Dispatches from FOBistan: The Power of Waiting

by Joshua Foust on 3/30/2009 · 6 comments

FT. BENNING, GA — At seven p.m., our hearts began to sink. Two hours earlier, we were meant to be lining up to board our plane back to the United States, but instead an enlisted Navy Petty Officer yelled to the room that our flight had suffered yet another two-hour delay. Four more hours of sitting in this badly ventilated tent, balefully staring a stack of bright orange MRE containers and wondering if we should drink coffee to stay awake or bow our heads and nap to pass the time.

It was the perfect end to a shit day, begun at 6:30 a.m. as we dragged our bags over to the customs building then stood in line in the rising sun as a Sergeant barked formation orders. After thirty minutes of milling about, they lead us into a big room where we were instructed not to carry ammunition, explosives, drugs, or body parts onto the aircraft. Right.

Then, we waited. For an hour and a half, nothing happened – we just saw in this enormous tent, staring at the wall. I walked up with my iPod, and wandered outside. I heard muffled barking behind me, and realized it was that same Sergeant reminding me not to leave the latrine area. It reeked of old shit, diarrhea, piss, and something else, something rotten. I smoked a cigarette—gingerly, mind you, because I don’t normally smoke and I wasn’t inhaling—and leaned against the wall. The sun, bright and slightly burning, felt good on my face.

When we finally got up to go tag our luggage, I realized I should have spent less time outside. The line to get into the actual Customs building stretched out along the jersey barriers, and while I was almost underneath the tall awning offering relief from Kuwait’s horrible sunshine, I was not protected in the slightest. Off came the fleece that barely kept my body warm two hours earlier, and I could feel the sweat trickling between my shoulder blades and down my back. Yuck.

Two hours of shuffling down the line, I came across the first of what turned out to be several x-ray machines. Bags through, I got wanded by an angry-looking Specialist, and then waited in another line. Forty-five minutes later, I was ready to approach the customs desk. Wearing blue gloves, the Navy agent up-ended each one of my carefully packed bags, and poked his fingers through my old greeting cards, a hand receipt, and dirty underwear. He had me place the unfolded clothing and scattered papers into grey bins. After he signed off on everything, he directed me to a wooden bench where I was to repack everything (it took nearly an hour).

By this point, I was exhausted, and since I hadn’t eaten since a light breakfast and coffee at 6 a.m., I was also starving. So the Navy agents shuffled us around a weird maze-like corridor, to another set of X-Ray machines, after which they sent us to this awful tent. By 12:30 p.m., they had informed us that we have MREs and chips and soda, and about five hours before we’d need to line up for our 21:50 flight.

Of course, these delays make things tenuous. In the normal course of events, our flight back to Ft. Benning would have landed around 10:30 a.m., after which we would be whisked to the CIF building to turn in our gear. Banking on this happening at least by Monday morning, I reserved a flight for Monday evening to take me back to Kansas City. As I sat there, wondering if we’d even have a flight that evening, my stomach began clenching at the thought of having to eat a $330 ticket (who knows if my company would ever repay it), and maybe not getting home for at least another day or two.

The inefficiency of the Army is startling, severe, and incredibly expensive. On my ten-week trip, a total of about three have been spent waiting around, unable to go anywhere. I’m not alone: multiply by this tens of thousands of contractors who rely on the MilAir transit system to do their jobs, and you can get a sense of how much wasted labor there is.

By 2 a.m., we were finally in the air, on our way to Shannon, Ireland. By the time we had finally landed here at Ft. Benning, GA, almost two and a half days had passed since we last put our bags into the customs system. Stupidly, I had thought the time frame would be a reasonable facsimile of what a profit-driven airline would do: maybe 18 hours at the outset, with waiting minimized. I was stupid. I had it easy. In either case, though, spending a good 60 hours with a laptop and an iPhone is fine as far as it goes, except for the smell gently wafting from my boots (when I finally took them off, my socks smelled so bad I threw them away), and the general rotten, sticky feeling that comes from not showering for days. It wasn’t torture—I’ve longer without bathing—just unpleasant.

I did learn a neat trick, though: you can turn in your body armor, and a significant portion of your issued equipment, at the newly set up CIF building in Kuwait. This is an unheard-of convenience: instead of schlepping four duffle bags weighing more than sixty pounds each—plus my laptop bag!—I only needed to haul one, and my backpack-suitcase. This should have, in theory, made it easy to clear the rest of what I had at CIF here, but then I learned that the Kuwait CIF people have the same equipment on different lists and different tracking numbers than the Ft. Benning CIF. I’m glad I figured this out, because otherwise I would have been on the hook for hundreds of dollars-worth of equipment. Yuck.

Anyway, so I’m back in the U.S. I’ll be taking a couple of days to get my bearings back, but I’ll still be blogging. But as of right now, the Dispatches from FOBistan series is officially at a close. It’s been fun!

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Dan March 30, 2009 at 10:47 am

I have a question about the inefficiency. Do you believe it is due to an insufficient amount of logistical assets or the flawed use of them? Or, is there some combination of this?

Joshua Foust March 31, 2009 at 9:44 am


Dan March 31, 2009 at 10:25 am

I’d be interested in an elaboration, but then again I’m a logistics nerd.

Joshua Foust March 31, 2009 at 10:28 am

Give me some time — I’m still recovering from the flights. Also, I just bought van Creveld’s book on logistics, which I hope can inform my thinking as well.

David M March 31, 2009 at 12:06 pm

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/31/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Dan March 31, 2009 at 1:08 pm

No rush, I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff in the pipeline.

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