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.


  1. Be happy you did not run out and lick the plane. I licked an A-10 warthog at Wright Patterson air force base. I could not get the taste of petrol out of my mouth for days.

  2. Thanks for this hilarious look at military transportation.

    Marilyn McClure

  3. This made me giggle uncontrollably. Thanks for sharing!

  4. you have the most positive, hilarious attitude! I love it!