Thursday, February 21, 2008

The Trip Home and Posting Turning a Bit Dark

This is the last sunrise for me in Iraq.

Have you ever gone on a vacation and the travel part was more interesting than the destination itself? That was how my trip back from Iraq was. We took off from Iraq in the standard “rocket launch” take off that this tour is known for. Hajji was generous enough to celebrate our departure by shooting off a few rounds in our direction. Thanks for the memories you jerk! We landed in Kuwait a while later.

The funny thing about landing in Kuwait when you’re coming from Iraq is that it doesn’t look any different. This gets you a bit paranoid because you have the nagging thought that “Maybe we just flew in circles and the pilots dropped us off in a different part of Iraq”. That’s happened to me in the past but it involved a crash-landing. Anyway, we get off the plane onto the tarmac (runway) and wait for our bus to pick us up. What do you do while you wait on the tarmac in the desert? You play Spades or Poker, sleep, read, rehydrate, or look around to make sure you’re still not in Iraq. Yep, we’re in Kuwait!

Waiting on the tarmac

They loaded us onto a bus (complete with gun-truck escort) and took us to some base in the middle of nowhere. Of course that’s been one of the running gags of this tour, always being in the middle of nowhere. The bus was awesome! It had cushioned seats, A/C, and music. I hadn’t ridden in a bus since I left the states. All I had ridden or driven in was a gun truck, a road clearing vehicle (EOD) and a go-kart I made while I was there.

They took us to tent city for our stay in country. If you’re wondering what this is like, it’s like sleeping in a giant circus tent with 150 of your closest friends. At least all of us smell the same (rotten armpits and sand). This isn’t a problem because most of us are accustomed to worse conditions. The tents had wooden floors, cots, A/C, and 110-volt electricity. If you’ve never been overseas, even on a normal European vacation, every country runs on 220-volt electricity unlike the US which runs on 110-volts. That means that if you plug your computer to an outlet without a transformer, you just fried your computer. Now, most computers come with a built in voltage regulator so this doesn’t happen. Why is this important? Because our stay was to last five days, this means that you can watch movies or play games until your flight date and time. They also had a chow hall that was made out of concrete (not a tent), and a McHajji’s (A McDonalds with the sign written in the local language)! Other food choices included Subway, Anthony’s Pizza, Chung’s Garden (Chinese), and a Java Joes coffee house. When you’re coming from Iraq, this is like staying at the Marriott.

Kuwaiti "Marriott"


We spent the time sending e-mail, calling home, and shopping at the local PX (Post Exchange). We also had a picnic with a real BBQ grill and real steaks. This little break lasted for a few days. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not but it was good to spend a few days “decompressing” there before the follow-on trip to the states. We also had a great time perusing through the amnesty box with the local MP in order to help them catalogue things that were turned in. This is a chance for the Joes to turn in stuff without getting into trouble. That burned the few days we were there.

Then came the magic day when we were told that we’ll be flying home. We were to stage in a cantonment area for the customs brief and inspection, and then wait there until transport to the airport. While you’re there, you also receive endless briefings that cover your return to the states. Most of the briefings center on customs do’s and don’ts; for example, we can’t transport booze, ammo, explosives, porn, animals, animal parts, humans, human parts (except your own stinking carcass), classified materials, cigars, bugs, reptiles, fish, foreign weapons, weapon parts (AK-47, etc), spiders, huge numbers of bootleg DVDs, or specific types of blunt weapons such as an ASP (look at the blog entry Defending the Ponderosa Part 2). I don’t know where most of my readers are from but all of that stuff would be the typical shopping list for a patrol in Iraq.

Anyway, they also peruse through your computers and port hard drives for the porn and classified material. Knowing this, I purposely placed a picture of myself with a few friends on the desktop background. In the picture were wearing our body armor, helmets weapons, boots and a light coat of sun tan lotion. Don’t worry; we had the “Femoral Artery Protection Pad” on so the “essentials” were covered. In any case that computer tech won’t be able to “un-see” that picture for the rest of his life. I don’t think he wanted to go on checking the rest of the computer’s hard drive after that.

