Fort Benning to Baghdad

Fri. Feb 18 – Sun Feb 20
This is written in retrospect so any precision of time or detail is absent.  After checking in to Lawson Air Base, having lunch (served by the same ladies who’d dished up the fried chicken, instant potatoes and gravy in the DFac in CRC), and just relaxing for awhile in the supremely comfortable leather lounge chairs, we were manifested for our flight.  The plane took off about 4pm, provided a meal for us about an hour later and then, the lucky ones slept.  Many, like me, couldn’t sleep and watched movies, read books and tried to read over the shoulder of the officer in front who was reading something marked “Classifed”.  Well, that might have just been me.   At some point on the 14 hour flight I managed to nod off for an hour or two but that was about it.  We made a stopover in Leipzig, Germany for about an hour and a half.  I toured around the ridiculously over-priced gift shop and was tempted by nothing – well, except the German beer, which we were not allowed to buy.   Yes, I considered it anyway, but decided the risk of getting caught and fired before I’d even started wasn’t worth it.
Then, back onto the plane for our eight-hour trip to Kuwait where I think I got another hour near the end of the flight.  Filed off the plane, filed onto an old, rather rattle-trap, and quite uncomfortable bus and then sat there, for a long, long time, waiting for god knows what.  Eventually our convoy began to move and we were on our way to Ali Al Salem airport where we would spend the night in “Tent City”.  About an hour on, the convoy stopped so we could all have a toilet/water break.  After a 20 minute break, we all filed back on the bus and then… waited, and waited, and waited.  I asked the officer beside me what was going on; he laughed and said he had no idea, “you get used to this in the military”.  After about 45 minutes of just sitting, the guy in charge of the group came and told us we could go; apparently one of the contractors had left and we all had to wait until the situation was sorted out.  Another 30-40 minutes and we were at Ali Al Salem and Tent City.  It was around 6pm, or maybe later, but it was dark.
This was the worst, most confusing and exhausting part of the trip.  Most of the other contractors had someone there to greet them with a sign and to help them through the next steps. There was an order for all 300 of us to make formation of four long lines under a big, open, unlighted structure; it felt dismal.  A soldier in charge marched up and down the 75 people-long line, yelling out information on everything from how the duffel bags would be handled to where the billeting office was to where we could store our luggage and much more.  I couldn’t hear anything he said when he wasn’t speaking in my direction and my poor sleep-deprived brain couldn’t take in much of what I could hear.  Fortunately, Gill and Derek, between them, seemed to have grasped most of it; we had a few minutes to go and sort out billeting or go to the toilet and then we all had to go and make 4 long lines behind the trucks that had out duffel bags in them.  All of us were responsible for unloading these.  Uh oh.  I couldn’t even carry my own.  Gill said to come and stand near him and just pretend to be helping; Derek said to go to the back of the line.  I didn’t really like the idea of not participating and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, if it was a sort of production line set up and someone was passing a duffel to me I could probably hold it long enough to pass it on to the next person.  It was picking it up from the ground and carrying it any length I had trouble with.  Then Terry, Gill’s roommate from CRC came by and said to just stand next to him and he’d pass them to me.  So that’s what I did.  Each truck had four lines, two sets facing each other and it was pretty do-able.  Mind you, Terry made it easy on me and when a heavy one came to him, he’d say, “heavy one” and pass it to me but not really relinquish holding it until we had, together, passed it to the person next in line to me.  In the end it was kind of fun and I felt better at least trying to participate.
After the duffels were all lined up in rows again, as in CRC, we were supposed to go and arrange for billeting and come back for our bags after the sniffer dogs had ok’d everything.  Went and ate fast food at the outdoor food court, got ourselves billeted to a bed in a tent and suddenly it was 1am and we had to manifest for our flight to BIAP (Baghdad International Airport) in a very few hours.  I lay down on my cot in a huge tent with about 12 beds and tried to sleep.  Snoring from across the way and over two, much rustling with plastic bags and fussing with luggage interiors from across the way and over one,  very bright lights glaring harshly and a vague sense of unease about making my flight in 3-4 hours made sleep challenging.  Tent City is open 24/7 so people are constantly coming and going and you just adapt.  I wound up with about 2 more hours sleep before I was woken by Derek’s text message “you need to come now!”.  When I got over there, I found out we hadn’t made that flight (military takes priority so it’s common to get bumped) so we manifested for the next one, which was in a few hours.  Meanwhile, who should I bump into but Arthur, returning from R&R!  We went off to the Green Bean and had a coffee and caught up.  Derek, Gill and I wound up flying together with Arthur to BIAP, where we separated.
