Redeployment Journal (Days 7–8)
Early the next morning, we catapulted off the Reagan and turned back toward Bahrain. I was already planning my exit strategy. I had now been in the area for a week, I had completed my mission, and I had seen enough of Manama and the Persian Gulf. I was ready to get home. I wondered if it was possible to get a flight out the following day. That was certainly my plan. The way we were making this up as we went and the way they had been able to move me around the area in the past couple weeks gave me hope I could make it happen.
We landed and taxied to the terminal. I grabbed my gear and we went into the terminal to find our ride. We drove back to NSA Bahrain. I returned to my room and logged in to check my email. And that was when my redeployment plans got even more interesting; it wasn’t going to be as simple as driving back to the airport and hopping a civilian plane home.
It was an email from our clerk Sergeant Coleman. “Good morning Sir. We have had some trouble getting you a commercial flight out of Manama. I don’t know if you heard, but there was a credible threat made a few days after you arrived in Bahrain that Americans would be attacked at the airport. The ambassador has indefinitely closed it down for any Americans including military personnel to depart right now. We don’t know how long this is going to last, but the ambassador says it will be in place for at least a week. Colonel Dawson says you can just hang out there as long as you want until we can get you a flight out.” What the hell? What did that mean? I didn’t want to hang out in Bahrain for another week, I wanted to go home. It was 115 degrees in the shade and 100 percent humidity every day. And it wasn’t a safe security situation off the base. I wrote a responsive email to Coleman asking if I could fly out on a military flight if I could find one.
He answered about an hour later. “Sir, Colonel Dawson wants you to call him when you get a chance.” I called Dawson. I explained my dilemma. “Look, if you can find military air to get you home I don’t care what you do. Just be advised if you go that route you’re on their timeline. You know how mil-air works. It could end up taking longer than if you just wait. Plus, I’d really feel more comfortable if you’d just sit tight and wait for the airlines to open back up. Who knows what will happen if you start hopping around on mil-air? I know how badly you want to get home, but I wish you would be patient. I’ll give you a week of basket leave to decompress no matter when you get back, so there’s no hurry.” “Sir, I know. But I’m ready to get back, and this place is almost as bad as Ali Al Salem. I can walk from one side of it to the other in ten minutes. There is nothing here. I think I will see what mil-air flights are available and try to work my bolt.” “Fine. Do what you want to do. Just be careful. And let me know where you are so we have accountability.”
He was right of course. Military air or “mil-air,” also called “Space A” or “space available,” was unpredictable. There were all kinds of flights going all over the place, but you never knew when or whether there would be a seat. It helped to be on orders like I was, and theoretically it was easy to get a seat, but in practical terms you could easily end up sitting around or sleeping in air terminals or temporary lodging while you waited for planes or seats to come available. It could be a crap-shoot.
I went over to the travel office on the base. If I was going to be here for at least a week waiting for a commercial flight, I was going to see if I could get home before that on a military flight. Or flights. I told the clerk what I needed to do. “Sure Sir. We have flights into Europe. From there we have flights back to the U.S. But you know how it is. You might have to sit in some places waiting for planes to come in. Can you do that?” “Yeah, I can do that.” Based on what he was telling me, I figured if I could just get to one of the big American air bases in Europe — Aviano, Italy, Ramstein, Germany, or even one of the RAF bases in Britain, Mildenhall or Lakenheath — I could transfer to another plane and get back to the U.S. Once there, it would be easy to get back to eastern North Carolina.
The clerk looked at his computer screen for a few minutes. “Okay Sir. It looks like you’re in luck. I can get you on a rotator flight leaving tomorrow morning at 0600. This is the rotator that eventually gets you back to Norfolk. But it’s possible you will make several stops and might have to wait for the crews to rest and the planes to get changed along the way.” “How long will it take for me to get back to Norfolk?” “Well, you said you have to sit here for a week waiting for a commercial flight? This will take a few days probably. It just depends on what crews and aircraft you get. This is not a fixed itinerary.” “What do you mean?” “Well, from here your first stop is NSA Souda Bay, Crete. After that it could be random. But you would likely change planes there and go to either Naples or NAS Sigonella on Sicily. From Naples, you go to Lajes Airfield in the Azores, then to Norfolk. If you end up going to Sigonella from Souda Bay, then you go to Rota, Spain, before you hit the Azores and then home.” “So there’s an extra stop if I go the Sigonella route?” “Yes, Sir. And honestly, it’s pretty random the type of aircraft you get. From here it’s a jet, but when you hop across Europe or the Med you might draw a ride on a C-130; it just depends on the schedule. It’s a jet to the Azores and from the Azores back to Norfolk.”
