Monday, December 10, 2007

Home from Iraq for Christmas

Our plane was late. Good thing for the eight Air Force guys who showed up right before the regular boarding time. Some were in desert camouflage uniforms, others wore civvies. All had short haircuts. "Iraq," I guessed. "Maybe Afghanistan."

Iraq, it turns out. One of the airmen sat next to me in row 31 on the flight to Denver. They had been eight months in Kuwait. Their job was driving the trucks that supply to U.S. military throughout Iraq. The guy next to me, Greg from southeastern Idaho, estimated that he drove 20,000 miles in his eight-month stint. Sometimes he drove, sometimes he rode shotgun – in this case, a government-issue automatic weapon. I asked him if they had any problem with I.E.D.s. He looked at me as if I was crazy. "Yeah," he said simply. "It wasn't any fun.

That may be the understatement of the year.

Greg and his buddies had departed Kuwait Sunday morning. A five-hour flight to Germany. Eight hours to Baltimore-Washington Airport (BWI). Four hours to Denver. Greg’s next flight was to Spokane where he was stationed at Fairchild AFB. Then he was off to his family near Idaho Falls for Christmas. His brother won't be there because he's in Afghanistan until April.

Before joining the Air Force two years ago, he was part of a harvesting crew that spent the summer and fall roaming the high prairie cutting wheat, corn, and soybeans. Wheat in the Dakotas, corn in Kansas and Nebraska, soybeans in Missouri. He said that he dropped on Cheyenne Frontier Days a few times during his travels. A few days in Cheyenne and then, like an 1880s cowhand, he was off to greener fields, or maybe I should say ripening fields? So now he travels the world with the Air Force. Join the Air Force and drive a big rig to Kirkuk and Ramadi and Fallujah!

Greg and his buddies threw back the drinks. Who could blame them? They were young and fatigued and happy to be out of the war zone. They all had I-Pods. Greg’s was stored in a sturdy black metal case. I didn’t have to ask him why. His buddy across the aisle wore civvies and a do-rag on his head. He was plugged into music, as was the buzz-headed airman in front of him. A few rows up, another airman was reading a book about Iran. Didn’t see the whole title, but he was reading up, just in case our presdident makes yet another dumb move.

Many of us had short connections in Denver. One airman had six minutes to catch his flight to Salt Lake City. Greg and his pal Matt had 30 minutes. I only had 15 minutes and a colleague and I ran to the A concourse only to find that it had been cancelled and we had to wait two hours for another. But, as I sit here on a Monday morning in Cheyenne, I realize I’d only been gone five days to an arts conference in Baltimore. These guys hadn’t seen family for at least eight months. I wish them well and hope they don’t have to return to Bush’s Insane War in Iraq.

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