By the first of April it was plain to see that our deployment was coming to a close. Our aircraft had redeployed about three weeks previously and with almost every airlift aircraft that we had heading for Spain, we had at least a handful of people aboard.
Day by day, Tent City was shrinking, not only in population, but also in actual size. As people redeployed, those that were remaining were concentrated into other tents allowing us to dismantle those that were now empty. Quite fairly, for the most part, the redeployment was based on a ‘first in, first out’ policy and since I didn’t make it to Doha until about three weeks ‘late’ in arriving, I wouldn’t be leaving anytime soon.
Once the aircraft went home there wasn't much work in Phase – no aircraft means nothing to inspect, so, while we still had our daily roll calls, we were usually either back in tent city, or riding around in the transit truck within minutes. Even out of our small group made up of Phase, Transit Alert and Wheel & Tire shop with almost every roll call there were fewer of us to count. Of course, in a lot of ways, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing (especially if you were one of the ones picked to leave); we were now a ‘one-shift’ operation, it was now even easier to get on the list for shopping or beach trips, and when the much cooler jungle boots (as opposed to steel-toed) that were ordered months ago finally arrived, I became the proud new owner of six new pairs of size 12’s – being one of the few left with that sized feet. The new boots were great as mine were pretty worn by this point, but despite the perceived safety hazard, I hadn’t worn steel-toes since I’d finished Tech School…
It had taken us a few days to ‘wrap-up’ our phase dock, to pack up all of our tools and equipment – and to dispose of the stuff that wouldn’t be coming back – leaving room in our connex for souvenirs and personal items. One of the things that ‘didn’t make the cut’ was a nearly full case of petrolatum, or petroleum jelly, which we used for lubricating seals prior to instillation. We had a case, when even a full can would have been overkill, because due to a bit of bad planning, it issued from supply as a case, rather than a can. Luckily it wasn’t by the pallet… It was left with the Qatari Alpha Jet squadron, where they found it pretty funny that the ‘pet’ – a byproduct of the refining process of oil, that was likely drilled near here, was being given ‘back’ to them…
As the days went by and we got closer to April, I began to run the phase roll calls, mainly as there weren’t too many of us left and because nobody else seemed to want it. My main responsibility, well, realistically my only responsibility, was to get a headcount each day and to report it up the line – of course unless you were going to ‘stow away’ on a MAC flight, where else were you going to go? Actually, while ‘stowing away’ sounds a little far fetched, talking to the right member of a flightcrew that was transiting back to Spain could have possibly gotten you a seat. In my case, talking to the cute Canadian Lieutenant at the bottom of the airstairs on the last CC-137 (refueling 707) flight out of Doha went like this:
“How’s it goin’, eh? (In my best Canadian accent…) Are you heading back to (CFB) Trenton?”
“Finally, yes. Just a refueling stop in Germany and we’re going home.”
“I’m from Syracuse, about 100kms past the Thousand Islands Bridge, how about we trade uniforms, and I go home too?”
“Sure, I’ve got an extra set. I don’t know if your bosses would like it though…”
I was kind of half imagining what kind of look I’d get at the Orderly Room if I’d asked for leave paperwork, as I watched the 437 ‘Husky’ Squadron Boeing climb into Doha’s afternoon sky.
We’d all been watching a lot of CNN on TV, reading a lot of papers and listening to a lot of radio to pass the time. It was full of reports of homecomings and happy celebrations for the troops who had already made it home. It left everyone both excited and anxious, ready to go, but with no idea when, whether days, weeks, or months. The lack of work, combined with our new exposure to the outside media and the frustration of just not knowing led to bitterness amongst some people, and the “f’s” on the “Not one more life, Return with Honor” signs kept being painted out. But I knew that the day would come, if not quite soon enough for all, as our numbers became smaller and smaller almost every day.
