I didn’t care where I went on vacation so long as there was good food and little chance of boredom, preferably in a place where I knew people. I settled on New York City, and my friend Patrick agreed to let me sleep on his couch in lower Manhattan. It was my first visit.
I traveled by armored convoy to the nearby airfield, by Blackwater-owned propeller plane to Bagram and by military aircraft to Kuwait, the central hub for all soldiers taking leave from the Middle East. It was a four-hour night flight in a windowless C-17 cargo jet. Thankfully, I was traveling with someone I knew—my soldier Tony. I was lucky to be with him, someone with whom I could talk endlessly—for one, I have never been able to sleep on planes. I lay with my head resting on a pallet and my feet upon my cargo seat. It was to no avail. Tony and I instead read his copy of the Get Your War On cartoon collection, laughing above the roar of the plane’s engines, and eating pizza from the Bagram Pizza Hut we had crassly carried on in a box.
We landed at Kuwait City International Airport. Our intended destination was Ali Al Salem Air Base, a pre-Gulf War Kuwaiti installation near the Iraqi border, but thick fog had delayed us. We deplaned and wandered a secure area. There were free bottles of water stuffed in ice-filled garbage cans. The pavement was still hot. Dozens of new armored vehicles were staged for movement nearby, freshly painted in desert tan and heading to combat. There seemed to be more streetlights in the airport than in all of Afghanistan, shining amber or blue in the distance.
Three hours later, we finally arrived. It was thirty minutes by bus to the desolate transient camp, the “life support area.” They herded us into a tan tent with a black nylon ceiling and what seemed to be hundreds of fluorescent lights. They collected our ID cards, scanned them, returned them, gathered our leave forms, stamped them, returned them, and in the intervening hours we sat in ballpark-style seats inside the massive shelter, trying in vain to sleep. We had arrived at 2 am and the next briefing was at 6 am. They put us in groups—people going to the eastern part of the US went to Atlanta, whereas people going to the west went to Dallas. As our names were called, we stood up to get itineraries for our flights. I was scheduled to fly from Atlanta to LaGuardia the following night.
We filed in groups to turn in our helmets and armor. Armor was required when flying in military aircraft in theater, but it had to be left in Kuwait. The warehouse, a white sheet metal structure atop a concrete pad, was managed by a black British guy in charge of six Kuwaiti men. It was another long line, another station to complete. You had to sign a few forms, get them stamped, tie nametags to your equipment and hand them to the Kuwaitis. The warehouse was enormous and had massive shelves with hundreds of palletized cardboard boxes full of soldiers’ equipment. I kept nodding off in line; Tony kept taking pictures of me every time I did.
The flight briefing started at six on the dot. A heavily caffeinated sergeant goose-stepped to the front of the tent while shouting above the general chatter. “Alright, everyone going to Atlanta, listen up,” he said. Silence. A pause. “There is no flight to Atlanta today. Come back tomorrow at zero-six-hundred. Everyone going to Atlanta, you can leave. Everyone going to Dallas, stand by.” What an asshole, we laughed. Complaints grew to a din as we filed into the sunlight. We joked that we were used to nothing working out and everything sucking—we were among the few in the crowd from Afghanistan. Tony had a patch under his uniform’s pocket. It read, FUCK IT! WE’LL DO IT LIVE! He just pointed to it.
Bags in hand, we inquired how to check in to a tent. There was a female Air Force sergeant in the reception office fast asleep in her chair, her head tilted back and her mouth wide open. We couldn’t stop laughing—Kuwait counted as a combat deployment for some people, but it was clearly different than ours. Tony searched his pockets for a piece of candy to throw into her mouth.
The rising sun loomed orange on the horizon; the desert was warming quickly. We signed more paperwork, received a room number and toted our bags around the gravel lots until we found it. There were about twenty rows of the same green Army oil-cloth tents, each row about thirty tents wide. Each tent had air conditioning, a cement floor, fluorescent lights, power outlets and about ten bunk beds. All around were crushed rocks, and in the distance were guard towers, razor wire and open desert. There were ‘smoking pavilions’ at the center of the tent city where you could have a cigarette and wait for a golf-cart taxi to take you from one end to another.
Ali Al Salem is a major entry and exit point for units deploying to Iraq. It can accommodate thousands of soldiers entering and departing the conflict simultaneously. I could only imagine how many people had passed through there in almost ten years of war. It was a place of dread—not knowing what was next, certain it was going to be bad—or one of celebration, overjoyed that you had survived and were almost back to the fantastic real world. On the periphery of the tents were white shipping containers that had been refitted as bathrooms, showers and laundry rooms. There was a store, a gym, a recreation center and, further out, a dining facility. It was built out of welded shipping containers and was open for “midnight chow” as well as regular meals. All around were humming generators, air conditioners, corrugated metal buildings and concrete blast walls. A hot wind whipped us, and diesel exhaust fumes were the only discernible scent.
