Monday, March 3, 2008

Kuwait = Sand

My training group landed in Kuwait late Friday. Everyone was happy, as the Department of Defense allots bonuses and benefits to military personnel who serve in a designated combat zone each month, and to qualify for the extras you need be present in a combat zone only one day of the month. All Navy personnel seem know at least one person who was aboard a ship near the Persian Gulf when the captain decided, late in the month, to move into “combat waters” and remain there until the new month arrived. Thus, two months of benefits. To have arrived even one day later would have cost me considerably.

We flew a charter plane from Columbia, SC to Kuwait. The flight was quite comfortable, and unlike the service on typical US routes, the flight attendants peppered us with food, including full meals. I got tired of eating, which is very unusual for me. Apparently past charter services have been skimpy with the grub, so we ate a final meal at Fort Jackson early in the evening, then received a carry-on meal as we boarded buses for the airport just a short time later. Once airborne and on our way to JFK in New York for fuel, the airline served us another meal consisting of hamburgers, potato chips and apple pie. There may have been a salad included as well, but I was fighting a food coma after my third evening meal of the day, and my memories of that leg of the flight are faint.

The flight staff was very nice and reportedly enjoyed the military charter flights as, with no booze to be had, we are peaceful and appreciative relative to other transcontinental passengers. They had the plane decorated with American flags and red, white and blue streamers and stars. (See photo) A large map of the USA hung near my chair featured a cartoon every state depicting a renowned product or resource for the area. Northern Indiana had a group of ripe tomatoes, which I thought appropriate. I was confused, however, by the stack of pancakes in central Texas.

We left the plane at JFK Airport in New York as it took on more fuel. Since we had little time and no tickets or boarding passes for the flight, we were restricted to the terminal. This being the military, many people wanted to smoke; so the staff gave people permission to light up in the terminal near our gate. This caused quite a stir with passengers arriving at nearby gates. I watched as dozens entered the terminal, immediately lifted their noses in disgust and glared at the two dozen sailors in desert fatigue uniforms happily inhaling carcinogens. Other passengers, though, went to their pockets for smokes and had a look of glee as they imagined, I presume, that during their flights all smoking restriction laws had been lifted unexpectedly.

I slept for most of our trans-Atlantic leg, but awoke ninety minutes before touchdown in Germany and had breakfast before we deplaned for a two-hour break while the plane refueled and a new crew came aboard. We shuttled into a reception center that not only allowed smoking indoors, but also had a gift shop with edible sexual toys. I am not sure how many of these “novelties” joined the flight to Kuwait (where they would be considered contraband), but it was the time to buy as the shop attendant had little change and gave a simple exchange rate of $1 = 1 Euro. The center also sold beer, and since I was in Germany and the time was nearly noon, I decided that I deserved a couple of beers before touching ground in Kuwait where consumption of alcohol, we were told, is illegal. Certainly no alcohol would be available on the US military base there.

While in South Carolina, I adopted a motivated young sailor, Petty Officer Bagsic, as my personnel security detail after I witnessed first-hand how well he handled firearms. He also acknowledges the genius of my wit. Bagsic is heading to Afghanistan and has assured my safety. He got a bit of training (see photo) during the Germany layover when he recognized the dangerous situation I might create by drinking a third beer, and he took it upon himself to assume control of that superfluous beverage even though he already was saddled with a bottle.

We deplaned in Kuwait in the dark and directly from the tarmac to waiting buses. The weather was encouraging: high 60s with a gentle warm breeze. For a moment I thought we had landed in San Diego, until I noticed that my eyes stung a bit, my lips felt somewhat gritty, and a faint taste of soil was emerging from the back of my tongue. I also realized that the beams from nearby floodlights illuminated the thin mesh of sand that lingers everywhere in desert kingdom of Kuwait.

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