Now What?

The good news? I’m flying home Wednesday.

The bad news? There’s a storm hitting the Northeast Wednesday.

I may have missed my weather window. Instead of worrying about sandstorms and indirect fire it’s slick roads and snow drifts. It’s always something I guess…

Update: So I guess the storm is going to be massive. It was on NPR’s Facebook page, if that says anything. Regardless, I’m getting on an airplane tomorrow morning. I may just be hanging out in London for a while. The ups ans downs of the job.

STUCK!

I’m still in Kuwait. After what was probably the most stressful and frustrating travel experience of my life, I’m now booked to fly home Wednesday.

So here’s what happened:

The sergeant who has been escorting me around picked me up at 6 a.m. I was ready and waiting outside. I threw my stuff in the back and got in, along with another sergeant who supposedly knew how to get to the airport and the female specialist who was partnered with the escorting sergeant.

It’s supposedly a half hour to 45 minute drive to the airport, so I should have been there by 6:45 a.m. for the 8:55 a.m. flight. Well, first we miss a turn. We go up two exits (they didn’t realize we’d missed the turn until after we went by the following exit), turn around and go back. Then we head to the military side of the airport.
“That sign says airport straight ahead,” I said, “why are we turning right?”
“It’s a back way in,” the sergeant who supposedly knows the way said.
We turn onto a road that leads to a US military checkpoint. The checkpoint personnel don’t respond right away, so the sergeant who knows the way reaches across the escorting sergeant (driving) and honks the horn. The checkpoint people then force us to wait 20 or 30 minutes (literally) and have a supervisor come out to reprimand us for blowing the horn.
When we finally get through we take the “back way” into the airport. (The checkpoint personnel never looked at my paperwork, the only non-US military in the vehicle. It was a power display.)

We pull up to the terminal, grab my bags and go in.
“Which way to British Airways?” I ask a group of men standing at the door.
People point to a hallway, but there is obviously no British Airways that way, so I ask someone at a counter.
“They’re not here. You’re in the wrong airport. There is another terminal at the other side of the airport.”
That’s when I said screw this, I’m directing traffic now. Go back to the highway, I said, where we saw the sign for the airport and follow that in. It takes us right in to the airport (surprise!), where there are cars stopped in every lane.
It’s now been an hour and 50 minutes. I’m freaking out, but I’ve still got an hour until the flight leaves. (I always freak out when there are flights involved.)
So I jump out of the car and grab all my bags and run in, leaving my escort behind. I get in the security line and go to where it says British Airways should be. But they aren’t there.
I ask around and finally find one guy with a BA pin.
“The flight is closed,” he said. “You’re too late.”
“I’ve got an hour until my flight,” I said.
“No, it’s closed. If you want to leave your baggage in Kuwait I can get you on, but not with your baggage.”
“Will I get it eventually?”
“No, we won’t watch it for you. You need to leave it.”
I considered it. If it weren’t for the helmet and bulletproof vest, I would have.
“I can’t,” I said. “When can I get rescheduled?”
“You can’t. You missed your flight. You need to buy a new ticket.”
My mouth went dry.
“OK, I’ll leave my bag.”
“It’s too late for that, you had one minute,” he said. “You’ll need to buy a new ticket.”

I was able to call my point of contact at the Camp Arifjan from a phone in one of the two Starbucks. The sergeant who had been escorting me and the sergeant who didn’t know the way met me there at 10:10 a.m. and gave me a ride back to the base. I couldn’t call British Airways US because it was 3 a.m. back home, so I called BA UK.
“No, you can’t have a new ticket,” the woman at customer service told me, “you missed your flight.”
“I missed it because I was detained at a military checkpoint,” I said, “and I was still there an hour early.”
“You were too late,” she said.
“I want to talk to your supervisor,” I said.
“She’ll tell you the same thing.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said. “I want to talk to your supervisor.”
Her supervisor did say the same thing. But then I said it was ridiculous they would ask me to just abandon my luggage.
“It would have made it eventually,” she said.
“That’s not what I was told,” I said. “The man told me I was just going to have to leave it if I wanted to get on the plane, and that I would be leaving it for good.”
“Well he shouldn’t have. Of course you would get it eventually.”
“I would have left it if I had known that!” I said.
That mistake saved me $1,000, or whatever last minute oneway airfare from Kuwait to Boston costs. The supervisor booked me on the same flight on Wednesday, leaving at 8:55 a.m. and arriving at 6:35 p.m.

I’ll be leaving Camp at 5 a.m. Wednesday, and somebody better know the way.

