It all began with our ejection from the trailer park we were billeted in for seven months and transition into the concentration camp set up at the JCOT designed to "temporarily" house personnel waiting for their flights to land. Ideally 24 hours before your scheduled flight you move into the tents and go through the fine Naval Customs inspections experience that I have narrated here a couple of times already.
In almost every case the flight as scheduled doesn't arrive on time. For instance, ours was moved back 24 hours the first day; then another day; then a mere 16 hours. See the trend here?
Finally we got to spend a day standing in lines under the crisp Iraqi sunlight dragging our seabags behind us in the gravel. First there was the dumping of everything I own so our friendly neighborhood customs ninjas can paw through my gear and explain to me that while yes, the spring loaded knife I was issued from supply can indeed go back with me, the double edged fixed blade knife that I carried with me through two deployments isn't allowed.
Then everything we carefully packed to maximize room in our bags and protect more sensitive items was unceremoniously jammed back into all our bags by the poor jarhead who was unfortunate enough to be picked as part of the working party tasked with helping the process hurry along. By this time we could have cared less anyway as our desire to be done with customs usually outweighed our need to know which bag we packed our DVDs in.
I will cut the customs portion of the tale short this time except to say that the only thing possibly worse than going through customs is actually being a customs agent who sometimes may have to process up to three flights in a day. Imagine handling someone's dirty drawers at 3AM; then again at noon; and again at 8PM. I think I would prefer being shot at by a firing squad armed with RPGs.
For at least a month I had been warning Marines not to believe they were actually leaving Iraq let alone tell their family when as it would inevitably be a wrong date due to the fluidity of the timetable. As recounted in The Longest Day even getting on the plane is no guarantee that you are going anywhere.
"Don't believe it until the wheels are actually up!"
As our flight blasted off the wretched Al Asad runway Marines howled with glee like a plane full of werewolves. Thus we said goodbye to Iraq and with any luck, for the last time.
Two hours later we landed in the United Arab Emirates to refuel and switch out crews. UAE sucks because they wouldn't let us off the plane. Fortunately we were only a few hours into this part of our journey so it wasn't a big deal to us. As we waited a customs guy resembling UAE's version of Meatloaf boarded the plane. Meatloaf frankly will be forever known as such since his whole purpose seemed to happily let crew know that their replacements were being delayed by UAE customs. So there we waited on the evil forces of the local customs bureaucracy.
Remember that word: bureaucracy. Write it down. You will see it again.
After we got our new crew on board we were able to leave wonderful UAE behind us and took off for Thailand which was to be our next stop before hitting Okinawa where we would drop of some of our brethren stationed there and finally to Kaneohe Bay Hawaii. Or so we were led to believe.
As it turns out it was merely part one of an epic struggle that was to rival Viking sagas of old.
END OF PART 1