Archive for the ‘The Flamingo Follies Saga’ Category

Settling In

March 21, 2009

Chapter 4

It didn’t take long to settle into a routine.  Get up, go to work, go “home” to sleep.  Get up, go to work, go “home” to sleep.  Get up, go to work, go “home” to sleep.  We split our crew into two teams, one on days and one on nights.  12 hour shifts.  Six days on and one day off.  And with the absolute, over abundant, plethora of exciting things to do, most folks came in to work on their day “off.”

Now the living conditions weren’t “horrible.”  But by Air Force standards, they were bad.  And by Air Force Reserve standards they were deplorable.  And I say that because, being in the Air Force, we’re used to staying in a hotel.  And a “nice” hotel, at that.  After regaining my legs from “playing Pope” upon my arrival, I was surprised to not find a rental car waiting.  What was the Air Force Reserve coming to?  Not like the good ‘ol days.  We were in tents.  Actual tents.  I think they were “20-man” tents, but I still didn’t complain when the Air Force crammed seven of us in to one tent.  The Army normally had about 30 folks in the 20-man tents and the Marines had so many staying in one I didn’t even bother to try and count.  It was just one of those times I smartly realized it might be best to stay quiet.

Now being crammed into a 20-man tent with six other guys wasn’t the worst part.  Each person had their own “space” with “walls” made of blankets hung from the ceiling or if someone before you had been handy, maybe wooden walls.  I suppose the folks before me that had stayed in my tent had not been handy, so we made do with the “walls of blankets.” 

Actually, the tents weren’t all that bad.  They were well heated and cooled, but dust was everywhere.  You would have thought we were in the desert or something.

I think the worst part about the living conditions was the communal “facilities.”  Now… I hate to complain, because I know there were troops out there literally living under the stars, sleeping on the ground, eating cold food… you get the idea.  But the worst part about the communal “facilities” was they were about 100 yards from my tent.

Now if you stop and think about it, 100 yards isn’t that far.  It’s the length of one football field.  That’s only 300 feet.  But when you’re a middle-aged guy, it’s 3:00am, and you gotta go, and I mean you gotta go RIGHT NOW, that 100 yards may as well be a 26 mile marathon.  And you can’t just get up and go, because you’re in a war zone.  You have to get up, get dressed, put on your flak jacket, put on your helmet, remember to shake the spiders out of your boots, cuss like a sailor when you bend over to put your boot on and your helmet falls off and lands on your foot… trust me, it’s just not an easy task.  And being in the desert, you are constantly reminded to drink PLENTY of water so you don’t dehydrate.  But, after about the first three days, I decided dehydration wasn’t such a bad option and stopped drinking water early in the day.  And by early, I mean around lunch.  No fluids after noon.  I became a tad bit parched and light-headed, but I slept through the night.

Now one of the things I noticed on my first night returning from the facilities (trust me when I tell you I didn’t notice it on the way to the facilities) was that it was dark.  And I don’t mean a little dark.  I mean DARK.  Dark as in pitch black dark.  You literally couldn’t see your hand in front of your face.  The base was under black-out conditions for obvious reasons.  But I happened to glance up at the sky and was amazed.  The sky was full of stars.  I don’t mean a lot of stars like I had always seen… I mean full of stars.  I could actually make out constellations that I had never seen before.  I realized that we didn’t have the “night lights” like we did back in the US.  Lights from cities dim the sky to the point that you can’t see the night sky like I was seeing it.  This part of the world had very few large cities, so the result was that I was able to see the sky like I had never seen it before.  I was amazed at the beauty.  I think this was the first of what would turn out to many humbling events I would experience during my deployment.


