The Last Journey
October 2, 2010 In a C-5 Airplane
The Long Reach

It is almost 1900 hrs (7:00 PM) on October 2, 2010. I am in a C-5 cargo airplane with the engines running getting ready for takeoff from Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan heading towards Ramstein, Germany. Out of nowhere, a flight to Germany appeared and would take five passengers. I was told this by a lady who works behind the counter at the pax terminal. She had been aware of who I am and what I was trying to do. I had kept my cool all the way down the line and had decided this day to hang out at the terminal even though no flights were said to be available. If I wanted to go to Germany, I had to give her my passport and orders right now. That is exactly what I did. After being told since September 22, that I could not fly to Germany, I am now taxing down a runway in a United States Air Force C-5 aircraft, the exact same type of aircraft I landed in Afghanistan on back in July, headed now for Germany. Twelve days after I left Fox Company 2/6 Marines in Koru Chareg at COP Turbett, I am exiting the country. When I left New Mexico on July 21, it took me until August 6th to arrive at my first destination in Paktika province. That is sixteen days. Combine that with the past twelve days of waiting, coupled with the ten days it took to get from FOB Boris in Paktika province to COP Turbett in Helmund province, and you get a grand total of thirty-eight days of travel time just getting around going from point A to point B. So far the journey has been seventy- one days long with two more to go. More than half has been transiting and waiting. The Soldiers and Marines have the exact same experience that I have had. And so do the tens of thousands of other folks who have traveled in and around Afghanistan as I have recently. It is the logistical nightmare from hell.

After I had landed in Bagram in the early morning hours on the 1st of October, and tried to coordinate my travel to Germany, and told to return at 2230 that night, I went to the media center and crashed out for a while. The sleep I got lasted all of about three hours tops. I decided to get up and take a real shower. Then I put on some cleaner socks and proceeded to set up shop for what I was hoping would be a short stay in Bagram. I stayed to myself and took a walk around lunch time to the nearest chow hall. Got something to eat, had some coffee and then went the other direction towards the MWR facilities to coordinate and rearrange my flight from Germany to the USA. All of this coordinating and re-coordinating of things takes time and energy and uses heartbeats that are unnecessarily wasted. I cannot seem to get over how difficult it keeps getting in this age of technology just to get something done promptly. Maybe I am too old school, but, in all the conversations I have with folks here, I think I am not alone in my assessments.

After the coordinating was done, I went back to my room at the media center and got completely ready for a departure to the pax terminal around ten in the evening for a ten- thirty show time. I was now ready and figured all would be fine, maybe. I’ve been in this situation before where you assume one thing only to learn that is not the case. I arrived at the terminal where Spc. Randolph dropped me off and we bid one another good-bye. I went to the counter and began explaining what I wanted to do and was greeted with, “you want to do what and go when and where?” Oh boy, I thought. Here we go. Trouble on the horizon. Nothing is arranged. I pulled out my orders that the man, E-8 Mahoney, from earlier had taken a look at upon my arrival in Bagram which he happened to sign his name on and the folks at the counter took a long look, went in a back room again and then came out and asked for my ID. I handed them my ID and they asked for my CAC card, which, I do not have one of those. Now they asked me for my passport which I readily gave them and they put me on “the list” for pax awaiting to go on the medevac to Germany, after the patients would be loaded.

It was at this time I met Sgt. Howell, from Vermont and Lt. Simpson from Germany. Both were also trying to get to Germany just as I was, along with fifteen other folks. That would make a total of 18-passengers trying to hop a flight to Germany on a medevac. What that tells me is that 17-other folks knew exactly what I knew and that is that medevacs sometimes take passengers to Ramstein, Germany. Apparently, there are some folks throughout the public affairs offices spread throughout the country of Afghanistan who do not believe that to be possible. But, in years past, in Balad, Iraq, it was part of my exact job to put such passengers on the medevac flights to Germany.

