November and I have an unusual relationship with each other. I know right now a lot of you are getting oh so excited about the big dinner you will eat (us Americans anyway..), and then there’s Black Friday… followed by the socially acceptable time to start decorating for Christmas. Prior to 2003 it was generally the same for me. I never have been a turkey fan, so I really couldn’t care any less about Thanksgiving, I am not a fan of Black Friday, but I always loved decorating for Christmas. I loved this time of year (or back in August for Colorado) when the air turned crisp. I loved standing at the bus stop, snow on the ground, the smell of wood burning in fireplaces. I loved it. Everything was so innocent.
November 2003 I was on a runway. It was the day the base was celebrating Thanksgiving by having their big cook out. I am not sure what time I got to the base, I would guess close to 4am? We boarded the plane (a C-5) and took off. We were supposed to land in Spain to refuel and then head on to Baghdad. We arrived in Spain and learned that the POTUS was eating Thanksgiving dinner with the troops at BIAP (Baghdad International Airport). Our plane couldn’t take off until he left. It was a relief to hear because I was SO tired!! We were put up in some dorms for a few hours, then we boarded our plane again and off we went.
Before we landed, I had this image in my head of us getting off the plane and being immediately shot at. Yes, I know, I watched too many old war movies back then!). We had our helmets and armor on. We got off the plane and there were were. Baghdad. 2003 was a rough year to be in Iraq. We had the usual briefing about throwing away anything that wasn’t permitted and going over General Order 1 (no sex!). Afterward we got a tour of our new digs. We had a CASF (contingency aeromedical staging facility, if you didn’t see it before you left the AOR then it means you were doing well!), the little Air Force chow tents (two that were connected), a chapel, MWR moral tent, movie tent, shower tents, and latrine tents. We got to see where we would be working at and meet the NY Guardsmen we were there to relieve. It was far less scary than I had envisioned!!! Sure, you could see the SEALs helos flying around as well as the Marine helos, but aside from the constant sound of helicopters, it seemed like a really well organized place to be… considering.
Our second aircraft, the one carrying in our helicopters, hadn’t arrived yet. We were there with no equipment or anything, just us. We enjoyed that evening in the clamshell. The guardsmen hosted the Australian Army guys over for a really nice dinner. I cannot remember what we ate, but I remember feeling like this was too good to be true. Good food, great people I was deploying with (for once!!). We were told to go rest and be back at the flight line to catch the plane when it came in so we could help the second half of our guys unload and unfold the HH-60. I have no idea when we got back to the flight line, but I think it was dark and foggy. Our guys never came. It’s hard to land a C-5 in the dark, dark runway, in dense fog. We were given a few more times that we were supposed to come back since the plane was going to keep trying to land. It’s not the safest country to be an American military plane just flying around… Everything is such a blur, but I remember it was light out when they did finally land. To get you caught up… I woke up in Georgia (state, not country), boarded a plane. I flew to Spain. Cat napped while we waited to leave. Landed in Baghdad. Toured the place, ate dinner, waited, waited, now it’s midnight, now it’s early morning. I think in those three days I didn’t get more than an hour of uninterrupted sleep. But there I was, day 3 of sleep depravation. We helped the new guys get their things out and to their tents, we spent the afternoon unloading and putting away our things. I am going to fast forward a bit here, it is certainly more involved and a lot happening at that time, but I do not feel it adds to, nor is it the main point of this blog post.
Have you ever been somewhere and you had this little voice tell you to move? Or did you just ever get that feeling in your gut that you need to not go somewhere, not eat something, not take this route? I had that. Not just me. We all had it. Every one of us just had some reason to leave one spot. A spot that was filled up with about 100 Australian Army guys as well as our rescue guys and crew. But today, at that time and the time leading up to it, we all left (except one, I will get to him in a minute). I should be oh so thankful that I was not there. I should be thankful that I listened to that little feeling I had, that little voice in my head that told me it was okay to not do my job right then.
We were hit. I think they were aiming for the HAS (hardened aircraft shelter) next to us, it had an early warning system on it, but their aim was off. The clamshell was gone. Completely ruined. Right where I was supposed to be at that moment, had a huge hole in it. Shrapnel was everywhere. There were 2 inch diameter holes through the back of the trucks. They managed to only really completely take out our bin that contained our christmas tree and all our moral stuff. Movies, games. What really pissed me off was that tree and the decorations. To this day I still fume about that. Being there for Christmas was bad enough, but to not even get to have a tree or anything sucked. Before you get onto me about whining over a tree when other people at that time had it way worse, I get it, but also remember that our mission was not the same as your mission. Ours was not seek and destroy, it was search and rescue. We needed to be somewhere safe (relatively!) so we could better help those who needed us. I am tired of feeling guilty for not having to be in a worse place!
The guilt I feel for not being there when we were hit, right there in the middle, where I was supposed to be, is tremendously heavy. It makes no logical sense, I know this. But it’s so hard to not feel it. The emotions I felt and the thoughts that went through my head over the next couple of days were all over the place. It meant someone had been watching us. You like to think you can “feel” someone looking at you, but I never felt that feeling. I felt safe (stupid). I only could think about it for a few days because after that the base took hits nearly every day. Christmas was bad. Something about a Christian holiday in a place like that, they don’t like it.
This month is ALWAYS so hard for me. I will tell you something though. God knew what he was doing. I had my precious baby boy almost exactly 2 years to the day of all that mess. While on one hand my experience in Baghdad will be further and further in my past (though I obviously cannot forget it), every November also brings another year to celebrate the birth of my first child, whom I would not have even had, had I not listened to that little voice.