Sunday, February 22, 2009

Mock Evacuation of Americans: Circa 1998ish

I can’t remember when it was that I did this - probably 1998/9. It was before all the war craziness at the end of 2002 going into 2003. Saddam was still around and there was always some form of “tension” in Kuwait. You could tell when things were getting really “tense” because your TV reception would suddenly go screwy (lots of radio traffic) and there would be warships moored within sight off the Salmiya coast. I lived in Salmiya before Marina Crescent was there, so I had a clear view of the ships. Anyhoo, the Embassy always sent out very ominous-sounding warnings and the pucker factor was high.

I took part of a “Mock Evacuation” of Americans from Kuwait. There weren’t nearly as many Americans in Kuwait then as there are now and the security procedures definitely weren’t the same (pre-9/11). Camp Dooda (Doha) hadn’t been transitioned to Arifjail (Arifjan) yet and ITT may have even still held the now-CSA contract (till the end of this year anyways). The mock evacuations were part of a drill to show how they could get us out of the country incase Kuwait was invaded again – as in 1990 - or (if you had time) before a chemical attack.

The exercise was awesome and it was before I was either writing freelance or blogging and I didn’t keep notes. (Mom, you were so right – ALWAYS keep notes! As Mae West said, “Keep a diary and someday it’ll keep you.”) It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in Kuwait and you can’t pay money to do it; nor will anything like it be repeated (probably/hopefully) around here anyways.

I don’t know how it came about that I got to participate; I think that someone from the American Business Council or the Embassy asked me. Always one for adventure, I thought I would go along.

You had to do all the normal Embassy-related procedures first; like sending in a copy of your passport and civil ID. We met at the Embassy and that’s where the fun started. First, the Marines were there to conduct a body search. I was one of the “fortunate” ones who didn’t get the full body search (sans the cavity search). No one checked my private parts. The Marines had been doing the regulation-style body searches that they would normally do of any visitor about to get onto an aircraft carrier. Apparently, that was met with some opposition by several of the female guests. Tee hee. I pointed to the biggest, most handsome marine and said, ‘I want him. Gimme the full work up!’ I got a female marine and it was just no fun at all.

At the embassy, they asked us to fill out the standard government forms for evacuees being taken out of a dangerous territory; the usual stuff stating that you agreed to pay the US Government back 100% of their costs of getting you out of harms’ way. The price goes up the more dangerous it gets; so like if you leave immediately, it is less – later is way more. You have 3 months (as I recall) to pay the Government back. I have heard horror stories about during the Gulf War when ‘mericans were airlifted from Kuwait to Dammam and being charged $10,000 for a 20 minute flight. That’s cute. Anyways, it was a “mock” drill, but they still wanted us to sign the paper. Sorry, I wasn’t about to be charged for a helicopter ride that day, so I objected and didn’t have to. It is still a legal document. I had visions of being in court and having a US military lawyer saying, “Yes, but you did sign up to go on the helicopter ride – did you not? Well then, you have to pay us the $5,000.” I don’t think so.

Of mention is that (then – I don’t know what it might be now), you could only take 1 suitcase and no pets. Funk dat. First, my priority: If Desert Dawg doesn’t go; I don’t go. My second thought: When I moved, my clothes and shoes were packed into TWENTY boxes. Dayam - it would be like "Sophie's Choice": how do you choose? I could see myself on my floor in sobs, lamenting the loss of my Dolce & Gabanna shoes. Again, funk dat. No Iraqi soldier was going to be walking around in MY D&G shoes. Nosireebob.

Our group consisted of about 20 people; mostly wide-eyed yahoos (T-shirts with words) who hadn’t been in Kuwait very long, didn’t know much about the country or about the threat – real or perceived – and wanted to feel reassured that their government (big hunky marines, no less) would come to their rescue (ergo the drill/plan). The only person I remember speaking to was a woman who worked at Universal American School.

They took us by busses to Abdullah Mubarak Airbase (which at that time was approximately 2 Kirby buildings and a hangar). We went with a full Kuwaiti police escort with flashing lights, sirens – the whole bit; just screaming “Hey! Look at us! We’re Americans and really easy targets! Come get us!” I love that aspect of “covert” here in Kuwait. I tried flirting with the Kuwaiti cops, but they weren’t havin’ it – they get all floopy when it is “official American stuff”. When we got to the airfield, we put on life vests and helmets (we Americans are so alarmist – as if we’d ever have a chance in a helicopter crash over water!) and got strapped into metal seats on a Chinook helicopter (I have pictures of this – where the hell did I put them?)

We landed on the USS Belleau Wood (“Devil Dog” – which ironically is also the nickname of Desert Dawg when she doesn’t get her way). The top photo is the actual photo of the ship. It was so so so so cool. There were lots of helicopters and planes (Harriers – it was considered a small aircraft carrier) and a gazillion service people; both men and women. They took us on a tour of the ship, showing us what we would do and where we would live if we were actually evacuated; and offered us refreshments (yummy chocolate chip cookies). They also gave us all Belleau Wood “Devil Dogs” baseball caps (I still have mine). I spoke to a group of female sailors who talked about how nice it was to have a “normal” conversation (obviously, she was misguided in believing that I am somehow normal) with civilians again – not having to speak in military-ese. We took photos with a lot of the service people and in front of the aircraft (which we would probably never be allowed to do now) and had a great time.

I talked to the Captain on the bridge - which was also cool because you could see every little vessel around – prior to the Cole incident in Yemen. Even at this time, they were very concerned about small craft approaching the ship and I remember thinking that any of those little boats could inflict major damage. Maybe I shoulda said something.

I told the Captain that my grandfather had been the first navigator on the very first aircraft carrier (true). My grandfather tried to push my dad into Navy life, but it just didn’t work. I got one photo for my dad and I told the guys that, “This is to show my dad that I was on a ship with thousands of men!” (He was so proud of me!)

I just did a little research and discovered that the ship was sunk as a target off Hawaii. What an undignified way to go. Little things like this just make me feel old.

You know, sometimes when I think my life is mundane and boring, I think about all the really great adventures I’ve been on and I feel so blessed. Who would get the opportunity to do even part of the stuff that you get to do in Kuwait? Maybe I’m crazy, but I’ve loved it all.


Intlxpatr said...

I'm glad you wrote about it now! Before you fry all your brain cells and CRS. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I vaguely remember this taking place! As usual...didn't get the memo!