Final Thoughts

It’s been two weeks, but it feels like two months. I’ve been awed and amazed by this experience. It has reshaped my understanding of the military and the people who work in it. I’m looking forward to getting on a plane and returning to the cold and snow back home, but I’ll also be looking forward to the next time I am back here.

Thanks for following my travels. I’ve still got one more story to finish. It will hopefully broadcast next week. After that I’m going to have to see what kind of interesting trouble I can get myself into. Until then…

Kuwait Coffee

I got a chance to sit down and share coffee with a Kuwaiti family today in the desert just off base. It’s hard to imagine getting the urge to invite the people riding up in gun trucks into your house, but that’s exactly what the Kuwaitis did. We sat and drank and ate cookies. It was another spectacular experience on a trip full of them.

I’m going up north tomorrow to talk to New Hampshire soldiers who run long haul convoys into Iraq, and then the next day I catch my plane out of here. I’ve had a fantastic time, and I’ve been nothing but impressed with the people I’ve met. From specialist to colonel, everyone has been friendly and helpful. I know part of that is the fact that I’m media, but soldiers were always willing to go out of their way for me. The Army has bureaucracy that baffles me, but the people who make it up have passion.

Next time I do this I’ll know a little better when to ask for permission and when to announce my intentions. I got to meet up with the New Hampshire unit in Kuwait because I decided to stop waiting for the Army to connect me with them. (That’s exactly the opposite of what they direct you to do, but after months of waiting for them to connect me I gave up.)

And today, just like everyday on this trip, I got to do, see, hear or learn something amazing. I need more trips like this. You can never get too much Kuwaiti coffee.

Update: A few pictures to go along with:

Unexpected Pleasures

I got to spend an evening catching up with a friend and former roommate of mine from Maine who works at Camp Arifjan. It was a nice treat, especially after a long couple days of traveling. I’ve got two more days before I go home, which has definitely been pulling at my motivation. Whether it’s two weeks or two months, it’s the last days that hurt. I’m looking forward to a homemade dinner, my wife, my bed and my dog. But until then, the treat of a familiar face makes a difference.

One More Stop

In an effort to cover the 197th Fires Brigade, I’m now at Camp Arifjan. It’s so interesting to note here I’ve been more closely scrutinized than I was all through Iraq. I’m also in the most rustic accommodations yet. I’m sleeping in the common room at the barracks of the  sergeant from the public affairs division who has been showing me around. It’s funny, because this is supposed to be the Ritzy base, but right now it’s the one where I’m crammed in next to a couch and a footlocker.

At this point, I’m starting to taste the flight home. In three nights, less than 72 hours, I’ll be headed back to the Northeast. I guess I don’t get to go out in style.

Out of Iraq, But Not Done

I’m in Kuwait, sort of on my way back home. I got in last night, and since then I’ve been fighting with terrible internet connections trying to coordinate meeting up with my next assignment. Around 9:45 a.m. I had some luck, and now I’m sitting in an internet cafe making the update rounds.

My last day in Iraq was punctuated by a huge rainstorm, and a vomiting man sitting next to me in a C-130. What a way to end things.

The way out was interesting. After just a few days at Shocker, I’d come to really like it and the people there. Both the officers and the enlisted men (they were all men, the only women I saw were contractors) were friendly and hospitable. The sergeant I was traveling with said Shocker had a good feel because it was on the periphery. No one asked to see my ID, because with just over 100 soldiers it’s pretty hard to miss the guy who needs a haircut.

Contrast that with Camp Delta, where security scrutinized my paperwork every time. Which, by the way, is hilarious, because I know for a fact some of those who looked at it couldn’t read it.

I needed razorblades, so I went to the PX, or post exchange, to pick some up. The man guarding the door with an AK-47 took a few minutes to review my paperwork, and then he let me in. I bought my razor and went back out to grab my backpack, which I wasn’t allowed to bring in. I was waiting for someone, so I decided to chat with the guard.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Uganda,” he said, with a thick accent.

“How do you like it here?” I asked.

He tilted his head sideways like a bird.

“Do you like it here?” I asked again.

“Cold,” he said.

I got that the money isn’t that good, and that he has a child with a girlfriend, but that was all we could communicate to each other in 5 minutes of talking and gesturing.

So how much did he get out of my Department of Defense letter? I have to wonder…

But here, I’m back in a sea of Americans, with a friendly New Hampshire escort taking me to lunch. What a difference a border makes.

I’m not done, but things are winding down. I’ve got a story to record, and then one more to do on this unit, the 197th Fires Brigade, before I head back. The window is definitely closing, and it’s been one hell of a ride.