Fly me to Baghdad

I was not sad about leaving COB Speicher. The fine, sooty, death dust and vast expanses of grey had become mind numbing. It was always freezing, and I was exhausted from the non-stop work. I was even happier when I discovered that traveling to Baghdad in a helicopter was a possibility.

The day I left, I spent the morning in a frantic state, assisting students, mailing boxes, and packing. CPT Pray took me to the passenger terminal and presented me with a coin and certificate that I’m sure I’ll cherish forever. What he failed to impart at that fateful moment, however, was any advice about helicopter flights, and I didn’t think to ask. All I’d asked someone a few days before was how long it would take to get there, and the answer was 40 minutes. No problem there!

Just as I sat down to relax, they announced the flight and told everyone to go outside for rollcall. Time was approximately 1800 hours. The called off our names and lined us up in order by destination. I’d guess there were 30 people or so. We then marched, single file onto the tarmac and were given no further instructions. Dwarfed by the Chinook in front of me, I started to get excited! As the crew members worked diligently to prepare the craft, I watched giddily, feeling those glorious jitters you can only get before a once in a lifetime opportunity comes along. While we started to load our gear up, I asked (well, screamed loudly over the engines) one of the crew to take my picture, which he was happy to do. My smiling face looks so naïve to me now, as I stand in front of that giant metal whale, about to get swallowed up and carried away in the sky.

We boarded the Chinook around 1900 and sat for 15 minutes or so before takeoff. I was seated on the edge of a red cargo net, attached on the side by only the ends. I hardly noticed the subtle lean that the slope of the net was causing me to affect. There was a small, round window right behind me, and I tried to look out as we took off. I couldn’t see anything, and I figured out why after a minute or two. We weren’t moving; just hovering above the flightline.

It’s important to remember that it was January, and it was freezing. Of all the advice I could have been given, the fact that the Chinook does not ever close its doors might have been the most humane. The chill I’d felt while waiting to board intensified and took hold like a lake slowly freezing over. The guy on my left, a British security contractor, was not even wearing a jacket, and made no effort to cover his hands. He sat with them calmly in his lap, and showed no signs of discomfort whatsoever. All the soldiers I could see were wearing all their warmest gear, to include gloves, hats, and neck gaiters pulled up over their faces. I was wearing a t-shirt and winter jacket, covered with my helmet and flak vest. Since I couldn’t get my hands under me with our sardine-like arrangement, I shoved my hands so far into coat that I think pretty sure my arms shrank, just a little.

But then we started to move! The Chinook made graceful, smooth movements as we cut through the crisp night air. Thanks to yoga, I was able to look out the window and take in the twinkling lights of the city below, topped off an expanse of stars so glorious, I completely forgot I was cold. I gazed out at the lights, interspersed with inky blackness, and considered my location.  I thought about my place in this world and watched the earth move below me, focusing on the lights.  Some were yellow, some white, some a soft orange. Some flickered, some moved, some disappeared just as you looked at them. POP POP POP POP POP! POP POP POP POP POP! The roaring sound of gunfire pulled me from my reverie. What was happening? I tried to make out what was going on, but no one moved, and it was too loud to speak, so I just let the excitement of gunpower take my fantasies to a whole new level. The whole experience of being huddled together with strangers on a mysterious mission in the pitch black interior of a ‘catfish’ seemed so romantic to me. We banked suddenly, and the cold air rushed back in. We were on the ground and people were exiting the back of the craft.

I was trapped in a seat near the cockpit, and since no one around me got up, I realized this was not my stop and waited patiently. The wind blew hard in my face, and I kept my squinty visage pointed to the right and waited for our next ascent. It took a while, and I noticed that my right foot was going numb from leaning over. My back and butt were  starting to ache, and the chill seemed to be going deeper and deeper. Our next leg of the trip passed by quickly as I didn’t realize how much longer I would have to endure it. I dozed and was ready for it to end.

But it didn’t. We landed two more times, and then flew for a long time. I was seriously uncomfortable at this point, and my bladder was reaching full capacity. During this seemingly infinite flight, and the darkness of the craft played tricks on my eyes and mind. I imagined that the shifting shapes of the people across from me, with only the whites of their eyes exposed, were villains from Star Wars. The mood seemed sinister. I shifted uncomfortably, but was unable to bring any relief to my foot or back. Then, after another sudden bank, we touched down and everyone was herded off and into an empty field with no information about what we were doing. We stood where they’d indicated with flashlights, and the wind from the propellers was so strong that the steely-eyed killer next to me even got out his jacket and put it on. I stretched, looked at the stars, and tried to think about anything besides my bladder or how freaking cold I was. At some point it became clear to me that we were refueling, and that this trip was not over.

