Gathering the sheep
Once it had been decided that Pope would be going home, questions began to pop up. Who exactly of the Pope people would be sent home, how would they be transported, what could be brought back, and what had to be left behind? Since many Pope personnel had been loaned to other units, HQ decided that they should return home with Pope. The gathering of all Pope people started. A couple of days later, as bodies started coming in from everywhere, Captain Ashby and Jim Rockett and Rich Freewalt showed up at KFIA. It was great to see them and I gave them the grand tour. We took lots of pictures around tanks and Saudi buildings. Colonel Bailey made every attempt to gather all his personnel from the entire Persian Gulf.
It was a monumental job finding housing for all these people as they just dropped in from everywhere. It was like having all your relatives drop in for the weekend, ALL at the same time. But they were amazed at what they saw at KFIA. Many of them hadn't seen the A-10s, Apache helicopters, and all the other amazing sites. To watch them running around with their cameras was pretty funny. But it was great.
We thought we'd be sent home on comfortable 747s and C-5 Galaxies, but we were wrong. Since the next phase of the war was the peacekeeping mission, we would have to fly ourselves home on the C-130s. Nobody was happy about that decision, but at least we would get home quickly. As we started the load planning, it became obvious we had too many people and not enough cargo space. Colonel Bailey would have to make a big decision.
What? Why me?
Colonel Bailey started exploring options about what could be left behind. There was a lot of talk about throwing away the home made footlockers and bookshelves but that was quickly dismissed. Nobody wanted to part with their new toys. In the end EVERYTHING was allowed to be brought home. They planned to bring all the people home on the C-130s immediately, and all the equipment would be shipped home later by "Opportune Airlift." Which meant Pope AFB would be a base full of people and NO equipment. Since this would probably be unacceptable to the Pentagon, HQ would make a serious effort to get the equipment back to Pope as soon as possible.
Some HUGE cargo boxes were set up to collect Air Force issued equipment that could be bulk shipped. We had some boxes for sleeping bags, some for chemical warfare gear, and some for "A" bags. Everyone was asked to write their names on the side of the boxes for inventory. It was a fiasco.
Then pallets were setup for personnel gear, home made footlockers, book shelves, and stuff. People filled them as fast as they were put out. It was obvious we would need some serious support airlift. As we did the math, it became clear that, besides out fleet of C-130 aircraft, we also need at least two C-5 Galaxy aircraft. Since we wouldn't have those support aircraft until later, someone would have to stay behind to coordinate and guard the materiel.
Once again, I was chosen to be separated from my troop and left behind. Lt. Colonel Fitzpatrick (Operations) and I were assigned the responsibility of coordinating the airlift and making sure millions of dollars of equipment made it home safely. Piece of cake.
Pack it up, We're Outa Here!
As the aircraft were loaded, the cargo awaiting shipment was placed in an empty area beside the runway. Since the Pope airplanes would be gone, it seemed like a logical place.
As final preparations were underway, it was really funny when stragglers jumped off incoming planes to join Pope for the trip home. At least 10 people handed me their M-16 rifles. After months of being in a War zone and not being allowed to carry a gun, here I was with ten. I was concerned about them being stolen as souvenirs, so I took them apart and locked the pieces in my foot locker. Then I gave the foot locker to my friends on the last plane. It was way too funny.
As the planes closed up and left I had tears in my eyes. I was happy to see them go home, but when the last plane took off, it was the saddest moment of my life. I felt like I was being abandoned and marooned in a war zone.
As I waited for some empty airplanes to pass through, some General told me to move my equipment because it was blocking his runway. So the next day me and LTC Fitzpatrick spent an entire day shuffling cargo around. I spent hours driving a forklift while the LTC moved the donnage and directed me. Other days we would check the inventory and spend hours tracking down a stolen power unit or tow bar. It was pretty lame.
Meanwhile, back at Pope, everyone was welcomed with parades, loving family members, and news crews. Everyone was given ten days off, which they needed to go to the dentist, fix the car, and all those overdue household chores. CNN had numerous crews taking pictures and it made national news. I regret missing the welcome home celebrations. The city of Fayetteville threw a serious party and put out a special Gulf War edition newspaper.
