The Way Back Home…Part 6
I am sorry this post is so long. I should make this into two separate posts, but I am finding time is getting hard to come by lately.
And then one day in late August, it happened. KK called us all together for an evening meeting. His words were simple. “Pack your stuff, because we are going on.” All of this is a blur of a memory for me personally, but I remember some guys cheered, some laughed, but not me. I just went about my business because I didn’t believe it. Of course, I called home with the news. Of course I started packing immediately. Of course, I dug through my useless civilian clothes until I found a shirt and jeans that I had no plans on wearing. But I did not believe it.
When we left, I left most everything in the trash including my sleeping bag and pillow. They were nasty after six months of indoor 100 degree sweaty head laying on it. The sleeping bag was much worse and it included the remnants of my small pox scar that had fallen off inside the bag. Words cannot explain how nasty it was, but since it was my nastiness, I guess it was okay.
We showed up to the bus stop at midnight with zero sleep. We were not cleared to start moving out of the tents until the clock turned into the next day, at 00:01 we were loading up the vans. Our relief was heading over from the Pittsburg PA Reserve unit, Youngstown OH Reserve unit, and the Willow Grove PA Air National Guard unit. I will tell some stories about those guys in the future. In August 2003, they had missed the first six months of the war but somehow found a way overcome their guilt by hanging out on the lake. But I am not bitter or mad at them. They were doing what they had been told, and they were on the way over so it was all good.
KK and the St. Joseph Missouri commander made a wise decision. On one day all the airplanes and crews from one unit would leave together. Two days later, the entire unit from the other squadron of three airplanes and crews would leave together. No more splitting up squadrons. I honestly don’t remember if they left first or we did. I honestly don’t remember if we had any more flights after KK said we were going home. It literally was a blur.
The only strong memory I have is filling out a medical questionnaire before we left. I marked everything that was bad on the sheet, because other than seeing a buddy get blown up by an IED, it was all true. I also marked that I was depressed. I was flagged because of that comment and I had to see the doctor. Yes, the medical attendants made a big deal out it, but I wasn’t scared at all. I had done much worse things to get in trouble. The Doctor went through the paperwork with me in great detail. Had I seen the bodies of Americans, yes. Had I been in areas of loud noise and other environmental hazards, yes. Was I depressed, yes. How long had I been depressed, since the day we got to Al Udied, Qatar. He gave me a sideways look, and I smiled. I told him I expected the fog to clear soon. He laughed and told me to get out of his office. There are many more like this, but I will save it for later.
My crew was flying with David M’s crew on the third airplane or chalk. Dave is better known by his call sign of DCM. Chalk 1 was KK with Seabass’ crews. Chalk 2 was Paul G, and Russ P’s crew. There was another crew there and for the life of me, I do not remember who the Aircraft Commander was. In my memory, I remember the Commander then I can picture who was on his crew. The point is that there was another full crew leaving that night on Chalk 1. For our last time in the Operations center DCM, and I agreed that he would take the first day to Ireland. I would take the second day to Westover, MA and then we would flip for the leg home. I promised him that if he could get us to Ireland, I would get the wheels up out of Ireland, and I would limp her across the Atlantic. Because once we were on the west side of the ocean, the Air Mobility Director (AMD) would have a very difficult time recalling us to return. And it would be much easier for our significant others to get to Canada for to visit.
We took off and flew for seven hours to a planned fuel stop in Romania. Just stepping off the airplane was a relief. The air was at least forty degrees cooler and it was green. Amazingly green, overwhelmingly green. Hard on the eyes green. We piled onto the airplane and began the second leg to Ireland. Another seven hour flight to the end of a long day. We got to Ireland relatively early in the day. I stayed in my flight suit, and grabbed some fish and chips in the hotel restaurant. I took it back to my little room, locked the door to the outside world. We were staying in a hotel that was a former barracks for the Irish military. It was quiet, with a private room, and a private shower. Several of the guys hung out in the bar all night long. Others went downtown to the clubs. I went to my room and enjoyed being alone. No TV, no books, no neighbors, no noise, no outside time. Only seven steps to the bathroom, twelve steps to span the entire room and nothing else. It was great!