Now, I can’t say it was all bad.  Ours was a “Coalition Base,” so we had military members from various countries.  British, Italian, Japanese, Romanian… a real melting pot.  As such, each of their military brought things to try and make their troops feel at home.  We actually had a Pizza Hut and Burger King on the base.  They were each run out of a trailer and, once you got used to the taste, they could almost remind you of home.  But, my favorite was the Italian Canteen.  Located 50  yards from my office, they had actual fresh Italian Cappuccino along with real, handmade Italian pizza.  After the first five days, countless cappuccinos, and EIGHT pizzas (I kid you not….they were AWESOME), my shrinking uniforms quickly told me that I would have to start eating in the chow hall and leave the pizzas for special occasions only.

I know, I know, the Flamingos.  Trust me, they didn’t happen overnight, so I have to tell you how I came to be there with them.  Again… just stay with me.


The Arrival

March 20, 2009

Chapter 3

So anyway, after what seemed like38 days later, but was actually about 38 hours or something along those lines, we landed in Qatar.  We taxied in, they pulled a step truck up to the plane, opened the door, and, I kid you not, I expected to see Satan himself.  I had never felt such heat in my life.  It was 128 degrees.  The needle on the thermometer had actually gone completely around and was starting to come back up.  The humidity was at least 500%.  And to help just a bit more, the plane was sitting in the middle of a concrete pad which added at least 500 degrees to the “balmy” 128.  It was actually tough to get your breath.  I watched the hair of some of the females almost fall off their head.  Why they had bothered to have it done in the first place was beyond me.  I’m sure the enemy wouldn’t care one way or the other.  But the enemy never had a chance to see it since the humidity killed it on arrival.  I was immediately familiar with the term “D-O-A.”  I had expected the heat, but I had NOT expected humidity close to anything of this nature.  This was going to be one LONG tour.

So, we were in Qatar for a week waiting to catch a military plane up to Iraq.  Even the “lowest bidder” wouldn’t fly their civilian planes into a war zone.  I have to agree, that made sense to me.  When your “fleet” consists of two planes, losing one (50 percent) could really put a damper on your business.  So, like I said, we sat in Qatar for a week trying to get on any plane that could get us to our final destination, and it was 128 degrees every day with 500 percent humidity every day and hard to breathe every day. and life just sucked.  Every day.

Now, sitting around Qatar waiting for a flight, you hear “stuff”.  I had heard some “stuff” before I left, but I heard more “stuff” while waiting for a flight.  And I say that to say this: many of you may not be aware, but I do not like to fly.  Some people, especially some in my family, find that humorous since I chose to join the Air Force.  I don’t like to fly on a commercial plane, I don’t like to fly on a military plane, I don’t like to fly on a big plane, I don’t like to fly on a little plane…I just don’t like to fly.  Period.  And while waiting for a plane to take us up to Iraq, some of the “stuff” I heard was they had to make what is called an “assault landing.”

If you are like me, you might not be familiar with an “assault landing.”  The purpose is to keep the plane as high as they can for as long as they can.  This gives the enemy less time to try and shoot you down.  Now on a normal, nice, commercial flight (if that such thing exists since I don’t care to fly), your landing actually starts out many miles from the airport.  You begin a gentle descent of a few hundred feet per minute until you feel the wheels gently touch down on the runway.  You can hardly tell the difference in descent at all except for a touch of pressure in your ears at times.

The same cannot be said about a military “assault landing.”  As I mentioned, they have to stay up as high as possible and then drop as quickly as possible to get on the ground to give the enemy less chance to shoot a rocket, fire a missile, throw a rock, fling a camel, spit… whatever it is they do.  I also learned there are two types of assault landings.  In the first, the pilot keeps the plane at a high altitude until he is right at the point of the runway.  He then does an almost nose-down dive, stressing the integrity of the aircraft’s wings almost to the point that they separate from the body of the aircraft until, just before you hit the ground at 8,000mph, he pulls out of the dive and lands perfectly.  Total time from about 15,000 feet to wheels on the ground is about three seconds.  I’m told there is NO roller coaster in the world that can match that feeling.  The second type of assault landing is similar, only instead of a nose-down, death-defying dive, the pilot stands the plane on it’s wing at 15,000 feet and does a cork-screw maneuver until, again, he pulls out at the last minute and lands safely.

