11 November 2007

The Worst Sort of Flights

I recently saw the film In the Valley of Elah which reminded me of many flights I have flown since the 'Conflict in Iraq' began. Many US carriers participate in the CRAF program, which stands for civilian reserve air fleet. Basically we scale back operations and fly soldiers to points of conflict, and back again. We are not permitted to give details of where or when so that will not be mentioned.

Starting in 2003 we flew soldiers to the area of conflict. I was completely confounded when crew scheduling called me with a trip to xxx, as I knew we did not fly there. We are all volunteers that fly these flights, and in the spirit of adventure, I agreed. Little did I know the highs and lows that accompany flying soldiers in and out of war zones puts you through.

I flew our first flight there that was staffed by flight attendants . We had NO IDEA who would be our passengers, or what would happen. These people were so young they broke my heart. It was scary seeing teenagers being sent to an area that they could not place on a map. Some were clutching teddy bears. All had machine guns.

I cannot even begin to relate the mood on the plane, most were certain they were going to die ( and obviously some did). They were writing letters we promised to mail to family members,none could sleep in spite of the long days ahead. We tried to keep them occupied as best as we could, I never talked so much as on that flight. No one wanted to get off that plane, they were all leaving their innocence behind and they knew it.

One woman had a 5 week old baby she had to leave behind with her mother. Even her COs were upset over that, they could not get her paperwork processed fast enough to delay her report. I really hope she was reunited with her little one sooner rather than later.

After they filed off and unloaded the bags themselves, they were off . We would hit duty free and leave. In spite of the strange circumstances we never lost our need to shop. Weird, huh?? We leave you to go off to fight and we rush to buy cheap caviar and cigarettes. That was a dichotomy of these trips, we loved the unusual layovers but sure hated what we had to see.

We even were trained in donning chemical suits in case Saddam launched something our way. Luckily his attempts fell short as the soldiers said we were given old equipment and did not know how to put the stuff on properly.

Over time ( these missions took place over about 2 years) we began to learn which bases had Marines ( we liked them best) and which were Army. I tasted more meals ready to eat (MREs) than I should have, once I learned the calorie content. They all came with a mini Tabasco sauce and toilet paper.

Sadly to me, I only had a chance to fly 3 groups home from the area. One was a small group going home that were contractors, nothing too memorable there, they slept the whole flight. The next was a bunch going home to California. They were going home early on, and spent the entire flight laughing and joking. We all discussed with them what their first meal home would be. Some wanted steak, some bacon sandwiches, one guy wanted a bowl of cereal with his son. I thought that was one of the most fun flights I had ever worked, we had sprung for some liquor so they could have a taste after being in a dry area.The crew pooled our monies and we were basically able to purchase a shot each for them, with their COs approval. (We did not serve liquor on these flights). Boy did those men and women love that small taste of home!

This flight turned from a favorite to a sad one when I learned that 4 of the younger boys were killed by a drunk driver the night they got home. They had hopped in a car and went off to get some fast food. They survive a war and get killed when they get home. That nearly made me stop flying these trips, it really tore our crew up when we learned of this.

My other flight home was the one that reminded me of the film I referenced earlier. This flight was filled with men from a small town in a small (population) state. They had all grown up together and knew each other inside and out. They had lost one fifth of their group there. These poor men were shells,unable to process anything. It was like a flight of ghosts, they did not even want to talk. Having seen these men made me realize how the plot of the Valley of Elah would be so very possible. That was the last flight flying soldiers I did.

While I am against war, I support our soldiers 100% and am proud of every soldier I happened to be lucky enough to fly with. I only wish they were all home safe and sound.


Fly Guy said...

I have also flown several of the CRAF flights into and out of Kuwait,Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Your experience was exactly the same as mine. It is bone chilling. I will never forget it either. Great story Heather. Thanks, Dan (Stewedbeef.com)

Caitlin said...

That sounds like a truly haunting and disconcerting experiance, but also a touching one.

Nino said...

Thanks for those extra 10mins, Heather. I appreciate your support. Nice blog!