The Land Between the Rivers – Glen Hines
I spent the summer of 2009 in the land between two, ancient, great rivers, called the Tigris and Euphrates.
Ten years ago now. The summer, 2009. There had been a new president for six months. It was supposed to be a brave new world. But as the months unfolded, excitement had started to fade, and the more things changed, the more things remained the same, especially in Iraq. Roger Daltrey famously warned us, “Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”
I had arrived in May on a stifling morning at a place called Ali al Salem, an air base of sorts west of Kuwait City, which was the primary gateway for troops transiting into the Iraqi theater of operations. By that time, flights were going directly into Baghdad and Al Asad in western al Anbar province. That was the preferred route for deploying troops, because you got right off the aircraft and straight on to your quarters. Not so with people going through Kuwait.
Ah, Ali al Salem. The place now enjoys a spot in the notorious lore of all troops who had the misfortune to have ever spent any time there. It was as if someone had decided to create the most miserable, insufferable place on the planet, stuffing hundreds upon hundreds of tents in row upon row as far as the eye could see, seemingly stretching to the horizon. It was a transitory place, a purgatory if you will, a forsaken, rock-strewn, city of tents stretching forever, filled with eager people on their way home and the stoics on their way in.
But now, months later, it was late July, 2009, the hottest time of the year in Iraq. I was done with the court-martial at Al Asad. I had been there for a week, waiting for the case to begin. It had finished up in just two days, and now I was sitting at the airfield waiting for my flight on a C-130 back to Al Taqaddum, where I was residing during my tour. My flight was supposed to depart at 2130 (9:30 p.m., civilian time). I looked at my watch again. I still had about an hour to wait, so I walked around looking for something to eat.
The various “air terminals” around the AOR were terminals in name only. There were virtually no amenities. The Al Asad airfield was a good mile-long walk from the main side of the base, and there were no American fast food chains with outlets in the terminal, so one was limited to whatever the care groups — Red Cross, USO, etc. — had sent. You could always count on a crate of Pop Tarts or Girl Scout cookies. They were virtually everywhere you went. But they became so common that I actually got tired of them; when you’ve had pallets of free Pop Tarts and Girl Scout cookies within easy access for six months, the novelty eventually wears off.
On this late July evening in the vast desert of Al Anbar province, about 100 miles west of Baghdad out in the Wild, Wild West, the sun had just set, but it was still in the upper 90s outside. I had been in Iraq for about six months, and I still had a month to go before redeploying home. I figured the timing would work out just right; I would be back around Labor Day and the start of football season. I had nothing left on my docket as the Marine Corps’s only military judge in theater, so I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with the rest of my time. I was already working out every day, had read more books than during any other six-month period in my life, and even completed my mid-career military education requirement over the internet. It was a lone-ranger type of existence.
The double-edged sword of being a judge meant I was extremely independent and not attached to any unit; military law provides that judges cannot be influenced under the doctrine of unlawful command influence. That meant the only person I really answered to was my boss, also a judge — back at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. But the other side of that was I was alone and couldn’t really hang out with the other Marines so as to avoid any appearance of favoritism or impropriety. The same rules that applied to civilian judges also applied to military judges. So in the end, I was kind of a lone wolf while deployed. Sure I had to follow orders and regulations like everyone else; I was a Marine Corps Major. I needed help from others for lodging, office space, and travel in theater. But I decided what my day to day schedule looked like. Of course, a judge without any cases has very little to do. And there were no cases left on my docket.
As I pondered the issue of what I would do for the remainder of my tour, I dug through the Pop Tart bin looking for my favorite flavor, strawberry. But it seemed strawberry was everyone else’s favorite too. All that was in this bin was blueberry, which I hated. I couldn’t do blueberry. I shook my head and walked back to where I was sitting. The sugar rush would have to wait. There seemed to be about a dozen other Marines and contractors waiting on our plane. Contractors were easily identified by their “tactical” clothing and obligatory Oakleys, baseball caps, and beards, typically goatees. I don’t think I ever saw one clean-shaven. I looked at my watch again.
The Staff Sergeant running the terminal walked out and announced our flight was indefinitely delayed due to a sand storm. The pilots couldn’t fly in poor visibility. A collective groan went up. “How long?” someone asked. “Until the pilots say they are cleared to fly.” That could mean anything. The pilots could be ready in fifteen minutes or they might not be ready for five hours. Which meant I couldn’t go back to my lodging to wait because I wouldn’t be able to get back in time if it was a quick turnaround. So I waited. I spread out on the floor and used my pack as a pillow as I had so many times in the forests of Quantico. At some point I drifted off.
Day one quietly flowed into day 2, as we somehow slept intermittently with one eye open it seemed, on that dusty, concrete floor.
The wait ended up being five hours.