First  – and I hope last – flight on a military plane.  Interesting, I’ll give it that, but very uncomfortable.  You’re wearing all your armour, helmet, etc; you’re sitting along the outside of the plane, facing inside, unable to see much of anything except the people across from you.  The bottoms and backs of the seats are strips of canvas straps with no give at all and if you’re not sitting exactly in the middle (which I wasn’t due to the generous girth of the leviathan on my left), you’re sitting partially on steel poles.  With all the straps and belts and bits and bobs, there is absolutely no wiggle room and you’re stuck.  It was only an hour but felt longer.  Interesting, though, to be inside and see the spotters jumping from their swing seats in the windows to the back of the plane (open to the air).  And, unlike commercial airplanes, you’re not very cushioned at all; you’re really sitting just in the belly of the plane and every dip and shudder of the plane is felt so much more acutely.
We landed in BIAP about 4pm, were processed fairly quickly (odd feeling to land in a foreign country and not need a passport) and were met outside by a DYNCORP employee who drove us to FOB Union III via the Irish Road – the most dangerous road in the world.  Apparently the boss had ordered it (Go Red!).  This is from Wikipedia:
Route Irish
“Route Irish” is the nickname of the 12 kilometers stretch of east-west highway linking the International Zone to Baghdad International Airport.
The “Winged Man” statue at the airport end of the route was made by Iraqi sculpture Badri Al Samarra. It commemorates poet and inventor Abbas Bin Firnas. He formulated theories of human flight in the 9th century and conducted experiments on aerodynamics.
The highway gets its nickname from the fact that in January 2005, the “Irish Brigade” was given the job of safeguarding theroute.  The Irish Brigade, also known as the “Fighting 69th,” isthe modern U.S. National Guard unit that descended from the69th New York State Volunteers which was formed at thebeginning of the American Civil War.
The highway is a four-lane road with a 50-meter wide median,and was formally named by Jane’s Defense Weekly as “the MostDangerous Road in the World.”  Between Nov. 1, 2004, and March 12, 2005, there were 135 attacks or hostile incidents that occurred along Route Irish.
Route Irish has six major intersections.  Each of these has been assigned a corresponding checkpoint number by Coalition Forces to facilitate command and control.  Entry Control Point 1 is located at one end of the highway near Baghdad International Airport. Checkpoints 539-543 follow the road east going into downtown.  The point at which the highway enters the IZ is known as Checkpoint 12.
While still the subject of considerable hype, Route Irish was actually cleaned up bythe summer of 2005.  The number of incidents has dropped considerably so thatdriving Route Irish is now safer than driving in Baghdad.

We made it safely to our destination passing umpteem Iraqi checkpoints along the way.  Everything we saw on the way in to Union III was grey and ugly; mostly all we could see was the t-walls that line the road.  The Dyncorp employee, who we’ll call Bill, and his soldier buddy who was driving and – revoltingly – spitting his tobacco spit into a bottle – made a poor first impression to say the least.  All bigotry and superficial braggadocio, possibly meant to impress us with their grit and hard-core cynicism, they only succeeded in causing us to feeling shame to be associated with them in any way.  I think I even pitied them, just a little, for their complete lack of acuity and sensitivity.


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About maurdian

I am a nomadic ESL teacher who, not surprisingly, travels and teaches English, largely at the same time.
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2 Responses to Fort Benning to Baghdad

  1. eric says:

    I like you diary, good story telling!
    Hope you are getting some photo’s of this.
    Look forward to the next installment.
    Eric

    • maurdian says:

      Thanks Eric – I’ve been trying to upload pictures but have been unsuccessful so far. I think there may not be enough bandwidth. I’ll keep trying though!

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