Saturday, March 24, 2007

True Tales of Leave: PART ONE

Something a little different. The following is not my normal narrative, but rather my journal-like/novel style writing. I hope you enjoy. Feedback is always appreciated.

Bearded Gay Bodyguards and the Plight of a Sore Snowboarder and other True Tales of Leave: A look inside the three-week travels and exploits of a soldier on leave from Iraq.


I’m running around as usual, trying to take care of last minute bullshit. Everyone needs something for some reason. My graphic design skills and military prowess are being put to the test at the zero hour and I’m trying my best to fulfill all orders. It’s not happening smoothly and I’m reminded that this has been my life for as long as I can remember; Everything, all at once, at the very last possible minute. Some things never change, no matter how old you get.

My leave brief is at 19:15 (known as 7:30 p.m. to those not in the know). I look at my watch and realize I have an hour. I’m pretty much packed and it’s kind of silly how hard it is to unhook all my gadgets…It’s like I’ve lived here forever.

I start to get weird nervous. I’m thrust into leave, not even really wanting to take it. I think about how hard it will be, I think that it will take away my “edge,” and needlessly burden my wife with a second good-bye. I worry about my soldiers and my partner in crime, Ken. We run the show at my job and I know that he is more than capable in handling it…but still…It’s like leaving your children.

I go to the leave brief. It’s the usual gayness. We run through the info; where we’re going, how we’re getting there and the rings of fire and dragons we must slaughter to reach the gates of the homeland. Then the guy in charge darts his eyes to the nearest E-6 in the room and appoints him in charge of the manifest (making sure everyone is present and accounted for at all times).

Even though there are several people that outrank E-6 present in the room, E-6 is and always will be the middle rank that can handle the workload of higher responsibility since E-5 and below is considered not quite ready and E-7 and above are too responsible to worry about such issues.

I turn out to be that E-6. Bullocks.

I read off the manifest and tell everyone that I’m only going to read it one more time. Big boy rules apply. You miss your flight then you miss your flight. I’ll still sleep like a baby in my wife’s arms. It’s on you. Surprisingly, everyone is happy about this. The less the control and formations and accountability the better.

We wait.

We wait at the LZ (landing zone) for our aircraft to pick us up. We are given a time that they are supposed to arrive but I’m told that they are always late.

They’re an hour late. Everyone falls in suit and I have no worries as we get on the bird and fly to our next destination.

Baghdad. The Airport. We funnel into the “terminal” and begin the process of letting someone else figure out what the fuck to do with us. I call off manifest one more time, as promised. Everyone’s there. It’s in their hands now.

The Airport is chaos. Transient’s everywhere. Everyone going every which way. No one knowing what’s going on.

Drama begins. Turns out the manifest is wrong. We are not on the correct list. We’re too early. There is no record of us. At all. They have a future manifest of people coming at the end of the month. That’s it.

In short, we are told that we are screwed. This has never, in the history of Operation Iraqi Freedom, ever happened. For some reason, since I was appointed manifest bitch, I feel the need to stick around, take responsibility and figure out how to get things right. I get the assistance from a 1SG (First Sergeant) that is traveling with us and that I know fairly well.

I let him do his thing. Rank has its privileges. And advantages. There are some people you just don’t want to butt heads with. 1SG and above qualifies as such people.

I sleep. On the floor in a waiting tent. The tent is packed with people in transit. Some are on laptops using wireless Internet, some sleep, some watch movies on the cheap big screen TV at the center of the room. They’re playing “Down with Love” which I’ve never seen and have no desire to see, but somehow I still know that it’s playing. I sleep. On the floor, in the dirt.

I check back with the E-6 that is trying to figure out our dilemma. We call back to base. We pull every string we have. We wait. I sleep again.

I wake up and move back to the E-6 in charge of our mess. I am told to check with someone else, somewhere else. I do. A female E-5 at a desk asks me how many people I have and where we’re going. She has a flight. She is anxious to get us on the flight. It’s her job. Filling seats.

I note that she is attractive, even though she looks beat and tired and worn down in the way that the Army wears you down. No matter what sex you are, if you actually work in this Army you will acquire this look at some point during your deployment. If you ride a desk you will no doubt look like you rode a desk.