I was cat napping on the floor, my head resting on my pack when the Staff Sergeant announced over the intercom that we were cleared and were going to board. I got up, put on my flak vest, grabbed my pack, and headed out the door to the tarmac where the C-130 sat waiting. By the time we loaded up and started taxing, it was after 0500. The flight would take a little over an hour. As soon as we were airborne, I fell back asleep.
I woke up as we were about to land. I saw sunlight in the cargo bay and coming through the porthole windows. The sun had risen during my slumber. The early morning desert stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see. I was bleary eyed and tired, as if I had pulled an all-nighter.
We hit the tarmac hard at Al Taqaddum and made the quick taxi toward the small terminal. The cargo bay door dropped open and I unstrapped and walked out and down, catching the hot wash of the propeller engines on my back as usual. I covered the distance to the terminal, walked in, and saw Sergeant Williams waiting for me. “Sorry you had to come out here so early.” “No worries, Sir. It’s actually better than driving over at 0100.” We walked through the terminal and out the back and over to the Explorer. I threw my gear in the back and we got in. “You want to go back to your can, Sir, and hit the rack?” I thought about it. “You eaten yet?” “No.” “Let’s hit the chow hall first. I haven’t eaten anything since early last night. I’m freaking starving.”
At the chow hall, I devoured a custom-made omelet and watched the ESPN highlights from the night before. After we got done with breakfast, I went back to my can — what we called the “Containerized Housing Unit” or CHU, our small, air-conditioned living trailers — and got in the rack. I was exhausted. I was in the middle of a forgotten dream when I heard knocking. I got up and opened the door. It was Lieutenant Colonel Woodson (whose nickname was Woody). He was the staff judge advocate (legal advisor) to the base commanding general. He was also my friend going back to law school. I had been a year ahead of him in law school, but he outranked me now because he was already a Marine when he was attending law school. I didn’t enter until years later. I was surprised by his presence. In the entire six months I had been there he had never come over to my can. I hoped there wasn’t anything wrong.
“You need to go over and check your email traffic,” he said. “What is it?” “Just get dressed and head over. We’ll talk later. It’s nothing about your family, don’t worry. But you may need to head back out of here shortly.” He left and I shut the door. What the hell was going on? I grabbed my shower gear and headed over to the shower trailers. It was about 1400.
I got over to the LSST (Legal Services Support Team) building about 1500. I pulled up my email. There was an email chain that ran to a dozen or so emails with the subject line: “Court-martial at sea.” As I read from the bottom up, it became clear that the Navy was looking for a judge in theater who could preside over a court-martial of a sailor and conduct the case on board a ship. But it was not just any ship. It was USS Ronald Reagan, currently operating in the Persian Gulf. My eyes flew across the text of the emails and my mind raced. It was the final email that put the hook in me. “Major Hines is in theater and can likely handle this mission. But we will need to get him released from the AOR and then figure out how we’re going to get him out to the ship. We should be able to make it happen.” It was my boss, Colonel Don Dawson, the Circuit Military Judge back at Camp Lejeune. At the bottom, Dawson was telling me to call him as soon as possible, regardless of the hour back in the states.
I was eight hours ahead of North Carolina, but he had said to call as soon as I got the message. It was 0700 on the east coast. “Sir, it’s Glen. I’m back at TQ and got your emails. What’s going on?” “Okay here’s the situation. The Navy wants to do a court-martial on the Reagan, which is in the gulf right now. I don’t know why, but I guess the CO wants to make an example of this guy on board the ship in front of the entire crew and they need a judge to preside. I guess you were out at Al Asad when this blew up.” “Yes Sir. I was supposed to get out of there last night, but they grounded our flight and we didn’t get out until about 0500 this morning. I got back here to TQ about 0630, ate, then went to sleep. I just got up.” “Okay. Well here’s the deal. If we are going to do this you need to be on a bird out of there as soon as possible. We have to get you down to Bahrain, from where they’ll fly you out to the carrier. You’ll do the case and then come home. How we get you home we’ll figure out later. If we go through all this trouble to get you released from the AOR, I am going to bring you home early. There’s no point in you going back to TQ for less than a month when there aren’t any cases for you up there. What do you think?”
I tried to remain calm. A case at sea on a ship?Like something out of a movie? After which I would head home a month early? Was he kidding? “I can do it Sir. And I can be ready to go tonight if they can get me on a plane.” “Okay. Let me talk to some people. But if I were you I would pack up and be ready to go tonight.” “Roger that Sir. I will get everything together and be ready.”
I hung up. I put on my uniform and walked over to Woody’s office. “Sir, what’s the story on this? Is this really going to happen?” I didn’t want to get my hopes up for nothing. “I am trying to get you on a bird tonight. Why don’t you go back to your can and get all your stuff packed up. Assume you are flying out tonight to Kuwait. We’ll have to figure out how we get you down to Bahrain from there. I don’t know if it’ll be commercial or military air, but in any event, you need to be ready tonight. Since it could be commercial at some point you’re going to need some civilian clothes.”