I hadn’t thought of having to sit in the back of C-130 again. If it got bumpy, it could be extremely uncomfortable. “What’s the longest flight I might have to do on a C-130?” “Sigonella to Rota is about a five-hour flight. Sir, The thing you need to understand is this can be a very fluid situation; you could get lucky and hit everything perfect and make quick connections, or you could be sitting in a terminal somewhere waiting a day or even two for your next hop. You have to be flexible.” “I understand.” This all didn’t sound too bad if I had to do it. And in any event, the odds were I’d be home sooner. I was also enticed by the prospect of going to some places along the way I had never been to before. Essentially, my military ID was my plane ticket; I just had to find a plane. This could actually be an interesting return trip.
But the best news of all was getting in to Norfolk at the end; Norfolk was just three hours up U.S. Highway 17 from where I lived in Morehead City, North Carolina. I could probably rent a car from there. The worst case scenario was my wife could come get me in Norfolk. If it was going to take a week for me to get back home regardless, and I could choose between sitting in Bahrain for at least a week without much to do in a dicey security posture and on a tiny base and using that week to hop across Europe or the Mediterranean, I would take the latter. Plus, the expeditionary nature of not exactly knowing my itinerary was a bit enticing.
“Okay. Can you get me a seat tomorrow morning?” “Doing it right now Sir.” A few seconds and keyboard taps later, I was set. “You’re good. Be here at 0430 with all your gear. We’ll put you on the shuttle over to the airfield. Bring your orders too.” “Civvies or cammies?” “Either one Sir, you’re flying into Naval Support Activity Souda Bay.” “Sounds good. Thanks Sergeant Willis.”
I got back to my room and called home to let my wife know what I was doing. I told her I would stay in touch as I traveled and give her as much notice as I could about when to pick me up in Norfolk. I told her it was a very unpredictable situation, but I would email and call her when I could. I got all my gear packed up and ready to go. I had no idea if I’d be home in two days or a week. I hoped it would be sooner rather than later.
I spent the remainder of my final day in Bahrain doing some laundry and gathering everything together for my flight. Since I had to be up so early I tried to turn in promptly that evening. But I was so worked up I had trouble sleeping. I was already going to have to be up at 0330 in order to get ready and be over at the travel office to catch the shuttle to the airfield at 0430. Eventually at some time after midnight, I drifted off.
At 0330 my alarm went off and I lurched up. I felt bleary-eyed and unrested. I had been awake until after midnight. But the adrenaline would kick in; I could sleep all I wanted on the plane. I showered, dressed, and checked out of my room, lugging my gear across the short distance to the travel office in the hot and muggy darkness.
The night clerk checked my orders and the manifest and put me on the bus. Apparently, there weren’t too many people headed out this morning because there were only four other people. We pulled out of the gate and started making the short drive to the airfield.
When we got the Bahrain airfield, the same process occurred in reverse as I completed the check-in and boarding process. I looked out the windows and saw one aircraft; we were flying on a Navy C-9, which was the Navy equivalent of a DC9. That was good news. I could grab a seat and get comfortable. We were informed the flight to the Naval Support Activity Souda Bay airfield on the northern coast of the Mediterranean island of Crete would take about three and a half hours.
We quickly boarded, clicked into our seats, and began to taxi. I noticed again there was a lot of room on the plane as there were only a few people like me headed back west on what was known in “mil-air” circles as the “Patriot Express.” The Patriot Express was a “rotator” flight that traveled back and forth between Norfolk, Virginia, and its terminus in Bahrain. Sometimes the plane went past Bahrain eastbound all the way out to the island of Diego Garcia in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Typically, though, it turned around in Bahrain and headed back west.
