[Note: Holy editor, Batman! My apologies to the English language for the first draft of this essay.]
BAGRAM AIR BASE, AFGHANISTAN — It is a wonderful feeling, that sinking, gut-level twinge when you realize all your hopes and plans are void and you are stuck in a place you do not want to be. People traveling around the wars feel it intimately: the grinding nihilism that comes from being at the whims of thickly-accented KBR employees and bored-looking Air Force specialists, dragging bags to and fro and wrenching your soul as often as your arms carrying a full rucksack and body armor. It was a feeling with which I became intimately familiar upon arriving in the Ohio-like purgatory of Ali Al Saleem Air Base in Kuwait, came to dread when stuck at Manas, and have since learned to grudgingly accept while at Bagram.
Three weeks ago, I cut short one of my trips out to FOB Morales-Frazier so I could go visit the Poles in Ghazni. On my way back, I was to drop in on the 10th Mountain busy working over Wardak and Logar. Morning snow cancelled the trip. It is to be expected. But when, a week later, after I had performed some other tasks at my office in BAF, I tried to hop on a Blackhawk flight down to Ghazni… well, my colleague got selected for the flight. I didn’t. I was wearing Goretex! And sweating! She went ahead, half apologetic at leaving me, half giggling that she made it. It is to be expected. While the very nice Air Force lady guaranteed me a spot on the next flight, the schedule had none for days.
Upon my boss’ recommendation, I submitted myriad requests through multiple LNOs to travel up into Panjshir. Seeing Panjshir is a years-long dream of mine—a few years ago, as I was getting my start in the DC consulting world, my colleagues were so amused by the stack of books about Afghanistan I had on my desk they eventually nicknamed me “Panjshir.” I even got a hat with that name stitched across the back (hindsight tells me I should have brought it, though prudence makes me glad I didn’t). Afghan politics intervened: the PRT does everything through the Panjshir governor, and they both dislike visitors. Appropriately, my dream was dashed upon the rocks of reality and bureaucracy. It is to be expected. By the time I realized this, the other flight to Ghazni had left, so I had to abandon my plans to visit any of my colleagues or counterparts south of Kabul. Major bummer.
Then it struck me: FOB Salerno! Coworkers are there, Khowst is a happening place right now in terms of strategic importance, and it would be great to take a break from the rather political issues of Central Afghanistan to look more into the border problems near the Parrot’s Beak. So days ago, well before the 96 hours’ notice one must have at a minimum, I reserved space on a flight to FOB Salerno. Upon arriving at the terminal, I learned that, despite having a printout of my confirmation number and the vouching of LNOs at my unit, someone hadn’t bothered to put me in the system. The Air Force desk dude acted like he was doing me a favor by putting me on the flight I had already been confirmed for. Classy. It is to be expected.
Hours later, more bad news: FOB Salerno has a dirt runway, and apparently C-130s are made of sugar and melt in water. The rains this morning nixed that idea. And thus I learned a valuable lesson about the inhuman horrors of flying with the military: at every opportunity, you will be screwed. Let me explain.
When flying on a helicopter, the only thing they usually care about is weight and space. Paperwork is a non-issue: you don’t need to flash your orders, you don’t need to go through the big song and dance of a fixed wing flight. At Bagram, you’re either on or you’re off, space and weight available. At other FOBs, it’s even easier: when I needed to get back from Morales-Frazier to try to make my flight to Salerno, I hopped on a Chinook. It was dirt simple: stand near the landing pad with your bags, hope the gravel doesn’t get whipped into your face and ruin your glasses, and when it lands hop on board. In that one instance I made the mistake of hopping on board at the start of an epic, five-hour flight around Jalalabad and back, at night. I hadn’t thought to wear anything windproof or particularly insulated. My Goretex jacket was stuffed in a dufflebag in my crowded hooch. Sitting by the front door was… frigid.
Anyway, planes, or “fixed wing aircraft” (choppers are “rotary wing,” natch) are a bear. You reserve your flight online; you must still check in at the PAX terminal, but make sure you know if you’re Mil-Air or STOL. Both meet at adjacent desks, but while STOL has a similar flight schedule, only Mil-Air has KBR employees at the desk 24/7. STOL is run by the Air Force and they have nights off. Once you check in, you need to have the terminal stamp your orders certifying that you are ready to fly, much like you did in Kuwait, and then they confiscate your CAC just before rollcall. After waiting for hours watching terribly edited movies on AFN (again, my DS with Sudoku is a godsend), you then hear, 25 minutes after you were supposed to take off, that your flight has been cancelled. It is to be expected.
Here is where it gets messy. On a commercial airline, if your flight is cancelled, the airline puts you on the next available flight, no questions asked. It is a pain in the ass, but it at least works and is something you can reasonably expect. If you reserve a flight on Mil-Air and it gets cancelled, your only option is to go into the standby system, where your name is placed at the bottom of the list behind all the other people trying to snag extra seats without dealing with the entire reservation system. So if a reserve flight gets cancelled—something that is depressingly regular in this season with all the snow and rain—you are screwed as hard as you can be screwed. Since it is apparently impossible to avoid waiting in the terminal for days when traveling (I lucked out hardcore in having my hooch be right next to the terminal, so I can sleep in a cot), you might as well not bother with the reservation system at all and just go standby. You get treated the same either way, and it’s crappy no matter what, right?
Right. At this point, I’m hoping I can ever get off this stupid base in anything other than a tactical vehicle. I am seething with rage not at the hapless KBR men and women whose only crime is to mumble into an overdrive PA system, but at the Army’s wretched transportation system. Only the Soviets would intentionally create something worse. I would dearly like to visit my coworkers in Khowst and Nangarhar, but who knows if I can ever make the flights work? Argh. At least now I can wait in line for the transient laundry hut a quarter mile away in the rain… as the constant roar of F-15s and C-17s and EA-6Bs mock me, hurting my pride as they hurt my ear drums as well. Thank you, Bagram/purgatory. Thank you. Hate.