We had an order in place that prohibited wearing any uniform in theater during commercial air travel. The idea was to keep a low profile for security reasons. That meant I had to find some real clothes. I hadn’t brought any with me on the way over because I had flown on a military flight with other Marines, and we all wore our cammies. I never thought I would need civvies, so I didn’t pack any on the way over. So I headed straight over to the PX on TQ to see what they might have.
What they had at the PX was 511 tactical stuff. And nothing else. I could look like a contractor or I could look like…. a contractor. I ended up settling on a black 511 tactical polo and 511 tactical khakis. There was no order banning the wearing of the desert colored Marine Corps combat boots, so my ensemble consisted of black polo, khakis and Marine tan-colored combat boots. I laughed when I thought about how this would comply with the order, yet provide me anything but a low profile. People would think I was either a contractor or a Marine disguised as one.
If Woody was right and this somehow actually happened tonight, I had about four hours left before heading back to the airfield. I went back to my can and starting stuffing things into the two sea bags I had brought over with me. In addition I had my pack and another, large duffel known as a parachute bag. I stuffed the newly-bought civvies into one of the sea bags with everything else. I put my toiletry kit into my pack along with anything I might need on the flights — my Ipod, headphones, laptop computer — and some other odds and ends. My gear was ready.
Next, I had to go to the armory to turn in my weapon. Per regulations, I had drawn an M-4 carbine rifle and 9 mm Beretta automatic pistol when I arrived. Although I had immediately fallen in love with the M-4 and its ACOG scope which made it next to impossible to miss in my quick reaction drills from inside 25 yards during my pre-deployment training, it had quickly gotten old carrying it around in theater, especially this late in the conflict when there was rarely if ever a need for anyone to use a rifle, so I had turned it back into the armory early in my tour. But I kept the pistol on me at all times in a leg holster. We even wore our weapons in the chow hall, making sure they were clear every time we went in. But since I might need to fly commercially at some point, I wouldn’t be able to carry it. I didn’t want to be that American guy who got busted carrying a pistol onto a commercial airliner overseas, creating an international incident. Hence, I had to turn it back in before I left. If that sounds weird, it’s reality. It was ironic to me that federal law enforcement officers and even some contractors had no problem flying around the world with their firearms, but military service members were prohibited from doing it. Go figure.
By the time I finished at the armory, it was almost 1800. I walked back over to the LSST and found Woodson in his office. “Any word Sir?” “Yeah. You are heading out on a C-130 at 2230 tonight. Going to Ali Al Salem. The judicial circuit is taking care of your flight to Manama. You’ll fly out of Kuwait International down to Bahrain. You need to check your email when you get down to Ali Al Salem to pull up the itinerary.” “They don’t have that yet?” “No. They said they will do it and email it to you.”
So I was going to Ali Al Salem without being sure how long I would be there. This wasn’t atypical, but I didn’t want to be there any longer than I had to, because the place was literally a way station in the middle of the Kuwait desert, west of Kuwait City. As spartan as TQ was, Ali Al Salem was far worse. It was not designed to be a permanent base for anyone and was used only to ferry people in and out of Iraq. That meant it was very small, crowded, and had few amenities, a chow hall and small PX, but really nothing else. It was one of the worst places I had ever been. Nobody in their right mind wanted to be left there to languish.
“I am getting your letter releasing you from the AOR and all your redeployment orders ready. Why don’t you go hit the chow hall and then come back and get your gear over here. I’ll take you out to the airfield about 2100 so you can check in and get on the manifest.”
After getting dinner and making sure everything was out of my can, I rode shotgun with Woody in the Explorer, my gear in the back. From our office we drove all the way around the perimeter of the airfield, about 15 minutes, to arrive at the terminal I had flown into just that morning. It was already dark. We parked and walked in and I checked in with the Gunnery Sergeant running the flight schedule. “Good to go Sir. We’ll call you when we are ready for you to board.”
I turned to Woody, who still had another six months left on his tour. “Thanks for everything Sir. I appreciate how well you have taken care of me over here.” Woody wasn’t only a friend from way back; he was one of the best Marine officers and lawyers I had ever known. One of the cool things about being a Marine, an officer, and a lawyer, was we got to challenge one another, duke it out in the courtroom against each other, and hold each other accountable, but we never allowed anything that happened in a courtroom to interfere with our friendship. Woody was a great officer, a great litigator, and a great role model for how you took care of your Marines. I had spent six months observing it.
