U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. John Sotham, a former Air & Space editor, recently served with the 455th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron, 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. He reported back to us when time allowed:
From This Story
Going Home (Posted Feb. 26, 2009)
I’m returning to this blog after what seems like a short time, but really hasn’t been. What with returning to the States, taking time off, returning to my job, and sliding right into the holiday season...how did it get to be February? I can’t believe I’ve been home for five months. I honestly can’t remember much about the three weeks after I returned—I slept a lot, and found it much harder than I thought it would be to readjust to normal life. I’m fortunate to live in south Florida, but going outside for the first week or so was an assault on the eyes. The tropical palette! The technicolor palm trees and cobalt skies overtaxed my tired brain.
I left Afghanistan the night of September 9, 2008, after spending a full day briefing my replacement, the new commander of the 455th Expeditionary Force Support Squadron, Lt. Col. “Deacon” Jones, who had arrived three days earlier. The handoff is exhausting—you’re working current issues right up to the last day, while trying to set up the new guy with everything he needs. I grabbed a few last items from my office in the old Soviet tower, said a few goodbyes, and dragged my gear to the passenger terminal. For the next several hours, those slated for my flight did what GIs have done since the time of the broadsword: We waited. We slumped in chairs, we slept on the floor, we paced. By 2300 (11:00 pm) we were outside in a large gaggle amid a sea of weapons cases and duffle bags, about to go through customs inspections, which required us to dump everything into bins. U.S. Army inspectors in surgical gloves looked for contraband—opium, seized weapons, ammunition, or war prizes.
We repacked and hauled our bags to a cargo pallet. After another few hours, we formed a long line across the darkened flightline to the C-17 and trudged up the cargo ramp. When arriving or departing the theater, you’re required to wear your helmet and flak vest on aircraft, so you try to find a seat and get reasonably comfortable. The flak vest rode up on my thighs, and I felt like a turtle. Once the rear cargo door is closed, only the dim lights inside the fuselage remain. You can’t see outside, so once the aircraft starts to roll, your only indication that you’re ready to go is when the engine noise rises to a bone-shaking roar. The pilots released the brakes and we were bumping, rattling, and hurtling into the night along Bagram’s seized, reused, and partially resurfaced runway. I cursed the Soviets with each kidney-pounding bump. Then it all stopped and we headed upward in a hurry. The sheer mountain peaks ahead of us were no match for the C-17’s powerful turbofans; I’d watched hundreds of the gray cargo haulers stand on their tails as they took off—less to get over the mountains than to quickly get as high as possible to avoid potential groundfire once the aircraft crossed the airfield fenceline.
We leveled off for a few minutes, then did a steep descent into Kabul. We picked up another group of airmen and soldiers, and very shortly we were headed for Manas Air Base in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. We were required to stay geared-up and in our seats until we cleared the airspace over Afghanistan, but a few rogues began to move around. The loadmaster got on the PA and made a few angry commands to sit down; the rogues heeded her, but only for a few minutes at a time. I’ve had similar experiences as a parent. And like any no-nonsense mom, the loadmaster knew how to handle things. After another five or so knuckleheads got up to stretch their legs, the C-17 did a violent pitch-up, then a sickeningly fast back-and-forth roll. Those who had been out of their seats, once they got off the floor, sat down and buckled in mucho-fast. Our split-second airshow, caused by a quick flick of the wrist from the flight deck, made me think of a Far Side cartoon that featured pilots giggling over their self-induced “turbulence.”
Kyrgyzstan was a respite. I turned in my gear, strolled around the Kyrgyz shops, and slept the first afternoon away—I woke sweaty once the sun began to heat up the transient tent I was in, but knowing I was going home, along with the sudden stress relief of not being in charge anymore, made me more relaxed than I’d been in months. I went for a jog. I ate. It was wonderful. The relaxation continued on our World Airways DC-10—so civilized after riding in C-17s. I leaned my head against the window and alternately dozed and watched the scenery go by. The Caspian Sea. The moonscape of Turkey after we stopped at Incirlik Air Base outside Adana. Then Europe’s lush greenery and a stop at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. The sun dropped over the Atlantic in a Hollywood sunset as we set out for the final leg to the United States. I awoke during the final approach to Baltimore.
The jetway was stuck—what an anticlimax. We could see the ground crew whacking the base of it with something. Then they took the universal stance of helplessness in the face of things mechanical: They stood around with their hands on their hips. Many groans filled the cabin—and some salty GI bitching—as everyone returned to their seats and we taxied to another gate.
My good friend Mark met me with some takeout food from my favorite deli in Annapolis—and with a few rum miniatures to toast the trip home. We hung out in the USO for about five hours until I could board my final leg to Fort Lauderdale. I made my way through the TSA checkpoint to the gate. I put my stuff in a bin and strode forward. Beep. After a few back-and-forths, I had to remove my boots, which were still filthy with Afghanistan dirt. I was angry. And it was September 11, no less. The guy explained that usually they didn’t require service members to remove anything, unless of course you couldn’t get through the metal detector. I fumed. As I put my boots back on, an older TSA guy asked me what I did in the Air Force. He told me how glad he was that today’s returning GIs were greeted with good wishes—not the welcome he had gotten when he returned from Vietnam. We chatted for a few minutes, and exchanged thanks for each other’s service. A life lesson just when I needed it. My anger evaporated and I went to my gate.
Before I knew it, I was walking down the jetway in Fort Lauderdale. I emerged into the terminal and dropped to one knee. My son, Ian, and daughter, Eve, hit me like little linebackers. My wife, Margaret, threw her arms around us all. I cried. They cried. The passengers waiting to board broke into applause. Time stopped.