Redeployment Journal (Days 11–12)
My last stop on the way home would be a mysterious place I had heard of but never been to, the Azores. The Azores are a nine-island archipelago belonging to Portugal, located in the North Atlantic Ocean about 850 miles west of continental Portugal, about 550 mi northwest of Madeira, about 1,196 miles southeast of Newfoundland, and about 3,972 miles northeast of Brazil. I hoped we would either land there and take on passengers and continue on to Norfolk, or at least have a brief layover and catch the next flight out quickly.
On this eleventh day of my voyage home, I again woke up early. Over the past several days, once awake, I would get so worked up about getting home I couldn’t go back to sleep because I started getting paranoid I would oversleep and miss my flight. I tossed and turned for a bit trying to get a few more minutes, but it was no use. I decided I would go for a short run around the Rota Naval Base before I had to be back over over at the airfield.
I checked in at the airfield as ordered at 1030. When I looked out to see what type of aircraft we would be flying on, I was relieved to see another Navy C9, the DC9 variant I had flown on from Bahrain to Souda Bay. I had had enough of sitting sideways on the bench seats of the C-130 cargo bay. The flights from Souda Bay to Sigonella and from Sigonella to Rota were memorable and “expeditionary,” but flying in the C-130 could be a choppy, uncomfortable ride. It got hot and cold in the cargo bay, and the mixed smell of jet fuel, hydraulic fluid, and exhaust could become overpowering and nauseating, especially on long flights.
At about 1130, we walked out of the terminal and boarded the C9 using a mobile stairwell like we had done when we arrived at Souda Bay. It took about 20 minutes to get everyone boarded. I noticed that again, there weren’t that many people on this flight, and I had an entire row across the plane to myself. I took the window seat so I could see the sights on our approach into the Azores. The captain came on and told us the flight time would be approximately three hours. That would typically put us in at 1500, but we would be gaining two more hours heading west, so we would actually arrive at 1300 local time.
The flight was a welcome respite from two straight days in the back of a C-130, and I even caught a brief nap. I woke up as we started our descent into Lajes Field on the northeast coast of the island of Terceira, set right in the middle of the Azores archipelago. Out the left side of the aircraft I was able to see the islands of Sao Miguel and Santa Maria, sliding gently behind us.
Landing at Lajes Field was a lot like the final approach I would become very familiar with into Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a few years later; the pilot came in heading west in a flight path perpendicular to the runway, then made a sharp 90-degree descending turn to the north. As we got lower, we could see the Atlantic Ocean coming quickly up at us from below. Although the airstrip was close to the ocean, it wasn’t nearly as dicey on the way in as it was at GITMO, where the Caribbean was seemingly scant yards off the right side of the runway.
We landed just after 1300 local time and quickly taxied in to the air terminal. Lajes Air Field is a Portuguese Air Base with an American military presence consisting mostly of Air Force units. It had been first used by American forces during World War Two, and when NATO was stood up in 1949, American units began to build up a decades-long presence on the island. It was mainly used for refueling American naval ships and aircraft transiting the Atlantic, and it also hosted Navy anti-submarine aircraft squadrons that monitored Soviet submarine activity in the North Atlantic.
After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military presence in the Azores continuously declined. There were times when a quick buildup came and went, such as during the first Gulf War when Lajes Field supported the massive airlift of troops and equipment heading east toward Kuwait. But what now remained was a small group of Air Force units that were part of the U.S. Air Force’s European Command, and generally supported transiting troops, like me, as they transited to Europe from the U.S. or vice versa.
I soon would learn the Air Force ran the show here on the Azores, and ran it with gusto, as evidenced by something that occurred as soon as I walked into the air terminal. I was about to do my standard check-in procedure with the clerk when a young airman came out of nowhere and approached me. “Sir! I’m Airman First Class Randle. Welcome to Lajes Field! I am to escort you to the Air Force Inn and make sure you have quarters if needed and make sure you have anything you need.” He said this with an enthusiasm typically seen only in an entry-level training environment, as if I was were his Drill Instructor.
When I overcame my momentary shock, I said, “Airman Randle, who sent you over here? How did you even know I was here?” “Sir! We make it our business to know when we have a VIP aboard our base, it being so rare. Accordingly, I have been instructed by my superiors to make myself available to you to secure your lodging and any transportation you might need during your stay!” VIP? “Okay Randle, look, give me a minute to find out when my next flight is and then we can talk, okay? Just sit down and relax. No need to be so formal, okay?” “Yes, Sir.” This Randle kid was awesome, but sort of comical. I loved his motivation though and wasn’t about to complain. But I was struggling to maintain a straight face. What had I gotten myself into?