I found it pretty surprising that even though we probably had 70% less people remaining on base than we’d had at the conclusion of the war, just over a month earlier, that there were close to as many – if not more – rumors running wildly. And we weren’t even starting them… The latest rumors, mostly about our redeployment, ran the gamut from ‘everyone will leave together in X number of days/weeks’ to ‘a few at a time over the next few months’ to ‘the Emir knows that we have to leave Spain, and has offered to allow us to stay in Doha and that we were to form the basis for the new base’. One rumor seemed to be more prevalent than all of the others though. ‘Rumor had it’ that on April 1st (which should have probably been a clue) a commercial aircraft would be arriving to carry the remainder of our personnel back to TJ. The Civil Reserve Air Fleet had been very active throughout the conflict and a lot of aircraft were being used for the redeployment, so it seemed plausible and each day we seemed to hear the rumor from higher and higher sources. Finally, two days before the 1st we heard the official news at our Roll Call. After a final ‘go’ on Monday morning we would dismantle the rest of the tents and pack up the remainder of Tent City in preparation for the afternoon arrival of a 747, which would return us all to Spain – with connections for those who were continuing on to other bases. It seemed that a huge weight had been lifted from us and that the day that we’d been waiting for was nearly here…at least it seemed that way for the next twenty-four hours…until we were told that ‘our ride’ wasn’t coming, that our 747 had been reallocated to a ‘higher priority mission’ who could make better use of this resource – by this time we would have only filled half of the aircraft. From his face you could see that our Commander felt as bad telling us as we did hearing him. “It’ll only be a couple of more days, we’re working on getting some airlift in here, but there are a lot of units that are trying to get home now.”
We’d been so close, but our disappointment was tempered when he continued, “On the other hand, we told you that we were leaving Tent City tomorrow, and we still are. Tomorrow morning we’re going to take down the rest of the tents, and we’re moving to the hotel.”
We all went back to our tents for the final night there. Most everyone was already mostly packed, as we had been for a couple of weeks. When we’d been able to get people out, a few at a time, on transit airlift, there was usually less than an hour, and sometimes only a few minutes of notice – so it paid to be prepared.
The next morning I left the tent early – with actual work to do for a change – there were a pair of C-130’s due in that we were going to handle. Both ended up taking longer than I’d expected, so once they launched and we drove back over to Tent City – it almost wasn’t anymore… Some of the tents were completely down and being rolled into their crates, others were steel skeletons being dismantled, and the rest were quickly getting to that point. I actually had to look for D-4, which had been my home for the previous six plus months. My tentmates from AGE had been helping out some others and were now making quick work of our tent. The foyer was already down, walking inside I could see that everything had been cleared out, and much of the tent’s fabric inner liner had been pulled down.
“What can I do to help?”
“Oh, it’s nice of you to show up,
(he said at least partially smiling) don’t worry about it, we’ll be done in no time. All of your stuff is over on the curb.”
I went over and found my ‘stuff’, pulled out my camera, and spent the next hour watching Tent City, which had been home for a thousand members of the 401st TFW(P) turn back into the dusty field that it was before we’d arrived – with the only reminders that we’d been there being the grid of concrete hard patches of sand where tents had been, an asphalt basketball court that now really looked out of place, the flagpoles where the Canadian, French, Qatari and American flags still flapped in the breeze – and the million plus sandbags that had been dumped into and around the muddy pond that had become affectionately (or not so affectionately) known as Lake Nelson.
It was a nice day and although we weren’t going home, we were still going… there were footballs and frisbees out and people were relaxing on the piles of duffel and flight bags. For lunch we had our last meal of MRE’s and Kool-Aid flavored warm water. Soon it was time to load up. We jumped into every vehicle that we had (it would take a couple of trips) with several of us amongst the duffel bags in the back of what looked surprisingly like our wartime ‘Decon 1’ (thankfully no one asked me to drive…) and in a convoy we headed down the dusty and bumpy dirt road out to the back gate.