While I was there, the legal staff was very small, amounting to three young company-grade officers and three enlisted Marines. Although I was a judge, Woody had given me an office in the LSST, and I spent all my time hanging out with the other Marines and him either at the LSST, the chow hall, or in the gym. He, being the ranking officer, not only served as the commanding general’s top legal advisor, but he was responsible for all other legal services provided on the base for Marines and Marine commands, and he oversaw the day-to-day operations of the legal center. He always did a tremendous job taking care of his people, which included me.
There had been times when I as judge needed to get to certain places to preside over cases within the AOR, and I relied on Woody to make that happen. He knew the Marine officer who controlled air operations on base, and he would use this connection to get me onto flights when I needed it. Even though I had asked to do it for the sake of a real Marine experience where I might have to employ that M4 I had been issued, he wouldn’t allow me to travel by ground, fearing he would get the judge killed in an ambush or IED attack. So it was always air travel. The trip I had just completed out to Al Asad had been done aboard an Army Blackhawk on the way over, flying through Ramadi in blackout conditions, meaning the pilots flew with all operating lights off using night-vision goggles. That had been a memorable experience. Whenever I needed transportation, or administrative help with pay issues, or help with something about my quarters, Woody had always taken care of it with dispatch. He made my only deployment to Iraq a successful one.
“Knock off that ‘Sir’ shit. Have a good trip man. It’s been fun having you out here. I’m sorry we didn’t have any more work for you to do. But this ship case might make up for it. I’ve never heard of anything like this. You’ll have to back brief me when I get home. Look, since you’re alone and will be bouncing around, don’t be afraid to throw your weight down if necessary. If anyone gives you any crap, show them your orders and drop General Rodriguez’s name if you need to. You might have some people giving you strange looks wondering what a Major is doing flying around the AOR by himself.” “Sounds good, I will.” We shook hands, did the double tap bro-hug, and he turned around and walked out.
Day two slid into day three as we waited. Again. Let’s just get in teh air and get this over with already.
Finally at 0030, I eventually boarded another C-130 with a full contingent of other Marines departing the AOR and heading home. It took us two uneventful hours to get to Ali Al Salem in Kuwait. We touched down about 0230. As soon as the transport bus dropped us at the main side of the base, I went directly to the billeting office and told them why I was there. They sent me to one of the field-grade officer tents, which was nice, since when I walked in, there appeared to be only one or two other guys in there. These tents were climate-controlled and had about twenty, twin bed-sized racks lined up along each side of the tent. I found one with my red-beam flashlight, hoping not to awaken the guys who were already in there and asleep. I dropped all my gear as quietly as I could, laid down in my cammies, set my watch to wake me up at 0700, and fell asleep.
I woke up at 0700, sat up and looked around. The other two guys were still asleep. I grabbed my shower gear, walked to the shower trailers, got cleaned up and went back to the tent. I stowed my gear on the rack and walked out, heading to the Marine Corps administrative detachment about two hundred yards away. Ali Al Salem was a very small place, and you could walk from one end to the other in five or ten minutes. It never ceased to amaze me how it could already be in the mid-90s so early in the morning.
I told the Staff Sergeant at the counter what I needed. “Sir, before we can put you on the shuttle to the airport we have to have your itinerary.” I hadn’t thought of that. I was still punch-drunk from all the travel over the past week, so I left and headed to the USO service center where I could check my email to see if they had sent me anything on my trip down to Bahrain. The first email was from our judicial clerk, Sergeant Coleman. “Sir, I got you on a Gulf Air flight out of Kuwait International leaving at 0825 on Sunday.” That was tomorrow morning. That meant I had to spend the day twittling my thumbs here on Ali Al Salem. I downloaded the itinerary and printed it off. Coleman also stated they had booked me a room at the BOQ on board Naval Support Activity (NSA) Bahrain, which was a relief since I didn’t know where I would be quartered when I got down there. I sent Coleman a response thanking him and telling him I would check in when I got down to Bahrain.
I walked back over to the Marine detachment and showed the Staff Sergeant the itinerary. “Good to go, Sir. Be back here in the morning at 0530, in civvies with all your gear. We’ll put you on the shuttle to the airport.” I had the entire day to burn. I spent it napping back in the tent, checking email, and made a call home to my wife. It was still up in the air as to when and how I would be getting back to North Carolina. I hit the chow hall for dinner, grabbed some Power Bars and other snacks knowing I would be up too early to eat breakfast, and went back to the tent early. Ali Al Saleem was a good place to catch up on sleep, and it didn’t afford an opportunity to do much else.
I was too amped up to do much more than be ready to head out at 0530. What would tomorrow bring? These were the days before iPhones, Ipads, or anything else that gave you instant connection to anything. There was no wireless, and my Blackberry had no service. So I laid on the rack in my tent and tried to sleep. It would turn out to be a night of tossing and turning, as I pondered what would come next. “Just get me out of here,” I thought.