As Airman Randle waited patiently I asked the clerk about my next flight. “Sir, the next Norfolk flight is tomorrow at 0900.” “Where’s the plane I just came in on going?” “The crew has to rest Sir; they have hit their twelve hour limit. Apparently they flew your C-9 into Rota very early this morning.” So the crew had been flying for a long time before the Rota flight, and regulations mandated once they hit twelve hours flying time they had to rest for at least eight hours before they could fly again. There was no way they were going to take off again for the east coast at 2100 facing a four hour flight in the dark, over water, at night. This meant I would be stuck overnight again, this time in the middle of the Atlantic. “So what is show time in the morning?” “0730 Sir.” “Thanks.”
I went back over to Randle. “Airman Randle, is there an inn or lodge here? I’m apparently going to need a room tonight.” “Yes, Sir!” Randle yelped. “The Air Force Inn is just a short drive from here.” “Okay, let’s go.”
Randle led me outside to a white, nondescript, white van that had the word “govie” (slang for government-owned vehicle) written all over it. Before I could even touch my gear Randle beat me to it and began tossing it in the back of the van. We moved up front and I buckled into the passenger seat. “Randle let’s get something straight. I am not a VIP. I don’t know who told you that. I’m a Marine Corps Major. Go ahead and call me Sir, but I don’t need you carrying my gear or waiting on me, okay? That’s not how I operate. No offense, I appreciate your motivation, but just let me carry me own stuff and open my own doors, okay?” Randle appeared unfazed by this. “Certainly, Sir.” The only thing I thought was “certain” was that someone had made a mistake or was playing a joke on me. I was half waiting for someone to jump into the picture somewhere and tell me I was being punked, but it never happened.
Randle drove me to the inn, and I got out and grabbed my gear. He went in with me as I confirmed there was a room and signed the paperwork. “Randle I am good. I am just going to get some rest. You can return to your normal duties.” “Very well, Sir. Here’s my information if you need anything,” he said handing me a card. “Okay Randle, thank you very much for all your help.” With that, Airman Randle did an about face and marched out to the van. I shook my head and made my way to my room.
I got to room at the end of the hall , turned the latch, and opened the door and had the same feeling I had when Randle walked up to me in the air terminal; I was walking into a suite with a kitchenette, microwave, refrigerator and bedroom off a huge living area. “This can’t be right,” I thought. The room was too palatial for a lowly Major.
I went back down to the front desk. “How can I help you, Sir?” “Yeah, I think you guys made a mistake. You put me in some kind of VIP suite or something. I just need a regular room.” “Yes Sir, no one is using the VIP suites this week, and since you’re an 0–4 we gave you one for the price of a regular room.” They had given me an “upgrade.” “Oh. Okay. Thank you.” I went back down to the suite, wondering where I was. Was this some kind of island like the one in the ABC series Lost where strange things happened that didn’t occur any place else? I wasn’t going to complain, but it was just weird.
I set up my laptop and did my usual routine of checking email and investigating the base and the island. I still had the afternoon and evening and I didn’t know if I would ever have a reason to be in the Azores again, so I thought I might do a bit of exploring. I learned the small Air Force base had the typical amenities of most military bases, but I was pretty burned out on touring at this point. Part of me wanted to just hang out in my splendid quarters, but another part was slowly getting stir crazy and needed to do something just to pass the time. This was the strange affliction of redeployment; you could care less about the various places you might find yourself in the closer you got to home. But if it had been a vacation, you’d want to take all the time in the world to explore. I was conflicted. It was about 1430 and I needed to make a decision.
If I chose to leave the base I would need to get Airman Randle involved and I didn’t want to do that. And I didn’t know where I would go anyway. Something like running around an island in the Azores alone wasn’t very appealing to me; I needed to have my wife with me to really enjoy it. And even if I did venture out, I hadn’t had time yet to see if there was anything worth going off base to do. So I decided I would just hit the gym, hang out, find an on-base place to eat dinner, then come back and catch up on some email and news. Maybe there would be another baseball game on ESPN tonight.
I walked to the gym, worked out for about an hour, came back and cleaned up, and checked my email. About 1730 I walked up the hill to the “Top of the Rock,” the base officer and enlisted club that had a full restaurant menu. It wasn’t the experience I had back at the taverna near Souda Bay on the island of Crete, but for a military “o’club,” it wasn’t bad. I took my time with dinner and then walked back down to the inn and got settled in for the evening. I called home and told my wife I was scheduled to fly out at 0900 in the morning and with the four-hour time gain and a four-hour flight, this should put me into Norfolk at 0900. “I’ll be waiting for you!” she said excitedly. “I can’t wait to see you.” “Me too.”
