Thursday, January 18, 2007

No, It’s Duck Season!

17 January 2007

I had a late call-time for my flight this time around. Didn’t have to report in till after 2130. In some ways that is good, but it is bad in that you know you won’t get into Kuwait until the wee hours of the morning. That meant that I’d probably just stay in Ali As Salem until I catch the bus to Kuwait Intl Wednesday night for my early Thursday morning.

It has been unseasonably cold in Baghdad and Kuwait this winter. It was a cold wait, but the C130 came in and we boarded. Not a completely full flight and only half a pallet of luggage. Another guy who was leaving out of Slayer and I were fortunate enough to be on the end of the row, meaning we’d have some leg room to the side and not be knee to knee for the 1-1/2 hour flight to Kuwait.

Take off went smoothly enough. Nothing too noteworthy considering the firefights we heard before we left BIAP. After getting out of the general Baghdad area you kind of breathe a sigh of relief and drift off into a cat-nap dream state. We’re already thirty minutes into our flight and soon we’ll be in Kuwait.

Bam! Flash! Bam! I saw sparks out of the small round window on the rear starboard side and then more of the same noise and flash reflecting on the inside starboard wall of the plane across from the port side window about ten feet down from where I was sitting. I’ve made this flight so many times before, my initial thought and reaction is that it is just the plane releasing flares as a decoy against possible enemy rockets.

But this time is different…very different. We’re being rocketed from the insurgents on the ground! Another bam, flashes and sparks! Bam, more flashes and more sparks. I look at the guy across from me and his eyes are big as dinner plates. Those of us that don’t have our helmets on are scurrying to get them on. Holding on as the plane rocks to the left and then to the right and drops altitude. One of the flight airmen eyeing the rockets coming at us through the little round window at the rear of the plane is shouting into his mike, “Left!! Left!!” Then yet another bam and once again, bam! More flashes and sparks.

The pilot’s fast responses cause the plane to rock yet again and then we lose altitude again. Like a roller coaster, we drop suddenly, level out and then another surprise drop until the pilot levels us out again. Before you can think about the events that just happened, you’re trying to pop your ears to relieve the pressure from the drastic drops in altitude. Then you get your inner composure together, sit and wonder if there will be another attack launched at you in the air. There are no windows for us passengers, so we can’t see if anything is launched at us until it explodes in the sky.

In all the three years I’ve been in the Middle East, this is the first time I can admit that I was scared. I’ve been through rocket and mortar attacks, but you’re on the ground and there are places to take cover. Having the plane you’re flying in attacked with rockets is completely different. There is no cover. As Daffy Duck and Bugs might say it, “It’s Duck season!” And you’re how many thousands of feet up in the sky?!

At that point, all you can ask yourself is how long will it take for help to arrive? Will the plane make it to a safe airbase? Will we survive a crash? Am I in a good part of the plane to survive a crash? My only solace is to pray. Now staring reality in the eye, I realize that from the moment I boarded the C130 I had no control over the situation. Control is completely in the hands of the skilled pilots and crew and in His hands.

After ten minutes or so, the flight crew in the rear of the plane asks us if we’re alright. It looks like we didn’t take any damage at this point. All indications are that we are good to go and won’t need to go back or head to Al Asad for any kind of an emergency landing. We all nod and I ask him if he’s okay. He was pretty surprised and commented that the rockets exploded way too close to the plane for his comfort. This was the closest call this airman had ever seen and he isn’t soon to forget it either. If you hadn’t guessed, I have paraphrased his comments!

As I ponder the experience from last night, I’m thinking that fear is an awful lot like loss and grieving. The overwhelming intensity grabs you and seems to pull at every emotion and nerve you think is hidden and locked safely away inside you. Then in a flash it is like some survival mechanism is triggered. After the “event” is over, you realize you’ve made it through, but as much as you might want to forget the rawness of the experience, you won’t and can’t forget.

But the up side is that time has a way of wearing down the sharpness and the impact of that memory. I don’t think it is intended for us to forget what has happened, only to make us appreciate what is right and good in life and maybe what we still need to achieve in our short time here on earth. In my case, reminding me that I haven’t yet accomplished what I’ve been sent here to accomplish.
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