I arrived safely in the U.S. on Sunday morning and still in one piece to my parents home on Monday night. I have to confess I will never again complain about TSA or traveling commercially again. Traveling home from Iraq was hands down the most physically and psychologically exhausting experiences of my life!
First off, I mentioned that my shift had been rearranged and I was now starting work 4 hours earlier. This was extremely unfortunate for me because much as I tried to force myself to bed earlier, I just could not fall asleep. My body couldn't understand why were were doing to sleep during the "day" so I went into this marathon of traveling already sleep deprived. Last Wednesday after 3 hours of sleep we met at 7:00am to pick up our three 70lb duffel bags from our rooms, ran some necessary errands and then convened at the Red Cross office until it was time to leave for the airport. We made the airport run in two shifts because we couldn't fit all 12 duffels in the car. I ended up passed out on the canteen couch while most of this was going on, but around 11:30 my team leader roused me and said we were off to the airport.
I should emphasize that for security reasons the military is frustratingly vague regarding your departure time and flights are always "subject to change." For this flight I believe we left around 4:30pm after waiting about 4.5 hours. We were in our body armor and Kevlar helmet which is always an enlightening experience (okay, more like encumbering-the flack vest weighs 35 lbs and the helmet is so heavy you have to fight to keep you head straight).
We flew in a C-130 to Kuwait which was sort of fun. Once in Kuwait we were bussed in a black out convoy to Ali-Al Salem military base. From there we checked in, made sure we were on the manifest for our flight back to the States on Saturday and then we checked into billeting and hauled our insanely heavy duffels to our tent. This was another highlight of the extravaganza home. They issue you one bunk in a dusty 16 person tent. I should clarify that Al Al Salem is fondly called "Tent City" because it is a transient camp. The mattress is rubber and you are issued no bedding: no sheets, no pillow, no blankets! So all of us pulled out anything we had to compose a make-shift bed. To top it all off, the lights are supposed to be on 24/7 so travelers arriving during the night can claim their bunk.
It's safe to say that combined Thursday and Friday nights I got maybe 5 hours of poor sleep. I was really starting to shut down psychologically because the experience was so exhausting and overwhelming it was the only way I could make it through. All day Friday we sort of futzed around and waited for the other Red Cross teams to arrive. Friday night 4 of the 5 teams had dinner together for the first time since we departed Ft Benning on the Fourth of July.
I was up at 0430 on Saturday morning, showered and hauling my duffels to the customs folks by 0530. There was a flight briefing at 0700 and it turns out that we were redeploying with a unit from Ft Dicks which pretty much filled the plane to capacity, After several hours of waiting we were eventually called in groups to take our duffels through Navy customs and I have to tell you this was nightmarish. Not only was it hot and I was a zombie, but you are forced to haul your duffels through a line that takes almost an hour and then you are made to dump out the duffels you so meticulously packed in front of a customs officer you sifts through everything including your underwear to make sure you are not smuggling knives or guns or war trophies back to the U.S. This was such a demoralizing process and after he's gone through your stuff, you load all your gear and equipment and personal belongings into giant plastic bins and repack your duffels rapido.
Once this was over we proceeded through security to another part of the base where we were held in lockdown with almost no information on our flight. By this time I was so tired that I felt ill and like I said, I just had to shut everything off and go through the motions to make do. We entered lockdown around 1:00pm and sometime around 5:00pm were were in formation and on another blackout convoy to some undisclosed airport location. The ride to the ariport was almost 2 hours and I mercifully passed out. Then we were boarding the plane and I was thanking heaven I got an aisle seat. The first flight was about 5.5 hours and I was awake for most of it. Then we had an hour and a half layover in Germany and then another 9 hour flight of which I mostly slept. We landed at McGuire Air Force Base at 4:00am and dropped off the Ft Dicks bunch and had another 1.5 hour layover and FINALLY we had a two hour flight to Ft Benning and arrived somewhere mid-morning. The suffering wasn't over yet!
We disembarked and headed to the airport hanger where an Army band greeted us and then there was a no-nonsense ceremony welcoming us back. However, we then proceeded to fill out more paperwork and we were bussed to CIF, the facility that distributed all our military gear. Thus began another 3 hour nightmare where we were made to unpack our duffels again and this time stand in line to turn in the 100lbs of military gear we received. This was a painstaking process not only because there were 130 of us, but also because if you didn't turn something in or is the worker marked your form wrong, you are made to pay for the gear! I made it out of there around 1:00pm and took the bus back to the Conus Replacement Center at Ft. benning. I was issued billeting in the barracks (this time with bedding!) and thankfully snagged a bottom bunk.
By this time I was on my 10,000th wind and I couldn't sleep so I took a blissful shower (after 3 days of disgustingness) and played on the internet until it was time for dinner when my friend an dI decided to head to the bowling alley for drinks and dinner. Although the prospect of having a drink after 4.5 months of abstinence was exciting, we ended up practically falling asleep at the bar and thus were back in bed by 9:00pm.
The next morning we were up and packing. There was a briefing at 11:00am where we were given our individual flight itineraries home. We then boarded a coach bus and were shuttled to the Atlanta Airport where my flight left at 4:50pm. Mom met me at O'Hare when my flight arrived at 6:30pm and I back home by 10:00 that evening!
Sorry for the lengthy entry, but since you've traveled this adventure with me I felt I owed it to you to do the ending justice. I know I've said this many times, but thank you for everything for sharing this experience with me. Knowing you were there, even in spirit, made the lonely and dark times so much more bearable. Thank you also for your courage in supporting me. It's not east to stand by as someone you care about puts themselves in danger, but you had the strength to stand by and raise me up.