We landed in Oman in the dark of early morning, and I mean DARK. There were NO LIGHTS. No runway lights, no truck lights, no city glowing in the distance, absolutely nothing. High above, the stars were brighter than I've ever seen them before or since. It was absolute blackness. A few minutes later some trucks pulled up and I recognized some of my Pope buddies, I was incredibly relieved. After a brief reunion we climbed into their truck on our way to billeting. In Oman, the Units were assigned a new unit designation. Here, they were the 1660th and the 1676th TASP (Tactical Airlift Squadron Provisional). I'm not sure if that was both units (Pope and Yakota) or just the flying squadron that made the cool signs and patches. It didn't matter at the time.
It was a crazy truck ride across the base, because I couldn't see the road or any signs. All I saw was sand, but the driver kept making turns so obviously he was seeing something I wasn't. As far as I could tell we were the only source of light for a hundred miles. Suddenly we stopped at a gate and were flooded with light. The guards shown the light long enough to identify us, then we were plunged back into darkness. Around the next turn I began to make out the outline of Tent City.
Were taken to an empty tent to crash until morning. Then we'd get our regular tent assignment and in-processed.
Second piece of advise: When entering a war zone: ALWAYS carry a flashlight.
The Toilets and Showers
I knew I was in trouble when they started giving me directions to the latrines like it was an all day trip: when you see this turn right, over there a left, etc... It was dark besides. Luckily Ratley had a flashlight in his toolbox and we made it without too much trouble. But it was a serious hike. It was probably 150 to 200 yards to the latrines from my tent.
Sidebar - my buddy Rockett (1LT. Jim Rockett, Transportation) would always announce, "Let Us Partake in a Urination" before departing for the latrines. It was a pretty funny routine, and it made the walk seem shorter when you had someone to talk to along the march.
The latrines themselves were a pretty remarkable piece of ingenuity. Not because they were well made, but because of what they had been made from - Plywood and toilet seats. I think there were six tents, five male and one female. When you walked in, there were two tent flaps, an inner and an outer. The stench when opening the outer flap told you that you were in the right place. Once inside (the men's lav) there were two sets of six seats and a trough to be used as a urinal. Plastic toilet seats were mounted on these huge lined boxes. You pulled a little handle and the toilet base opened and deposited into the large box below. This kept most of the fumes contained. There were no curtains in front of the toilets though, so there was no privacy while seated. It was pretty awkward to walk in and see someone doing their business, but I guess the Europeans have been doing it that way for centuries. Rich (2LT. Rich Freewalt, Civil Engineering) explained to me that curtains were prohibited for health reasons. He said air needed to be circulated due to the poor hygiene conditions. BUT I discovered the last latrine tent (closest to CE) had curtains, and that was the one I used. Each morning an Omani crew would come in and empty the boxes with these huge sewage trucks. As they worked, a horrible smell would drift across tent city. It was awful.
The funny part was the height of the urinal trough. I guess it was installed too high for the shorter people, so someone created a step stool. As Jim Rockett explains, "It was called 'My Little Buddy's Helper.' I know this to be true since I invented it! I came up with the idea after watching my poor vertically challenged tentmate Maj. Rex Rogers struggle to 'partake in the Urination Process' with me. After several complaints to CE, and after hearing enough whining from Rich on why it had to be that height (please note here that the latrine closest to CE's tents was the only latrine with a normal height trough), I took it upon myself to create this masterpiece. Note also that the jealous Urinal Police of the CE squadron removed it twice (with me hammering it back each time) until they finally tossed it out for good, and lowered the trough somewhat (theirs was still lower!) It's the little victories that sometimes win wars. "
Behind the toilet tents were the shower tents. There were six sinks and eight or ten showers. You walked down the center isle until you found an empty stall. There were two showers per stall, but usually you had the stall to yourself. The hot water didn't last long so showers were short. We were directed to turn on the water to get wet, turn it off to lather, then turn it back on to rinse. My buddy Brad has a hilarious story he tells of what a friend saw one day in the shower. He sings it to the tune of Soul to Soul. When you see him, don't forget ask him. The waste from the showers was collected in a pond further behind the shower tents and allowed to evaporate naturally. It kind of looked like an oasis scene with long grass growing in the middle of nowhere. I preferred the last stall very late at night, there was always plenty of hot water and I liked the privacy.
The next morning after my arrival, I met more friends and was assigned to a tent with Captain Phillip "The Preacher" Ashby (Aircraft Maintenance Supervisor). One of my favorite bosses from Pope. He'd gathered some wood and built himself quite a little suite in his tent: complete with shelves, drawers, and a loft. Others had not been so extravagant, but did build comfortable beds or shelves. Daddy Ashby, as I called him, managed to scrounge me up some shelves for my clothing. They'd even managed a wooden door on the tent, but the latch never really worked and the door was constantly flying open.
