Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Who would stamp my passport in Baghdad?

When I met Terri in JFK Airport, the first thing I asked her was how my mascots, Fenis, Tanner, Punisher and kitty Simsim were doing. I wanted the most recent news and any backstory that Terri could give me about them. Her answer surprised me. She informed me that I was not bringing these four home at all but I'd be bringing Anthrax, Typhoid and Julian with me. I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly. How would I get through U.S. customs with anything called Anthrax or Typhoid, even it they were just puppies? Then seeing the devilish grin on her face I realized she wasn't joking.

Our trip from the Kuwait airport to our hotel was uneventful. I was more comfortable inside the car than I had been out in the sandstorm. I was also looking forward to seeing what the city looked like but couldn't see my surroundings as the sandstorm continued. We were more worried about whether the wind would subside in time for our flight to Baghdad that night. I kept my mind off of the concern by listening to Terri catch up with our driver. She knew someone in every place we stopped at each point along the way -- from flight attendants on all the airlines, gate agents, baggage handlers and now our hotel shuttle driver. They all seemed just as eager to share news with their friend that they see every week or so.

We arrived at our hotel, checked in and Terri introduced Charlene and me to several hotel staffers she knows. I wasn't terribly tired from traveling, which surprised me, but I also knew it had gotten to be about 4:00 AM local time. It seemed like we should be asleep. It took another hour or so to settle in and by then I was ready to hit the rack. Sadly Terri delivered the news we could only sleep for about four hours since the paperwork for the mascots would take three to four hours to complete. I wanted to help save these mascots, really I did, but I also love my sleep. Going without it leaves me cranky and whiny. I did my best to be a trooper. After all I was the newbie onboard with this mission to rescue these animals for our boys and girls in the military. I tucked myself in and tried to sleep.

I was jolted awake feeling like I had slept just minutes only to find out that we all had overslept -- by four hours -- it was already noon in Kuwait. We'd have to rush through the paperwork, careful to complete it all and make no mistakes or jeopardize these puppies getting to their new homes in the U.S. We needed to leave for the airport soon in preparation to head to Baghdad.

As I packed up my things, (Why had I brought an entire suitcase anyway? I'd be heading home in just about 8 hours or so.) Terri scurried to get all the necessary forms ready. She then casually commented that, indeed, she would be accompanying me to Baghdad on the flight that night. I was momentarily stunned. Was there ever a question she'd be going with me? Apparently there had been, but she had gotten clearance from the private charter company to go along with me and show me the ropes -- the next time I'd go to Baghdad by myself. I was grateful and decided not to think what it would be like or how the mission would go were I to have gone by myself. Terri has an uncanny ability to smooth things over and overcome obstacles that had proven useful on almost every mission she'd been on. I wasn't sure I'd be able to produce the same results. Fortunately, we didn't need to find out on this trip.

Finally, Terri and I left for the Kuwait airport at about 3:00 PM. Charlene would stay behind with her cell phone and Terri's computer, should anything unexpected arise. I wasn't sure why we were leaving so early for a 7:00 PM flight, but we were going to Baghdad. I didn't ask questions. I focused on where we were going and worried more that I wasn't worried. Terri's daughter had made the trip several times. I felt if Terri would bring her own daughter along, then surely I had nothing to worry about. It wasn't until we got to the airport and I saw the lineup of civilian contractors, that it really hit me where I was headed -- these guys (I don't recall seeing any females in the group) were mostly paramilitary types, wearing their khaki 5-11's and sporting their high and tights, even though they didn't have to. I'm pretty sure it's in their blood to do so.

Boarding the charter was not unlike boarding a domestic flight. We all settled on board for the flight to Baghdad which would take about an hour. The next moment that caused me pause was when I learned we'd fly into Baghdad blacked out -- no lights whatsoever. Looking out the cabin window, I didn't even see the typical flashing beacon at the end of the airplane's wing. It finally hit me -- I was going to Baghdad -- and to get there, I'd likely be flying over dangerous enemy territory. I didn't ask any questions. I thought about it only briefly. I wondered for a brief moment if I was crazy. Then I thought about our soldiers who face the enemy every single day. I put my concerns aside. If they could do it for months, sometimes years at a time, I could do it for an hour. We were to land in Baghdad in just a few more minutes. I wondered if we had to fly in blacked out, what other surprises awaited me?

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