I was worried about this for the entire week I sat in Qatar waiting on a plane.  I wasn’t worried about getting shot, mortars, scorpions, tents, spiders, bombs, the heat…I was worried about the assault landing.  And lucky us.  After seven days of waiting, we were finally able to get a flight up to Iraq.  We were going to war.  And I was to later find out, our pilot chose the cork-screw method.

Folks, I never knew that my voice could scream at such a high pitch.  The Mormon Tabernacle Choir would have been proud to have me as a member.  I had never had the opportunity to have the same meal eight times over and over and over in the span of two minutes.  Trust me when I say I now know to watch what I eat before I fly.  I also never knew that I could make the eyes of the girl sitting beside me pop out of her head from squeezing her hand so tight.  Suffice to say I also never knew my left leg could spasm so hard that my kneecap could completely circumnavigate my leg.  But I know each of these things now.  But… we made it.  I was on the ground.  Safe.  In a war zone.  And the first thought in my mind?  Man, I gotta do that assault landing again in six months.

So, as I said, we were on the ground in Iraq.  Now normally, again, on your nice commercial flights, once you land, you taxi slowly up to the gate, the engines are shut down, they drive a “loading tube” out to the aircraft, and you deplane in a nice, calm, orderly fashion.  Not so on a military plane in a war zone.  From our cork-screw descent, we hit the runway, the crew-member was immediately up and opening the rear ramp of the plane while we were still taxiing to the parking spot.  And taxiing may not be the right term here, either.  We were taxiing so fast on the ground that a NASCAR spotter would have been proud.  And I say taxiing to a “parking spot,” but I don’t think we were ever “parked.”  They lowered the ramp while we were “taxiing” at about 500 mph, and we had to quickly grab what was ours so that when they “stopped,” we could run out the back of the plane with the propellers still running.  And as the last passenger stepped off the plane, the ramp started going up and they were headed back out to the runway for take off.  I do not know for sure that the plane ever officially “stopped” or “parked.”

Now I have noticed over the years that anytime the Pope arrives in a country, he always kneels and kisses the ground.  Although I am a Baptist, in a manner befitting the Pontiff, I imitated the Holy See and immediately knelt and kissed the tarmac.  The only difference was, my “kneeling” was actually a collapse because my legs were so much like rubber after the corkscrew maneuver that they could not hold my weight, and by kissing the tarmac, my lips sustained 3rd degree burns because the concrete was almost 500 degrees in the 130 degree sun.  But alas, there was no humidity.  It was as dry as a bone.  Maybe this wasn’t gonna be so bad after all.  Except for that assault landing I faced again in six months.

We hit the ground running.  Literally.  We were replacing a team that had been there six months and they were ready to head home.  I met the current Superintendent to receive an in-depth briefing on current vehicle inventory, their status, any routine jobs we would be expected to accomplish, locations of fall-out shelters in case of attack, what our defensive posture would be during an attack, etc….normal stuff you would expect to receive upon arrival in a hostile environment.

The in-depth briefing was short: “There’s your office, that is your fleet, most of the keys are inside, good luck and God speed.  I’m outta here.”

Luckily, things got better.  We were replacing a team of Active Duty folks with a team which was a mixture of Reserve and Air National Guard.  A fantastic group of five from the California ANG in Fresno, two Reservists from Tinker AFB, OK, one Reservist from Luke AFB, AZ, five Reservists from Dobbins ARB, GA, the six with me, and myself.  And so began our tour in the desert.