Our tents were definitely designed for the heat of the desert. They were light tan and had two layers for insulation. A giant tube ran down the center through which cool air was pumped from a central air-conditioner. The air-conditioner fed six tents and was powered by a diesel generator and a balloon bag holding 50 gallons of diesel fuel. After few days I got used to the noise of the thing and it didn't bother me. Of course it was still awfully hot at midday, but quite comfortable the rest of the time. During the day I'd hang a hammock outside.
We'd load the cooling tube with soda cans and boxed milk to keep them cold. [The boxed milk is now available here in the US as the brand Parmalat Long Life Milk. I definitely recommend it for camping] Then at night we'd have a stash for card games and what not. We were pretty well off.
Besides the living tents, the latrine tents and the shower tents, there was a TV tent, a Movie tent, a bar tent (alcohol is okay is Oman), a postal tent, and a general store tent run by the Omani's. They had the best Persian Gulf T-shirts there. Every week they'd show-up with a new shirt design or trinket, and every week the packages would start their trip back to the states. The shirt I have says "Hard Rock Cafe - Baghdad, Closed due to strong Desert Storm."
There wasn't a barber tent, but several troopers started a side business doing hair cuts. I don't remember who, but I do remember getting a combat-cut that wasn't too awful.
There were stories of scorpions, sand spiders, and other desert annoyances, but they were all cleared out long before I got there. Even the pets in cages had died before I got there.
The military provided just about everything we needed, except laundry facilities. The stories of what people did to wash they're clothing are almost endless. I know people who showered with their cloths on and I watched Daddy Ashby clean his uniforms in a mop bucket with a case of Evian bottled water. Luckily for me, I arrived just as Rich got the laundry facility working.
It was simple a metal box and an agitator, but as far as the troops were concerned, he might as well have invented electricity. Everyone was very happy. You put your dirty clothing and soap in and let it agitate for ten minutes. Then you moved it to the rinse tub. After twisting to get it mostly dry we'd hang our cloths out in the sunshine.
Speaking of electricity I should mention that a string of lights hung down the center of the tents for illumination. Several people had brought extension cords and connected them off the main line so they could have reading lamps, tape players, and fans. Bring one the next time you go to war.
The Omani Officer's Club
Our base was located at the empty end of an active Omani Air Base. Which meant that just over the hill were all the Omani facilities, including an officers club. Since we were officers, Rich, Rockett, and I would occasionally head over for a Gin and Tonic, a hamburger, or just a dip in the pool. Mostly we went for the billiards and table tennis. And of course it was great to visit real bathroom.
They had the most interesting golf course too. Obviously the course was one giant sand trap, so you carried a piece of artificial turf with you. I don't play, but everyone told me it was a lot of fun. Until the wind blew the carpet away.
The Chow Hall
Mostly, we ate at the chow hall. Michelle "Neon Dion" (1LT. Dion) was in purchasing at Pope and in the Gulf her duties included shopping in the local towns for the troops. That meant we'd get Coca Cola, Tobasco sauce, Kit Kat bars or whatever the markets had. Everyday they'd make combat rations and we'd be surprised by something special: salad was always my favorite. Since I don't each fish, I was left with MRE's on fish days.
I heard of contests for creative cooking using MRE components, but I never saw anything that creative. I was just happy that there was lots of milk and cereal. I was introduced to Ultra High Pasteurized milk in the Gulf. It's a process that allows you to store unopened milk without refrigeration. It looses a little flavor, but is well worth it for milk and cookies at midnight when there isn't a refrigerator for miles.
The MailOne of the most important things in the Gulf was the mail. Everyone looked forward to care packages from home. Candy, magazines, home moves, even newspapers were great to receive. Just like in the TV show M*A*S*H, everyone shared the news and gifts. I can remember a crumbled cake, Rich's M&M's and some swimsuit magazines. Supposedly the mail was being screened for pornography, because the host countries banned it, but I saw a few issues of "Easyrider" and "Penthouse" floating around.
The other half of the story was that mail home was free. I wrote to everyone I knew. I figured even if I didn't tell them anything new, at least they'd get a souvenir from the was to show their friends. I bought special stationary (See Intro Page) just to make it seem more official. Dad still has one hanging in his office. Other people sent home rolls of film, sand, T-shirts, prayer rugs, and anything else you can imagine.
Everyone was trying to make the best of the situation, but were tired of being away from their families. For weeks whenever anyone would ask when the fighting was going to start the commanders said "Two weeks", after a few months it became a joke.
To keep moral up, there were several TVs and VCRs throughout tent city. Every night we could watch CNN in the TV tent, a scheduled video in the MWR tent, or a movie on the big screen in a hangar. Several movie studios even donated movies that were just being released in the states. My favorite though was the classified combat footage from the previous days missions. I'm sure many of you saw the same film clips a few weeks later on CNN.
Some really dedicated people joined an aerobics program in the morning or jogged around the base. The women were directed to cover-up when jogging but the locals were still upset by what they saw.
