Aiming High in the Air Force: 2003, Part One: Combat Stinkin’ Mobile

Combat Stinkin’ Mobile

After spending the holidays with my family, I took my car, which had been sitting in my mom’s driveway in Iowa since I had left for Basic Training in August, and drove myself back to Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. I returned a couple days early, so I didn’t have to go back to my classes immediately. I was nearly finished with my training; only a few more tasks remained ahead of me.

The first of those tasks was to complete the course in the Chemical Defense Training Facility, or CDTF (the military loves its acronyms). In the CDTF, an hermetically-sealed series of rooms with airlock-style access and multiple safety systems, we worked with live nerve agents: VX and Sarin, some of the deadliest chemicals on the planet. Naturally, safety was taken to paranoid levels, so when I was having trouble getting a good seal on my gas mask because the eyeglass insert lenses had a strap that wrapped around my head, my concern was entirely expected. Once inside the chamber, we used our training to that point, under the close supervision of our instructors, to decontaminate objects and surfaces that had been covered in the chemicals. After several hours of training like this, we had to process through a decontamination line in order to exit the facility.

Another major task for me to complete was the final examination for my training. I studied almost religiously for the test, which I passed with flying colors. I soon learned that I finished the course with a 97% average, which was exceptional, given my difficulties less than a year earlier in college. Were it not for a retired Army Chemical Corps veteran, who was required to take the course in order to work for the Air Force, I would have graduated at the top of my class.

The graduation ceremony itself went by quickly; with a few friends and family members in attendance, we were presented with our certificates of course completion, as well as our certificates for completing the course in the CDTF. It was almost exactly like my brother’s graduation from the course less than a year earlier, except, much like my graduation from Basic Training, none of my family was able to attend. Soon, I would leave Ft. Leonard Wood, and it was a bittersweet parting, as I had recently started seeing another student at the school, Elizabeth Powers. Elizabeth had begun her training at Ft. Leonard Wood in early December. While I’d taken notice of her as early as her first day, I didn’t approach her until after I’d returned from leave. When I finally did work up the courage to ask her out, she accepted immediately, but we both lamented that I hadn’t done so sooner.

I was slated to spend a week back in Iowa on the Recruiter Assistance Program before continuing to my first assignment. I planned to drive myself and my belongings from Iowa to Las Vegas, and I promised Elizabeth that I would return to Ft. Leonard Wood when I did. Recruiter Assistance went quickly. I manned the office when my recruiter was out, and accompanied him to speak at a couple of the local high schools. I stayed at my mom’s house, and enjoyed the time I got to spend with my family.

CNN coverage of the Columbia disaster

The morning that I was to leave home and head out for a cross-country drive to Las Vegas, I was listening to the radio while packing as much as I could into my car. Unexpectedly, the music was interrupted by a news broadcast: the space shuttle Columbia had burned up on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts aboard. I listened in dismay as the news continued its coverage, while I finished packing. I bid farewell to my family and started driving South, returning to Ft. Leonard Wood, as promised. I took Elizabeth out to dinner, and she told me that while I was in Iowa, she had finally received her orders: Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina. Our hopes of her being assigned to a base near Nellis were dashed. I could only stay for one night, so we made our farewells, promising to keep in contact through email. The next morning, while she was in class, I had to continue on my way.

I drove all day, and travelling through the Ozarks seemed to take forever. After crossing the border from Oklahoma and into Texas, I parked at a rest stop and slept in my car. The next day, I drove across the Texas panhandle, and stopped at a rest stop in Arizona, just across the border from New Mexico. I could have found a motel, but my car was good enough for me. Starting again the next morning, I made excellent time, and managed to reach Nellis Air Force Base a day early.

I met my sponsor, Justin Paukner, at the main gate. Since I was early, my room in the enlisted dormitory wasn’t ready yet, so I spent my first night on base in lodging–the equivalent of an on-base hotel. The next morning, Justin picked me up and brought me to our office for the first time, then helped me begin inprocessing the base.