I took a shower, washed my clothes and tried to sleep in the tent. A voice on the loudspeaker roused me:
“All Atlanta-bound passengers, report to the Atlanta sign at 1200 with all bags and baggage. I say again…”
There were two huge sun-shades in the center of the life support area dotted with blue metal signs. You would stand by the sign indicating your destination, and if you were manifested on that flight, you would hear your name called when someone in charge finally appeared. One sun-shade area was for leave flights returning to the US. The other was for flights going back to a combat zone. The leave flights’ signs were Dallas, Atlanta and Frankfurt. The theater flights were Bagram, Kandahar, Taji, Al-Asad, and Al-Udeid. The crowd around the theater flights was far less jovial; the crowd around the leave flights was confused. It was well over a hundred degrees.
A flight to Atlanta had materialized, and we now had to clear customs. In groups, they brought us into a holding area and filed us in. Every soldier had to dump his bags when called to an inspector’s table, and the inspectors rifled through everything in their possession. You couldn’t bring foods, drinks, pornography, Cuban cigars or pirated DVD’s. Clearly, the biggest concern was ammunition and explosives, but the inspectors (all Navy personnel, and all in shorts and T-shirts) seemed nonchalant. We waited in line and, once searched, received colored tags for our baggage reading CLEARED. We loaded our bags onto a truck for movement to Kuwait City. We had a few hours to wait. I emailed my friend Patrick and told him my itinerary.
They herded us into coach buses and, once the Kuwaiti police had arrived, began the ninety-minute trip to the international airport. The scenery fascinated me. There were roadside shops and vendor trucks, all marked with bright neon tubes in varying colors; they weren’t signs, but rather just long neon beacons jutting out at odd angles. Men in white robes with headdresses were sitting cross-legged on rugs beside their cars on the side of the road; you could see the little fires where they were boiling water. There was a streetlight every hundred meters. The highways, roads and bridges were unlike anything I had seen in months. A guy next to me on the bus had spent five months in Mosul, Iraq. “This country is a shithole, too,” he said. “You can see the trash all over the roads.” There was trash everywhere, but the houses and shopping malls near Al-Jahra looked like the Las Vegas strip in comparison to Paktika. There were neon lights, fountains, elegant cars and luxurious houses. I wished that I could have explored it.
A plane awaited us at Kuwait City, but according to a push-broom-mustached first sergeant escorting the group, “A bird declared jihad on the engines” and they had to see if it was reparable. It was eight and we were supposed to leave at midnight; we’d know by ten if the plane could be fixed. They let us out to eat leftover airline meals. More garbage cans full of ice water were waiting. There were at least fifty port-a-potties in one massive cluster, the blue plastic of their insides marked with the graffiti of thousands of souls who had made this trip.
At midnight, the same first sergeant boarded the bus to explain that the flight was canceled. “We’re going back to Ali Al Salem—we’ll start over at the zero-six-hundred briefing.” The buses moved to the gate awaiting the Kuwaiti police escort. The bus was silent, but the despair was palpable.
We didn’t move. At four in the morning the same first sergeant, now exhausted, told us that we were in fact flying, and that we could expect to board at about six. The plane was marked “Omni Airlines,” a government-contracted carrier for troop movements. We finally boarded, but I wasn’t convinced until we took off at about seven.
It was a six-hour flight to Shannon, Ireland. Tony and I talked the whole time about tattoos we wanted to get. We had to wait about three hours in the airport while they refueled the aircraft and replaced the crew. Ireland was unbelievably verdant in comparison to Afghanistan. I marveled at how clean the airport was, and how picturesque the nearby green meadows and houses seemed. There was a bar, but we couldn’t drink—a chubby major in the group told me that it used to be allowed back in 2003, when the war was a new thing, “But of course, people can’t fucking control themselves.”
It was another eight hours to Atlanta. A crowd of people clapped for us when we entered baggage claim. In Dallas, they put on a dog and pony show for every leave flight—enthusiastic USO volunteers, little kids giving you garlands of flowers, tote bags full of food. It would have made me uncomfortable, but the cheering in Atlanta seemed honest. People came up to me and thanked me. I appreciated it, but these were just fleeting encounters as I moved from gate to gate trying to get a standby seat to New York. It took three hours, but I made it. Tony instead took the offer of staying in a hotel that night and flying out the next day. After having been awake this long, I couldn’t stop here.
Patrick was waiting for me at LaGuardia; we caught a cab back to his place off of Houston Street. The ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan found me struggling to hold a conversation while gawking at the size of buildings. After changing into civilian clothes, we walked out to a bodega to buy beer and groceries. I hadn’t had a drink in eight months. The noises of the city and the unfamiliar scents in the grocery story grabbed at my attention.
As we were paying, I saw the cover of the New York Times—it showed a shirtless boy washing in a refugee camp. He wore baggy pantaloons with a drawstring and used a long-spouted green plastic jug. I didn’t have to look at the caption to know it was Afghanistan.
I was just there, I thought. But I had two weeks to ignore that.