For two months in 2003, I “did time” on an OCONUS SPMAGTF as a USMC civilian defense contractor in the Middle East. No, not Virginia. The real Middle East.
Right now, you are probably saying, “What, oh con us spam gate?” Like ‘Oh cone us’-OCONUS, Outside Continental United States. Special Marine Air Ground Task Force-SPMAGTF. Normally, you would say Special Mag Taf (like the wheels and the first part of taffy). Don’t you love government acronyms?
I volunteered to deploy with the USMC logistics team and other members of the company that I worked for stateside or CONUS, at the time. I saw some things that I don’t want to think about again—like the Marine Corps version of a sauna-that being a port o’ potty at high noon in the desert at about 140°+F. Of course, when a Master Sergeant offered me the alternative bucket and shovel, I simply replied, “Understood”. Still, there are some things that remain quite fascinating to me.
Let me begin by saying, the desert sand is not the same as going to the beach. The sand at the beach packs easily, hardly ever blows and is comparably larger than desert sand. Desert sand accumulates in watch crystals after about two weeks and gives you such conditions as the Kuwaiti Croup which they’d rather you get sooner than later. After all, you would not want to have the constant and irresistible urge to cough while positioning to attack. Some of you have heard of cotton mouth. Multiply that by one hundred and you will be in the right realm with Kuwaiti Croup. Where you might find the definition of a gunny, you actually find the definition of the Croup: characterized by a loud cough that resembles the barking of a seal, difficulty breathing, and a grunting noise or wheezing during breathing. (Sorry to all you Gunnery Sergeants, but I couldn’t resist.)
Walking in the desert sand is equal to walking in baby powder. It is extremely hard to get your footing and you sink deeper into it as you are moving about. To offset the trauma of desert sand walks, common areas normally get stones and other aggregate to create pseudo walkways and roads. This also helped to reduce the number of scorpions and assorted other creepy things.
So, now that you have a little scene, let’s get back to the ‘fascinating’. We began at the airport where we were loaded onto buses. I called them the “I Dream of Jeannie” buses because of the gaudy décor of fabric covering all but the driver’s window. You do not appreciate those gaudy fabrics until you move them out of the way for a second whereupon you get a direct hit of sun-baked goodness coupled with the glass factor. Reality check, gaudy it is!
My first sweep back of the curtains once we got on the road also revealed several young men enjoying a swimming pool. I quickly turned back to my boss who was a retired USMC Lt. Colonel and said, “I see you guys got my requisition for the pool and the cabana boys!” Ah, if only it were so.
Shortly thereafter, the desert surfaced. In it, you could see debris and trash strewn about. Even sheep remains. I heard tale of a Sergeant Major who had named a path to the base 32 Dead Sheep Road as that was the number of skeletal remains she had counted on one of her trips. Somehow, sheep, any sheep dead or alive, seemed to be out of place in the desert. That is, until you see the camel and goat herders that were making camp on part of the land that the Marine Corps had been given to use.
Real civilization was long gone as we weaved our way through to ‘home’. We could see several tents spread here and there along the way that belonged to the herders. What was unusual was that each tent was surrounded to some extent or another by tires. Red tires, blue tires, green---all stacked around each little location.
I thought to myself, that is an odd way to keep up with the Jones’s. Or, in this case, the Akmeds’. “Hey, my tires are red and yours are green. Your daughter cannot marry my son!” It was just funny to me and I did my best not to say it out loud. And, I did not think of it again until I did some more traveling on those sands myself.
Basically, one sand pile looks like the next. There are not tall buildings to gauge perspective for distance or to judge how fast you are driving. Hence, the motor vehicle accidents unless you make a concerted and continuous effort to check your instruments. Also, it has become a way of life to drive fast so that just complicates the matter. I became aware very quickly that as you move over the sand dunes, you can lose sight of even fifty twenty man tents that are only a quarter mile away. (For the record, I did not get lost but it would not have been hard to do.) So, I learned to understand that these ‘silly’ men were not keeping up with the Jones’s but instead using those colored tires as visual aids to keep them from straying to far from their shelter and sustenance. And, that is when I learned two more things. May-be even three. I realized even more how quickly we can make assumptions about another culture without really understanding the reality of the situation. Even being in the midst of it all does not mean that you ‘get it’. But, proximity certainly helps. Although the individuals who were herders were not the wealthy nationals like those who lived near the water in beautiful cities, they were men who understood how to use what resources they were given. Also, not unlike what I observed about the Marine Corps who also had an understanding about using what resources they were given.
A greater realization came later that was even more unexpected. I had been on US military bases before and worked on one prior to being deployed, as well. So, I was not new to the mind set. But it was different in-country when I saw our twenty year olds in full gear on guard duty in the burning sun for 12+ hours each day. When I saw enlisted men and officers my age miss the birth of their children because duty came first. And when I saw ominous looking men come from the field to the chow hall slowly strip off their helmets, flak jackets and weapons to temporarily become just young men again. That was somehow a sight that I will not forget. Especially when they geared up again and became the faceless men that they were at first sight. And, there were young female Marines there, too who had been on base for about a year—some even before there were showers and those dreaded USMC ‘saunas’. But, we won’t go there for now. I will, however, say this: the Marines were thrilled to see someone in civilian clothes---even me! One of the base commanders saw me in a NY Yankees t-shirt and hoo-yahed. I actually still miss the greeting in the morning when the Marines would “Hoo-Yah, Ma’m” me. Yes, even the M’am part!
Among tires in the sand, simple hopes emerged from both men and women—wearing civilian clothes or attending baseball games again. But, duty was always first and so was being introduced to 32 Dead Sheep Road. This was the third lesson, a testament to survival when you fight for someone else’s rights. Mostly, it was a greater appreciation for those who made sure I was safe enough to express my opinion without being shot. Oh, and then there was a greater level of appreciation for what I had here in the United States that came as a simple ‘honor’ bestowed on me as the toilets were flushed stateside in honor of the deployed teams. I still smile at that and try to remember all those ’little’ things and remember how tires in the sand helped me understand even more about humanity, even in the apparent absence of it.