I can’t quite describe what it was like to see approximately 140 Navy medical personnel, plus a few civilians and other miscellaneous people, packed into a C17 plane. A C17 is not like a commercial plane, it is all open and you can see the innards of the plane. There is a line of seats that runs along each wall of the plane and then seven seats across the middle in each row. There was almost no leg room and I had to put my feet on top of my carry-on because there is not much room under the seats. There are no overhead bins because there is no dropdown ceiling like in the commercial planes.
We were told the flight would be about 3.5 hours long and that we would not have to put our body armor and helmet on until we began the approach to the runway, so many people just slept the majority of the flight. It was quiet, for sure, and not much conversation was taking place as I think everyone was feeling a sense of trepidation about what the future would hold over the next couple hours, especially when it came time to land the plane in a combat zone, to what type of experiences the next six months will bring to our lives. My room-mate started telling me that shedidn’t think she would be able to sit all cramped up in the seats like this for 3 hours and stated that she wished she had some valium. She kept squirming in her seat and finally I told her to take off her weapon because it would make more room in the seat for her. After she did that and we gotour carry-ons situated a little better, she calmed down. I listened to Sting on my iPod to try to calm my anxious feelings.
Just as the Air Force personnel had said, at around the 3.5 hour mark, we were told to don our body armor and helmets. Then the lights were switched to a darker, red bulb that made theairplane feel a little ominous. We were informed that the purpose of the red lights was to make it more difficult for the enemy to see as we approached the airfield.
Everyone was quiet and when someone spoke, then tended to speak in a whisper. As we began descending, the plane actually sped up and began to shift direction approximately every 10-15 seconds; this is to make it more difficult target for anti-aircraft artillery. Because there are only very small windows about 6 feet off the floor of the plane, we could not see the approach and just had to wait until we felt the giant bird suddenly hit the runway. Then an ear-aching surge was heard as the engines were revved to help slow the plane down. We came in at such a high speed, it felt like forever before the plane finally slowed down. I can’t imagine how long that runway must be. It took a long time for the plane to taxi in and, in the meantime, everyone continued to remain relatively quiet. Once we came to a stop and the voice over the intercom announced, “Thank you for choosing to fly with the U.S. Air Force on your trip to Afghanistan as we know you have so many other options.” Everyone finally relaxed a little, laughed and then clapped for getting us safely on the ground.
We all filed into a very old building with sections of the plaster missing, exposing the underlying brick. Not sure if the damage was war-related or time-related. We were told that this building was where the Taliban held their last stand before they lost control of the government in Afghanistan. Now it is the headquarters for Kandahar Airfield, referred to around here as KAF, pronounced like the word “calf” but without the letter ‘l.’ It also serves as the airport terminal. Sorry, but no pictures allowed.
After waiting for 40 of our people to assist with loading the palates of baggage onto two trucks, we were loaded up once more into old rundown tour buses and taken to the NATO Dorms where we will be living for the next six months. I noticed groups of people sitting out at picnic tables, playing cards and chatting in a language I didn’t recognize. As I was walking toward the buildings, suddenly I heard a very loud siren coming over loud speakers. Immediately the people sitting at the picnic tables jumped up and began running inside the building closest to me and the other people in my group. A man held the door open and told us to quickly get inside, so we followed him. We all crammed into the hallway, still wearing our body armor.
We were told we were hearing the alarm that goes off if a rocket is detected breaching KAF airspace. We were told that once you hear the alarm, you have 2-3 seconds to either hit the deck and cover your head or get inside the Dorms. The NATO Dorms are supposedly rocket resistant. After about 3 minutes, because we had run into a male Slovakian dormitory and because most of us were women, we were directed to, quickly, go back outside and walk across into the U.S./Canadian female dormitory.
We had a brief in Kuwait prior to departing as well as another brief on the plane ride over about what to do in case of a rocket attack, but I never expected to experience one less than ½ an hour after arriving! Luckily no one was injured during this attack. About 15 minutes after the sirens went off, an announcement came over the loudspeaker stating, “All clear. All clear. All clear.” Then it was back outside as if nothing had happened. We were immediately put to work forming our assembly line to, guess what, unload the seabags and rucksacks.
Once we were done unloading the trucks, one of the Chiefs responsible for handing out keys to the new Navy arrivals, shouted out the names of those people who had rooms immediately available in the dorms. About 30 people had to temporarily stay in another area on base in tents. Because we have to go through some sort of orientation and transition period here before the people we are replacing can leave, they move “non-essential” personnel into tents to free up rooms for “essential personnel,” those that work in the Trauma ER, OR and ICU. However, they also let the “essential personnel” that will be leaving but whom are still working in those areas to remain in the NATO dorms until they leave. They refer to the process of leaving KAF as “ripping out.” So, until they “rip out,” the people slotted to move into their rooms have to stay in tents.
Although I know that it’s important to remain flexible, I really wanted to be able to move into my room right away and sleep in a real bed and take a real shower in a bathroom that has sinks, toilets and showers all in the same room. I was tired of having to use the hot-box porta-potties which are also too small for a uniform-wearing, gun-toting person, even someone of my size. Every time you have to go to the bathroom you worry about your gun dropping into the urinal while you are squatting over the toilet. And when you come out you have sweat streaming down your face. Hopefully your cover (hat) or sunglasses haven’t fallen on the floor by accident either or else you will have to disinfect them with hand sanitizer.
My roommate and I waited anxiously to hear either one of our names called. The Chief seemed to be calling off names in alphabetical order, but he went right through the p’s and on to the q’s and r’s. My heart sank. But then, suddenly, he called out my room-mate’s last name, which was at the end of the alphabet, and then mine with hers. We were so happy, we gave each other a high five and walked up to the table to get our keys.
The NATO dormitories are the nicest structures on the entire base, besides the hospital. They areset up just like a college dormitory with two people to a room and the bathrooms down at the end of the hallway. We each have a desk, a bed, a nightstand with a lamp and a large locker/closet. But we were starving and hadn’t eaten since we were back in Kuwait almost 10 hours earlier, so we were all on a mission to find someplace with food. There is one DFAC (dining facility) that is open from 11:30 pm until 3:30 am, so we all went there to grab something to eat. Once our bellies were full we went back to our dorms, pulled out our sleeping bags and crashed for three hours before having to get up to report for Hospital Orientation in the morning.
Pictures of my dorm room.