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.