What it does mean is another round of the rigmarole of airline hassles and other foolishness. If you think TSA is bad then you have never tried to move a company or more of Marines through military customs. At least the agents are slimmer.
With much elation and enthusiasm the boys threw their gear on trucks to head on over to the flight line. Anytime Marines are seen loading vehicles it summons Army types like locusts: “You guys RIPing out? Got a TV or fridge you want to sell?” Before I could loudly remind our fellow servicemen that we weren’t having a freakin’ yard sale the Marines shooed them away (more than likely told them to come back later and ask for so-and-so).
After this there was the check, check, and recheck of the multiple pieces serialized gear that each Marine is carrying. The verification of possession of these items is repeated throughout the going home process and if it doesn’t happen the gear fairies magically transport any unaccounted for equipment to a vortex in an unknown dimension. Then I get to choke people.
Billeting at the flight line is merely there to remind servicemen that they are not home yet and serve as a pen to hold them in place while they watch other people board flights back to planet Earth. After spending the day lounging on cots watching planes take off they gathered up all their trash again around midnight and shuffled over to customs.
The customs experience when leaving Iraq is one of the singular highlights in anyone’s military career. Not only does it mark the end of your deployment but it is also similar to undergoing oral surgery minus the anesthesia (which my Battalion Surgeon describes as malpractice so I think it aptly illustrates the point). The hapless Marines and Sailors drag everything they own behind them waiting to present their bags to the customs agents. These particular individuals are of course absolutely enthused to be pawing through a bunch of Marine’s dirty underwear; again. Everything is dumped on a table in front of the agent and gets a serious once over to find anything that isn’t supposed to leave country. These include man-packed flame throwers, ballista, bootlegged DVDs, and any nuclear devices.
Thanks to over 234 years of natural selection, Marines have developed a well honed sense of humor. In this particular instance one of our more straight laced and wound tight Lieutenants was the target. Imagine Felix Ungar as a Marine Officer and you get the picture. Some of his fellow LTs decided, correctly, that it would be pretty funny to plant a cache of bootleg pornography into his pack. Now I am no advocate of porn but I still find this absolutely hilarious.
His response to being caught by the female customs agent (who was in on the prank) was priceless: “But that’s not mine! THAT IS NOT MINE!” Just the thought of his entire body clenching in futility makes my day that much brighter. He is also the kind that failed to see how funny that actually was.
After the inspection everything (minus porn) is haphazardly rammed back into sea bags and loaded on to a pallet. Everyone is then herded back to the tents to await the freedom bird to land, or so one would think.
The first sign of trouble for our guys was when word came down that the plane needed to be repaired in Germany. This would delay the flight for a day. The next day it was announced that the original plane was not going to fly at all and a new plane was going to have to be sourced to take our guys home. Considering the lowest bidders get all the jobs we wondered aloud if there was a shortage of duct tape and bubble gum in Germany with which to repair the plane.
Sourcing a new plane meant that the flight would be delayed at least a week now. All the Marine’s extra uniforms, underwear, sleeping bags, etc, were on the pallets waiting to be loaded on an aircraft that wasn’t coming. They were given the option of having access to their gear but of course then they would have to endure customs again. Everyone decided that it wasn’t worth taking that many years off their lives again just to have a sleeping bag. So for seven more days they froze their butts off at night in the tents because in the American military air conditioning can only be set on ‘arctic’ or ‘supernova’. In the meantime a number of us were hustling Supply to get them some extra t-shirts and maybe some sheets to sleep in.
Each day at 1600 they gathered around the dejected flight commander in charge of our personnel only to hear they were stranded for another night. Morosely the living dead would return to their cots contemplating what level of violence would be required to actually get a plane to land in their vicinity. They were stuck for so long that Marines actually went on line to look up information on the carrier that was supposed to fly them. By the time they actually left the Marines were able to recite how many planes were in their fleet and what types of aircraft there were. Apparently working aircraft wasn’t one of them.
Finally the carrier was able to cobble together a working aircraft to bring our guys home in. Hastily Marines washed their cammies in the sink and hung them up to dry. Angry wives who had been expecting their husbands were placated with phone calls home (We’re not sure why but spouses tend to think we’re all out here playing beach blanket bingo and having fun without them). One more round of equipment accountability preceded an excruciatingly slow boarding process while the ground crew got around to winding up the rubber bands powering the propellers.
TAKE OFF! The experienced traveler knows not to believe that he is actually going anywhere until the plane actually takes off. Otherwise he’ll never be prepared for an experience like this [link to other flight post].
Thirty-six hours of travel later and despite the bird landing safely the adventure is still not over. No one goes anywhere until all that serialized gear is turned in and counted. Of course there is always that one guy (in my experience usually a lieutenant) who packed a piece of serialized gear in his sea-bag despite being told 4,000 times not to. After this numb skull fishes out the item to be accounted for then and only then is everyone allowed crash unmolested in their own beds for a couple days of liberty.
I did not travel with that particular flight but I can imagine that by the time they were all through they were only interested in one thing: someone with brains…BRAINS!
America’s Undead 1stSgt