The next day it was my turn to fly. My brief was simple. Unless we had two engines shutdown, we were crossing the pond. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make any real decisions. The airplane worked great and we landed nine hours later at Westover Air Force Base, MA. My first emotional moment was when the New York controller welcomed us back to the United States. It felt good to be back. We were all tired, hungry and excited to be back in the States. Back in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, I felt the ever present thumb of micro-management and the rule of the peacetime military. Instinctively, I know I was not a highly skilled weapon used to insert troops into harm’s way. Now I was an inconvenience to someone who had an empire or bureaucracy, paperwork, rules, regulations, and authority. I had become a cowboy used to doing what needed to be done to complete the mission and I loved that freedom. Almost immediately I knew I would not flourish after I had tasted that way of life.
Someone picked Westover Air Force Base because it was relatively close to WV, three hours away. They thought that we would submit all of our required paperwork. That was an okay idea. We needed to clear Customs when we re-entered the USA and it would have been painful to have our reunion delayed by a Customs inspection. That makes sense. Everyone was planning a big celebration back at home for our return, so it seemed reasonable that if we landed at noon it was better for us and the families.
But I soon learned the real reason we had to spend the night in Westover, was because the personnel folks wanted an excuse to party. We landed at around noon, there was no one waiting to meet us except a guy from Customs. He cleared the airplane loads of people in about five minutes. He was great but when he cleared us off, we literally stood on the massive ramp without any idea of what to do or where to go. Think about that, approximately 100 guys war weary folks, lost in a sea of concrete and dis-respect. The six Aircraft Commanders and KK were talking. I advocated that all we needed was a splash of gas and we could be home in time for dinner. Everyone seemed to like that idea.
Finally, a blue Air Force truck pulled up with one of our pilots, Dave F, who was in the group that went home early. He said everything was all messed up. He had brought an airplane up the day prior with all of the ground people. They went out and partied and dropped the ball on planning our return. He was working hard to smooth things out for us. He pointed us towards the USO building and said that his crew was out buying beer and chips for us. But they were not back yet. I felt really bad because we barged into the USO that was occupied by three elderly ladies. They never saw us coming, and I could tell they were extremely embarrassed that they didn’t have anything prepared. No hot dogs, no ice cream, no marching band, no welcome home. All they had was a lobby with some comfortable chairs, self-serve soft drinks and American TV. I thanked the ladies, and they were nearly in tears. All they could do was say how sorry they were and that no one told them we were going to be in.
Apparently they were on the phone as soon as we walked in. Because literally car loads of retired men and women started showing up and trying to serve us. Getting us drinks, chips anything they had. They were coming out of the woodwork because the three ladies switched on the Emergency USO Bat Light. I talked to a couple of retired Vietnam era guys and they were great. All they did was apologize for not being ready. I am nearly in tears thinking about this. They wanted so much to give us a good first welcome home and they took it personally because of someone else’s mistake. Those folks in the USO, made the welcome home perfect because it showed how much they cared. They were not doing it because they were getting paid or because it was their job. They did it because they love it. The USO is a great organization and full of beautiful people. Next time you are in an airport or city with one, tell them how much they meant to 100 tired aircrews and maintainers.
Finally, the Greyhound buses arrived with our personnel people ready to receive us. We said our thanks to the wonderful USO Staff and got the bus to receive the rudest welcome home ever. Three personnel people keep going on and on about how tired they were from the party night before, it was almost 14:00 or 2 PM. It was a little excessive and I think I would have rather called a baby killer and spit upon by people who didn’t know me, than the insult of being forgotten by people whose job was to support. Fortunately, I just sat in my seat and took it all in. I never said a word because I had learned my lesson from the e-mail I sent home.
They took us to another briefing room where we filled out about an hour’s worth of paperwork. Dave’s crew finally found us with cases of beer and most everyone started to relax a little. Dave and his guys even remembered to get me a coke. I think Dave paid for the beer out of his own pocket and he never asked for anything in return. Dave had a history of run-ins with people and a couple of less than stellar decisions. But, he really cared about his people and he honestly wanted to make something wrong, turn into something right. If you are flying American Airlines, look for Dave F. and tell him I said hi.
So off we go into Springfield, MA to a hotel to waste another night away from home because it wasn’t convenient to the people who spent the summer at home. The hotel was nice, right in the middle of downtown. I could have cared less where we were. We were not at home but I was glad to have some privacy and quiet. I ordered a Domino’s large, thin crust peperoni pizza and a two liter of coke. Called home, took another long, hot shower, watched some TV, counted the steps across the room, and went to bed.
As you can tell, I am still bitter, disappointed and hurt. But ten years later, I am still working on turning the corner. Next time will be the flight home. Until then, keep on rockin.