The last two stops were miserable. All optimism crushed, I decided that helicopters were frozen skybusses from hell and that I never wanted to take one again. After 4 ½ hours, I arrived at Camp Victory disoriented, frozen, and having to pee worse than I’ve ever had to in my life. But with another box checked off of that great TO DO list of my life.

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Psych Class and Learning to Fly

It's been an exciting couple of weeks. Our time on COB Speicher was a total success, and the Psych class finished with 39 students. They were so eager, and earnest, and leaving was pretty difficult.

As lovely as they were, the camp was starting to wear on me. It was a lot of work, with little down time, save for a few exceptions. The best one came in the form of my pilot friends, CJ and Raleigh, who I met in Tai Chi class. They came by at lunch time on a Friday, then asked what I had planned for the day. Of course the answer was "WORK," but they had other ideas and I went off with them for a tour of the air traffic control tower. It's an old Iraqi building with odd square architecture and very low ceilings. The military folks there explained to us how they track the planes and manage the airspace. Some of it was over my head, but it was still really interesting. And of course, the view from the top was amazing.

After that they took me to the hangar and showed me the planes they fly – C-12s. They are civilians and they fly around all day looking for IEDs. So far they've found lots and probably saved many lives. I got to sit in the pilot seat and push buttons, even though the plane was not turned on.

Fully tapping into the resource of our tai chi class, we went to see a guy who is a tai chi master, and also happens to run the helicopter simulator machines. He also has the word BEER tattooed huge on his right forearm. Our timing was right on, and he let us use the simulator to play around. It's basically an exact replica of the inside of an apache, surrounded by giant screens. The chair moves to simulate the feeling of flying, and the huge screens mimic a real windshield. There are two machines so that one person can be the pilot and the other is the copilot and gunner. It was great fun, but boy do I suck at flying helicopters. I actually made the thing do a backflip on accident and I crashed twice. I did get it going for a while, but they all agreed that I should keep my hands off the controls of all flying objects. I got to fly in there for an hour at least, and it felt like I was only in there for a few seconds. Definitely one of the coolest things I've ever done!

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Not a whole lot to report…

Life's fairly boring here. I wake up every day at 0600 dying for the loo. I make an effort to never get up during the night since it's a long, scary walk in the dark and cold. I get dressed as fast as I can, hopping around like a maniac, then quickly walk the full five minutes to the bathroom. Then I walk another 5 minutes to the gym to do a workout for an hour. Afterward, I shower, get dressed, and walk over the the chow hall. I grab some cereal and take it to the office. I settle into my chair and check my email while I eat cereal around 0800. I help students that come in (there are lots – and I'm basically the only person here) and work on emails, paperwork, and other things until lunch. I walk over to the dfac (dining facility) around 12, usually with Dr. Berg, and sit and eat for a while. I'm trying to just eat healthy, which is a major challenge since there is SO MUCH food. It's all you can eat and they have about 10 different hot lines with all kinds of yummy fried foods, etc. They also have a dessert bar with the best cookies in the world, and 5 kinds of baskin robbins ice cream, scooped out by a very generous young man. I've been trying to frequent the salad bar, but it always looks so sad compared to hot food.

After eating too much, I say hi to Robot then head back to the office for the afternoon. More often then not, students are waiting when I return, and the afternoons are busy trying to help them. Dr. Berg's class starts at 1830, and things usually die down after that. I then surf the internet or watch TV (there is one with Armed Forces Network – AFN – inside the office, usually turned to football for the guys). Then I walk 5 mins to the bathroom, making my last stop, walk five more mininutes back to my room, read for 30 mins, and go to sleep.

Thrilling, I know. But it is productive, and it's a bit restful to not have anything to do besides work and sleep. I don't have to drive, run errands, cook, clean, and can't go anywhere, so it's just simple.

I have found a couple fun things to do in the form of classes. I've been to two tai chi classes and two spin classes. I really enjoyed the tai chi and the people in the class were really friendly. I always wanted to try tai chi, and I like it a lot more now that I found out it mean "supreme ultimate fist." Turns out some of the guys from tai chai were also in my spin class, and they also do yoga. Yoga is on the other side of camp (this base has an 16 mile perimeter) and they said they would give me a ride! So I've got a very full week of evening workout classes scheduled for this week.

I'd planned to travel around from site to site while I was here, but the need is so strong here, it looks like I'll stay for a few more days at least, which is just fine with me. I'm off to go get 10 hours of sleep! G'night!

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