About 20 minutes later I was in our Branch Chief's office. SMSgt. Jacques was telling me that there was a problem with one the mechanics deployed in Qatar. It seems that someone had been deployed with a wife that was eight months pregnant, which in itself, wasn't a concern to the Air Force. But the fact that his wife had shown up in our EMS Squadron Commander's office the next morning, and each morning thereafter to complain about her husband's deployment eventually caused even our thickheaded CO to rethink his deployment. It was completely my call as I was assigned to another Squadron (the 612th), and if I wasn't interested in going, someone else could be found. I thought about it for a minute...
"I'll do it, let's go." "Are you sure? It's your choice." "Yeah, I've never been to Qatar..." "Mike, I was just like you once, the next thing I knew I was in Vietnam. Have a good trip."
Within half an hour my travel orders were ready to pick up at our orderly room. I was given a short briefing, I would be traveling to join up with the 401st Tactical Fighter Wing (Deployed) / 614th Tactical Fighter Squadron 'Lucky Devils' at their 'Base X' location - my orders actually read "From: Torrejon AB To: XXXXXX". My transportation was to be via 'Space Available'. I was told that because passenger traffic was so backed up at Torrejon that my best bet would be to catch the daily C-130 flight up to Rhine Main AB, Germany. From there I should be able to catch a flight to Saudi Arabia, and then, maybe, to Qatar. About this time I was beginning to wonder what I was doing, when they added that the trip would probably take a week or two, at least. The rest of the afternoon was taken up by traveling to all of the offices on base that had to give me paperwork or sign the paperwork that I already had. Added to this was, of course, the immunization clinic. The Air Force seems to revolve around giving shots. Imagine my surprise when Finance became a trouble spot as I arrived there for my travel pay.
"Hello, I need to get my travel pay, I'm leaving for the Gulf this afternoon." "These are 'Group Travel Orders' all of your travel arrangements will have been arranged by the 'Group Leader'." "If you'll flip the orders over you will find that I'm the only one in the group." "Don't worry, your group leader will have everything arranged. You won't need any travel pay." "You're an idiot."(Not in an insulting sense, just a statement of fact.)(Actually I'm not sure if I said this or just thought it.)
My last stop was at supply where I was issued 'real' chemical protective gear and chemical weapon 'antidote' self-injectors. I also picked up an M-16 and enough ammunition to deal with just about anything I would be likely to encounter on my trip to 'Base X'. A quick stop at the dorm to pick up my duffel bag and my friends in Transit Alert dropped me off at the MAC Terminal. Right around 4 o'clock I boarded the Hercules, about 6 hours after I first received the call. I was on my way, into what? Full of questions, full of wonder, with perhaps just a bit of worry. Everything had happened too quickly to even think about what I was doing, or where I was going. The flight to Rhine Main was great, flying low over the dry terrain of Spain, over the Pyranees Mountains and over the green of France. We passed directly over Bordeaux and just to the south of Paris, with the Alps in clear view across the southern horizon. I'd never been to Rhine Main, sharing the same runway as the Frankfurt International Airport. The Rhine Main terminal is as large as most civilian terminals and most of the people inside were in civilian clothes. It was busy, but not packed. It felt strange to be walking through with an automatic weapon on my shoulder... I found my way to the ticketing desk and handed my 'Group Travel Orders' to the ticket agent.
"Hello, I have to get to Saudi Arabia to continue on to my base." "You are the 'Group Leader'? How many in your group?" "Just me..."(As I flip the orders) "Just you? If we hurry, I have a C-5 going to Dhahran in less than half an hour."