The female E-5 squabbles with a male E-5 who seems to think he’s in charge and it’s too late because we’re already manifested. They start talking about lists and how things are “supposed” to be done and I realize that this always seems to be the case, especially in the Army.

There is always a way that things are “supposed” to be done, a protocol that “must” be followed. And to the outsider looking in you always seem to wonder, “Why can’t they just fucking do it?”

As if we could take over that person’s job and do it for them to meet our end result and look back at them with a “was that so hard” glare. In most cases, this would be true.

We get everyone on a flight to Kuwait. Everyone except four of us. I’m one of the four. For some reason the four that didn’t get on this particular flight are all from the same battalion. We all know each other. Weird.

We go get a coffee and go to their ramshackle PX. Every overseas PX (meaning “deployment” PX) has the same shit. The same magazines, the same towels, the same OIF t-shirts, the same portable DVD players, shitty selection of “new” DVD’s, and the same choice of beverage.

I buy nothing. I have everything there.

We sleep. On picnic benches. I’m already jetlagged and all I did was ride on a helicopter. This is going to suck.

We catch a flight for later. It’s on a C-130 and we pack it in. Normally, when I’m getting in a C-130 it’s in order to jump out of it. We’d be air landing for sure, so I didn’t fret. However, the ride itself made me queasy as the mix of cold and hot air blowing on me turned me into a 55-year-old woman going through menopause. Only without the ovaries.

You get the idea.

We land. In Kuwait. We get on a bus. I have to pee so bad I can taste it. However, with my superior military training I have mastered the art of holding my bladder. For hours. And I mean hours. I suffer. My traveling companion, Stephen, is having a similar problem. He suffers as well, only not so silently.

The bus ride is long. I am trying to fathom where the fuck we’re going and I don’t understand. I see no civilian airplanes. I see fences and desert and a massive military base.

This is Ali As Saleem. Kuwait.

We make it to a building where we are instructed to go to. We enter and are greeted by female E-4’s (yes, I have to point out the sex…stay with me, this will be long). They look like they’ve been riding a desk. They have.

One of them gets on a microphone and walks us through the process we must endure to get home from there. It is tedious, but necessary. I suppose.

We are released until the next day when our flight is to leave in the evening. We get itineraries for our entire trip, from start to finish. I keep counting the days in my head, hoping to squeeze an extra day or two into my leave. So far the math only gives me one extra day. I still continue to count, hoping for a different number. It comes up the same every time. Fuck.

We are released. To a tent. We drop off our gear and explore the strip. The strip has a McDonalds. We’re all starving, having not eaten anything since Kuwait. I get a Quarter Pounder and fries. It’s not heaven, but it’s at least purgatory.

I’ve been here before. On my way to Iraq the first time. I go to the Internet center and hook up my laptop. I talk to the wife. She’s excited. For the first time, so am I.

I drag myself back to the tent and curl up with my small blanket that only covers my bottom half. At least I’m on a mattress. And on the bottom bunk. I sleep.

Our itinerary doesn’t begin until later in the evening. I have an entire day to waste. How to waste it? I don’t bother with the Internet. Everything is packed already. I eat McDonalds again. I move to a covered area with picnic tables. It’s super windy and annoying because of it. The fries are crunchy and I like them soft. Small birds crowd me, as if to rob me. Relax, they just want the fries. I give them up. Everyone is happy.

I make the rounds, the PX, the shitter, then back to the tent. I play games on the computer. My three traveling companions are finally up and about and we go to the chow hall for lunch. It’s terrible. I would’ve preferred McDonalds again. There are many Australian army personnel here, including females. A lot of them. My traveling companions and me take notice, as it is uncommon for us. Our base has fewer than ten females. There are thousands of males.

One of my companions says that he’d marry one of the female Aussies. There is no proposal on the way out.

FREE TIP: It’s all talk ladies. From the majority of us, anyway. So, take it easy, eh?

We wait some more. We sleep. And finally, we congregate and wait for the next phase of painful movement. We get on a bus. Again. The airport we’ll be taking off from is nearly two hours away. I watch South Park on my iPod. Then, I sleep.

We arrive at the airport. Thankfully, we waste no time. From bus to plane, directly. Thank you, Jesus.

