For some reason I never sleep on planes. It may partly be down to the fact that my long legs are always too cramped in cattle class. It may also be down to being far too excited about the trip ahead and the fact that I get to watch movies, one after the other whilst having food and drink brought to me in regular intervals without having to move a muscle. However, the flight from Brize Norton in Oxford to Al Basra, Iraq via Al Udeid in Qatar was a different animal all together.
Having arose well before the sun was due to make an appearance, the 2 hour journey to Oxford was quiet and uneventful. I was driven by my point of contact in the UK, through the early hours of that August morning and left outside the military terminal with my ruck-sack, my helmet and Osprey body armour and without a clue. The preceding months had involved a certain amount of training and preparation, however it does not quite prepare you for that moment. The last point of no return.
How much sense does it make leaving the safety of your own desk in a run-down office near Gatwick airport in exchange for a new desk in war torn Iraq and the notorious military base of Al Basra? The correct answer is…..not much sense at all. However, being sensible has not always been a virtue of mine, so here I am, the only non military personnel in sight trudging towards the air gate bound for the land that gave us Saddam Hussain, The Kuwait invasion, The Ba’ath Party and took the lives of over 179 British Troops. Some, including myself would question my judgement.
As if caught in some parallel universe from the moment as I took my seat on the ageing Boeing 737, the sandman was with me. The next thing I remember was the bump and shudder of the wheels as they screeched along the tarmac of the Al- Udeid airbase runway.
The only thing I can liken my first steps off of the air craft into the arid air of the gulf region is to that of walking head on into a giant sized hair dryer on full heat. The air was dry and filled with sand and dust particles that instantly absorbed the fluid in my eyes, The sheer intensity of the heat is something I will never forget and in truth never really wish to relive. The mercury was sitting at 51 degrees centigrade.
After being herded from one area to another for a few hours, those on their way to Basra were transported to their C-130 - Hercules transport. By this time the punishing sun had disappeared over the horizon and the darkness had arrived. With the darkness comes a slight drop in temperature, however we are still talking in the high 30s.
After being told to put on our body armour and helmets, the realisation of what I was about to do hit me. I was the only non-military person walking from the terminal to the Hercules. I was the only one without a weapon and the only one with no idea of what lay in front of me. The Herc is spit down the middle with two benches either side facing each other. Squeezing up against 60 crack commandos in such close quarters is not usually my idea of fun but I had little option at this juncture. The 60 minute journey into Iraq was uneventful until one of the crew members started shouting something that could not be heard over the drone of the engines. At this point, the lights within the carriage went out and were replaced with a dim green light which made me feel like I was in the movie Predator, hiding from the tentacled beast. I was unsure what was going on but from the look of those around me, no one was perturbed so I just played it cool on the outside even though on the inside I was doing somersaults. After a few minutes I got to grips with this and began to relax, All of a sudden, the plane took a dramatic turn south and when I say south I mean down! The engines whined and groaned as the entire vessel jerked forward and the nose tilted down at 45 degrees. The bodies to my right started to shift down the bench as gravity kicked in. The sounds outside were hard to discern above the grinding of the engine, however, I could make out a popping sound. It is at this point that the saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ really rings true. I was later to find out that the noise in question was that of the ‘Phalenx’ gun protecting the base against incoming rockets. Brilliant!
I was later to find out that it is standard practice for the Hercules’ to ‘Go Dark’ once over the Iraqi boarder. It is also standard practice for a rapid decent to take place once Basra was in sight in order to give the Iraqi Militia less of a target as we draw in to land. I have to say it would have been nice to have received either of those memos!
Being rushed from the Hercules to the air pod in Basra under the sound of gun fire somewhere in the distance is something I will never forget. The fluorescent tracer rounds flying from the phalanx guns into the night sky stained the darkness as they hurtled towards their invisible targets. It was a rude awakening to life in Basra and a glimpse of things to come. The bomb shelter that offered me a very thin veil of security was both full and uncomfortable as everyone had to crouch or bend in order to fit in. I am not sure how effective it would have been had we suffered a direct hit. The attack came and went, Those who were returning to Basra, did not seem to even noticed what was happening. They stayed reading their books or playing with their iPods as the madness ensured outside. It is amazing how adaptable we are as people, at home you hear a car back fire and you jump. In Basra, you hear and feel a 24mm rocket hit ground 20 meters away and you roll over and go back to sleep.
….and so my time in Iraq begun, after being collected from the Air Pod and driven across the base to my new home. Allenby Lines was a row of small cabins formed facing each other. Like a street in the real world. Ahead of me, two years of life military style, much of that time would be influenced by the cabin buddy assigned to me. From other people’s experience it can be hit or miss. This kind of life can appeal to some strange types. As I walk down Allenby lines towards my new home contemplating what had just occurred, adrenalin pumping I feel like I could really use a drink to help placate me. Sadly, I had been informed that alcohol is not permitted on base and that my time there would be ‘dry’.
Arriving at number 10 Allenby Lines I am introduced to ‘Cracker’ my newly appointed, slightly crazy, South African cabin buddy. The formalities take place and the guy that has driven me here and introduced me leaves. So, here I am, 2am in the morning in Southern Iraq with my body armour and helmet on, having just had my first experience of the noisy neighbours in Basra City, just about to settle down in my new bed in the form of the affectionately name Bagdad coffin!
Cracker turns to the small fridge in the corner of the cabin and pulls out two ice cold cans of Carlsberg. Handing one to me with a wry smile.
" Welcome to hell Bru, drink up! "
Carlsberg don’t do cabin buddies…………
JM - 29th January 2012