I reunited with my friends, Tom and Arica. Arica had graduated a couple weeks before Tom and I, but Tom went straight to the base after finishing tech school, and the two had already begun to settle into life at Nellis. While the two of them hadn’t originally gotten along at tech school, that quickly changed, and they’d started dating before Arica graduated. By the time I got to Nevada, things were beginning to look serious between them. Their relationship, as well as my own in tech school, led our flight’s NCOIC (Non-commissioned Officer in Charge – acronyms again), Technical Sergeant (TSgt) Roy Johnson, to lament the “incest in the career field.” My relationship, however, didn’t last more than a few weeks after my arrival at Nellis: the separation of nearly 2500 miles was just too great, and the relationship too new and fragile. Tom and Arica, however, were a different story entirely. To prevent any potential issues with the two of them dating and working together, Arica was assigned to the Plans and Operations section of the flight, while Tom worked in the Logistics section warehouse – along with Justin and me.

It wasn’t long before I got a taste of what being an emergency responder was all about. Only a few short weeks after I’d moved to Las Vegas, late on a Friday night, a biochemist and former slot machine manufacturing executive chose to commit suicide. Being a biochemist, rather than use something more conventional like a gun or car exhaust, he decided to end his life by cooking up the biotoxin ricin and injecting himself with it. Early Saturday morning, after the Las Vegas Metro Police realized they weren’t prepared to handle an event like that, they began calling in anyone who could help: Las Vegas Fire Department, the FBI, and (although the local news never said so) the Air Force. With only a handful of us on scene (most of us, including myself, were still on base at the command post in our office), as well as the fact that we wore yellow HAZMAT suits rather than camouflage, it’s possible that no one actually realized that the military was involved.

A military response to a civilian incident on American soil is a tricky business, and there are a number of laws that govern our actions. Chief among them is the fact that, typically, our presence must be specifically requested up through local officials, the governor, and to the President, who then issues orders, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the military, for us to assist local officials that have to be passed down our chain of command. It sounds complex, but the entire sequence of events can actually happen very quickly. Another important consideration is the fact that, in most circumstances, we can only act in an advisory role, deferring to local authorities, who retain the lead in any civil response. This is also, likely, another reason that none of the news reports seemed to notice that we were there.

The situation was contained quickly enough, after a few, initial missteps. We were able to help the Metro police determine that the man had made only a small quantity of ricin, and that it was unlikely that he’d spread it beyond his own veins. He died later that morning. Death by an injection of liquid ricin is not a pleasant fate. I never found out why he chose to end his life in that fashion, but it seems apparent that he wanted to punish himself in the process.

My flight had begun to thin out almost immediately after my arrival. By the time of the ricin incident, nearly a third was deployed for Operation Enduring Freedom, which was entering its second year, and another third was preparing to deploy, including Tom and Arica. When another set of orders came down a few days after the ricin incident, there were only two junior enlisted members available to fill it: Julie Ogle… and me. Julie hesitated when TSgt Johnson asked for a volunteer, but I was gung-ho enough that I immediately said I’d go. I didn’t even know where I would be going. Afghanistan? The buildup for what looked like an inevitable war in Iraq? The destination on the orders was blacked out. Secret. All I knew whas that I was going… somewhere.

Al Udeid AB Tent City, 2003

The next day, I confided in one of my friends–another Airman from my squadron who was helping to pick up the slack from having so many in my flight deploy–about a dream I’d had while visiting my family for Christmas. The dream was incredibly detailed, with sights, smells, sounds… things I couldn’t possibly know, about a place I’d never been: a dusty tent city, and although it was never said in the dream, I just knew I was in some place called Qatar, safely removed from an ongoing war. In the dream, I had deployed a little over a month after arriving at Nellis… and here I was, getting deployment orders a month after arriving at Nellis.

I told my friend that dreams that detailed had a tendency of coming true for me. His reaction was to be expected: a disbelieving chuckle, humoring me while, doubtlessly, questioning my sanity for believing that, sometimes, my dreams could foretell the future. His opinion shifted about fifteen minutes later, though, when TSgt Johnson came into the room and told me that he’d learned my destination: Qatar, as part of the buildup for a potential invasion of Iraq.

Events began to move quickly again. I’d barely finished inprocessing to the base, and now I found myself outprocessing again. I was deploying as part of an Airborne RED HORSE combat engineer team, the first of its kind in the Air Force. As we continued our preparations to leave, I was also taking up the slack for all of our deployed personnel from my office. Soon, I was teaching multiple Nuclear, Biological, & Chemical (NBC) Warfare Defense classes each week, and I became extremely good at teaching the four-hour-long class.

