I guess I imagined the enemy shooting at us as our plane flew into Saudi Arabia. It’s like that in the movies, and when McLean Stevenson wanted to leave MASH, the character was killed just like that. Being a writer is not a good thing when you’re going to war. There’s too many things you can make up and scare yourself.
We landed at 10:00 at night at the Royal Saudi Air Force Base. The first thing that hit me when I got to the exit of the plane was how hot it was outside. The air crew had reported it as being eighty degrees. Being from Los Angeles, you’d think I’d been fine with this, but I’d been stationed in Washington State too long. It was hot.
The second thing to hit me was the smell. It was like there was a decaying garbage dump somewhere nearby. The night was very black, and aside from the blast of the jet engines, it was quiet out.
This was different than when you fly home or go on vacation. You know where you’re going. You know what’s happening. We got off that plane and were directed down this street-like area between buildings, and it was now what? No one told us anything. The unofficial army motto of “Hurry up and wait.”
Eventually the jet engine died, and we were left in the cloaked silence of the night. In that silence, there was a strange sense of being disconnected. Like being underwater, and your tether is cut. You don’t know where up or down is, or have any reference points. Even the unit that had accompanied us seemed to have vanished, like they weren’t even there.
The first sergeant formed us up and told us to drop all our gear. Water bottles were passed around. They didn’t have much, so we all shared. Ice cold and delicious. Once it was gone, I wished I’d had more.
Finally about eight buses arrived. These were like the tour buses I see around Washington, DC, only more luxurious. I got my first look at an Arab when the driver came out. He wore a white thobe, which is kind of a long tunic that goes all the way to the ankles. The material was probably cotton and very lightweight. I could imagine that being comfortable in the heat of the day, and very practical. He also wore a keffiyeh, which is the red and white checkered head covering you’ve probably seen in the news. I’m guessing it’s protection against the sun, just like our Boonie hats were. His shoes were simple sandals. It didn’t escape us that one of the men showed us the bottom of his sandals.
One of the strangest things I saw though was what one of the men did. The buses were not going anywhere, waiting on whatever, so he strung a hamock under the bus and took a nap. This was in front of drivers of very large trucks. You don’t put any body part under a vehicle. Bad things happen. A soldier a few years later would have a radio run over, and a general would have his BlackBerry run over. Body parts, not so good.
After a long time of waiting, we were allowed to board, and the bus was just amazing. The seats were covered with velvet, or a velvet-like material, and the windows had drapes. Generous room. There was enough space for us to spread out, one to a seat. By then I was so tired that all I could think of was sleep. Yet, as I spawled out on this comfortable seat, I was aware of every bump that bus went over, every shifting line of light, and of the snores of the female soldier in the seat in front of me. It was like I was so tired that my body couldn’t get the energy to sleep.
We drove and drove and drove. I heard voices drifting in and out, talking about that we were lost. By the time we got to wherever we were going, the lot of us were zombies. A military truck pulled up behind us, bearing the load of duffel bags. We had to haul them off and figure out which was which. The arms worked, the legs worked, the brain did not work. We sorted the duffel bags, and I was glad that my platoon had marked all these with a colored ribbon so we could tell the difference between the other platoons.
Once we identified our duffel bags — and thankfully — I had all mine, then we sacked out of the ground under this rooflike structure. The ground was saturated with motoroil, so I spread my poncho liner out over it so I wasn’t lying in it, but as I tried to sleep, that’s all I could smell. It was weird because I was in a stage of sleep where I was dozing but aware of what was going on around me.
At some point, a commotion ensued. It was the officers, with urgent voices. One of the soldiers in the other platoons had left his rifle on the bus, and now the bus was gone. The squad leader was in trouble because he hadn’t verified that everyone had their weapons. The lieutenant in charge of that platoon was going after the buses to find the missing rifle.
Then, somehow, the night ended, and the sky lightened, and our squad leaders got us up. We were still zombies. One of the other women and I gathered up shower stuff and made the migration in search of showers and latrines.
In daylight, we discovered this was at a waterfront. It was apparently a staging area to bring in soldiers who were arriving, and then move them to their final destination. Translation: No one cleaned it up. The latrines were really bad and stank. We debated if the gas masks would help (no, my squad leader assured us. They don’t help against bad smells). One of the female sergeants left a water bottle outside the latrine so we could wash up.
The showers — or actually, the male showers — were in worse condition than the latrines. The guys just skipped the latrines and went in the showers. Trash was everywhere: 2 liter water bottles, razors, abandoned washcloths, empty shampoo bottles. The women’s showers were much cleaner and in better shape. Sad to say, though, I was on a police detail (pick up trash), and we all wished we had sterilized gloves once we went through the men’s showers.
We had several cooks assigned to our company, and they set up a portable kitchen and heated up T-Rations. T-Rations are fully cooked meals in a sealed tray. Heat up water, immerse the tray until the food is hot, and then serve. We had coffee cake, which was very dry, and eggs, which were very strange. Somehow they lose a lot in the translation when they’re not fresh. Flies were racing in to get any abandoned food.
After that, more waiting, and we all took our GameBoys to pass the time. One by one, soldiers began disappearing as they were trucked out to our destination. Finally they came and got me, and now I could have my first look at Saudi Arabia!