24 March 2011

Do I need to assign you a battle buddy?! - The Joys of Mil Air

To fly military air there is no ticket purchasing for a particular date or time, instead I must sign up 10 days ahead of when I actually want to leave the country and hope there is space on a flight.  I cross my fingers and hope for the best as my name starts out at 76 on the list.  As flights leave spaces get taken, and my name keeps moving toward the top.  My coworkers said you usually want your number to be in the teens to get on a flight.  The day before I want to make a flight I am at 36.  Not a good sign.

The day of my hopeful flight I borrow my coworker Scott’s huge hiking backpack, place it on my back (almost tip over), and then go to the PAX (passenger terminal).  I am a nervous wreck.  What if I don’t understand one of the abbreviations?  What if there isn’t room for me on the flight, and I get bumped to the next day?  What if I sit in the wrong seat, or follow the wrong procedure? 
The huge backpack, dwarfed only by the huge pig

I sit on the backpack while in line outside and a lady takes our CACs (military ID cards).  As I wait I eat a chicken sandwich.  I had been warned that it can take about 4 hours to physically get on the flight, and you can’t leave the building so fueling beforehand is imperative.  The woman comes back out and calls for a particular unit that was going on leave, and they file past us.  Then we get the call to get in the security line.  Ummm, guess this means I got on the flight?

I then enter a hard structure that literally the ceiling and parts of doorways and walls are crumbling, not exactly JFK or London Heathrow.  I hear though that KAF is the busiest single runway in the world.  At security there is no need to separate your liquids or take your laptop out of its bag.  Just throw your guns, knives, body armor and helmet on the belt, walk on through, ignore the metal detector going off, and pick up all your weapons on the other side.  My sister got her nail scissors confiscated at an airport, and the guy in front of me just picked up his 9mm gun.  This flight is going to be a little different.

I walk upstairs and hang out in one of the waiting areas.  There are a few tvs and some port-o-johns outside, no Starbucks, airport shops, or free wifi.  I wait around then they start calling out last fours (the last four of your social security number) and return our CACs.  I spot a soldier who frequents our center, and immediately I decompress.  It is as if his mere presence will ensure my safe travel to Kuwait.  Next thing I know they do an all call (basically scream get in line and on the plane).  We all suit up with our IBA (individualized body armor aka flak jacket aka bullet proof vest) and helmet, and stand in line.  I am sporting some jeans, a tshirt, camo ballet flats, a massive flak jacket with a colorful African purse strewn across it, and I’m holding my helmet.  I can just see the stares of the military on my flight thinking, what in the hell is she doing here?

While we are standing on the flight line the sound of airplanes roaring past is absolutely deafening.  We literally have to stop walking at one point to let an airplane taxi by us.  I could have run out and licked it.  The back of our plane is opened up like a toddler sticking its tongue out.  We walk single file up the ramp, and I sit in a jump seat.  In the plane the jump seats are on the side.  They have sort of a seatbelt-like bottom, and the back is simply a pad attached to the side of the plane.  These are surprisingly more comfortable than the traditional airplane seats that are shoved incredibly close together on palettes in the middle of the aircraft.  In the jump seats you get as much leg room as you could possibly want.  Behind the traditional airplane seats are pallets with all our luggage Saran wrapped on top of them.  On my way back there were Conex boxes (the big containers trains pull) in the middle of the plane instead of airplane seats.  An airman walks by and passes out ear plugs and mumbles some safety features as I intently gaze at all the exposed wiring above my head.  Then, we’re off!  There are no windows inside, so you can’t judge the progress but we accelerate extremely fast and break into the air.  I try to push out of my head the reasoning for the incredibly sudden ascent.  I just hold on so I don’t smash into the soldier to my right.  On most commercial flights I can’t sleep, but with the loud humming of the engine and seeing all the soldiers relax and drift to sleep, I fall asleep as well.  Four hours later I’m in Kuwait.

After following instruction for civilians and having two soldiers help me back into my over-sized backpack, I was on my way to the USO at Kuwait.  I stayed for a day and then hopped onto my commercial flight to Africa.

