FLIGHT OF TEARSName: America's 1st Sgt.Posting date: 1/25/10Returned from: Iraq Milblog: Castra Praetoria Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Flight of Tears and A List Of Countries That SuckSome months ago I recounted the tale of The Longest Day in which we couldn't possibly conceive of a flight to a combat zone being more arduous or lengthy. At the time we didn't consider the fantastic possibilities of our epic return flight from said combat zone.
It all began with our ejection from the trailer park we were billeted in for seven months and transition into the concentration camp set up at the JCOT designed to "temporarily" house personnel waiting for their flights to land. Ideally, 24 hours before your scheduled flight you move into the tents and go through the fine Naval Customs inspections experience.In almost every case the flight as scheduled doesn't arrive on time. For instance, ours was moved back 24 hours the first day; then another day; then a mere 16 hours more. See the trend here?Finally we got to spend a day standing in lines under the crisp Iraqi sunlight dragging our seabags behind us in the gravel. First there was the dumping of everything I own so our friendly neighborhood customs ninjas can paw through my gear and explain to me that while yes, the spring loaded knife I was issued from supply can indeed go back with me, the double edged fixed blade knife that I carried with me through two deployments isn't allowed.What?Then everything we carefully packed to maximize room in our bags and protect more sensitive items was unceremoniously jammed back into all our bags by the poor jarhead who was unfortunate enough to be picked as part of the working party tasked with helping the process hurry along. By this time we could have cared less anyway as our desire to be done with customs usually outweighed our need to know which bag we packed our DVDs in.I will cut the customs portion of the tale short this time except to say that the only thing possibly worse than going through customs is actually being a customs agent who sometimes may have to process up to three flights in a day. Imagine handling someone's dirty drawers at 3AM; then again at noon; and again at 8PM. I think I would prefer being shot at by a firing squad armed with RPGs.For at least a month I had been warning Marines not to believe they were actually leaving Iraq, let alone tell their family when, as it would inevitably be a wrong date due to the fluidity of the timetable. As recounted in The Longest Day even getting on the plane is no guarantee that you are going anywhere."Don't believe it until the wheels are actually up!"As our flight blasted off the wretched Al Asad runway Marines howled with glee like a plane full of werewolves. Thus we said goodbye to Iraq, and with any luck, for the last time.
Two hours later we landed in the United Arab Emirates to refuel and switch out crews. UAE sucks because they wouldn't let us off the plane. Fortunately we were only a few hours into this part of our journey so it wasn't a big deal to us. As we waited, a customs guy resembling UAE's version of Meatloaf boarded the plane. Meatloaf frankly will be forever known as such since his whole purpose seemed to happily let crew know that their replacements were being delayed by UAE customs. So there we waited on the evil forces of the local customs bureaucracy.Remember that word: bureaucracy. Write it down. You will see it again.After we got our new crew on board we were able to leave wonderful UAE behind us, and took off for Thailand which was to be our next stop, before hitting Okinawa where we would drop off some of our brethren stationed there, and finally on to Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. Or so we were led to believe. As it turns out it was merely part one of an epic struggle that was to rival Viking sagas of old.
The Mumbai Conspiracy
Marines openly flirted with stewardesses as our flight path took us into Indian air space. Theories vary about what actually took place at this point, but what I think happened is our brilliant pilot used the wrong call sign talking to the Mumbai tower then tried to use a new one. They caught him in the act. Somehow they found out there were 200 U.S. Marines on board and all hell broke loose.
The mental image of a tower full of Indian air traffic controllers losing their minds as 200 storm troopers enter their airspace is comical. Sovereign nations being what they are (petulant children), instead of letting us go home we had to land in Mumbai, because now big bad ugly America was violating their air space. Sad part is they were right. It was their air space and they get to do with it as they please. I blame our pilot for the mixup, but the joy of the Mumbai experience I lay firmly at the feet of our "allies" in India.Our Captain let us in on the bad news beginning with how we were too heavy with fuel to land so were in a holding pattern around Mumbai before we could touch down safely. For the next two hours we cut grid squares in the sky as our pilot explained that the UAE really didn't want us back, and alternative nations didn't want us to overflight either. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs considered this a violation of their airspace and wanted us to land to get all it worked out. This was merely the first of many, many Ministries constituting the labyrinth of India's governing body. It's a wonder anything gets done there, really.Having left Iraq the night before around 8PM we finally landed in Mumbai around 0730 the next morning. We taxied to the far corner of the runway reserved for lepers and other pariah. A shanty town of corrugated shacks were built right up to the wall surrounding the runway area. You could probably leap off the roof of one right onto the runway if you wanted to.