The plane flew regardless of whether it was full or had only a few passengers, because at any stop along the route it would be letting off certain people and picking up others. In this respect it was a lot like an Amtrak train flying through the air. The only issues that would occasionally crop up were if a crew had to stop for their mandatory rest period, mechanical problems that could delay or cancel a flight, or if the plane somehow got diverted for an emergency, such as transporting injured troops. The latter could mean regular passengers would have to disembark as the plane made off for a different destination. So just because I had a tentative schedule in hand did not mean everything would go perfect. That’s sort of how military life operates; we had two mantras we often repeated in any situation where things were uncertain and delay was possible: “Hurry up and wait,” and “Semper Gumby.” Be patient. Be flexible. Train yourself out of complaining about uncertainty and delay and learn to embrace and thrive on them.
As we lifted off just after 0600 and banked northwest over the Persian Gulf and then the shoreline of Saudi Arabia, I pulled out my reading material. Our 1,600 mile flight path would take us in a northwesterly direction over Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel, then out over the Mediterranean, and finally into Crete. Crete, a Greek island, is located in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, due south of Athens and about midway between Greece and the northern coasts of Libya and Egypt. It sounded like a pretty exotic place to be stopping, and I had pulled some information about it so I could read up in the event I got “stuck” there waiting for another plane. It was always a good idea to read up on your “area of operations” whether you were going to be working or just visiting. Situational awareness and familiarity with the situation on the ground prevented a lot of problems and just made things more efficient once you arrived. I learned early in my Marine Corps career that two of the most accessible repositories for this type of information were the CIA’s World Factbook and the State Department’s own informational pages, both “open sources” of material and available on the internet. I had checked both sources before I flew to Bahrain, and I had checked both of them before I got on the plane in Bahrain, covering every stop I might make on this trip.
Although I would be stopping on military bases, if something happened and I got delayed, I wanted to know what the local situation was on the ground if I ventured outside the gates. Since all of these nations were allied to us, this research was probably not as necessary as it would be if I were heading elsewhere, as I had back in 2004 before going into Central Asia on the borders of Afghanistan, but I still figured the information would be helpful.
I learned from my reading that the small American naval support base on Crete was located on a Greek air force base on the northwest side of the island near the small village of Mouzouras and about 10 miles east of the city of Chania. The Navy had space on the air base and also had several anchorage locations on the bay south of the base. Although strategically important in World War 2 and during the Cold War, the American military presence at Souda Bay had steadily decreased since the fall of the Berlin Wall in the early 90s. Naval ships and submarines would occasionally come in for brief stops to refuel and take on food and supplies, but that was about it.
There didn’t appear to be much at all to do around the tiny base, so I made a mental note to venture out if I had any time between flights. I hoped I would be able to get on another flight out the same day, but I just didn’t know yet. I would find out as soon as I landed and got into the terminal at the Souda Bay airfield.
It was a clear and sunny day so visibility was perfect as we descended on our approach into Souda Bay. I could see the beautiful and rugged Cretan coastline, with small boats and larger vessels anchored and bobbing on the blue sea. Just seconds after passing over the coast, we touched down on the runway at Souda Bay at around 0845 local time. We had gained an hour flying westward. Arriving so early in the day, I was hopeful there would be another flight I could catch.
We taxied slowly to the terminal and parked. It took a few minutes to get cleared, and we all gathered our gear and got ready to deplane. Military airfields typically do not use jet ways like commercial airports, so we had to wait a bit for the ground crew to roll the stairwell up to the aircraft. Once it was in place, the door was opened and we filed out into the brilliant Mediterranean morning.
I walked into the terminal and found the clerk who was taking care of the passenger manifests. When my turn came I showed him my orders and asked when the next flight out to either Naples or Sigonella was. “Sir the next flight out of here to Sigonella isn’t until tomorrow morning.” “What time?” “1000 Sir.” “What about from there? Will I be able to connect over to Rota sometime tomorrow?” “Sir, Sigonella’s probably the busiest airfield in the region, so I think you’ll probably have a good shot at getting on a flight out of there tomorrow. I just can’t make any guarantees.” “I know, I know.”