Home movies were also very popular. Everyone was overjoyed to share they're videos from home. The tapes were suppose to be screened, since pornography was so prohibited, but surprises did pop up occasionally. One of my troops got a tape from home of his daughter's birthday party, 45 minutes into the tape, the scene switched to the bedroom of his wife and neighbor doing the mattress dance. After a couple of minutes of intense action, she looked into the camera and announced she was divorcing him. Surprise!
I saw so many movies I lost track. The only movie I clearly remember is that awful Steven King movie with the Clown/ Giant Spider, "IT". That and watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail 4 times in a row.
Mostly I spent my time with Rich and Rockett playing Milli Bornes. It's a French car racing game played with cards. We'd eat Rich's M&Ms and talk with these outrageous French accents. We made it into a full contact sport.
Speaking of Rockett, Jim broke his ankle jumping out of the back of a pick-up truck. His war wound story got more and more incredible everyday. One version I heard him tell involved wrestling with Saddam Hussain.
Rockett sent me this note recently: Oh by the way, I was wounded while single handedly defending the base against a "mass Iraqi terrorist attack," not "jumping out of a truck". My sacrifice saved thousands of lives, and to this day the man has not recognized me for my courage under heavy fire that day. Even Schwarzkopf wouldn't mention all the help I was to him in his lousy little book! The 'Hail Mary' idea was mine damn it! Anyway, I guess too many high ranking people would have lost their jobs if the TRUE story had gotten out about the base's poor defenses. Still, I do it for my country, not the fame. This is the story I am sticking with.
Work, work, work
My job, as an aircraft maintenance officer, was to ensure that the planes were maintained properly. That included supervising the repairs and inspections, ensuring that the technicians has the tools and supplies they needed, and managing the people and equipment to meet the schedule. Since Pope had more than enough supervision, I was assigned to the 374th TAW from Yakota Japan. They were short an officer. So I became a member of the 1676th TAWP.
Each evening I'd take the bus to the other side of base to work. We'd see herds of wild camels wandering around all over. On the other side they'd constructed these portable shelters for work stations and trailers for offices. There were pretty cool boardwalks connecting them too.
The technicians were doing a great job and didn't need me to muck it up, so I stayed out of the way. I was really just a fifth wheel anyway. The other officers had been doing the job for months without me and didn't need the help. Still, with the extra body, it gave the other officers a chance to take a day off. I'd make the rounds, inspect the work, tell everyone what a great job they were doing, and in general just try to keep everyone happy.
Each evening, I'd drive the pick-up truck down the runway to place the battery powered landing and taxi lights. Since we were using a dirt runway, there were no permanent lights installed. One incident I'll never forget it a pilot mistaking the parking ramp for the runway. Instead of landing on the runway (white lights) he landed in the middle of all the parked aircraft. (blue lights) I'll bet you didn't hear about that on CNN. I'm not sure how long he was grounded, but he would have got off easier if he hadn't kept denying it.
Another memorable experience was the day I stopped an aircraft from taking off with my truck. There is a signal pilots are suppose to give if they're being hijacked, and as I watched one of my aircraft prepare for take-off, I saw the signal. Now it was probably accidental, but when I called operations over the radio, they couldn't confirm it. So I drove my truck in-front of the aircraft, shut off the engine, and ran. The pilots were pissed since they missed there take-off time and had to admit their error. But I saw it as good practice for everyone. Heck, we were in a war and suppose to be looking for those signals.
Another time, as an aircraft was taxiing for take off on the sandy taxiway, I watched a funnel of sand get sucked up into an engine. A huge cloud of sand came out the back like the engine was on fire. Since the sand there was so fine, I'm sure it didn't hurt the engine, and assumed the crew would keep going. But I guess the instruments in the cockpit must have gone crazy because the crew shut the aircraft down and ran like it was about to explode. Before I could get there and tell them what had happened, one of the crew emptied a fire extinguisher into the engine. Worst of all he'd inhaled the Halon extinguishing agent and had to be hospitalized for several days. We rinsed the engine off and the plane took off the next day without incident.
A few weeks after my arrival, the Pope crew was moved forward to King Fahd International Airport (KFIA). I got to stay behind at Thumrait with Daddy Ashby and the 374th. I was upset that I was being separated from my team again. Somehow, the idea of being left behind was worse that moving closer to the front lines.
I became known as the Bastard Child of the Middle East, because I kept getting separated from my home unit. It wasn't that everyone didn't like me, just Lt. Colonel O'Brien didn't want me in his unit, so I got passed around. I think I got along fine with everyone else, and I had work to do, so what did it matter.
I was pretty happy though when the 374th moved North few weeks later. I really became accepted as part of their team. Unfortunately Rich, Rockett, and Daddy Ashby stayed in Oman.
©2002 Stefan Oestreicher
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Last revised Mar 26, 2002