Off We Go

March 20, 2009

Chapter 2

Sunday, September 5th, 2004 finally rolled around. And suffice it to say that goodbyes are tough.  Whether you are leaving for a couple of days, a couple of months, or for over a year, you try and get used to them in the military, but they are never easy.  And this was a tough one; I have to admit, the toughest of my entire career.  Just knowing my destination, the conditions we would be facing, the timeframe I would be gone, what we had been seeing on the news……it was just tough.  I’ve never liked to watch people say goodbye.  I prefer to say it at home and then jump out of the car at the airport curb and go in by myself.  So, since we would be leaving by bus on a Sunday night from the base, I decided to drive myself and have my family pick up the car the next day.  I could laugh and joke through my goodbyes at home with my wife and daughter, put on a brave face, and walk out the door to go to war.  Then, I could drive to the base, sit in the car, alone, and shed the tears I didn’t want them to see.  Tears over what I would miss: my daughter’s Junior year of high school, her Junior Prom, my wife’s birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas; things that many military members had missed countless times.  But I had been lucky in my 22+ years of service and hadn’t missed a thing.  I also thought about another possibility; one that we don’t want to face and tried to reassure myself that should it happen, my family would be fine.  I had planned it all, down to the smallest detail, had it in a safe place, and told a very trusted person where it was located should it be needed.  And right now, to that trusted friend, I want to say thank you.  You know who you are and I’m glad you weren’t faced with that task.  And so I drove to the base alone…two hours earlier than required…sat in my car alone…and got it out of my system without my family ever knowing.

Roll-call at the base on Sunday afternoon was at 4:00pm (1600 for you true military fanatics).  Departure time was set for 11:00pm (again, 2300…).  Yep, it was going to take seven hours to count 150 or so folks.  But remember, this is the military and we have to follow “the plan.”  So just be there at 4:00pm/1600 and be ready to go.

So, 6 ½ hours later, 30 minutes prior to departure, one of my young troops informs his supervisor, who then informs me (again, it’s a military thing, you can’t just tell the guy in charge.  You have to follow the “protocol” and tell your supervisor, who tells THEIR boss, and on up the line).  But anyway, 30 minutes prior to departing, I found out one of the troops had forgotten his boots.  Now, I’m not sure how many of you reading this are actually familiar with the military, but your boots are pretty important.  If you have an inspection and you don’t have your boots on, you’re gonna get noticed pretty quick.  So I find out he has forgotten his boots.  Can he “run home” and get them?

Now, just so you know, being a Reservist is different than being active duty.  Active duty military, usually, live close to the base.  Some actually live ON the base in a dorm or government furnished housing.  This is not necessarily true with the Reserve military.  Some, like myself, did live in town.  Others live hours away.  Some fly in from out of state.  This particular young guy lived three hours away.  Three hours home, three hours back, the bus was leaving in 30 minutes…and he wanted to “run home” and get his boots.  I thought long and hard about this.  This decision could set the precedent for the entire deployment in the eyes of those traveling with me.  I had to make the right call.

So about 3 ½ hours later, the bus pulled into a rest stop on the way to meet our plane.  It was about a four hour long drive, so knowing we would HAVE to stop, stopping 3 ½ hours into the four hour trip made perfect sense to me.  But anyway, lo and behold, a car arrives at the rest stop.  Our young troop’s mother had his boots.  She drove through the night to ensure his feet would be safe in the war zone.  Man…that was one great butt-chewing down the tubes.

We arrived at the base where we would board the plane for our journey.  I have to admit, we were pretty lucky.  The military had chartered a commercial jet.  We could have been on a military cargo jet with web seating, cargo all around you, a box meal, loud all the time, etc.  But, at least we had a commercial plane.  That being said, I’m not sure how many of you are aware that the government goes out for bids on just about everything.  Cars…bombs…paper…pens…pencils…bullets…all are awarded to the lowest bidder.  (If you’re ever in a war zone wearing a flak-jacket and helmet, sitting in an armored vehicle holding a weapon loaded with ammo, just remember that every bit of it was bought from the lowest bidder.  The same can not be said for the folks that are shooting at you).