From there you move to the “holding area”. It’s pretty nice because it has hard buildings with A/C, movies being played, board games, and Java-Joes. The last one is a “poor man’s Starbuck’s” coffee house. The wait lasted 14 hours but we didn’t care because we’re headed home. We left there around 1900 local time. At the airport, we got to load our baggage and load the plane. Unlike a “normal” airline flight, we have to provide a baggage detail and a “pusher & counter” detail. Why, because our gear is heavy and we can pack a plane like champs. As far as the other detail, once the baggage is loaded, we “push passengers to fill every seat from rear to front as others are taking a count of personnel on the plane. I LOVE this detail because, unlike a civilian flight, manners are optional when “motivating” a person to move to the back of the plane. Also, if you’re on any of the details, you sit in first class seating regardless of rank. It makes me feel good to send a colonel to the back of the plane while a private gets a bigger seat up front.

We took off from Kuwait around 2100 at night with the temperature holding steady at 102°. We landed in Shannon, Ireland about 2130 (local time). This leg of the flight lasted about four hours. If you’ve never been to Shannon, Ireland, I can tell you that it’s one of the most well thought out airport plans ever. We got off the plane, walked down a long corridor and straight into the bar. We’re still under General Order Number One at this point so this means that we still can’t drink. Fine, but when you walk out of the bar, you run into the Duty-Free store across from the bar. What would you buy in a duty-free store; locally produced booze, liquor, and souvenirs; in that order! Anyway, some of us bought what we wanted and made the mission happen. What was pretty cool was that the locals that were there were greeting us like we’re their family members. To date, I’m not sure if Ireland has sent troops to Iraq but I’d gladly welcome them to fight alongside me. After three hours enjoying the conversations and visiting with the Irish, it was time to move on. We took off for the next leg of the trip.

We arrived about six hours later in Bangor Maine around 0630 local time with a temperature of 42°. Yes, you will feel the 60 degree difference once you get off the plane. For those of the male species with protruding parts, it goes up into your body cavity and yep, the turkey’s done! Anyway we got off the plane and were greeted by the Maine Troop Greeters ( If you’re not familiar with this organization, here’s what I know. Bangor, Maine is the first and last stop on U.S. soil for hundreds of thousands of us going off to war. A group of locals have been putting their politics aside to say “Thank you” to us virtually every day. The planes arrive with little notice at all hours of the day and night but that doesn’t stop them from being there. When we get there, they’re waiting to greet us when we touch down. They started doing this for us (troops) in 1991 with hundreds of people gathering to greet and praise us, however, when flights en route to and from Iraq and Afghanistan started in 2003 the Greeters needed to become more organized for security reasons. This is when the airport, chamber of commerce, and local veterans organizations took the lead and made it possible for the greeters, (sometimes a dozen - sometimes many dozens) to do what they do best. Each and every plane, carrying one or more soldiers, has been met with cheers, hugs, applause, salutes, and handshakes; these strangers are giving us love and gratitude we aren’t accustomed to. We’ll be handed cookies, candies, toiletries, books and cell phones (for free calls home) in the old duty-free shop that has now become their “welcome-center.” You won’t find any of the indifference or hostility that some of the Vietnam vets faced. These Maine Greeters are determined that troops are met with respect and appreciation.

First morning in the US

Sorry I side-tracked but it’s important to me that you know about this group and what they’re doing every day for us. We left Maine for an undisclosed airfield on the east coast. When we landed, we were greeted by a bunch of generals, politicians, high-ranking officers, and several command sergeant majors. If you’ve never been in the military you have to realize that for an assembly of that much brass in one place usually means that you’re in a parade, the Pentagon, or at Arlington so you know we’re really not accustomed to this. The most exciting part of this was that a few of us made it a point to take off our boots and walk barefoot in the grass, others rolled around in it, and a few even kissed the ground. I hadn’t seen lush, green grass in almost 18 months so you can imagine that this was fun for me.