Now being a veteran mil air-er, I thought I had it down pat for my way back.  I got a whopping 3 hours of sleep after my flight from Africa, and then I grabbed some coffee and walked to the PAX on base in Kuwait.  Once I got there I realized I had completely forgotten my IBA.  You can’t fly without it, not to mention I can’t lose it in Kuwait.  What if I need it back in Afghanistan? (Let’s all hope not!)  I check in at the front desk and tell the guy I forgot my IBA back at the USO.  He tells me that after you check in for your showtime you are on lock-down and aren’t allowed to leave.  Well crap, my showtime is in 10 minutes.  He tells me I can throw my bag on these wooden shelves and go get my IBA.  Apparently the military does not have the ‘don’t leave your luggage unattended’ rule.  I rush back to the USO, and we try to get into the Conex box where my IBA is stored.  The lock is jammed.  I tell Randy, fellow USO-er in Kuwait, to just ask a soldier in the center to bring it to me at the PAX when she gets the lock figured out.  I then take off back to the PAX.  I make it just in time and find out I’m on the flight.  Phew.  It’s all good.

A couple minutes later Randy shows up with my IBA, and we chat it up.  Then I sit down on some chairs next to about 50 or 60 soldiers and start to enjoy my now lukewarm coffee when a Sergeant Major yells out, “SARAH KEMP, SARAH KEMP!”  I meekly raise my hand.  Everyone is now staring.  He comes over to me, “Do you have a bag to palletize?”  “Yes sir.”  “Well show me to it.”  We grab my bag and while walking he says, “Did you not hear me when I called for everyone on Moose 83 to come palletize their bags?”  (Every flight has a call sign, ours was Moose 83).  I reply, no sir.  He says, “Yep, I figured you were too busy chatting with your little friend, but I thought I’d let you make your own mistake.”

We walk out and I throw my bag on the pallet while a contractor asks if I am Sarah Kemp.  I say yes.  He then verbally assaults me/explains to me that I need to listen to all instruction.  I'm brusquely informed that our next call time is noon, but it might be before that so I need to pay attention.  Then as we’re walking back the Sergeant Major (SGM) says, “We need to know where you are at all times, so even if you need to take a piss you need to let someone know you’re going to the latrine.”  Wow, got it.  I haven’t had to report my bathroom breaks since getting a hall pass in high school. 

We’re back in the terminal hanging around and I realize, I’m nervous.  I have to pee.  Maybe I can hold it…or maybe not, it is a 4 hour flight.  I walk over to the SGM and tap him on the shoulder.  He angrily turns around, then sees it me and smiles and says, “yessssss?”  I ask him may I please use the restroom?  And his quick and loud response is, “SARAH KEMP DO I NEED TO ASSIGN YOU A BATTLE BUDDY?!?!”  “NO SIR!”  I reply.  He tells me where the bathroom is, and I scurry off.  While outside in route to the bathroom two soldiers who apparently had witnessed the earlier incidents yell after me, “Did you tell someone you were taking a piss?”  and start busting out in laughter.  Yep, that’s me; I provide entertainment for the troops wherever I go. 

I return to the terminal, tell the SGM I’m back, and patiently wait.  An airman gets up and announces something like BEAR63, flight to Bagram, is now leaving.  I shrug it off knowing that it is not my intended destination nor my call sign when I hear SGM yell, “SARAH KEMP, THAT IS NOT YOUR FLIGHT.”  I break out in laughter along with about 20 soldiers who are within earshot, and I yell loudly back, “YES SIR, UNDERSTOOD SIR.” 

Eventually they call out my flight’s call sign, and we file on the plane.  I look down my row and see the SGM.  I give a huge thumbs up and scream, “I’m on the plane, sir!”  He just shakes his head and laughs.  It was an uneventful flight back, until we landed.  They don’t let us off the flight, so we sit on the airplane for approximately 45 minutes.  Then they open the back of the plane, and we can see the rain pouring down.  I don’t have a hood on.  We are told to exit the plane.  We walk through the rain to a school bus that is parked in the middle of the flight line.  The bus is already packed with soldiers who are going to get on our plane to fly back to Kuwait.  Everyone has their IBA on, and most soldiers have backpacks.  The bus is stuffed, to put it lightly.  This is where being a girl comes in handy, I get offered a seat, and collapse.  It is now 2000 and my last meal was a coffee and half a muffin at 1000.  This makes for a not very pleasant Sarah.  I distract myself by asking the soldier next to me about the reasons of his numerous tattoos (most explanations of course involved copious amounts of alcohol and friends with tattoo guns, or women’s names who he never wanted to speak of again, yet they are forever engraved on his neck).

We sit on the bus for no joke, 2 hours.  Finally they let the soldiers who are getting on our flight off.  They file out then we make way for the PAX.  Once at the PAX we get off the bus and sort through the pallets in the rain looking for our luggage.  Inside we give our CACs to the airmen to make sure we belong there, and finally are released.