But anyway, we have this chartered commercial jet to fly over on.  And just suffice to say, it’s an airline whose name I have never heard.  It isn’t “Delta,” or “United,” or “Northwest,” or “American Airlines,” or any other of about fifty airlines I could name off the top of my head.  It was a name I had never heard.  And again, lowest bidder.  So how do these unheard of airlines get these planes and then these contracts?  Planes are expensive.  Do they buy new planes from Boeing, Airbus, Airplanes-R-Us?  No.  They buy the OLD planes that the other BIG name airlines have flown the wings off of.  This particular airline had an entire fleet of two (T-W-O) planes.

The age of the plane became evident once our trip started.  Now normally, on a “name-brand” airline, going from our starting point in Norfolk, VA to our destination in Qatar would require a stop in say, oh…Frankfurt, Germany.  The plane would refuel, change crew, get the food restocked, etc.  Now again, that is on a “name-brand” airline.  The plane we were flying was NOT a “name-brand” airline.  So we would be departing Norfolk, VA, stopping in Bangor, Maine for fuel (a total flight time of less than two hours), on to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Kuwait, and finally, into our destination of Qatar.  Total travel time, if I recall correctly, was scheduled for what would seem like 38 days.  A camel would have been quicker.  And I’m sure the camel’s bid would have been lower.  Literally, as many times as I have flown internationally, I have never had the opportunity to watch EIGHT movies on one flight.

So we get loaded in Norfolk, VA and take off, destination Bangor, Maine, two hours up the coast.  And we land at Bangor to a hero’s welcome.  Literally.  The airport is staffed by “greeters” that meet ALL military charters to “welcome them home,” serve cookies, soda, free use of a cell phone to call your family, etc.  I just took it all.  They were so happy to see us I didn’t have the heart to tell them we had just left Norfolk less than two hours ago and were on the way TO the conflict… not coming back from the conflict.  So I ate the cookies, drank the soda, and took the cell phone and called someone I didn’t even know and talked for a few minutes.  Those folks had tears in their eyes as we ate cookies and drank soda.  And they even formed a “Hero’s Walk” and applauded as we went to get back on the plane after about 30 minutes.  I guess it doesn’t take long to pump in about eight gallons of fuel which is about all we could have possibly used getting there all the way from Norfolk.

Now again, trust me.  We’re getting to the Flamingos, I promise.  Just bear with me here.

Getting Ready

March 20, 2009

Chapter 1

If you have never deployed with the military, suffice to say it isn’t easy to get “there.”  Getting off of your own base is the hardest part.  You have to out-process here, go there, get your Chemical Suit issued, re-qualify on the M-16 (remember who is writing this as you read that last line and see if a cold chill runs down your spine), and just really run around like a chicken with your head cut off until it’s time to go.  And lucky me.  Myself and the other troops joining me (seven in all) had a FULL two weeks of this.  Go here, Get this.  Go get that.  Go back over there.  I know you’ve been there twice, but go again.  It was about this time that I began to envy the Marine and Army mentality of “get your gear and get on the plane.”  But the Air Force doesn’t do it that way.  We’re too “organized.”

So when it’s time to deploy, the clinic is always a fun spot to start.  I don’t think they really know what shots to give you for where you are actually going, so they just give you one of everything.  And I’ve never understood why they have to give me six shots in the same spot.  If you’re going to put six shots in the same spot in the same arm, why can’t you put them all in one syringe and STICK ME ONE TIME?  (I’ve never actually asked that question because I’m sure the result would be that I would need an additional 10 shots).

However, due to our destination, one of the shots we needed was Anthrax.  Now Anthrax is not one shot.  It’s a series of shots.  You get one.  Then you come back in two weeks or so and get another.  Then you wait three months or so for the third.  And this goes on until you have had the entire series which I think is six or eight.  I say I “think” it’s six or eight, because I got tired of trying to remember where I was in the series and said to heck with it after the first three.