From the airfield, we were taken (in school buses) to a huge airplane hangar. The bus ride was weird because we’re allowed to roll down the windows. This is something that you’d never do in Iraq because it can get you killed. Everything was very green, fresh, and clean and not a hint of any burning trash. I have to admit, I’m still feeling like a rock star at this point. We get there and have to turn in our weapons to the units that will be inspecting them for re-issue. This is a problem for me because I carry multiple weapons and they’ve been my constant companions from the start of this nut roll up to now. It really hurt (emotionally) to say goodbye to them. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one with this problem. The bonus part is that now you get to feel “lost” because you’re not armed. Imagine how you’d feel if you’re in a public place and suddenly you realize you don’t have pants on, that’s how it is with a soldier and his weapon. To some of us the pants are optional the weapon is not.

After some initial in processing, we were taken on post and housed in the “VIP” housing. It was actual VIP housing which means luxury and privacy; something we’re definitely not accustomed to. The rooms are one-man rooms with a shower connecting to both rooms; each room has a TV, bunk, desk, microwave, armoire, 110v electricity, basic cable, fridge, and a window. This is the nicest accommodation I’ve had the whole tour. The funny thing is, the VIP housing isn’t really because we’re important, I think it was because the buildings are located far away from where we would come into contact with “normal” people. My compliments to the post commander for this idea, it was a smart one. The fatal flaw in this plan is the fact that we don’t care if we’re on foot. We’ve just spent 22 months on tour walking everywhere and this post is no challenge to us. We’ll walk as long and far as we have to.

Priorities first, we have a place to crash out so now we need food and drink (alcohol or non-alcohol) I’m indifferent at this point. I stroll to the closest chow hall and ask to talk to the mess sergeant directly. I explain that we’ve been back in the states less than six hours and we would like something “special” for chow. He asks me “What?” I tell him I’d like two fried egg sandwiches and a glass of milk for dinner. He looks at me strangely until I explain that since I’ve been gone, all I’ve had has been powdered eggs and powdered milk. Therefore, I want REAL eggs and milk. He laughed and cooked it personally for me. I’m a real rock star!!! On the way back to housing, we stop by the commissary and pick up some food to store and eat at our leisure. It’s amazing how much time you can spend in there looking at everything and not buy much.

Two hours later, we continue our stroll “home” and run into my boss from the deployment who tells me that he’s procured “drinks” for us back at the building. He explains that we don’t have to be anywhere until 1000 hours the next morning so we have some buffer time to sleep in. GAME ON! I have to tell you that I cook with more alcohol in a week than I drink in a year. Just the fact that we “can” now; I made it a point to get very drunk. ¾ of one beer later, I’m good to go. I notice that the floor is rocking back and forth, like a swing, but not spinning. I stagger back to my room and turn on the TV just to hear real commercials for a change. Before I fall asleep I have the epiphany that I’ve become a cheap date but after that long in the desert sober and being dehydrated, it wouldn’t take much.

Turning a Bit Dark, Informative, and Realistic

Morning comes too early, as always. I woke up very confused because I didn’t recognize where I was, my weapon was missing, and no on was shooting at me. How sad is it that those morning parameters are considered normal to me. I look around in a panic not really knowing what I should be looking at or looking for. I’m not really sure of what a “formal” or correctly defined panic attack is like but I think I was in the middle of one now. See, for us (combat veterans) we’re either OK or in panic/fighting mode. There really is no happy middle ground. It takes me about ten to fifteen minutes to calm myself down and make sense of what’s around me. I get past this little episode and start my day with briefings and medical processing.

Medical processing is where you enjoy going through a physical (without the dipstick treatment) with about two hundred other soldiers. The doctors check your hearing, breathing, reflexes, and other “normal” body functions. The most frustrating part for me was the hearing test. They place you in this sound booth with headphones and hand you a button on a cable. They tell you to listen carefully and when you hear a tone in the left or right ear, press the button. Long story short, I didn’t hear much. The part that irked me was when the tech told me my results; he stated that my hearing was still within “normal” parameters; never mind that I had dropped five points across the board from my last hearing test given to me before I left. Put practically, I have to turn my head slightly so that my left ear is facing you in order to hear clearly. It’s especially difficult when there’s background noise. The other tests went OK but I had similar results throughout the physical in some form or another.