As we headed out we heard that our destination wouldn’t be the Gulf Sheraton, that was located just down the road from the back gate, but the Doha Sheraton – who had treated us all so well (with trips for swimming, wind-surfing and meals) during our deployment. The Doha Sheraton was located on the far side of Doha, so our convoy of mixed military and civilian trucks and busses made its way along the busy Corniche road. We must have looked pretty unusual, given the number of smiles and waves we received from pedestrians and other motorists as we passed while riding in, and on, our myriad of vehicles while dressed in everything from woodland and desert BDU’s to Hawaiian shirts, shorts, and flip-flops…
As we pulled up to the front entrance of the pyramid styled Sheraton, the ten mile drive had taken us from a land of living in tents with the latrine a football field away, and your shower temperature determined by the strength of the sun, to a land of uniformed doormen, “Please let me get that for you, sir…”
mirror polished marble, and where everything that sparkled like gold – probably was.
Check-in was a breeze, it’s nice when your rich uncle (Sam) picks up the tab. I’d be rooming with my friend Chadd, which would work out well as we’d shared a room at Aviano a year previously and I’d been over to his house in the Royal Oaks base housing area at TJ quite a few times to hang out with his family. A group of us walked across the opulent lobby to the awaiting glass elevators. Comparing room numbers, it seemed that the majority of us would be grouped together on the first two floors – although our room wasn’t. It seemed that Chadd and I would be staying a little higher. When we reached our level we were within a few floors of the top of the pyramid, just under the luxury suite level. The room itself was very nice, but the best part was walking out onto the balcony, over ten stories up, overlooking the pool, gardens, swimming lagoon and with a panoramic view of the Arabian Gulf. I spent an hour in the swimming pool sized tub, scrubbing off six months worth of sand and dirt, then took a shower and came out feeling quite human again. Dinner that night was buffet style in a ballroom at the Sheraton’s new convention center, as were all of our meals at the hotel. While it may not have measured up to the previous Thanksgiving feast, I don’t think that anyone complained. Do you like steak? Go ahead and take three…
I ended the night out on the balcony, my feet up and a cold soda in my hand, watching the sky grow dark over the Gulf. I went to bed early that night, lying down in a real bed, in a real room (with walls that didn’t rock with the breeze) for the first time in 195 days – and a million miles from where I’d been just twenty-four hours before.
The next morning brought good news. It appeared that a C-5 would be in on the 5th to bring the majority of us back to Spain. Not quite all of us would be going yet though, several people had been picked, and they were looking for volunteers to stay behind for a couple of weeks to complete closing down of the base and the removal of the unused munitions from the bomb dump. It actually didn’t sound like a bad deal at all – staying in the hotel, hanging out by the pool, eating in the Sheraton’s restaurants with a meal card – and driving back to the base for a day or two a week when the trucks came to remove the bombs. At least for a short time I considered volunteering, but you know what they say about volunteering in the military… A couple of the Transit guys went back to the base to ‘turn’ some airlifters, but the rest of us spent our last day in the Gulf relaxing. Some went back down to the souq for some final shopping, but most of us just kicked back on the beach under the palm trees, swimming, windsurfing, or hanging out by the pool.
The 5th of April dawned bright and sunny. It was already hot as I walked out on to the balcony. Summer was returning to Qatar, but it didn’t matter to me. I put on my Desert BDU’s, they not only seemed ‘fitting’ but also they were really the only uniform I had that was still close to serviceable. The bus was leaving for the base at 9AM, but since Thor had to go and catch our jet, I rode along with him. After I picked up some last minute post cards from the shop in the lobby, I put my stuff in the back of the Land Cruiser, and we made our way, for my final time, back through Doha, down the Corniche, and to the base. Through security at the back gate, down the dirt road, trailing a column of dust. We passed through the inner gate, and across the now barren field that had, until a few days before, been our Tent City, and onto the flightline. The line looked empty without an aircraft in sight, our F-16’s were back at home, as were the Canadian Hornets, and the French Mirages. It seemed that today would be the day that we’d be following them. Home.
