Ali As-Salim, a remote transit point in the most desolate part of the Kuwaiti Desert, stood as nothing more than an airstrip and a hodgepodge of tents that could have only been imagined by Camus.
When I stood at the periphery of the base, looking northwest into the endless dust-storm, it captured my imagination and it made me think of my father’s generation of World War II and ‘Catch 22’ in North Africa and all the desolate desert outposts where forgotten soldiers and airmen languished long after the war had passed into Europe and progressed in the Pacific.
Of course, as luck holds, my mental model was crushed, as I couldn’t get a flight to Dubai to train on Tomahawks with the U.S.S. Thomas Jefferson due to a Navy alert, so I was stuck. I couldn’t get to Dubai and I couldn’t get back to Iraq. Now, there was a sandstorm and no-one was flying anywhere. My sad little dream of playing with the Navy was over, so like anyone else, I waited.
It was an odd sort of limbo. The command knew where I was, but didn’t really care as long as they could keep track of me. I could do whatever I wanted to as long as they knew my whereabouts, but there was really nothing to do.
I had been standing alone for a long time at the front edge of a row of sand-colored tents, now near invisible in the false gloaming of the swirling tan sand, sands aloft, backlit by a hidden, reddish sun.
The sky is bizarre in a sandstorm. Yes, it’s hot, but not that searing heat. It gave that ancient caravan Arabian desert feeling with light and almost golden-brown shadow, but you really couldn’t see anything. There was no smell either. Usually something stinks out in the desert in the vicinity of a military output. Here, there was no smell at all.
I looked at my watch. I followed its ticks for a minute or so. It was my war watch. Been with me since Bosnia and Northern Europe before that.
It was late afternoon. My uniform felt light on me. My feet didn’t hurt for the first time in a while. I noticed that nothing hurt at all. The absence of pain was unusual. The canopy of sand lowered the heat enough, so it didn’t feel oppressive, but almost warm and comforting.
I tried to imagine those ancient caravans thousands of years ago as depicted in a corny desert mural from some long out-of-business Arab restaurant back home.
I took a long roak on a filterless Camel. I didn’t see or hear any other troops. I was living for a few days in one of the tents, mixed officers and enlisted, first come, first served. I was a Lieutenant Colonel, Field Artillery working with Forward Observation Teams and Forward Air Controllers with the storied U.S. 1st Cavalry Division.
I didn’t like being mixed with the enlisted. It’s not from a lack of respect, but officers need a place to hide and get out of character for a while. It was always a little but uncomfortable when we were jammed together, like before we went into Bosnia many years ago when they jammed us into mixed-rank barracks in Hohenfels base near Parsberg, Germany.
I had locked up my bags and my belongings, stuffing what I could into a three-tier metal locker, perfect for a transient tent. Everything else was in my Alice pack or whatever they were calling an Army backpack these days. I had nothing to do. Day after day, nothing to do.
I worked out in the gym tent, played basketball with the troops, called my wife and little girl and I waited. The calls were made from a trailer that had phone banks. You would hammer in some interminably long string of 45 numbers including the code and the local numbers and you hoped that you wouldn’t get an answering machine or voicemail.
Every couple of days, I would go for a run around the perimeter, three miles with an Arab Kaffiyya over my face to keep out the sand. After you’ve been here a while you realize that the Arabs wear all the gear because if you don’t cover every inch of skin, you will burn to a crisp in the relentless sun or every mucous membrane will be eviscerated by wind and sand.
Running and working out was a form of amusement to pass the time, as I recorded every workout in a journal, run times, weight lifted and the like.
It wasn’t as bad as being stuck on the concrete pad at Al Kut, where I waited, sleeping, eating, pacing, rearranging my equipment and reading The Deerslayer for three days until I could get transport to get to BIAP for another flight back to Tallil.
At Ali As-Salim, I could mindlessly surf the web in the internet tent, drink a canned iced coffee drink if the PX had any and I waited. Eventually you realize that it’s the same bullshit on the internet every day. You could write fake news stories with the same lame topics and no-one would ever know the difference.
Then one day, my limitless boredom was broken when the three Army Surgeons came into the tent. Ah, officers, field grade officers! I would finally have some adult company. After a brief inquiry, I determined that they were plastic surgeons. But sadly, they were crushed… with mournful, deep, blackened eyes from the emotional misery of going from treating wealthy skiers with broken noses in the civilian world, to repairing the destroyed faces, fingers, toes and nether regions of horribly disfigured, once beautiful boys and girls of the U.S. Army serving in Afghanistan.
Yes, this was a true transit point, me from Iraq, them from Afghan, some from Djibouti, just like North Africa in the last war, but sadly not as romantic an environment.
Once cocky, well to do, Vail party-circuit figures, now they were grizzled Veterans with the thousand-yard stare. Medicine was important to them, even more important, but it wasn’t fun or cool anymore. It was now a burden. The stakes were suddenly enormous, the A answer wasn’t good enough.
There was no fear of malpractice, but fear of the future of a young person badly injured and the families that loved them, needing them to be fixed. The weight of it, the smothering, unbearable, suffocating weight of it flattened their spirits and souls like a thousand-pound weight.