I have to admit that I was pretty relieved by that since I left TJ without visiting the bank and I had about $15 in my pocket, plus some Spanish Pesetas that weren't going to help me at all in Germany. On the other hand, my orders called for $75 daily per diem, and if the trip took a few weeks, and if I could find a finance office, I'd be rich. The ticket agent took the duffel bag and I rushed with my rifle and my 'carry on' bag to the gate. I arrived just as the gate was closing. It was quickly through the metal detector - hand the rifle to the operator, walk through the detector, they hand the rifle back; sounds odd to me as well, but they said it's the law - and up the stairs into the passenger compartment of the Galaxy. It was easy to find my seat, as it was the only one empty, most of the rest of the compartment filled with an Army missile unit from Germany. It was my first flight in a C-5 and takeoff in it's aft facing seats was a little different (hey, were going the wrong way...) It felt nice to just sit back in the seat after a long day. Actually, it was quite comfortable, with more room than on my original TWA 747 flight to Spain. We had been in the air for about an hour when I could feel the aircraft go into a bank, and stay there - we were circling. The aircraft was carrying a 'relief crew' in the passenger compartment, and soon after a member of the 'flying crew' arrived. They all met at one of the small windows and there was a lot of looking and pointing towards the wing. I figured, 'Hey, I'm a mechanic, let's go see what up!' I walked up to the crew and introduced myself and asked what was going on, they said, "#4's on fire, were going back to Frankfurt." I looked out the window and sure enough, it was. Not long after the pilot announced that we were returning to Germany for 'mechanical reasons'. The aircraft's Loadmaster arrived before our landing and told us what the situation was. "The fire is out and we have the engine shut down. We will be making an emergency landing and will shutdown on the runway. We expect that we will be able to evacuate the aircraft via the stairs to the cargo bay, but if there is a problem we will escape via the inflatable chutes." The Air Force Sergeant sitting next to me said "This should be fun." He had 'ridden' a C-5 inflatable chute during an emergency landing which caused several injuries just a few weeks before. On landing we were, thankfully, told to exit the aircraft quickly via the stairs. When we stepped out the door we were met by both the US Air Force and the German airport Fire Departments. Once again, I found myself in the Rhine Main terminal at the ticketing office. We were told that the engine change crew, having just been released from a long day of duty, was being called back in and to report back at in about eight hours at 6AM.
Spain is still quite warm at that time of year and I was dressed to go to the desert, but Germany is in early fall and the carpet floor of the terminal was cold. Needless to say, my mind was full, my stomach was empty, and I didn't get much sleep with my head resting on my gas mask and M-16. (It wouldn't fit in one of those rental lockers...) After an early and unappetizing, yet expensive airport breakfast, I was back at the desk at quarter to six. I recognized many of my fellow passengers. We were told that the aircraft was fixed, and in an hour we were once again on our way for the six hour flight. As opposed to the previous night's flight, this one was uneventful, yet as tired as I was, I still can't sleep on airplanes. All of the passengers were talking with each other, trading stories, and wondering what kind of stories they would soon have. The Army Sergeant Major who I noticed had been looking at the stripes on my arm spoke...
"I know you're Air Force, but what rank is that?" "I'm a Sergeant, E-4." "Are you traveling alone? Where's the rest of your unit?" "They've been deployed for about three weeks, I'm going down as a replacement." "Alone? If I let one of my E-4's go the the Gulf alone they'd either get lost, or just go home!"
The Sergeant Major was even more shocked when I told them that over the next few days we were also sending out an E-2 and an E-3. Overall, everyone was in pretty good spirits. We soon arrived at Dhahran, an Arabian Gulf port city in Saudi Arabia. As the engines shut down we once again climbed down the steps to the cargo compartment and out the front door. The heat and humidity hit us like a wall, I've never felt anything like it in my life. The wind was still, the air was thick, it felt like the inside of an oven, but with humidity. As we 'deplaned' I witnessed one of the finest examples of the differences between the Army and the Air Force that I have seen. The five or six of us, assorted Air Force members, were the first to leave the aircraft. As we reached the bottom of the stairs we quickly found our way under the wingtip to sit in the shade and await the bus (of course there'd be a bus, this is the Air Force after all...) The Army troops quickly stepped down the stairs and formed up into a tight polished formation with their American and unit flags. After forming up they executed a crisp left face and began marching. Ten minutes later when the bus showed up, they were gone. As far as I know, they may still be marching today. The driver asked, "Where are all of the Army guys that flew in with you?" We could only point off towards the horizon. And smile.
Once I arrived at "the Hangar" that served as a passenger terminal at the Royal Saudi Air Force Base at Dhahran I found my way to the plywood desk that served as a ticketing counter. In my overheated, somewhat sleep deprived, smartass state I spoke to the Sergeant at the desk.
"Where are you going"
"It's classified, I was told not to tell anyone."
"Well then your classified ass is going to be sitting in this hangar for a long time."
"That's one for Doha, Qatar, please."
"The next flight leaves tomorrow at 1100, get some water and make yourself comfortable. Do not go anywhere without your gas mask and gear."