After a while, people in ones and twos started coming out of the front hangar doors and lining their bags up along a flightline strips. It was time to leave the ‘Follow Me’ truck and become a passenger, so Thor dropped me off and I added my bags to the slowly growing line. It was actually quite a bit later that I found out the reason that everyone was coming out of the hangar singly, was that they had been going through a security and customs check… Oh well, they’ll get over it.
A small group of us pulled chairs against the hangar doors to wait. It was hot, but we didn’t care. Someone (who should probably remain nameless) produced a bottle of rum from their bag, some of which was poured into a cup and passed around. Everyone was pretty quiet, you could feel the nervous anticipation in the air, and we all had one eye towards the sky.
Not long after its scheduled time, appearing through Doha’s haze, appeared our lumbering, ‘lizard-painted’ Galaxy. As it touched down smiles of relief appeared on all of our faces. We’d expected them to refuel over on the commercial side of the field prior to coming over to the base, but the C-5 back-taxied and turned off straight up onto ‘our’ ramp. She was Travis based 007 – our ‘Freedom Bird’. It took an hour or two for all of the freight along with our now palletized bags to be loaded, but soon it was time for us to make the walk across the ramp, into the cargo compartment, and up the stairs to the upper deck passenger compartment. The engines started and we began to taxi – to, what soon became apparent to us, was the other side of the field for fuel – so close… Once the engines were shut down it didn’t take long for the afternoon heat to overcome the meager air conditioning put out by the APU. The C-5 is a big airplane and it holds a lot of fuel, so we were there for about an hour – although it seemed like a lot longer. Then the engines were restarted, and we taxied out to the runway. With the Galaxy’s characteristic moan, we accelerated, rotated, and we were off, with a cheer erupting through the cabin.
It was a long flight, but quite frankly, I don’t remember any of it. Soon we could hear the engines throttling back, the hydraulics lowering the flaps and finally the landing gear. Another cheer went through the cabin as we felt the huge airlifter touch down on Torrejon’s runway. We taxied to the ramp and the engines shut down. After 198 days – home.
It was after midnight when the loadmaster came up to tell us that it would be just a few minutes before we could deplane (much to everyone’s anxious dismay). The next face we saw was one that I’ll never forget, Colonel Jerry Nelson, our Wing Commander and leader for the past seven months stepped up into the passenger compartment to welcome us home (as I was told he did for every aircraft returning from Qatar, no matter the time of day or night) “I don’t want to see any of you on base for a week from right now. If anyone gives you a problem with that, tell them to call me and I’ll handle it.”
He shook every one of our hands and returned every salute as we stepped off of the airstairs into the cold Spanish night. A bus (after all, this was still the Air Force) carried us to the ‘reception center’ in Phase’s own Hangar 5.
We’ve all become accustomed to seeing pictures and video of troops returning from overseas, families running into their open arms, the reunions, the introductions, that’s how it was, almost like out of a movie - except for those of us who were single and living in the dorm. In a way, it was almost depressing to walk into the hangar, knowing that there was no one there to greet you. Although we were ‘home’, it wasn’t like most of the homecomings we’d been watching on CNN; I was still three thousand miles from home. The hangar was set up for what looked like a big ‘Welcome Home’ party, which unfortunately had ended four or five hours before, but there was a much appreciated barrel, filled with iced down beer, which I’ll admit, has probably never tasted better. Once we had our bags, we were released and the hangar had cleared out pretty quickly. I had a pair of heavy duffel bags, and threw one over my shoulder as the hangar lights were being shut off. It was about one in the morning when I walked alone out the hangar door, into the snow flurry filled cold darkness, to walk the half-mile back to the dorm.
And that was it, I was back at the dorm, where 198 days before I’d received ‘the Call’. It was over.