The Tents of Ali al Salem
For any of you who spent one day at the way station in the Kuwaiti desert on your way in or out of theater, this one’s for you.
My deployment to Iraq has been the source of countless stories. Some of it would make for poor fiction if it weren’t real. Things happen on deployment that just don’t happen anywhere else.
Like the two days I spent stranded at Ali al Salem air base outside Kuwait City, waiting for a civilian flight that would take me from Kuwait International Airport to Bahrain, where I was to work for about a week at Naval Station Bahrain before heading back home from my deployment.
Ali al Salem was a sort of way station in the middle of the desert northwest of Kuwait City. It was a tiny, cramped, tent city that totally and awesomely sucked to be at for any amount of time. It was a stopover point for people transiting in and out of Iraq. It was run by the Army logistically and the Air Force for the vast majority of the air operations. It had a pretty good chow hall, a small gym, a McDonalds, Pizza Hut, and a Subway. And not much else. It wasn’t the green zone in Baghdad with gold palaces, green gardens, massive swimming pools, Starbucks coffee and Cinnabon.
But the tents that made up the “billeting”of the base numbered in the hundreds and operated on a hierarchy; indeed, 90 percent of them were first-come, first-served, and the typical tent setup had maybe 12–20 people crammed under one canvas roof and sleeping on regular bunk beds one might see in any old-school military barracks.
And then there were the “VIP” tents.
On my way into Iraq, I had no idea about the way things operated, and I did exactly what I was told. I was a Major (O-4) at the time, operating independently and travelling alone. So when I got to Ali al Salem on the way out, I checked into the billeting office and went to the tent they told me to go to. All tents were marked with a letter-number combination.
When I got there I noticed “VIP” stenciled on the outside. I sort of looked around. I wasn’t a VIP. Not in the Marine Corps anyway. But since the Army and Air Force ran the show, perhaps a different set of rules applied. I wasn’t the type to argue.
The tents were all light-proofed, meaning when you went into one even in the middle of the day in June, it was as dark as night inside. So when I went in that first time, I turned on my trusty red-beam flashlight, saw two rows of single racks lining the tent on both sides, noticed maybe three other people in the entire tent, all sleeping, and found the first open rack, stored my gear, and got a few hours’ sleep. I never had any contact with those first three “VIPs.”
I was there the rest of that day and two more before I caught a C130 flight up to al Taqaddum air base in Iraq. My stay at Ali al Salem on the way in was uneventful. I just figured Majors were VIPs in this new deployed world, at least the part of the world the Army and Air Force ran. And who was I to make an issue of it?
I spent the majority of my deployment at al Taqaddum and Al Asad air bases in Iraq, where the Marine Corps essentially ran things and where nobody was treated like a VIP, except people like the Vice President or perhaps a famous country music singer on a USO visit. Indeed, the Marine Corps prefers and is used to the spartan lifestyle, and TQ was definitely a spartanesque environment. But, as stated, this never meant one was required to refuse a better situation on the rare occasion one presented itself.
Months later, I was on my way down to Bahrain on the first leg of my redeployment. And my flight back into Ali al Salem arrived in the middle of the night at about 0300. As I had done months before, I went straight to billeting. They gave me a tent assignment, and I trudged out into the hot Kuwait night with all my gear looking for the tent, expecting the same type of arrangement I had months before. But when I got there, I went in and found it packed with two-dozen sleeping folks, all on bunks, stacked two to a bunk.
“Aw hell no,” I told myself. This a not happening. I’m not sleeping in here. I couldn’t see an open rack anyway, and I was carrying two full seabags, a huge pack, and another good-sized bag. And I had no idea where I was going to put all my gear.
So what did I do? Go back to billeting and ask for another tent assignment?
No. “I’ll just go find that VIP tent they put me in before,” I said to myself.
Which I did. It took about twenty minutes in the darkness, but I finally found it. It being 0330 now, I just went in and found the nearest empty rack, stowed all my gear as quietly as possible, and went to sleep. Before doing so though, I took off my uniform blouse with my rank insignia attached, not to do anything other than get more comfortable.
I woke up the next morning to find myself in a tent with about four other guys from different branches, all of whom were dressed just like me; they either wore PT gear (running shorts and a t-shirt) or their utility uniform without their blouse on. The tent had about forty racks, so it was sparsely inhabited. I tried to keep to myself, but eventually it seemed all four other men wanted to talk.
The first one finally walked over and said, “Hey, my name’s John. Nice to meet you.” “I’m Glen,” I responded. We shook hands and made some more small talk. And this went on with each of the others. I really wanted to just avoid talking with a bunch of guys I didn’t know, but it was inevitable they would want to converse; they were on their way in, just starting their deployments. Which makes people ask lots of questions. This went on as long as I was in the tent.
Somehow, I managed to go all of that first day and all of the second without spending too much time locked in talks with my tent companions. No matter how nice and cool it is inside, you eventually get stir crazy in there and feel compelled to venture out, even at a place like Ali al Salem. We all left at different times in the day and did our own things. I never saw them anywhere around the base. They weren’t Marines, so we weren’t hanging out or doing the same things. I liked my independence and anonymity, and outside TQ and Al Asad, I pretty much stayed to myself.
And then late the night before I was to leave early the next morning, they all started packing up their gear and getting ready to leave. They were hopping a C130 to Baghdad.
“John” approached me and said,“Well, we’re all headed out. What about you?” “I leave first thing in the morning for Bahrain. I’m on my way home, eventually,” I said. “Lucky you. We’re all headed into Iraq.” “Well good luck and be safe,” I told them.
Then they each put on their uniform blouses, and I did a double take at their rank insignias. They were not Majors like me; they were all Colonels, and outranked me by two ranks. The entire preceding forty-eight hours we had all been on a first-name basis.
As they began to leave, I faced a dilemma. Did I reveal after two days now that I was a lowly Major, now apparently interloping in the VIP tent? They had still never seen my rank. Or, should I just play along?
I made a command decision right then and there.
“Take care, Glen. It was nice to meet you,” said the Colonels as they filed out of the tent one after the other.
“Take care, John. Good luck,” I said. Or whatever their respective first names were. It was just too late now to out myself, and in the end the only “very important” quality of being in the “VIP” tent was there was more room and fewer racks. There was no television, wireless, coffee or soda mess, or any other dreamy scenario people come up with for officers. But it was definitely quieter and smelled better, I’m certain.
And thus, I secured my final, relaxing night, alone in that “VIP” tent at Ali al Salem air base. And I have zero regrets. I woke up early the next morning well-rested, took a van over to Kuwait International Airport, and hopped my freedom bird out of theater and down to Bahrain, the next stop on my long way home.