And remember when you were a kid, they gave you this shot in your arm that left a scar?  (Think I’m kidding?  Check your upper left bicep and you’ll probably see the scar).  That was a Small Pox shot.  Well, anyway, “they” (I have never figured out who “they” are, either, but I’ll let that go…..for now), but “they” also decided that we had to have the Small Pox shot again.  Now the Small Pox shot isn’t your normal, every day, run of the mill shot.  They have to dip this needle, prongy,  thingy into this “solution” and then poke your arm with it.  And for some reason, if you were born after a certain date, they have to poke you three times.  Three times.  I kinda laughed at the younguns that were going to be traveling with me since most of them were young enough to need the three pokes.

Turns out that humor was short lived.  Those born before the selected date had to be stuck 13 times.  You read that right.  Thirteen times.  T-H-I-R-T-E-E-N.  One-three, times.  I kid you not.  I’m sure “they” thought this up.  (See above for who “they” are). 

Well, being the professional leader of these troops, I decided to step up and go first.  The young med tech took me into this private room (thankfully, since I didn’t want my young troops to hear me scream like a little girl and watch me cry).  He then informed me that I would need to be stuck 13 times.  I had already figured that out, but I allowed him to do

his job.  I did inquire as to whether he could count to 13 since he only had 10 fingers.  I also reminded him that if there was any doubt in his mind about counting to 13, he could count on his fingers until he got to 10 and then he could use three of MY fingers to ensure he counted correctly.  I also reminded him that I would be counting along with him and 14 would not get it.

So after I was done, I went back and sat in the waiting room until they were ready for the next one of my folks.  Obviously, all eyes were on me.  One finally asked me how it went.  “Piece of cake,” I replied.  I did NOT mention that I didn’t even remember anything after the second poke until they were picking me up out of the floor to tell me I was done. 

Now, don’t let me lose you.  I know the sub-title of this is “The Flamingo Follies Saga” and all, but I’ll get you there.  I just have to go through all of this other stuff to explain how it all came about.  Trust me…stick with me…keep reading…and I’ll get around to the part about the Flamingos.  I promise.  But I haven’t even left the base, yet.

Straight from the Jester

March 18, 2009

Funny Things Happen in a War Zone

The Flamingo Follies Saga


Now I’m not one that got called to the Commander’s office on a regular basis.  Especially to the Group Commander’s office.  Maybe the Squadron Commander’s office every now and then for a good joke, a cup of coffee, a meeting, social call, jaw-jacking session… whatever.  But, seldom to the Group Commander’s office.  And so it was, that on Friday the 13th, 2004, I was summoned to the Commander’s Office.  Did I mention it was the Group Commander’s office to which I was summoned?  And so I went.  To the Group Commander’s Office.  Since I had been summoned and all…

Upon my arrival, I was asked to take a seat (not always a good sign… in a Commander’s office).  The Group Commander, a FULL Colonel as opposed to just a Lieutenant Colonel, looked me in the eye and stated matter-of-factly, “We have been tasked.”

He continued.  “Headquarters has sent down a tasking for a professional Senior Non-Commissioned Officer in the grade of E-8.  One that is fully trained, can lead his troops under severe and austere conditions, maintain their respect, ensure they are prepared to do their jobs, and put their very lives on the line if required.  Headquarters wants a leader that can give a command and have the troops follow it without question.  No time to bat an eye.  They have to jump when told and ask questions later.”

The Commander went on.  “After carefully considering our options and looking at this from every angle conceivably possible, and trust me, we have considered every option known to man, we have decided, and only because there is no one else to select, that you, SMSgt Gilmore, will be that Senior NCO.  You, my good man, are off to war.”

Wow.  I was honored.  They had selected me.  After realizing there was absolutely NO ONE else, they had selected me.  And I was ready.  After 22 ½ years, by dingy, I was ready.  I had been tasked. 

And so began the saga.