Arriving in a Combat Zone

Click here to read Part 1, in which Phil Carter gets called up, and  here to read Part 2 in which he gets outfitted to deploy.

Frantically packing my rucksack at Fort Campbell

Higher headquarters had promised us that we would not fly out until at least Oct. 5. Roger. Most of the guys in my unit made plans to fly home before departing the States; I made last-minute plans instead to spend (and I do mean spend) my last weekend in Las Vegas. But on Sept. 28, the Wednesday before our last weekend, headquarters e-mailed again: Our flight would leave Monday morning, Oct. 3, meaning we would report for duty late Sunday night. The date had danced around several times before, but this time it was different—we had a plane number and a detailed timeline for our flight. Small wonder that the informal motto of so many units is “Semper Gumby”—translation: Always flexible.

The news turned everyone’s plans for the last few days upside down. Few of us had our gear packed, figuring we would have a day or two more to get that last-minute task done. (Another favorite military maxim: If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute.) We had a quick unit huddle at 7 a.m. on Thursday, then split to the four winds to get our gear ready for the Friday luggage drop. Vegas was still on, but I had to cut the trip short to make it back on time.

I drove over to the PX and stocked up on shaving cream, razors, batteries, socks, and all those other items I wanted to have a fresh stock of. I got my hair cut too—the “high and tight” buzz that is de rigueur among soldiers in today’s Army.

Packing for war is a two parts science, one part art. We would take three bags with us—a small assault pack, a large frame backpack, and a duffel bag. The science is easy: Our unit gave us a packing list, and we had to bring at least those items. The art is in deciding where to put what and what additional gear to bring. I learned early as a lieutenant to put essential items near the outside of my pack for easy access—extra socks and ammo, for example. So, I stuffed my cold-weather gear and the extra books in my duffel bag and packed my rucksack full of those things I knew I’d need right away: a spare uniform, socks, sunglasses, desert camouflage Gore-Tex, weapons-cleaning kits, my combat sewing kit (don’t laugh—the Army’s new uniforms are notoriously prone to ripping), my backup rifle sight, and my medical kit. My rucksack had a small pocket on the inside, ostensibly for a radio, that I used for my sentimental items: the photo album of my family and friends, my leather-bound journal, and a lucky dog tag my best friend gave me before leaving.

Walking out to our aircraft at Fort Campbell 

Flying to war with the U.S. Army can go a long way toward making you appreciate the virtues and efficiencies of a civilian airline on even its worst day. All luggage had to be dropped off three days before our departure. We had to report to the Fort Campbell gym for our flights late on Sunday night *, although our planes would not leave until midmorning on Monday. We spent the next several hours going through administrative processing, drawing our weapons from the arms room, staging our gear, and waiting. A bunch of soldiers chose to pass the night sleeping on the gym floor. I couldn’t sleep—partly due to the coffee I’d consumed and partly due to my nervous energy, so I stayed up to talk and joke with soldiers and their families at the gym.

Sweating on the plane at the Kuwait City International Airport

At oh-dark-hundred * on Monday morning, the order went out to line up in formation. A military chaplain delivered an invocation he wrote for the occasion, blessing our flight and our unit for the coming endeavor. Then we lined up in alphabetical order, swiping our ID cards through a scanner to create a passenger list for the aircraft. As the sun rose over Fort Campbell on Monday morning, our flight boarded several cramped buses for the short ride from the gym to the airfield.

The first several days of our deployment dragged like a slow-burning cigarette. Our first day lasted nearly 48 hours, including a half day * of processing and waiting at Fort Campbell, a seemingly endless plane flight to Kuwait with a short refueling stop in Europe, and then several more hours of waiting and processing in Kuwait before we bedded down for the night. We spent the next several days acclimating to the desert and preparing to cross the border into Iraq. And though we did different things each day, it still felt like a surreal, sandy version of the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. Those of us who deployed with the 101st to Iraq last time said time would fly by; I rather doubted it after our first week in Kuwait.

Nearly every unit going to Iraq passes through Kuwait on the way there and back, so it’s not uncommon to run into old friends from tours gone by at the chow hall or the Internet cafe. The camps themselves look like a cross between a desert mining town and the cantina from Star Wars. They’re full of dusty concrete and aluminum buildings, heavy equipment, and tough-looking men and women walking around with weapons strapped on, along with contractors and civilians who look alien among the soldiers dominating the landscape. Outside the camp lies only a barren desert moonscape, populated sometimes by Bedouins and more frequently by oil drillers and soldiers. (We did see a goat herder with his flock on the day we went out to shoot.) The sky above was a brilliant cloudless blue, every single day without fail. As you looked closer to the horizon, however, the sky faded into light brown as it mixed with the powdery dust of the Kuwaiti air.

We lived for those first days in semipermanent tents, where we were lucky enough to get wooden floors, air conditioning, cots, and about three square meters of living space. By military standards, this was good living, although I imagined Martha Stewart would have had something to say about our Spartan accommodations. On any given day, we would wake up, eat breakfast in a massive contractor-run chow hall, train on the base or out in the desert, do some PT, then relax until it was time to go to sleep. The lethargic pace, intense sun, and searing heat combined to make our days in Kuwait pass slowly. Some nights, a group of us would sit outside the “Green Beans” stand (a faux Starbucks in an aluminum shack) drinking coffee and bullshitting to pass the time. I also read a lot, finishing Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie, a classic book about military advisers in Vietnam that I thought might illuminate my mission in this war. We waited anxiously for the “call forward” message that would finally put us on an airplane to Iraq.

Wearing the new Army Combat Uniform and carrying an M-4 rifle

Three days after arriving in Kuwait, I celebrated my 30th birthday. This was the first birthday I’d celebrated away from my close friends and family since 1998, when I was stationed in Korea. And though I missed everyone back in the States, I felt no loneliness or regrets. In my unit, the 101st Airborne Division Detachment, I had already found a new band of brothers (and a sister), and I was ready to go to war with them. So, I celebrated my 30th with them and had a pretty good time doing it; downing a can of Beck’s nonalcoholic beer at dinner, smoking a cigar afterward with one of my sergeants, and listening to the division band play ‘70s and ‘80s rock on the USO stage. Our war would start in a few days, when we would fly up into Iraq to begin our year as advisers to the Iraqi police. But for now, there was nothing to do but enjoy the music and company in the Kuwaiti moonlight.

* Certain details such as times, places, and names in this article were changed or omitted in order to maintain operational security.