What's it like to ride in a Super-Stallion? Okay, I guess -- except that the loading hatch at the back was wide open and I kept worrying that my luggage was going to slide out the door, open like a parachute and hit someone below on the head with my flower-patterned and lace-trimmed pink and blue flannel nightgown.
"You are only going to fly part way in this 'copter," said the gunner as he looked at my hand. It read "232 TG" in big black Magic Marker letters. Why? Because on a chopper you can't hear anything and it was dark so this way the gunner knew where I was going without having to ask. No, they don't have stewardesses on the Stallions. And don't serve no cocktails or snacks.
We flew over Baghdad and Baghdad was big -- as big as Los Angeles. Had Saddam encouraged suburban sprawl? Then we kept flying westward over cities and towns. This was the green part of Iraq and if you had a choice between living next to a river or out in the desert, which one would you choose?
"Here's the half-way point," the gunner yelled in my ear. "You spend the night here." Or at least what was left of the night. We filed out of the Stallion and onto a desert in the middle of nowhere with some barracks and porta-potties. "Grab a MRE and go find a cot."
MREs. Meals -- Ready to Eat. I started sorting through the bin. Cheese omelet? Beef ravioli? Ah, chicken fajita! "Don't get the fajitas," said a voice next to me. "Trust me. Try something else."
"The meatloaf is okay?" The Marine nodded. "So. What do I do next?" He tore the heavy plastic wrapper apart with his teeth -- and out spilled a mini-supermarket of stuff. Geez Louise. Powdered cocoa, powdered lemonade, packaged mashed potatoes, crackers, packaged meatloaf, shortbread cookies, apple jelly, gum, matches, napkins, Tootsie Rolls, tooth picks, Tabasco sauce and I forget what all else. But no veggies.
"Then you take some water and add it to this pouch." I did. It steamed. "Now throw in the bags containing the meatloaf and potatoes." The meatloaf looked like dog food but tasted pretty good. The mashed potatoes, however, looked and tasted more like Cream of Wheat.
What next? A cot of my own in a plywood Quonset hut full of sleeping soldiers. I couldn't get to sleep with the lights on and so stayed up and read for the rest of the night. Then at dawn I discovered that even out here in the middle of nowhere, there was still a five-star dining facility. Hooray.
At 9:30 am, they assigned me a flight on a C-130 troop transport plane and I went off to wait for a few more hours for it to take off. But then suddenly some guy comes running into our Quonset hut screaming, "HazMat! Hazmat! You all have to evacuate! Now!" We all grabbed our gear and moved out. What kind of hazardous material? Would it be radioactive? Were we all going to die? Couldn't we all just get on the airplane and fly away from this threat? Nope, the airfield had been shut down. And there were all these cool-looking moon-walker-type guys all covered with silver, walking around and holding what looked like Geiger counters in their hands. We're doomed.
By 10:30, however, we had found out the cause. "There's been an acid spill of some kind." Ho- boy.
Former flower-child that I am, however, I just couldn't resist. "I can just see the headlines in tomorrow's Stars and Stripes," I laughed. "MARINES DROP ACID IN WESTERN IRAQ!" All the Marines next to me laughed too. Then we all popped onto the C-130. And just before we landed at our destination, the plane gave a lurch, dive-bombed and started shaking and spinning back and forth. But much to my surprise, my reaction was not, "Good grief, we are all going to die!" but rather, "What an interesting way to end my life -- in western Iraq with a bunch of Marines."
Then the guy next to me patted my hand and yelled -- no one can talk on a C-130 in flight -- "We were just taking evasive action. Not to worry." Oh. No worries, mate. Then we landed in the middle of the desert in 102-degree heat in the middle of nowhere and that was the end of that adventure. More adventures to follow? Sure. Have I gotten any sort of handle on this "war" at all since I've been here? No. Has it been a grueling journey? Oh yeah. You have no idea what the US military goes through here day after day, year after year. Will anyone EVER find a way to end this money pit of a war? We will have to. When America goes bankrupt, we will have no choice -- no matter how good a job our Marines are doing in western Iraq.
PS: My little room here at Camp Al Asad is basically one of those freight boxes that you load on the back of 18-wheelers. But it is nice and cozy and quiet -- except for the guy next door who plays really loud music. I guess he got fooled by all the white powder dust around here into thinking he was still at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. The two places look the same. Only he is no Space Cowboy!
PPS: Today a very nice officer gave me a tour of the base. And on the base is a small oasis with a pool that, legend has it, the great patriarch Abraham himself used to hang at out at. Right there on the base! How inspiring is that!