I knew from my years of work in Iraq, having assisted in the loading of literally thousands of wounded during my time on that flight line, that it can take a long time to get flights ready to receive regular duty passengers headed to Germany such as myself, Sgt. Howell and Lt. Simpson. It would be a long night. By around 2:30 AM in the morning, the seat release for the medevac came down via the front counter at the pax terminal that there would be only one seat made available for passengers to get on. That seat would go to an E-9 who was first on the list. The other 17-passengers were told to come back at 1000 hrs later that morning for the next medevac that was said to be being scheduled to bring even more patients to Germany. We all departed the terminal and I called Spc. Randolph and he came and brought me back to the media center where once again I bedded down for a few hours. I did not unpack and only took my shoes off and once again fell asleep. It was about 0300 hrs in the morning on October 2nd.

At 0730 hrs I woke up, went to the facilities and splashed some water on my face and walked down the road to the chow hall and grabbed a bagel and cup of coffee. After that, I came to the media center where the crew was just arriving for their days work. They asked me what time I was scheduled to be showing up for the morning flight showtime and I told them I needed to be there at 0930 hrs. They arranged for a different person to take me to the terminal and once again I brought my bags and body armor into the terminal where I saw Sgt. Howell and Lt. Simpson right away. Both had a dejected look on their faces and told me, “don’t even bother, there’s no flights.”

I decided I would go up to the counter myself and find out the situation. I always ask different questions and that begins to open some other doors for other options that I now would begin to put into place. The folks behind the counter told me that no flights to Germany would be scheduled again until October 6th at the earliest. That was now just not going to be acceptable to me so I began to research other destinations including heading to Qatar, where my friend Mike McAvoy is working and could assist me in re-working an alternate route home which would set me back a lot of money by being forced to purchase a ticket to the States, unless I can hop a mil air flight directly stateside such as to Charleston, SC. Now, I already had a non-refundable round trip ticket from Frankfurt back to Albuquerque which I had now arranged to depart on the 4th having thought I would arrive in Ramstein sometime between the 2nd and 3rd of October. My plan would be to take the same ground shuttle I had come in on upon arrival to Frankfurt and rode to Ramstein Air Base. My flight leaves for the USA at sometime around 0700 hrs on the 4th.

Now that no medevac flights to Germany looked available, I began to ask about Mannas and Qatar. Mannas is up in Kyrgyzstan and is now being used as a hub for troops in and out of theater as opposed to Kuwait at Ali Al Saleem. From Mannas, I could maybe catch a flight from there to Baltimore on mil-air, but then once again I would have to start over and go through a process of convincing the folks at that pax terminal what I was wanting to do. That could pose another problem for me and they could possibly deny me travel and now I would be stuck in Kyrgyzstan on my own with no way of getting out of there. So, I proceeded to inquire about Qatar and I was told I needed to have a visa for Qatar. So, they sent me to a room where a lady who works as a DOD civilian, got on line and processed for me a visa application through channels and charged my credit card $28. Now I had a visa good for one month in Qatar. It was beginning to look like that was going to be my back up plan.

I asked about my position on the list for flights to Mannas, Qatar as well as Germany. Mannas I was number 35, Qatar I was number 119, and Germany I was number 28. Now, in every case, half the people usually do not show up for one reason or another. I myself had been stuck in Bagram on this leg already going on two days. Sgt. Howell and Lt. Simpson had been stuck going on one week. I had talked to others who had been stuck already more than ten days. It was a mess. While waiting around at the pax terminal this day I kept seeing people that I had run into over the years from a variety of places. It was simply amazing how on this journey, time and time again, people just showed up in my path at the most unexpected times one could think of. It just made me realize that each and every step I was taking was beginning to feel like pre-arranged from above. One of the persons I ran into was a guy who worked in Balad with me for the Air Force working the flight line and pax movement in 2004. He stopped me out of the clear blue sky and asked me if I was in Balad in 2004. After a short while I remembered who he was and now he is working as a civilian in Bagram. He told me about a possible flight that was not showing on the board so I kept my ears opened and for sure was not going to leave the terminal until all avenues had been exhausted.

