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