I make eye contact with the SGM in the holding area and he says, “Do you have a ride SARAH KEMP?”  Oh how nice, I’m touched by his concern.  I answer, “Yes sir, but thank you.” 

“Thank you for what?  I wasn’t offering you a ride.  I was just asking if you had one.” 

Oh the joys of mil air.

19 March 2011

Tomorrow's Plan

I know this woman who thrives on today’s action and tomorrow’s plan.  Every action from small things like what’s for dinner to big events like parties and vacations must be planned.  Days are spent participating in these activities all the while worrying about what’s next.

When do you stop planning for happy and just live it?

Her conversations are full of well when this happens then we can that.  How many of these responsibilities are just excuses disguised as when/then clauses?  How many 3 year plans will it take to love the life you’re currently living?

“I’m afraid I’m booked solid through the end of the month,” says the executive, voluptuously nestling the phone at his cheek as he thumbs the leaves of his appointment calendar, and his mouth and eyes at that moment betray a sense of deep security.  The crisp, plentiful, day-sized pages before him prove that nothing unforeseen, no calamity of chance or fate can overtake him between now and the end of the month.  Ruin and pestilence have been held at bay, and death itself will have to wait, he is booked solid.
-Richard Yates, Revolutionary Road

14 March 2011

Here I Am

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  It’s a line from a Tale of Two Cities written way back in 1859, but I still feel like it accurately portrays my life right now.  (Trite, overplayed, right?  That’s what you’re thinking right now?  Well the only other opening I had was going to be something about the Circle of Life, so be glad I spared you the Mufasa references).

I was working a few nights ago and a friend of mine who is also a soldier from Daren’s company came in pretty shaken up, another soldier in their company had died.  I felt so bad for him, and I just hugged him.  As weird as it sounds, I felt useful again.  I was the strong one who got to be the shoulder to cry on.  I got to be there for him just like he and so many others had been there for me.  He said the ramp ceremony would be that evening and I immediately answered, I’ll go. 

Only two weeks after Daren’s death, but I wanted to be there for his men.  I just knew it was the right thing to do.  So, Cindy (my coworker), me, and two of the soldiers went to the ramp.  I stood there in the same place that I had stood just two weeks prior, taking it all in, seeing soldiers with that same patch, seeing the general again, it was all such a familiar sight.  But this time it was different, I didn’t feel that sense of dread.  I knew who would be in that box.  There was no unknown this time.  As I stood there recalling every sight and sound from the night of Daren’s ramp, I realized it could never be that bad again.  A ramp will never break me again like it did that night.  Once you have experienced the worst hurt, you can survive anything.  As I stood there honoring another fallen soldier I said a prayer for his wife, child, family and friends.  This time instead of just feeling bad for them for a few moments and then moving on with my life, I could feel for them in a completely deeper way.  I could understand where their pain was coming from and I dreaded for them what they would have to go through.  I’ve been there now.

The very next evening at work I got to watch an Airman go through the nervous, excited, grueling, 24 hour ordeal of his wife giving birth to their first baby.  My coworkers had set up Skype for him in our office and he naively thought his wife would get induced and he’d watch the baby just pop out a couple hours later.  I tried to warn him days before that it would take a long ass time (he asked me to define long ass, I said oh no shorter than 12 hours), but he didn’t believe me.  (We see who won that bet).  It was amazing to witness his tears and shouts and just the human emotion of seeing something he created come into this world.  Then he waved us over to the computer and introduced us to his beautiful healthy baby girl and her glowing mother.

In 24 hours I had seen death and life.  Nothing can prepare you for that.

When I talked to my friend in Daren’s company I told him how I hated this one particular pic of Daren because he wasn’t smiling and looked so serious, but obviously it had been recent because he had his 1st LT bar.  His response was, oh yeah that’s his death picture, we all just got ours recently retaken.  What?!?!  Death pictures?  I mean one second I’m talking to an airman about the birth of his baby and the next I’m talking to a soldier about death pictures.  They definitely did not put this in the job description… but even if they did, how would you prepare?

As I thought about that lil baby girl, I thought maybe God thought the world just needed more room.  It dawned on me, maybe Daren wasn’t TAKEN, but he was CHOSEN.  That small seemingly inconsequential verb change made all the difference in my understanding.   He chose him because he knew the answer, if he was needed, Daren would go.  We all knew if God had asked him to sacrifice his life, he would’ve said yes.  He did.  In a nation where only 1.5% of our population is serving in the military and two wars were raging, Daren chose infantry, the front lines.  I used to hate the insanely overplayed church song, Here I Am.  Now I find it appropriate and comforting.  

