I'm on my way home! The past couple of days have been busy: finishing the turnover, getting stuff checked off my checkout list, throwing stuff away, and mailing one final box of things home (remember that old sweatshirt that I said I was going to throw away? I lied.) Yesterday I packed my bags and said a final goodbye to my friends and co-workers.
Yesterday was also my birthday. Many thanks to all of you who sent birthday wishes on email and Facebook - they were all greatly appreciated. I got the best birthday present ever: clearance to go home!
Early this morning the support team took me to the airport. I got myself checked in and manifested on the flight, then headed over to the Green Bean coffee shop for a last cappuccino in Baghdad.
Just after lunch, they called our flight. We put on our body armor, grabbed our carry-on bags, and went through the scanners (yes, the military uses scanners, too, but at least we don't have to take our boots off). Then we lined up and walked out to the waiting C-130. It was hot … not as hot as the day I arrived back in September 2008, but pretty warm nonetheless. Still, when I'm on my way out, I can put up with a lot. On one of these military cargo planes, you really want to get way up front, or way in back to have a little legroom and avoid the worst of being crammed in like sardines. C-130's don't have "seats", they have four rows of long nylon netting, and passengers are jammed in, side-by-side, in rows facing each other. Unfortunately, everybody else on this flight knew the "front or back" rule, too, and despite my best efforts, I wound up jammed in the middle with a bunch of burly soldiers all around me. Oh, well, when I'm on my way home ...
I put together a playlist of "going home" songs on my iPod, and as the pilots started the engines, I put on my headphones and cranked it up. It started out kinda slow with James Taylor singing "Carolina On My Mind". Just when Hootie and the Blowfish sang "Sha na na na, I'm going home" the plane started moving. A few minutes later, with Ten Years After's joyful yowp "Going home to my baby" in my ears, our plane rotated its nose and launched into the air. I write a pretty good soundtrack to my life.
On military air, though, you're never 100% sure where you're going until you get there. So when we landed and they opened the cargo doors, I was a happy man when I saw we were, indeed, in Kuwait. We then did the normal bus ride from the parking area to the processing tents, then checked in with all the various check-in places. I went to the IBA warehouse and turned in my body armor - no more wearing a 40-pound jacket! Then we went to retrieve our bags. You know how your bags come out on a conveyor belt at civilian terminals? We can only dream. Here, they deliver the pallet, with all your bags strapped down under heavy netting, to a dirt lot across the dirt street from the processing tent. You gotta remove the netting and unload all the bags yourself. And when one of your bags is a green duffel bag, which is identical to about 50 other green duffel bags, finding it can take a while.
But I did, and settled myself in to the Corps of Engineers' trailer. A couple of us got to talking about food, somebody said something about McDonald's french fries, and next thing ya know, that's where we're headed. DFAC french fries are just not in the same universe as McDonald's, and after three months with the crummy stuff, we had to go for the gold. Those of you who've gone through Ali Al Salem airbase after months in-country will know exactly what I'm talking about.
So now I have a Big Mac sitting like lead in my stomach. I had a shower to wash off several pounds of Baghdad and Kuwaiti dirt. For tonight, I have a cot with a worn-out piece of foam for a mattress, in a cubicle next to the duty TV that goes all night. Do I care? Hey, I'm on my way home: I can put up with a lot!