In the meantime we were introduced to Indian-flavored bureaucracy as various representatives came on and off the plane asking questions and getting nothing accomplished. At least a dozen times we were asked if we had ammunition on board. Around the thirteenth time I was wishing we did.The joy of contracting flights to the military is we of course always go with the lowest bidder.
This means our veterans get to ride home in planes with no AC that are pretty much held together with duct tape and bubble gum. Even in October Mumbai is hot. Plus we were on the runway. We estimate it was probably over 110 degrees on the tarmac. With no AC this was a recipe for misery of rather high proportions. Imagine being strapped to a chair that has been bolted to the inside of a dragon's raw throat. Then imagine 199 other guys who haven't bathed in over a day and a half. Ambrosia.
With nothing better to do, some of our Marines broke out their cell phones and began to surf the internet. At one point someone let me know we had made the news as "200 Marine Commandos were forced to land in Mumbai after violating Indian air space." It was kind of cool, but mostly laughable. Indian news reported 200 commandos were on vacation, going to Thailand. Of course the news media is never wrong. I had a plane full of logisticians, truck drivers, clerks, analysts, radio operators, but really, we're commandos. It sounds more newsworthy doesn't it? Shhhhhhh, we've got ninjas!
"I'm going commando; does that count?"
Commandos lounge in overheated economy seats! Lethal I tell you.At some point representatives from the American Consulate arrived and let us know a good Indian wouldn't be caught dead without a day liberally spiced with healthy doses of bureaucracy. I believe the term they used was IFI: It's Freakin' India. Our pilot must have resubmitted his flight plans a bazillion times to the Ministry of Flight Plans. Fuel had to be appropriated through the Ministry of Bulk Fuels. Heat was free. More and more Indians showed up, which resulted in less and less actually being accomplished.Some 14 or so hours later the brilliant plan to get us to a hotel for the night was finally executed. The Ministry of Buses was contacted and the Ministry of Hotels and Lodging was more than happy to accommodate us. The Ministry of Punching People In Their Face was unable to be reached."My wife is going to punch India in the junk."Some time after dark, buses arrived to transfer us to the Hyatt. This was a fine hotel and the staff treated us great. We were served a bounteous feast of local cuisine. Of course, when you pay for 200 or so people to eat and stay the night you're bound to be taken care of.
For at least an hour and a half more I dealt with assigning Marines to rooms and explaining this wasn't a liberty port and the government of India really didn't want us here. The Marines stayed in their rooms and were not to wander the city or other nonsense. Our story was also big news locally and the press had been milling around the front of the hotel.
The room was great. The shower was big enough to not require a curtain and you had to take two steps down into it. There was also a knob in the bathroom which controlled the TV volume, so you could shower and watch the local news at the same time. The top story involved 200 Marine commandos storming the Mumbai Airport. Apparently they were on a holiday to Thailand. Just goes to show the news media never gets the story right.Luckily, I had decided to stay up all night and milk all the hospitality I could out of the situation because around 0100 in the morning I was called down to the front desk. The Ministry of Counting People felt there was a discrepancy between numbers of Marines we were claiming got off the plane and how many were in the hotel. So I went room by room and name by name to prove we had who we said we did. Yes, 200 odd Marines landed, but only 192 were in the hotel. Why? We left some on the plane as a watch because it's what we do. What I didn't mention was the crew was also in the hotel, because while the Marines were allowed off the plane the crew were not granted visas to stay overnight. Of course, without eight hours of rest the crew couldn't fly. The Ministry of Let's See How Difficult We Can Make This was definitely on their game.
Finally I got to relax in the luxury of my room and watch Rambo on Star Movies, drink some complimentary coffee, and knock out 100 burpees or so.
Buh-Bye MumbaiThe following morning we enjoyed a fine breakfast buffet where I braced myself for the inevitable. This would take the form of Marines who were going to violate certain parameters we had given them the night before. I had pointed out during dinner that we weren't exactly welcome in Mumbai and the press were looking for opportunities to sell more news at our expense. Our guidance was that in no way were they to be wandering around the hotel; they could stay in their rooms or in the dinning room. There was a two beer ration for the night, and everyone was to be in the dinning room by 0900 for a head count.
While examining the two beer max rule the average person generally exclaims, "Are you crazy? No one is going to just drink two beers!" In particular Marines who have been dry for seven months and are eager to get their "tolerance up" as soon as possible. Indulge me for a moment as I draw back the curtain and reveal a piece of the subtle art of leadership 18 years in the Marine Corps has taught me.
I know someone is going to break the rules; it's all a matter of controlling the conditions under which they are broken. If we had told the Marines not to drink at all I would be forced to conduct Office Hours on someone for violating a direct order when inevitably they would try and sneak some alcohol and get caught. If we had said, "You can go ahead and drink," this would have resulted in everyone drowning themselves in liquor and I would have had to pour 200 commandos back on the plane the next day. If we say: "You may have two drinks," we have given an order that hasn't sapped the morale of the men and allows me to destroy only the most egregious of violators.