Airborne. We are in a big ass clunker of a plane and on our way. I am in the middle row, sitting next to a female E-4 (see how I did that again?). She makes small talk, asking about my patches. I explain. I watch the in-flight movie “Invincible.” I note how strange it is that I like football movies a lot but not the professional game at all. Perhaps all the dramatics are best captured in a two-hour story rather than an entire afternoon.

In five years I’ll probably be hosting football parties.

I sleep, I eat in-flight meals, I listen to my iPod, and I pray for a quick turnaround.

Germany. They bus us to a terminal where there is a bevy of mini-food courts and a small “German” shop, that sells every sort of thing you’d expect from Germany. Beer mugs and candy underwear. And nude playing cards. I couldn’t make this up.

All of the food seems very stale and hard. They have fresh made sandwiches and doughnuts and pastries and while it all looks good, it’s not. It’s like the plastic toy food that little girls get in order to learn how to be a Betty Crocker and you pick it up and smile and look around, wondering if anyone else finds it amazing how real this plastic pancake looks and how you want to take a bite out of it.

Yeah, so that’s the food at the German airport. Betty Crocker Plastic Chow.

We take off again. Destination: Atlanta. More of the same. Sleep, iPod, Read, Movie, Eat, Sleep, Patch Explanation, Sleep, Eat.


We are in the U.S. My head is spinning. I have no concept of what time it is or how long it’s been since I’ve been on a schedule. We are filtered along to get our leave forms stamped and sent along our merry connecting flight way.

We meander through the airport. People stare. A lot. Men and women in uniform. They’re real. They aren’t just those guys on CNN that are always yelling and shooting things and wearing all that crazy gear.

Random people stop, shake my hand. Tell me thanks for my service, etc. I am proud, but embarrassed at the same time, but don’t know why. I don’t have a pre-loaded response…it’s usually just “thank you,” even though they just thanked me.

Like when you’re at the movies and the concessionaire says, “Thanks, enjoy your show,” I always feel compelled to say, “Thanks, you too.” Then you walk away, feeling like a moron.

The layover isn’t long. I’m on my way to O’Hare in no time. My old stomping grounds. The plane is small. Almost like a biplane. The flight attendant, a tall black woman, gives the rundown and I wonder if I’m losing my mind because she’s saying things like “Don’t attempt to use your cell phone while we are in the air or I will confiscate it. I have lots of nieces and nephews that need Christmas gifts,” and “For you smokers there is only one authorized area for smoking and that is on the wing of the plane, so good luck.”

The flight is short.

In my daze of stupor I wander out of the secure area and back out to the main terminal. Now, I have to go back in, through security. Fuck.

I make my way through and as I get up and take off my boots and download my laptop and make a stool and semen sample real quick, I find that I am beeping through the walkway. I go back through. I beep again.

“You sure did it now,” is the vibe I get. Move over to this area. Stand up with your arms outstretched. A kid scans me and pats me down. I think about what he’s doing. I think about what all the other soldiers in the very same uniform I’m wearing at this moment are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan right now and it’s this exact same thing, only it’s reversed.

I feel like an insurgent. I don’t expect special treatment as a soldier, but how about a little professional courtesy? They thank me for my service as I walk away and all I can say is “Yeah.”

Putting my boots back on all I can think of is the tragic irony. Getting through airport security is almost enough to validate the war. I can’t even walk through the airport, a U.S. soldier, without being suspect. I almost think this is enough to fight terrorism. I am a suspect in my own country which I am deemed to protect.

Fuck you, terrorists.

I get a cheeseburger. I have a Diet Coke. I calm down.

I use the Internet. I read. I shop. I wander. I watch. I stare. I stare at the ceiling and open my mouth and groan at how slow it’s all going.

Finally, I board a plane to Alaska. It’s a long flight. I drink some cranberry juice and fall immediately asleep. I sleep almost the whole flight. Butterflies kick in my stomach as we land. I start to get excited and don’t allow myself to start a countdown.