I saw this. And, I decided that I would help. I had been around a long time, since I had actually joined the Army on the last day of the Carter Administration. But now, 27 years later, I felt an obligation, as if all younger officers were my children. I had been laying on my bunk, unable to sleep, unable to get up, not tired, not energetic.
Then I leapt off of my bunk and I stood up in the middle of the tent, with my ‘Cav Sandwich’ of a First Cavalry horse patch on each shoulder. To all the soldiers and the officers in the tent, I was the real deal, a big, imposing 1st Cavalry Division combat officer.
I looked at the Doctors.
“Boys,” I said “where are you coming from?”
“Afghan” one said.
“What branch are you boys?”
“Medical, we are plastic surgeons out of Colorado, US Army Reserve.”
I made a sweeping gesture with my right hand.
“Look around this tent gentlemen, all enlisted.”
The officers looked at the faces of soldiers sitting on their dusty bunks. The usual suspects in transit: Ivy Division, 82nd Airborne, 18th Engineers, and so on.
“I can’t fraternize with these disgusting young uglies! I need adult company! I have an idea. Tonight, I get pogs, I get cards, I get trailer pizza and we play cards!”
The surgeons were still putting their bags away, they didn’t seem enthusiastic.
“Sir,” the one with the mustache said. “We’ve had a hard time and we will probably just read and then go to bed.”
I put my hands on my hips and I looked around the room. Then I stormed around in a circle, staring angrily at the floor of the tent like a savage Bull in the arena.
“God damn it. God damn it! I am a goddamned Lieutenant Colonel in the goddamned 1st U.S. Cavalry Division. You bastards are Majors! Fucking Majors! Here we are stranded in this shitty desert rat hole and if I say play fucking cards, you will play cards!”
All of the enlisted soldiers in the tent started laughing out loud at the crazy big old Cav Colonel. The officers looked at each other like: ‘Is this fucking guy for real?’
“Alright Sir, one hour we will play.” Said the mustachioed one.
I walked out of the tent. I found the phone trailer and I called my wife. She was mostly asleep. I tried to remember what it was like to be back home, but the human mind plays tricks when you are away, it puts you where you are and makes it hard to recall a day in the life back in the world.
Afterwards, I went to the pizza trailer. I ordered two delicious microwaved pizzas and a two-liter Pepsi. They only had Pepsi, nothing else. And I do mean nothing else.
I gingerly walked the pizzas back to my tent. To my surprise, I found that the enlisted soldiers, wanting to play along with my charade, had set up a little table and four chairs, maybe to share in the comedy that they were sure was to follow.
For an hour or so, the Doctors and I played cards with little plastic PX coins called pogs, we ate Pizza, we laughed, joked, talked about life back in the world and we drank our Pepsis.
Their smiles came back, their shoulders stopped sagging and the life came back into their eyes. I’m sure they viewed me as some Army-obsessed lifer, but maybe I was. After a fashion, they all requested leave of my little party and they went off to lay down to sleep.
I crawled through the tent flap to go outside to roak a filterless Camel. I didn’t really smoke. I only did it to look grizzled and impress the enlisted.
In reality I was an effete, intellectual, self-appointed New York literati from Cooperstown, New York. Sure, I was in the Cav, a ‘lifer’ and I put on a good show of being ‘grizzled’, but my façade was an utter fraud.
While I felt comfortable in Iraq or Bosnia, I was equally as comfortable in Manhattan discussing Ludwig Meidner or Kirchner while sipping an espresso with a lemon twist at a Guggenheim Deutscheausdruckskunstaustellung retrospective with equally annoying self-involved, belligerent faux-literati.
I contemplated the ancient mysteries of the Middle Eastern Desert in a deep reverie, when the skinny, crusty, young Ivy Division soldier crashed my dreamscape by wriggling his way through the tent flap, almost tripping when his boot stuck on the bottom still-fastened dowel-strap and colliding with me. I didn’t budge or change my pose. It was too epic.
The soldier presented himself outside into the near-darkness of the whistling sandstorm. His uniform was filthy and worn-out. He was wafer thin, like all real combat soldiers who take the business too hard. He rendered a hand salute in a long forgotten attempt to appear to have some last vestige of military bearing. I returned the salute ala MacArthur.
I gave the skinny soldier a cigarette and we roaked together in silence, for a long while. He reminded me of the enlisted soldier who from time to time, for his own sanity just wanted to know if one of his officers actually knew what the hell was going on. They know that we don’t know what’s going on, but they just need a little reassurance that they aren’t in this thing all alone. After a while, he swept his glance up at me with his deep-set eyes, peering from sunken, bony sockets.
“Sir, I know what you did in there, it was a good thing, you made them, those Doctors, Surgeons forget a little bit. Now, thirty years from now, they’ll be sitting around the fire with their grandchildren and they will tell a story about a (with all due respect Sir, you are bat-shit crazy) wild-ass crazy fucking Cav Colonel who helped them get their spirits back up. You’re a good man Sir.”
I took a long roak off of my Camel and I looked high out into the gloaming of the sandstorm as if I saw a vision in the golden brown swirl of nothingness.
“You’re fucking right I am Sergeant, but don’t tell anyone.”
The facts are slightly changed to make the story more entertaining, but like all war stories at least most of it is true.