Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Touchdown on Lagman... finally!

It’s been quite some time since my last post and much has happened. The main reason I haven’t updated has been that getting online has gotten more and more difficult as we have moved into the theatre of operations coupled with concerns for operational security. So to those of you anxiously awaiting the next installment in the Adventures of the Surfing Surgeon, I apologize.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me try to update you with the condensed version.

Time home was awesome! Putting all the training behind us, and leaving straight from home with only a short stop back at Dix prior to heading over was a real morale booster.

The trip from San Diego to Dix was challenging and involved planes, trains ,and automobiles, as well as multiple unexpected stops and a not so fortuitous extra long layover that fortuitously allowed Rocha and me dinner in the piano bar at Harris’ Steakhouse on Nob Hill listening to live Jazz and enjoying foie gras, bone in ribeye, and Fladgate 20 year tawny before heading back to SFO for our flight.

We arrived at Dix just in time to head out to Bordentown, NJ with the rest of the guys for lunch. We stumbled across an amazing Italian place called Marcello’s. Our server made great suggestions and we had a very nice “Last Supper” of sorts. The tomato pie was amazing as was the papardelle with short rib. I finished my meal with crème brulee’ and a snifter of Grand Marnier. It was delightful! To make the experience even better, when our lovely server presented us with the check she informed us that her parents, visiting her from out of town and seated across the restaurant, had overheard that we were headed for Afghanistan and had paid a substantial portion of the bill. People like that are becoming fewer and further between. But it sure is nice to feel appreciated.

After our requisite 48 hours confined to Fort Dix prior to leaving the country, we boarded buses and headed for Baltimore. We enjoyed a last minute frosty brew pop in the airport and then hopped on the aircraft. Following a long layover in German, made longer by some aircraft mechanical problems, we finally arrived at Kuwait international airport just after midnight.

Following a tiring transport and check-in process at Ali Al Salem Airbase we finally arrived at Camp Virginia for our final training prior to entering Afghanistan. The folks at Virginia rolled us over in simulated MRAPs, collected our travel claims, and, two days later, put us back on buses bound for Ali Al Salem and our second to last flight before reaching our goal.

Now, Ali Al Salem is kind of the crossroads or the war. Almost everyone going into or out of Afghanistan or Iraq passes through there. I am convinced it is an undescribed circle of Hell. It is, of course, dusty as can be, and filled with bad attitudes, vicious rumors, and no reliable place to hang your hat when you get stuck there for days (as we did) because the Air Force can’t rummage up a plane. The internet sucks, the phone centers are packed and no one seems to care that you’re stuck and miserable.


IF you are a member of the greatest military service the USA has ever produced. (That’s the Navy in case your deluding yourself otherwise) and happen to chat up the right Seabee, you may just be able to get a free pass into what we came to know as Shangri La! So here’s the story…

Christian and I were walking around Ali the morning they dropped us off taking note of the sour attitudes and glad that we were scheduled for a flight that evening when we noticed a sharp looking sailor in desert camo approaching. He looked completely out of place because he seemed to be smiling. He fired off a crisp salute and Christian commented to him that it was nice to see a squared away sailor amongst all the Army. A quick conversation took place and once he discovered we were currently housed in miserable transient tents he told us to cross the road to the Seabee compound and ask on the quarterdeck if they had any lodging available. “They’ll definitely hook you up!”, he told us. “We take care of our fellow sailors!” Well, we thanked him for the offer but since we “knew” we were going to be on the midnight flight it wouldn’t be necessary.

Just before midnight it became necessary. Surprise, surprise, we got bumped from the flight and sent back to the transient tents which were already occupied by other poor souls traversing Ali Hell. Ken Ortiz and I threw our rucks on our backs and marched over to the Seabee camp. On the quarterdeck, Chief Brancatelli welcomed us and woke the duty CS who quickly located an empty 16 man SWA hut for us replete with lights, climate control, fitted sheets, pillows and blankets, and very little dust! The Seabees were all friendly and welcoming. They even invited us for cake at the Seabee birthday party that just happened to be that day. Many of you know that my buddy Kent was a Seabee so I’ve always kinda liked those guys, but after this experience they move to the top of the list! Their can do attitude and the way they welcomed us was a breath of fresh air! So to all you Seabees out there; A hearty thank you from a bunch of (formerly) tired and grumpy docs!

Our second night at Ali we actually made it onto a C-17 bound for Kandahar. Three and a half hours later we got off the plane and were met by a Role III Chief who got us check into our temporary tent and told us we’d we leaving the next day. We ate, hit the exchange for last minute items, and went to the hospital for a few briefs. This was Sunday. After the briefs we were informed that we wouldn’t actually have transport to our FOB until THURSDAY! AAAARRRRGGGHHHHH! Why so upset? Because as bad as Ali was, I think KAF is worse. KAF looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic nightmare. It stinks, there is dust or mud everywhere, they get frequent rocket attacks, and there are MRAPs driven by a bunch of maniacs constantly about to run you over everywhere you walk. Oh, and the food is terrible. Oh, and the Army has PT right outside the transient tent we were in at 0530. The only good thing I found was the British coffee shop and MWR. If you get stuck at KAF, I highly recommend you seek that place out.

So as bad as it was going to be, the next morning as we returned to the tent from breakfast and a walkabout, the plan changed. As we approached “home”, Captain Raheb told us we had about ten minutes to pack our stuff as they had found us a ride to Qalat! We threw all our stuff together, drove to the flight line, and by lunchtime were stepping off the helicopters into the clean cool air of our home for the next six and a half months.

Hallelujah! We’re finally here!

More to come!

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