Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Over the Berm

The very existence of kosher MREs is a wonder. They didn't exist fifteen years ago, when it was even more difficult for a Jewish soldier to keep kosher. In the old, pre-kosher MRE days, they were sometimes referred to in a politically incorrect and insensitive way as "Meals Refused by starving Ethiopians." The guys tell me the new ones are much improved, with really modern names and tastes. Even better than the old favorites: C-rations and K-rations.

I could see a sandstorm was brewing as we stood outside waiting for the buses. The sky took on a tan overcast, and the wind beat against our faces. The helmets and body armor made us too heavy for the wind to move and we stood around, getting used to wearing the extra weight again. Everyone was glad to have the latest body armor. It fit much better and was easier to move around in. The NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) checked their soldiers’ equipment. They knew the pre-combat checks were necessary, and made sure everyone had ammunition for their weapons, just in case.

The short bus ride took us back to Ali-Al-Salem Air Base in Kuwait. I had just arrived there the night in 2003 when Operation Enduring Freedom suddenly became Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was not the best night to be traveling to Kuwait, but the Air Force security team that picked my assistant I up at Kuwait International Airport knew their business and got us safely to the base with only a few stops during missile attacks. Now, four years later I'm riding a bus with a different group of soldiers, and going past my old office and hangar. We could see the broken slabs jutting up from the concrete roofs of the hangars that had held Iraqi Air Force jets during the First Gulf War in the early 1990s.

We walked across the concrete runway and up the ramp into the back of the aircraft. The Air Force crew directed everyone into seats. The aircraft had seats mounted where normally they would have pallets of cargo. We were stuffed into the seats. Everyone sat with weapons down on the floor (no muzzles were to be left in the aisles) and our rucksacks on our laps, we were so wedged in (body armor tends to add inches to one's waistline) that few bothered with seatbelts and many just let their heads drop down on their rucksack to get an hours sleep. While the flight to Baghdad was uneventful, the landing seemed quick, and we off-loaded down the tail ramp just as we had climbed in.

It was colder in Baghdad this time of year than I expected. Not uncomfortably cold, but a coolness that calls for a sweater or a light jacket. We worked up a pretty good sweat loading our gear onto Chinooks. They are a dual rotor helicopter used for moving personnel and cargo all over Iraq; usually at night. The last time I had flown in one was three years ago in Tikrit, Iraq. Then, there was a greater threat of being shot down, and they flew much more 'aggressively' which my stomach didn't appreciate one bit. The flight from Baghdad to Taji was much more 'sane' than I remembered. Still, the aircraft flew with the tail ramp down part way and the tail gunner at the ready for any trouble.