Have been here about two months. It’s a long, painful trip to get here. Military charters all the way, which means you leapfrog and stop where there are troops to pick up. Miami to Norfolk, Virginia, to Volk Field, Wisconsin, where we picked up half a planeload of soldiers.
We were on a World Airways DC-10 that still felt like a regular passenger jet, because, well…it was. But the troops didn’t get the memo, and brought all their weapons on board. It was 3:45 in the morning, and the crew just wanted to get the doors closed and leave. So the Army guys commence to stuffing their gear under the seats. The flight attendants drew the line at the overhead bins. Actually heard on the PA: “Please ensure the muzzles of your weapons are not sticking out into the aisles. Oh, and put your tray table up.”
We stopped for fuel in Bangor, Maine, where we were met by an amazing group of Americans—the Maine Troop Greeters. Since the days after 2001, these volunteers—many of them veterans—have met nearly every planeload of troops either going to, or coming from, Iraq and Afghanistan and other points overseas. At all hours of the day and night. They offer free cell phones to call home, along with coffee, doughnuts, and general warmth and good wishes. After our short stay in the terminal, they stood in line and shook every soldier’s and airman’s hand as we re-boarded the aircraft. An elderly man shook my hand hard and offered a simple, “See you when you come home, Colonel. We’ll be here.”
After we landed in Leipzig, Germany, we got the news that the aircraft had maintenance problems, and we’d have to spend the night—in a hangar that usually houses snow removal equipment. But the German airfield operations crew was good to us. They served us inflight meals for dinner—anything was welcome at this point—and a hot, catered breakfast and lunch the next day until we could reboard.
Next stop: Manas Airbase, Kyrgyzstan, which is where we picked up our body armor and awaited our C-17 to Bagram. There are thousands of troops transiting Manas, so you sleep in a transient tent—mine was full of U.S. Army and Czech troops. Everyone’s toting so much gear that even walking space near the bunks can be tight. The Czechs piled their rifles on a spare cot to make room.