Whom shall I send?  Here I am Lord, is it I Lord?  I have heard you calling in the night.  I will go Lord, if you lead me.  I will hold your people in my heart. –song by Dan Schutte

I just have to keep going and trust in God that there is a plan for my life and the lives of everyone I meet.  It’s really hard sometimes, but there is beauty in the world and we just have to keep searching for it.

Photo of me my boss took a couple days ago after closing down the center for the night.

 Lyrics to another favorite church song of mine that I can't get out of my head:

I am the Word that leads all to freedom
I am the peace the world cannot give
I will call your name, embracing all your pain
Stand up, now, walk, and live

Do not be afraid, I am with you
I have called you each by name
Come and follow Me
I will bring you home
I love you and you are mine

-You Are Mine by David Haas

07 March 2011

This is why we do it; this is worth the pain. Love is this.

I’ve always heard that grief has stages. Something about denial, anger, acceptance and some other ones thrown in there.  Well, in my personal opinion that’s a load of crap crafted by someone who likes to sort their sock drawer by color, height and approximate elasticity.  Grief doesn’t package itself in pretty boxes that you unwrap one at a time.  It’s like a needy, irritable child.  Some days it is easily abated.  It will just lie still in the back recesses of my mind making itself busy stirring up warm memories.  Then there are days like today where it pulls at my pant leg and demands my attention while screaming at my subconscious.

On the “good days” like this Sunday, I feel a sense of calm, peace and joy, that I got to know Daren for as long as I did and created as many happy memories as I have.  I can recollect those memories with a warm feeling in my heart and a smile on my face.  Then there’s days like today where every soldier that walks through our center doors with Daren’s unit patch on makes me want for the next one to be him.  I think of all the experiences he will miss out on by dieing so young and I get LIVID pissed. 

A friend of mine out here told me that God gets it.  It’s okay to yell at him and be mad at him one second and thank him for all your blessings the next.  God has wrath, look at what he did to the world in ol’ Noah’s day.  God had feelings, just read the scripture where after Lazarus died he felt so bad for his family it says, “He wept.”  Not he teared up, or he cried, he wept.  So basically God can give me a lil leeway on the whole hot mess situation with how I feel about Him these days.

The other day I came home from work tired and spent and my roommates were getting up to go to work.  I had my cell phone flashlight on to see in the dark room I share with 4 other ladies when my one roommate popped out of her area.  I just started flashing the light like a strobe at a rave and broke out some ‘hot’ dance moves.  Her response was, “You’re an idiot” while laughing the whole time.  I loved seeing her laugh.  It made my night.  It all started to make sense, I get why Daren was the way he was, damn it feels good to make other people happy.  In that way, in my goofy, sometimes “schtupid” lighthearted fun way, that’s how I’ll honor him. 

I am utterly amazed at the sheer number of people who have read my post about Daren.  I am filled with a sense of humbling awe at the responses people have written me.  I sincerely thank every single person who has taken a moment to read my post.  I did what felt right.  I wrote what I wanted the world to know.  It has helped me tremendously to see the good in the bad.  My friend Beth said in an e-mail, “Daren’s death has changed you… God brought him into your life not to F you up with grief but to push you in the right direction that was meant for your life.” 

While at this point I still disagree with the big man upstairs and think that I could have learned more from Daren’s continued life here on earth than from his death, I know it is out of my hands.  I’m not supposed to understand it all.  The Man has got a plan and I need to trust in it.  My friend Lindsey said, just think Daren will be up there on “Team Sarah” cheering you every step of the way.  I like to think of him that way, watching down over all of us, color commentating our lives.  It’d be hysterical.  I love to picture Daren in the line of the Brad Paisley song, “But when I get where I’m going, and I see my Maker’s face.  I’ll stand forever in the light of His amazing grace.”

A friend asked me if I had wished I didn’t know Daren that well, that wouldn’t that make it easier.  Absolutely not.  Knowing Daren was a gift, one that I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Another one of Daren’s friends, Sarah Brahm, had posted the song This=Love on a memorial site for Daren.  I think it’s just the perfect song to remind me of Daren and his love for our country, our freedom and us.  He died for us and for that we can never repay him, but you know what, I know he would have never asked us to.

I remember always liking his “about me” section on his Facebook.  It’s one line. 

- About Daren: is alive and loving it. -

He did.

First Lieutenant Daren Miguel Hidalgo was laid to rest today 7MAR11 at West Point Cemetery.  His 25th birthday was Friday.  They sang Happy Birthday to him at his funeral.