Did I mention that it was hot? I went for a short walk around the outside of the hangar. When a group of people was walking towards me, I stepped off the sidewalk to let them pass, down into the deep powdery sand. It was then that it all hit me, where I was, what was going on. Back in the hangar, I sat by the open doors watching the Royal Saudi Air Force F-15's and Tornado F.3's launch in front of us on their patrols up near the border. As I sat there I went over the chemical gear procedures in my head, just in case. It also occurred to me that I had old training filters in my mask, so since I was the 'Group Leader', I made the 'command decision' to change them out. It was still hot, I was waiting, hoping, for nightfall. When night did come later, I found that the only result was that hot, humid, and bright changed to hot, humid, and dark. Sometime during the night, because it was too hot to even think about sleeping I found myself talking to one of my fellow 'travelers'. We talked about where we were, what we were doing, where we were from. We talked about the military, the good, and the bad. Soon the sun started to rise (Hey look, I think it's actually getting hotter!) and a group of us caught the base bus and rode around to the Saudi Dining Hall. (Eagle's Nest, as I recall?) I had a good breakfast, although the milk was a little different, and then it was back to the hangar to prepare for my last flight. Around that time the E-2 and E-3 that left TJ the day after me arrived at the hangar. It was a nice reunion even though I'd seen then just a few days before. The A1C was Stacy Cribb who lived down the hall from me in the dorm, she was leading the Airman around like a Drill Sergeant. Because of the heat, we were all wearing t-shirts. When the guy that I had been speaking with the night before started to put his BDU shirt on and say 'Bye' I asked if he was going to 'Base X' he replied 'Yes'. I told him that we'd be going with him. When he had his shirt on I noticed that he was a Captain, and I was thinking, "Oh God, I picked the wrong guy to spout off to, he'll probably be my Commander - but then again he did as much 'spouting' as me." Well, speaking of God, the next thing I noticed was the insignia on his collar, and I said, "Well, Padre, let's go catch our plane..."
Our flight had to make a stop in Riyadh, the Saudi capitol, before continuing on to Qatar. Because there were few passengers on board I walked up to the cockpit and the crew said to have a seat at the extra observers position. At altitude the temperature in the aircraft felt great and the view was incredible from our fairly low level as we flew inland. As far as I could see in every direction there was sand, it actually looked much like a tan moon. As I looked more carefully I could see that the land wasn't completely uninhabited, occasionally there was a structure or a small village. As we grew nearer to Riyadh we could see more population, and soon we were over a large modern city. After landing the first thing I noticed was that although it was quite a bit warmer than Dhahran it was completely comfortable, with literally nearly no humidity. After an afternoon spent driving around the base with the flightcrew we reboarded for our sunset flight into Doha. As desolate as the Saudi desert looked during the day, it was alive at night with more lights than I would have believed. We passed over the desert and over the heavily populated coast, over Dhahran again and out over the Arabian Gulf. (The people of the Arabian Peninsula don't use the name Persian Gulf that is more common in the west.) We flew east over the Gulf watching the lights of Bahrain below on our right, with the Qatari Peninsula in the distance clearly seen on radar. We didn't overfly Qatar, but circled around it towards Doha, the Emirate's capitol city, midway up it's eastern shore. As we passed Qatar's northern tip, still well out over the Gulf, the speakers came alive with heavily accented speech and the crew responded. The Flight Engineer looked over and said, "I'll bet that six weeks ago you thought you'd never hear that. That's Iranian air traffic control just checking in." Soon after it was back to my jump seat in the back for our short descent and landing. Just as soon as we touched down the loadmaster opened the upper rear ramp door. All of the heat and humidity of Dhahran hit me again, and more. It was dark out and all that I could see to one side of the runway was neon lights and what looked like auto dealerships. Our aircraft headed to the dark side of the field, and after taxiing for a few minutes we slowed to a stop, I could see the silhouettes of a few people gathering as the aft ramp opened, and one, who's voice I immediately recognized as TSgt. John Kissler yelled "Hey, Kopack, Welcome to Qatar!" Welcome to Doha, Qatar, my home for the next seven months. What would those months bring? I grabbed my bags and walked down the loading ramp to find out.
These following are 'unedited' chapters that I'm posting as I write. Some day I'll work them all in together...