The countdown is the worst. Most of us do it. I think. I hope. I can’t be the only one. When there is a deadline of some sort, I start to countdown. I want to know where I stand so that I can measure if I have more or less time in my favor. After the math is computed, I rationalize my time; “Fifteen days…plenty of time. I got it made,” and then “Seven days. That’s a week. A whole week still,” and then “Two days. That’s two more nights that I sleep in my bed and wake up in my house. You can do a lot in two days,” and then “Nine hours. I could watch a movie. Two movies. I could lie on the couch. I could even take a nap and still have time,” and then “Fuck. Time’s up.”

I hate the countdown. It rules my life only when things are good. When I’m in Iraq there is no countdown. I simply wake up and start moving and that’s it. One day we will pack up our shit and leave. That’s my countdown. It will just happen.

I walk off the plane. I’m nervous. I’m excited. You never know what to expect when you see your loved one. Time and distance will do a lot to you. Sometimes you forget their voice. You forget how they move. How they talk. Their mannerisms. You forget what isn’t common. You forget what is so great.

And then, when you see them, if you’re lucky, it all comes back.

And I see her. And I never left.

We embrace, we kiss. We do this again and again. She is crying, but with a smile on her face. I can deal with this.

I put my arm around her and we walk out, slowly. I feel as if I have just completed this huge, epic adventure. And I have. I have followed the tumultuous rainbow and here I am. This is my pot of gold.


Join me for PART TWO, coming later this week (hopefully...I swear!)


Cherie said...

Very good look into your travels. I hope you don't get lazy and forget to post the rest. Our leave time together had some real gem-like moments that you would be robbing your readers if you didn't share.

I think the long ride back here was all worth it. :)

Zaki said...

This was fantastic, dude. Really insightful, emotional stuff. I could almost feel what you were going through.

Looking forward to part 2...and also looking forward to hearing you tell your stories in person :-)

Mur said...

I am choked up. You love your wife. And I love Fisher Price Baked Goods!!!! Seriously man, get on part 2. posthaste, your readers demand it.
Especially since I was there. And scene.

agent y said...

Glad to hear the honest Paul singing out. Wish I had been there to steal a moment or two with all of you. Maybe another time, place. As Mur put it, the last part choked me up a little. You do love your wife and I feel it is reciprocated evenly.
...return in a few moments for the second half of Days of your lives.

ps I am still hanging on to this little something I picked up for you, like, before you ever left. Will send soon.
Be safe, soldier.

Ken(not the one in the blog) said...

Paul- I still want to meet you! but no way in hell was I gonna try while you were home and after reading this I am glad I didnt steal any of your time.. I loved part one. Almost made this big tough s.o.b. cry( dont tell cherie she will give me hell if you do.). P.s. she's back to riding my ass daily again (come home soon)


What, no one tried sneaking home a couple grenades or a block of C-4 in their d-bags? Bor-ring.

Still, you speak the truth, brother man. Passing through Kuwait is more painful than passing gall stones. They offered us additional 4-day Qatar passes after we were extended but barely anyone wanted to take them. It just wasn't worth the hassle.

It's too bad you missed out on the rock star welcome at D/FW. They really embarrass the hell out of you down there when you arrive in the terminal.

Still hard to believe that the mega-pogues that chill out in places like Kuwait for their whole tours still get hazardous duty pay. If they would just change the name to suicide prevention pay I wouldn't object because I know for a fact I'd off myself if I had to spend an entire year there.

Mr. Boy said...

For the longest time, I just accepted that the life and times of Sgt. Shirey was something I could never fully understand.

People always say stuff like "I can't imagine what you must be going through." The words are true, but the sentiment is BS, because, really -- how often do we ever TRY to imagine what's on the other side of the coin?

You have a gift my friend. You've managed to take the unknown and paint a picture so lifelike that it's almost as if I was sitting right there next to you, eating shitty German airport cuisine, scoping the Australian honeys, and pretending not to notice how much time you spend in the bathroom with your video I-Pod.

I am very much looking forward to part two -- which I hope involves sword fights and a monkey in rainbow suspenders playing the accordian.

Peace out, Sarge. Be safe. God Bless.


"Later this week" MY ARSE.

J/K, Pauleonidas. I know how it be over there, all busy & shit.

I'm just bored, is all. Yeah, I hate me too. If they'd let me I'd come over there and chill out with you and walk through some more poo water. You can never get too much of that.

Peace, I mean, WAR