In the midst of teaching classes and preparing to leave for a war that everyone knew was coming, we had another incident. On March 17, 2003, two F-15s collided in midair. One was able to limp back to base, while the pilot ejected from the second. I participated in the initial response, but was sent back to the base at the end of the first day, so that I could continue preparing for my impending deployment, as well as teaching as many NBC Defense classes as possible.

C-5 Galaxy

Almost before I knew it, the day came for my deployment to begin. Dressed in my Desert Combat Uniform (DCU), I reported to the passenger terminal on base. Joining with the rest of my team, I loaded my gear onto a pallet and we made our way onto the flightline, where a massive C-5 Galaxy cargo plane was waiting for us. We climbed the ramp at the rear of the aircraft, then a spiral staircase to the passenger compartment at the top of the plane. After a few delays, we were in the air, heading for our first stop.

My brother, Kevin, met us at the terminal at Dover AFB, which was near his home station of McGuire AFB, New Jersey. Since we both held the same job, we were able to use our secure phone lines to arrange a brief meet-up. Kevin was a bit frustrated by the situation: he’d been in the Air Force for a year and a half, yet no one in his unit was tasked to deploy; I’d been in for seven months and not only was I deploying, but 2/3 of my flight had, as well. I pointed out that Kevin was assigned to Air Mobility Command (AMC, sometimes jokingly referred to as “Alcoholics Moving Cargo”), while I was in Air Combat Command (ACC). That ACC would be heavily tasked for combat operations seemed logical to me–though, in retrospect, “logical” and “military” don’t frequently cohabitate.

The stop in Dover was brief; just long enough to refuel the C-5 for a transatlantic flight. As we left Dover, I decided it might be a good idea to write down some of my thoughts.

3 April 2003

… One thing’s been bugging me … my unit never issued me a helmet. It’s something I never even thought about until it was too late to do anything about it. … I hope … they’ve got plenty of extras [in Qatar]. … I’m a little nervous–after all, I’m going into a war–but otherwise kind of excited, in an odd way.

5 April 2003

Once again, I find myself in Germany. About two hours out of Moron, [Spain,] we were diverted to Ramstein … On the bright side, I got a much-needed shower and a chance to change out of my DCUs.

8 April 2003

I’m still in Germany. … I told TSgt Woods [the sergeant I reported to on the team] about my hemet situation, but he didn’t seem too worried about it. He’s pretty confident they’ll have plenty when we get there.

12 April 2003

I’m still in Germany. Our plane finally got fixed, and was then taken at the last minute by another team with a higher priority … The news has been all over the transfer of PFC Jessica Lynch and 49 other wounded soldiers back to CONUS [Continental United States] … I saw it firsthand this morning, with dozens of news vans surrounding their C-17. I [wish the media would] back off and let them recover in peace.

Yeah, right. They’re ratings guarantees.

14 April 2003

We’re still in Germany. … It’s getting kind of frustrating.

18 April 2003

Well, it took two weeks, but we’re finally back in the air, en route to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. And from there, who-knows-where, Iraq, most likely.

I feel like there’s something more I should be writing in this journal, but I don’t know what. I always feel this pressure to be so… profound, I suppose. But perhaps the most profound statements are also the simplest. …

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve bonded a little with the rest of my team. They’ve given me a nickname, “Rambo” (God only knows why)…

Hard at work

In retrospect, the “Rambo” nickname probably came about because I was so hell-bent on getting to Iraq now, so I could do my job and kick some ass. I stopped writing in that journal after we arrived in Qatar. It wasn’t because I didn’t have time. I just didn’t feel, at the time, that I had the right words to describe it. I still don’t. The pounding of adrenaline. The noise. The heat. The sand that’s so fine, it’s practically talcum powder, and it gets into everything. Snippets that can’t do justice to being there.

My team soon moved on to an assignment to repair the runway at Saddam International Airport (now Baghdad International), shortly after it was captured, but I was all but useless to them. I wasn’t an engineer, or a carpenter, or an electrician. We found little in the way of chemical weapons, and what we did find never made it into the news. I was superfluous, and apparently, command thought so, too. On May 19, 2003, I began my trip back home. Two days later, I was back at Nellis, left to wonder… did I make any kind of difference?

© 1997-2019 Jeffrey Harlan All Rights Reserved -- Copyright notice by Blog Copyright