Are some of them going to have more than two drinks? I know they may have as many as 4 or 6, but they won't consume an entire beer truck as they would have tried to do under the other two conditions. If no drinking were allowed then having one drink is as bad as 12 so why not go for it? If we leave the parameters wide open to interpretation with a broad statement like, "You may drink," then we open the door to a wide range of mayhem and chaotic scenarios. That's not a pretty door so we like to keep it firmly closed. Hopefully this logic makes sense to you but if not that is why we have comments below.During roll call a number of people were missing. Some were late; others were dragging their buddies out of the rack (which I not so calmly explained they should have done 20 minutes earlier, not right at 0900). Different situations call for varying levels of volume. While the Master Sergeant called off names I wasn't going to apply my audibly powered flame thrower on high, but sometimes grunting my displeasure under my breath about a centimeter from someone's eyeball is equally effective. This also gives me the opportunity to smell the amount of alcohol still permeating their system. Everyone within sight of these searing discussions knew what kind of language was being used so no need for volume anyway. In the end the handful of late arrivals were all accounted for and came out of it medium well. I always prefer to leave a little pink in the middle."Man, 1stSgt, I've heard of face-to-face counseling; that was a nose-to-nose counseling!"All in all the Marines' conduct was quite satisfactory. No one had made a public spectacle of themselves and were all accounted for. Now we had to move on to our next phase of Indian adventure.
Our buses took us through a small throng of cameramen who were camped out in front of the hotel, and toward the airport. This time though we didn't simply go right to the flight line. Since every Ministry in the government of India wanted to be involved in our situation, it was decreed that we would go through customs at the Mumbai airport and board our plane. We hadn't been anywhere but the hotel and the tarmac but we didn't want anyone having a stroke on account of our skipping a step in the Ministerial Handbook Of Creating More Nonsense.While we disembarked from buses at the terminal, local news jockeys attempted to swarm us as American consular types gave them a hand. Our numbers looked good so we entered the terminal in a single-file line.Upon entering the terminal we presented our ID cards, and our names were checked off a roster we had been required to produce the day before. We shuffled on to another area where a red tag was affixed to our carry-on bags and our names were checked off an identical roster, only this time a number was written on our hands with a marker. This was beginning to look like some kind of concentration camp scenario and I was getting uncomfortable. We moved on to the actual customs area where our names were checked off the very same roster again as verified by the number on our hand. Why we had to be cross-checked at three different locations within 100 meters on identical rosters will forever remain an unsolved mystery. I suspect the Ministry of Lists requires everything in triplicate.Finally we went through security, the metal detectors, probes, and all that business. Security dutifully screened us, confiscating the odd lighter here and there. We weren't sure what they were really looking for, as none of us were interested in hijacking our own flight. At least we didn't have to take off our boots, which I always find is the single most ridiculous practice in airport security. So I will give the Indians that one. Maybe they just haven't thought of it yet.As we boarded yet another bus, which we were assured would take us to our plane, it occurred to me that on this leg of the trip I had actually logged more miles on buses than planes. It was really beginning to get out of hand. Once on board the plane our captain assured us we had a 12 noon departure time.
More bus rides! Hooray!
By 3pm we really started to get angry. Leaders even fired off-handed remarks as the stifling conditions made our mood worse. For the fifth time Monster Vs Aliens played on the screen, and it wasn't any better than the first time. Stranded on the runway with no AC or airflow, we sat perspiring in our frustration as our takeoff continued to be delayed for one mysterious reason or another. Again flight plans were submitted multiple times, and a tide of Indian officials got on board the plane wagging their heads in authority. More folks pulled up in vehicles outside the bird. What purpose they served remains a mystery.
"How is bringing more people to the plane helping? More people need to leave!"
By 4:30pm one of our flight attendants had succumbed to the furnace-like environment of our flying sauna and went down. Between her polyester outfit, tights, and no air flow it seems she suffered a little heat exhaustion. Luckily, there were well trained commandos on hand to deal with the situation.
At one point a female Gunnery Sergeant stationed in Okinawa remarked: "Man, I'm going to miss my hair appointment."
"Well I haven't had sex with my wife for seven months!" Came the bellowed reply.
It's all about perspective.
Finally the Ministry of Proper Alignment Of Heavenly Bodies gave the all clear, and by 5:45pm we were finally allowed to depart the fine city of Mumbai and it's various hospitable ministries. We estimate that we spent at least 24 hours on the runway as the sloths employed to expedite issues for the Ministry of External Affairs mulled over our case. Utapao, Thailand awaited us and the final leg of our journey...