops in the US. The group leader requests extra models and supplies, and our chest is almost always filled with plenty of modeling materials. Some of the models are great, like the brand new automotive models of which we have plenty still in the plastic. Some are not so great, such as the pre-owned model alien spaceship I built recently that had a receipt from sometime in 1997, and was missing a few parts. But we are grateful for all support from home, and we send out “Thank You’s” to everyone who sends us supplies.  Here is a picture of most of the group:

IMG_3433

 It’s a great boost for our morale over here to be able to build models, and I always look forward to my Wednesday nights here.  To conclude, here are a few close-ups of some of the better models.  I made the yellow Lamborghini Diablo, and MSG Raynor made the M-1 tank that looks so life-like!

IMG_3440

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