After the first week, I was pretty concerned that I'd never get home. Every plane that passed through was either full or too busy to take me home. Air Force Headquarters didn't think I was a priority and my screaming wasn't making any difference. The Yakota crew was merciless in their jokes too. Not only was I, "The Bastard Child of the Middle East" again, but now I was the unwanted orphan of the entire Air Force.
Finally, on day number 10, I received confirmation that two C-5 and one C-141 had been allocated to take me home in three days. I spent the next day with the load planners and the next day moving the equipment to the "Prepare for Loading" compound. LTC Fitzpatrick was really relieved when the equipment was safely behind a fence. On March 29th, two weeks after Pope left, I finally called my parents and told them the good news: I was coming home.
The flight plan was to leave KFIA on the 30th, arrive in McGuire AFB, NJ on the 31st, change crews, and arrive at Pope later that day. On the morning of the 29th I called my parents and asked them to meet me in NJ. I gave them the mission number and aircraft number so they could ask the right questions and not miss me. Everyone in my family piled into the car and drove to New Jersey and waited in the hotel. Mom says they made signs and everything.
Murphy's Law Strikes
As soon as the aircraft arrived at KFIA, we were ready to load them up. I had load-planned a special pallet of sleeping bags on the C-141 as a queen size bed for the trip home. We offered the 200 seats on each C-5 to any Army unit needing a ride home, but nobody took up the offer. It only took a few hours to load the cargo and I was all set to leave when disaster struck. The nose door (visor) on the second C-5 malfunctioned and couldn't be secured closed. As the minutes passed we had to release the C-141 and first C-5 to depart on schedule, while we supervised repairs on the second C-5. I was really upset to loose that bed for the ride home. By the time the second C-5 was finally fixed, the crew day was over extended and the flight had to be postponed 24 hours. I tried to contact my parents, but they were already in New Jersey.
The next day, March 31st, LTC Fitzpatrick and I left the Persian Gulf. Since it was only going to be the two of us as passengers, the crew sat us in the courier section in the front of the aircraft. It was really exciting to be in the cockpit of a C-5 during flight. It was a quick and comfortable trip home. The courier seats are similar to first class commercial seats and we were free to roam the cockpit.
We landed at Westover AFB, MA on April 1st. While the LTC was talking to the crew I went toward the passenger terminal to call my parents. I was shocked when I got off the plane and was met by a band, hundreds of cheering people, and a red carpet. Someone took my hand and escorted me to the waiting reception. It was really wonderful of them to welcome me home, and they didn't seem upset to find out I was alone. They had a group of families and retirees who welcomed everyone that passed through Westover. I guess it was to make up for the welcome home the Vietnam vets never got.
At the terminal I was kissed by a dozen women, handed a freshly grilled hamburger and a cold beer. It was great. Seeing the balloons and banners and everything was awesome. I even signed the log of people who passed through. They had hundreds of names on this roll already and I'm sure it got thousands more. I called my parents and they offered to drive up to Massachusetts (a shorter drive than New Jersey) but there wasn't enough time. A little while later, after a short argument about the nose door, we departed for Pope. I wasn't going to let them keep me in Massachusetts.
Home Sweet HomeA few hours later I finally arrived home to Pope AFB, NC. This time there was no band, no greeting party, nothing. They didn't even send anyone out to meet the plane. After 20 minutes on the ground I finally flagged down a Transient Alert person and borrowed his radio. I called Maintenance Control and told them the equipment was back. That got their attention. A few minutes later my roommate drove up in a pickup truck and I got a handshake to welcome me home. Brad took me to my car, which I drove back to the C-5, and I loaded up my luggage. I stopped at the office long enough to confirm the guns were returned, pick up some things, and get the official word of my time off. Then I went home to sleep in my own bed again. A bunch of us got together for my welcome home dinner the next night. We had Chinese.
©2003 Stefan Oestreicher
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Last revised Aug 1, 2003