Sometime in the early afternoon, Lt. Simpson offered to get me some food from the chow hall in a to-go plate if I watched his gear. I agreed and he went and got us both some food. After he got back, Sgt. Howell went to go get his food. While he was gone, the civilian lady working pax movement behind the counter came right over to me and asked for my passport and copy of my orders. She told me there was a flight going to Ramstein, a cargo flight, and it had five open seats on it. I immediately gave her my papers and told her that Lt. Simpson and Sgt. Howell needed to be on that flight as well. She got Lt. Simpson’s ID and papers, but Howell was gone to get his lunch. I told the lady that Howell for sure needed to go also and that he would be right back. I gave her his name and rank and she signed them both up along with me and two other folks. Now the flight was closed and we would be heading through customs soon.

About 15-minutes later I saw Sgt. Howell come in to the terminal with his lunch and I immediately grabbed him and took him to the front counter and told him what was up. He was concerned that he would miss it and I assured him I took care of it already. There was one more person with Howell, another Sgt and we got him hooked up as well. Earlier in the day I had run into a Dr from the hospital in Salerno who remembered me from a story I did on the hospital and he too was trying to get to Germany. I looked all over for him but I could not find him. When we talked earlier that day, he told me about two soldiers who had been injured from up near where I was and they had patched them both up. While they were recovering, they made good friends with these two soldiers. Two weeks later the same two soldiers came through his hospital, killed in action. It was something both of us had learned over here and that is the war zone never lets up. Anything and everything can happen. Surprises usually are not a good thing over here.

Now it was time for us to go through customs and all the careful preparation I had done to pack my gear went completely out the window because I now had to unpack it all and have every single item searched as well as have a complete x-ray type body scan. Had not had one of those yet, but, now I have. After customs, we were taken up to an area where we are to be quarantined until the flight leaves. We were now going to Germany. I had tried for the past 11-days to explain to what seemed like a million people that I needed to fly out through Germany. It was always told to me that I could not do that. Once I put my foot down in Kandahar and explained that I would remain there until the war was over if I had to until they flew me out through Germany, I never stopped pushing in that direction. I used to move passengers for a long time in this war on terrorism. I knew they could do it; they knew they should do it; I just did not know when or what kind of headache they would give me to make this happen. It was over now.

We were taken to the flight line in a bus and eventually walked up the ladder to the seating in the C-5, which had 73-open seats for 7 total passengers. That meant we all would have a nice place to sleep on the 7-hour flight to Ramstein. I was headed out of country. Before I walked up the long ladder to the C-5, I took a look from the flight line towards the south at all the mountains surrounding Bagram Air Field. It was late afternoon lighting now and it was beautiful. I wanted to take a photo but that was not allowed. I thought back to nine years ago when I knew my son Jimmy had come exactly right here to this flight line late in 2001, after the attacks on 9-11. I had determined to come to this place called Bagram then. Now, it was early October, 2010, late in the afternoon. I had set out to come to Afghanistan. I was now leaving Afghanistan and concerned about the men I knew were still in Afghanistan. Things I know were going to get worse for some of them. That thought haunts me still.

We all got seated on the plane and the crew came and talked to us. Now I have dealt with many, many C-5 crews and I can honestly say that this particular crew was exceptionally good. They were all friendly, witty, and genuinely great guys to deal with. It made me feel good. Sometimes certain air crews can be difficult. On this day, I believe I had found the nicest C-5 crew in the Air Force. I can say that, because I have dealt with many, many, many C-5 crews. I know when they are good.

The whine of the big engines started getting louder. I was waiting for the feeling of being pushed to the back of my seat as the plane roared down the runway. There are no windows to look out. It was now past twilight so couldn’t see much anyway even if there was a window. The plane lifted up and I felt like a giant bird beginning to take flight. These airplanes are huge and they are loud. But they are also a pretty good aircraft and have a long reach around the globe. I was on one, again. This would be the second time on this journey that I would be riding on a C-5. The first time was coming into Afghanistan. The last flight for me in Afghanistan was this one leaving for Germany. I had come full circle.

I took up four seats, like everyone else did, got a blanket out and a pillow and I went to sleep for the next six hours. That is how my day ended on October 2, 2010, somewhere in the sky between Afghanistan and Germany.

Jim Spiri