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Goin' Home, with a Parting Shot at Military Contractors

By Michael Fumento

As I noted in my fifth Iraq blog, for all the talk of IEDs, snipers, and ambushes the really scary thing around here is the nightmare of being in transit from anywhere to anywhere else. Michael Yon, who more or less does this sort of thing for a living and has just begun blogging from Afghanistan, read Blog Five and commiserated with me by e-mail. So there would be another nightmare on the way out -- and then some. The small landing zone at Corregidor was easily reached, my Marine Chinook came in well before midnight for a change, and it was off to a major airbase at Al Taqaddum airbase. This allowed me to skip flying back into the Green Zone. Yeah!

After a few hours our C-130 arrived and we watched it being unloaded. It was actually rather fascinating, as bundled equipment would slide down the back "door" which also acts as a ramp and into the waiting arms of an incredibly dexterous receiving machine which grabbed it and immediately took off at high speed to deliver it. After a short period, we were able to board for about a two-hour flight to the huge Kuwaiti air base, Ali al Salem. Once again, by the time I got in it was past four and I was exhausted. Naturally my temporary tent was the farthest away, and while the officers I came with had a golf cart waiting to carry their equipment I had to lug my considerable stuff while taking several breaks along the way. But joy of joys, the next morning I was to fly out of the commercial airport and go home.

Not.

I awoke at four and showered and went to get my ticket for the earliest shuttle of the day, the 5:30 one. I was tempted to leave half of my ponderous equipment right there in the Kuwaiti desert but I managed to get it all to the shuttle stop by 5:15. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. Few things in the military are on time, so I wasn't particularly alarmed. But finally when a shuttle came at 6:30 and it wasn't mine I hit the worry button. I went back to where the tickets are issued (And what's with this ticket stuff anyway?) only to have them radio the shuttle driver who claimed he came by at 5:29. In short, he lied. Either he came and left way early or he never came at all. One way or another, I was screwed. The next shuttle for the airport wouldn't leave until 9:30 and arrive at the airport right about when my plane would be taking off. Taxis aren't allowed at Ali al Salem for security reasons and there was simply no way to get a ride with somebody.

There was nothing to do but catch that later shuttle and go to the American Airlines office at the airport to get a reissue. There is no American Airlines office at the airport. But I was able to call them from there. I was prepared to pay a fee but was shocked to find my ticket had become worthless. They wanted to sell me a whole new ticket, one way, at the same price as the round-trip ticket I had been issued. Did it say anywhere on my ticket restrictions that this would be the case? No, it simply said the ticket was non-transferable. Well, I wasn't trying to transfer it; I was trying to get a reissue. I've never heard of any such thing.

AA told me "Everybody does it that way." Wrong. But they did hold out that if I came all the way down to the downtown office that perhaps something could be worked out. So I grabbed what turned out to be the dumbest taxi driver in all of Kuwait. No, it wasn't just a language barrier. I had English instructions to the AA office that showed it was about a block from a major hotel and he repeatedly showed it to bilingual Arabic-English speakers along the way but he never did get it. Finally I spied the office and got out, whereupon he demanded extra payment for driving me around for an hour on a 20-minute trip! I don't think so. Then I walked into the AA office and was simply told what I was told on the phone. The trip was for nothing.

Note to self: Next time I'm trying to buy a ticket, pretend American Airlines doesn't exist. It shouldn't.

Thence another cab to the hotel where I had stayed during my way into Iraq and a walk to the nearest travel agency, which was able to get me a trip back for about $1,000. This brought the entire cost of my trip -- all out of pocket -- up to $4,000. I hope my wife enjoyed our summer vacation, because that was it.

But let's go back to The Shuttle that Never Came. I can be really paranoid and assume that this is the first time the shuttle driver ever did this. But I doubt it. I suspect he does it a lot and that a lot of soldiers miss their planes out of Kuwait International; they just don't have a forum to tell anybody about it. In their case, the military picks up the cost of a flight but they still have to stay a day later than they're supposed to -- which I can attest really hurts. Or they miss a day of leave -- perhaps emergency leave. "Oh, Sergeant Jones, if you'd only come a day earlier! Your poor mother was calling for you right before she died!"

In short, our troops are being screwed and while I complained most forcefully to my contact in Kuwait, I'm sure nothing will be done. Fact is, the only people we can say are clearly winning in this war are the contractors. I wish I had made a point of writing down comments about them, but troops constantly complained to me about huge amounts of money handed to contractors who don't deliver or who insist the amount they originally agreed upon wasn't enough and instead of being told to fulfill their contracts anyway, the Defense Department simply throws more money at them. I've read a number of such stories in the papers; but now I've seen them in person.

Yes, I know all conflicts have war profiteers -- unscrupulous individuals and companies that take advantage of the "fog of war" to rip off their own countries and incidentally hurt the war effort. But we are vastly more dependent on contractors in this war than any previous one, when we had soldiers doing these jobs. Nor does a long history of war profiteering mean we should continence it. I think too often we allow contractors to not do their jobs because they claim they had to spend extra money on security. I think they're just keeping it. Instead of the money going to schools and hospitals and providing proper services to the troops, it goes right into bigwig pockets.

Nor is it just a matter of morale or some such. In a guerrilla war, building a school or hospital or laying electrical lines or providing flowing potable water can be far more important than killing bad guys. To the extent these projects are not completed -- and vast numbers are not -- it's threatening the war effort. These people are scum and may as well be working for bin Laden. If they violate their contracts, force them to comply -- don't reward them. If they can't comply, jail them. They're traitors. From what I've seen, this war can still go either way depending on the willingness of the American public to stick it out. From what I saw can still go either way. Everybody likes to target Cindy Sheehan -- as indeed I have -- but really she's just an idiot voice crying in the wilderness trying to cling to 15 minutes of fame that expired long ago. It's contractors and those who refuse to hold them accountable who have the ability to make or break this war.

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April 26, 2006 08:56 PM  ·  Iraq