On what I hoped would be my final day of travel, I again rose early, packed my gear, and checked out. Airman Randle was outside in the van waiting for me at 0715. We made the short haul over to the air terminal and went in to check in for my flight. “Sir, I’ll make sure everything is good to go with your flight before I take off.” I checked in and learned everything was on time and going as scheduled. I gave Airman Randle one final thanks, shook his hand, and sent him on his way. To this day I have no idea how he knew I was coming to the Azores, and I have no clue who sent him to assist me. But he sure was motivated and good at his job.
I looked out and saw the same C9 from the previous day. What a relief; nobody had appropriated it for some other mission, leaving me stranded on the Azores for who knew how long. We boarded shortly before 0900 and took our seats. There were more passengers than the day before, with personnel going on leave to the U.S. and others who appeared to be families redeploying from a tour of duty at Lajes Field. I wondered what life would be like to be stationed on this island for two or three years. I wasn’t in the Air Force, so luckily I would never find out.
The last flight I hoped I would take for the foreseeable future took off from Lajes Field at 0900 and climbed out over the vast, wide, Atlantic Ocean headed west. By the time we leveled off at our cruising altitude I was out. The past two weeks had finally gotten the best of me. But before dozing off I remembered Colonel Dawson’s guarantee of a week of leave before I had to go back to work, and I looked forward to what I would do with it; probably nothing but resting in the pleasant late summer on the Crystal Coast and enjoying the breezes drifting in off of Bogue Sound.
Almost four hours later, we began our descent into the airfield at Naval Station Norfolk, and out my window I saw the American coastline for the first time since it’s twinkling lights had disappeared into the black night as I headed out to the Middle East six months prior. It was a beautiful and welcome sight, and I felt a surge of adrenaline hit me. We hit the tarmac just after 0900 local time.
We slowly taxied around and then down to the passenger terminal. The pilot parked and announced we would be exiting via a jet way. That was a new one. I grabbed my gear and made my way out of the plane and into the terminal. I didn’t have a phone with texting capability, so I had no idea where I would meet my wife. Someone pointed us toward the baggage claim and said that was where all the families would be directed. I headed off not quite power-walking, trying to play it cool.
A few seconds later, I saw her for the first time in half a year. I got a huge lump in my throat, but pushed it down. I hoped I could maintain my bearing but I wasn’t sure. I got to where she was and dropped everything and we threw our arms around each other. I held her tight for a long time, just standing there. “I love you,” I whispered in her ear. “I love you, too. I’m so happy you’re home.”
We went to the baggage claim, waited for my sea bags, walked out to the lot, and got in her car. “Are you hungry? Do you want to stop and eat anywhere?” “No let’s just get home. I’ll get something there.” She turned the car south on interstate spur 564 and then got on I-64 south headed in the direction of the North Carolina coast.
South of the city we pulled onto old U.S. Highway 17 south and made our way along the eastern boundary of the Great Dismal Swamp. I sat in exhausted silence as my eyes took in the verdant greenery and black waters of that primordial piece of federally protected wilderness that sits across the border between Virginia and North Carolina. It had been a long time since I saw such intense green. There had been the occasional spot of green along the rivers in Iraq, the gardens on board Naval Station Bahrain, and the colors of all the places I had been to crossing the Mediterranean and Atlantic, but that was nothing like the lush vistas of the late Carolina summer.
As we got deeper into North Carolina, we passed by Elizabeth City, Hertford, and Edenton as we skirted around Albemarle Sound, then turned south through Williamston, Washington and finally across the Neuse River at New Bern, then south on U.S. 70 past Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station. I marveled at the unique coastal beauty of eastern North Carolina, an area off the beaten path, still isolated and one of the best-kept secrets in the country. The deep greens and blues of the late summer overwhelmed me after six months of various hues of brown.
Three hours after we left Norfolk, we pulled into our neighborhood in Morehead City, along Bogue Sound. It had been nearly two weeks since I flew out of al Taqaddum Air Base in Iraq on that first freedom C-130, and six months since I had been home. My redeployment odyssey had taken me over 8,000 miles and across parts of four continents.
As we passed slowly through our neighborhood, I rolled the windows down to take in the coastal air, a salt-tinged scent I had come to love since moving to the Crystal Coast. As we pulled into the driveway, the boys came running out of the house and jumped into my arms. All four of us joined in for a huge family bear hug.
All was right with the world again. I was home at last.