Damn. I would be stuck here for at least a day. Oh well, what was I going to do? “Can you put me on that 1000 flight tomorrow?” “It’s a C-130 Sir, is that okay with you? The next jet out isn’t until the day after tomorrow.” “Yeah, yeah, no problem. Just get me to Sigonella as soon as possible. I am trying to get home from deployment.” A few seconds of waiting transpired. “Okay Sir, I have you manifested for the C-130 leaving here at 1000 tomorrow and getting in to Sigonella sometime around 1300. Showtime here is 0830 with all your gear.” “Roger. Thanks.” “Do you know if there’s a BOQ on the base here?” “Yes Sir, there’s a Navy Inn just across the road over there,” he pointed out. “Thanks.” That was great news.
I hoped the Navy Inn had rooms because I didn’t want to sleep in the terminal at the airfield. I grabbed all my stuff and started power walking over there before anyone could beat me to it. I was in luck; they had plenty of rooms. I showed my ID and handed over my travel card. This was another well-kept military secret; most bases had small BOQ’s or “Bachelor Officer’s Quarters” — small hotel-like lodging available for transient officers like me — but the Navy Inn was actually a step up from that. These places functioned like little hotels with the typical room amenities and maid service daily. And the room price of 30–40 dollars was a steal in most places.
I got into my room, dropped my gear and flopped down on the bed to consider what I would do on the island of Crete with the nearly full day I had just been presented. I learned the base had a new pool and gym and several running trails that went up into the hills and down near the water. I determined I would hit the gym, then go for a short run, then perhaps later hitch a cab ride into the town of Chania for dinner. Everybody at the inn recommended it.
After going to the gym and finishing what turned into a 30 minute hill run, I returned to my room, got cleaned up and went over to the gate to hail a cab into town. It took about 20 minutes for the driver to deliver me to old town Chania. I paid him, got out, and just started walking.
After eating in chow halls in Iraq for six months, I wasn’t going to waste this opportunity by hitting a McDonalds; almost unbelievably, I saw one right after I got out of the cab. No, that definitely would not do. The waterfront seemed lined with all kinds of little pubs, cafes and restaurants. It was hard to decide.
The small taverna I selected was set right against the waterfront in old town Chania. I sat outside at a sidewalk table so I could just soak in everything, the views of the water, the ancient town, and the distant hills, all to the constant background music of a soft, salt-tinged breeze drifting in from the sea. My taste buds leapt when I looked over the diverse menu, with sumptuous offerings like lamb, steak, chicken, pork and fish dishes I had never heard of. Or did I want shrimp, mussels, or calamari?
I finally chose something called “prawns souvlaki” (a dish of fish wrapped in bacon with fresh peppers and onion), and feasted on their grilled Greek bread and olive oil. I was tempted to have one of their great-looking wines, but I figured that might not end up being a good idea by the time I boarded the C-130 in the morning; one glass would inevitably turn into two glasses, and so on.
I took my time with dinner, wanting to take in as much as possible of the setting I was in, making mental notes for the time I was certain I would bring my wife back in the future. These types of experiences were satisfying to be sure, but I never had as much fun doing them alone as when she was with me. I loved just watching her reactions as we did something together and seeing the wonder and delight in her eyes. That was always missing from doing things alone.
When I was finished, I paid the bill, left the waiter a liberal tip for the outstanding service and information about the town he had given me, and started walking. From the taverna, I walked the harbor promenade east past the ancient Firkas Fortress, the domed Mosque of the Janissaries built by the Turks in the 17th century, and many of the still-standing 16th-century Venetian shipyard buildings. There were also crumbling ruins of the old seawall fortifications in many places. And standing guard over this scene like a big sentinel was the old Chania lighthouse across the harbor.
The time flew by, and when I looked at my watch I saw it was 2100 and I needed to hail another cab back to the base. I arrived back at my room, turned on Armed Forces Network and caught up on the day’s events. I called my wife and told her of my progress and that I would be flying out again in the morning to get one step closer to home.
To be continued.