After the physical, you get to spend time with the shrink. I really don’t like shrinks. The interview includes how are you feeling, any changes from when you left to when you returned, blah, blah, blah! All of this is being documented in order to track your health and to be able to improve on research and treatment for other soldiers. What’s the point? The answers include the following: I have nightmares pretty much every night, I can’t stand to be around people in general, I’ve become apathetic towards pretty much everything under the sun, I have no tolerance for anyone, I can go from zero to hostile at the drop of a hat, and I find that I don’t operate as sharp as I used to. After talking to guys that were in Vietnam, they reassured me that this is normal.

Let me give you some examples.

1. I’ve always been one that makes list in order to stay organized and accomplish tasks. Now I can’t operate without them at all. I lose focus or the drive to get things done.

2. I had blood work done because of feeling so jacked up and uneasy for so long. The doctor informs me that my cortisol levels are through the roof. Cortisol is the hormone secreted from your anterior (front) pituitary gland that takes over when adrenaline is used up.

3. I find not only do I not care for daily “events”, I’m apathetic towards things around me. It’s not that I’m not putting out effort to fit in or interact with society; I just don’t care to do so.

These are some of the many examples of what I, and many others, am going through. This is also the main reason I started to blog again. I wanted to feel a sense of normalcy. Blogging while I was in Iraq was a fun pastime for me, so I figured it would help me now. I just hope it provides my readers with some first hand insight and understanding as to why we behave the way we do after combat. Some soldiers become addicted to the adrenaline high so they do stupid things like speeding or reckless driving in order to achieve that high again. Others turn to alcohol, drugs or other paraphernalia in order to escape the memories, nightmares, feelings, and insecurity we’re not accustomed to. It’s truly an emotional roller coaster teetering between hostility and sorrow.

I find that sometimes I’m overwhelmed with sorrow and guilt because some of my soldiers died and I didn’t. Then the guilt doubles because I think of where would that leave my parents, my brothers and my sisters. I find that I’m not interested anymore in things I used to enjoy. Then I have the complete opposite in that I see something that acts as a trigger (a guy slapping a girl) and I’m filled with absolute rage. Not anger, not hostility (although that can come into play later) but complete and utter rage. If I’m confronted by the triggering mechanism (person, etc) I am already planning my escape route after either crippling him or killing him. I haven’t acted any of this out but I still have the emotions. What do I do to fight this? In my case, I had to be proactive. Like I said earlier, I had the blood work done and the doctor prescribed meds. One to pill was made to help wean me off of the cortisol (hormone) and the other to help me sleep. Some days are easier than others. What it boils down to is the fact that I had become so accustomed to the chaos, terror and horror of living in a combat zone that it had become normal for me to thrive in that environment.

After two weeks with the medical and administrative processing, I went home. Now that I’m back here I still don’t feel like “me”. I go through the motions of daily life as if I’m on autopilot but with no real interest in what I do. It’s as if I am going through my “role” only because it’s what’s expected of me. I don’t interact with too many friends outside of the Army because I just don’t have much interest in doing so. I work and I go home. I’ve been told that I’ve become “stand-offish” and it really doesn’t bother me. The sad thing is I’m one of the less severe cases that my family doctor has to deal with.

Now I realize that this posting has taken a dark turn from my normal, jovial, postings but I feel that, by sharing this, it might help someone else in my shoes or a family member trying to understand why their soldier is behaving so differently. My other goal for posting what’s going on with me is, I honestly don’t know. I know I feel better when I write but I’m frustrated at the same time.

I will continue to post on the changes in my life since I’ve been back. I hope that you will be patient and tolerant of these postings and I look forward to your feedback. See you soon.