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Exhausted but Home

By Michael Fumento

My route back was tortuous to say the least. I grabbed a helo from FOB Mizan to FOB Lagman, whereupon a few hours later the same helo comes back and takes me south to Kandahar Air Force Base. For some reason it seems you can fly into Kandahar from Kuwait's Ali Al Salem Air Base but you can't go in the reverse direction.

Heading home! Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
So I take a flight up north to Bagram. This turns out to be quite a surprise because nobody -- not the PAO officer at Kandahar or the people you sign up for flights with at Kandahar told me it wasn't non-stop to Bagram.

The C-130 flew a few hours then as it was landing banked as hard as I've ever felt a C-130 do so, first right then left. Then it sort of just plopped down like a flipped egg on a grill, in the hardest landing I've ever had. The other passengers, all military, expressed surprise.

This is the kind of landing wimp reporters like Time Magazine Bureau Chief Aparisim Ghosh complain they undergo at Baghdad International but don't. We all piled off, along with the cargo of two Toyota flatbeds. It was pitch dark so naturally I didn't recognize anything. Only when I got to a building where I could call my Bagram PAO contacts did I find out they couldn't pick me up for the night because -- surprise! -- I was far away at FOB Salarno, which hugs the Pakistani border.

I'll never know if the plane really continued on to Bagram, but if so I would have been the only passenger. As to Salarno, it regularly takes rocket fire and hence the pilot's combat landing.

The door gunner. Photo by Michael Fumento. Click image for larger view.
I then find out that while those great big C-130s with lots of seats will land at Salarno, they don't seem to fly out. I think they stack them up somewhere. What does fly out is tiny six-seater short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft, and you're damned lucky if you can be one of those six passengers to Bagram.

So I spend the night in the transient tent listening to one gunship after another zipping just overhead, get up at 0500, and actually manage to catch the second of the three mosquito planes to Bagram. There I got a jet C-17 to Ali Al Salem, spend the night there, grab the hour-long shuttle to the commercial airport, and fly out at 0130 the next morning.

Tough, but I'm homeward bound now right? Wrong.

The five-hour flight into Frankfurt is uneventful and I left myself plenty of time for the incredible shaking down you get at security when you take a flight from that airport to the U.S. But the flight leaves on time and I'm only eight hours from home -- or so I think. Three and a half hours out, somewhere over the Atlantic, they announce they're turning the plane around "for safety reasons."

There's a problem with the hydraulic system. But if it had been for safety reasons, they would have been required to land at the nearest airport and many were nearer than Frankfurt. We land uneventfully and it turns out the "safety" problem is merely that after landing the wheels won't allow proper steering into the gate and we have to be towed in. In other words, we could readily have gone onto to Washington Dulles except that Lufthansa's repair facility is at Frankfurt and didn't want to pay somebody else to fix their planes elsewhere no matter how much it inconveniences their passengers and how much fuel they needlessly burn. Gotta love Big Airline.

"Take that, Lufthansa!" Click image for larger view.
So we switch planes and head back out and what is supposed to be an eight-hour flight is now 14. Add the flight from Kuwait City and it's 20. Add the layover and it's 23 hours. Add the time from when I left FOB Mizan and it takes three days to get back home.

I've said it before; transportation is the worst part of any embed for a citizen embed. If you're with the MSM, they pay for you to just fly in and out of Kabul via Bahrain or Delhi. But I had to rely on my chief PAO for Afghanistan, Capt. Peter Katzfey, the one who wrongly told me my embed was in Kandahar when I later discovered on my own it was in Zabul. He also wrongly told me I needed an Afghan visa that cost $70 and two trips to the embassy.

In the final insult, he told me he would plot my route out of the country when my embed was complete. Although I e-mailed him twice while I was in-country about doing so, he did not.

The more I get to know Army PAOs, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, the less respect I have for them. They always seem to have something better to do than their jobs. I'm told the Marines take this business much more seriously and in fact the best PAO I had was Marine Maj. Megan McClung. But she's dead.

I strongly suspect (actually I know), that if I worked for the MSM -- the folks the soldiers are always complaining about to me, including on this trip -- I wouldn't receive such shabby treatment. But you have to have priorities. If you're dealing with a reporter whose organization makes a point of portraying the troops as a bunch of thugs and the Iraq war as hopeless, you give him first class treatment. Thank goodness the government of Iraq banned Al Jazeera, else the Army's PAO staff would be absorbed in kissing their feet.

If you're dealing with somebody paying out of his own pocket because of his conviction that the American people deserve the truth and aren't getting it and that the soldiers deserve an even break and aren't getting it -- you dump on him. You give him crummy assignments, such as when Lt. Col. Garver and his Combined Press Information Center tried to foist 12 days of ho-hum Tikrit on me, and then when he needs to go home you make plot his own way out of a country he's never been in that's on the wrong side of the planet.

One of many men I photographed, along with his wife. Click image for larger view.
It helps explain why there are so few citizen embeds still going to the two wars. We thought the bad guys comprised insurgents and terrorists and those in the MSM who provide them aid and comfort. We did not think it would be our own military public affairs.

Michael Fumento has paid for this trip entirely out of pocket, including roundtrip airfare to Kuwait, war insurance, and virtually all his gear. Please support him via PayPal Donate or Amazon Honor System via the logos below.

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May 1, 2007 07:30 PM  ·  Military