Sitting in the dark at the edge of my bed with my face in my hands, I thought to myself, “How could I leave my family after just moving to a new Air Force base?” To further add to my guilt, the next day was also my oldest son’s first day of school—the same day I was scheduled to deploy to Iraq. The year was 2006, and this would be the first time my three children would be separated from each other as my oldest went off to school, and the first time I would be away from them since they were born. Sleep wasn’t coming, but I forced myself to lie down, close my eyes, and get some sleep.
I had many conversations about this day with my three children as the day grew closer. Some discussions were one-on-one, and some were as a group. This wasn’t my first deployment, but I didn’t want this experience to be some sort of terrible surprise. The Air Force prepared us well for these situations and was always willing to provide any assistance we may have needed during times of deployments. My children seemed to understand the process fairly well. The only thing left was go through it.
As the day began, it didn’t seem quite normal. But everyone was up early, dressed and ready to go on time, which almost never happens. We loaded up my gear and the kids and pushed off to the first day of school for my eldest son. I walked him all the way to the door of his classroom and let him know we would not be seeing one another for about six months. We hugged and he walked into the room. Things were running smooth; it was all going as planned.
After arriving at the meeting point for the families and members deploying to say their last goodbyes, I had begun to feel positive about my departure. It was a nice sunny day, a bit chilly but a beautiful day nonetheless. I believed that because the goodbyes to my family went well, I was in for a really great day.
After our goodbyes, the gear and military personnel were loaded into a couple 15-passenger vans, and my journey began as we pushed off for the airport.
We were dropped off at the airport on time and no one had a single complaint. We made our way to the ticket counter. Immediately airport security wanted to inspect our weapons cases. No problem; we obliged to the extra checks; we kind of expected it. Security was about to clear us when they told us we would not be allowed to lock our cases. This wasn’t a huge issue for now, but I knew we would be required by the Air Force to lock the cases when traveling. Since I had the highest rank, I called my supervisor for guidance. He told me he would call me back after finding out the answer, which he did after about 15 minutes. He said that if airport security required unlocked cases, then we needed to cooperate, which we did.
We boarded our flight and hoped for no further issues along the way. There was only one stop before we were to fly eight hours over the Atlantic Ocean on our way to Iraq. Our flight would stop in Southwest Asia to switch from a commercial plane to a military aircraft.
As soon as we arrived at the airport, they gave us the current weather conditions. It was shortly after midnight and a scorching 105 degrees with 100% humidity. The crew opened the door to the aircraft and we could see the dry, cool air of the aircraft blend with the hot muggy air outside, forming a constant flow of mist pouring out of the aircraft. The crew members asked for volunteers to unload the plane’s cargo.
After deplaning the aircraft, we were instructed to form four groups: members staying at the current location for an extended tour; members staying at the current location for a temporary tour; members going forward to Iraq; and members going forward to Afghanistan. No sooner did we get organized into the groups than an attendant briefed us that the computer system just went down and would cause delays in the processing. “Doesn’t sound too bad,” I thought to myself, since my team and I didn’t need to process into this base. We began filing into a large room where we would receive our flight information. Our flight was scheduled to leave in four hours around 0500, about the same we already expected.
We waited our time and began the boarding process for our flight. We got in line to show our identification and paperwork. Before we boarded the plane, everyone on the flight was held behind a security checkpoint in a waiting tent until the plane was ready to fly. The holding tent was large and had what seemed like the patch or sticker on it of every unit that had ever processed through that terminal. It was also filled with long metal seats with arm rests and every other row facing the other. After waiting around two hours, one of the attendants announced that our plane needed repairs and this would only take about four more hours to complete. We had already waited four hours, and we were tied to a certain mission number. But there was nothing we could do at this point, so most of us tried to get as comfortable as possible to take naps.
As we were just about half asleep, another attendant announced that the plane repairs would require at least two more hours longer. We were also told that we needed to be moved out of the waiting tent for other flights passengers. The attendant sent us back to the terminal to await our flights repairs and departure. The attendants also got us boxed meals because about eight hours had passed since we arrived, and we were never allowed to leave the secure area for any reason. Two hours later the attendant came out to give us another status update on our plane. She informed us that our plane could not be repaired, but another plane had been booked for us and we would be boarding in the next two to three hours.
Just as before, we were guided back into the secure holding tent to await our departure. After waiting for the new plane for two hours, we got another status update on the current plane. The attendant announced that the plane we were now scheduled to depart on had also broken down and would need some repairs. But the attendant came prepared with two options this time: Option one was to have us all leave the secure area and get temporary rooms and return at a set time to re-check into the terminal. Option two was to have a smaller tent set up for us so we could stay in the secure area until the required time for our flight.
This is where things got a bit tricky. I only had sufficient ranking to make a decision for my six-man team, but the troop commander had responsibility for the entire group on the flight. That commander made the unpopular decision that we all had to stay in the secured area. I’m not sure why this choice was made, but I can only imagine it was because it would have been hard to rely on everyone to show up at the airport at the required time. Some stragglers would likely miss the flight, which would reflect on the troop commander.
The entire group was escorted to a smaller tent in the secured area, still on the flight line. As we walked into this smaller tent, it became very evident it was a mistake to choose this option. Some fifty dog kennels reeking of dogs had to be stacked in the far back corner of the tent. The floor and seats of the tent were covered in dog hair. Attendants brought all the cots they had, which was only enough for less than half the members on the flight. The rest of us would have to make the best of the ground and our gear to make a place to relax for a while and get some sleep.
A long five hours later, I woke just in time for a member from the terminal to deliver us the news that we were good to go and just needed to return to the large holding tent to get on our flight. This was the best news I could have possibly received at the time. I don’t think I could have been happier to hear anything else in the world. It took some time for everyone to get their gear together and process into the holding tent, but once it was done the rest fell into place.
Our wait time wasn’t long at all, and we only sat in the large tent for 30 minutes or so before we cleared out. As we loaded onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 and made our way toward Iraq, I thought a lot about my family. I missed them and at the same time was also thrilled to finally be on my way to completing the last leg of my trip.
I learned a lot on that trip to Iraq, but possibly the largest lesson learned was how to hurry up and wait.