Flashback Friday Moment of The Week: 9/4/2015

by Just Juan

So it’s September 4th. A look through Triumphs & Tribulations takes me back to 2007. I was set to officially begin what would end up being a 5-month deployment supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom at Joint Base Balad but before I was to make my Mortaritaville debut, I had a few transient days at Al Udeid Air Base just outside of Doha, Qatar. September 3, 2007 was my transient day before I made my way to the combat zone. We ended up leaving in the wee hours of the next morning…for safety purposes. That brings me to this week’s moment in the Flashback Friday series: deployment day.

How I first came across this moment? Getting to the point where I was sitting on that bench on a hot ass desert road in Qatar is still a somewhat sore topic for me, even today. 4 months earlier, in April 2007, I finally achieved a qualifying score on the M-16A2 assault rifle, which made me deployment-eligible for the first time in my Air Force career. Instead of going to “the sandbox” with my crew from Moody Air Force Base in May 2007, I found myself reassigned to Yokota Air Base in Greater Tokyo. At my in-processing briefing, it was told to me that I was untouchable for my first 90 days, concerning deployments. That was good news because my squadron at Yokota was due up to cover the last of the year in Iraq and they wanted a 3E6X1 spot on the team. My co-worker was up first in line and I figured I wouldn’t get the nod for at least another year. Boy, was I wrong. In July 2007, my co-worker got a DUI—a horrible crime in Japan for American servicemembers—and the commander punished him by removing him from the deployment team. Guess who was up next? Yep…me. All of a sudden, through no fault of my own, I was scheduled to chalk out with the team on August 28th. It worked out only because I became eligible to deploy until August 23rd, being that I officially processed into Yokota on May 25th. There was a hiccup though: I was Class 3 on the dental readiness scale, not considered to be worldwide deployable. The wisdom teeth I held on to was my ace in the hole to escaping having to deploy but the commander and the readiness flight chief pretty much cornered me into getting the procedure done. I ended up getting the wisdom teeth pulled on August 23rd and I came off mandatory quarters on August 26th, just 48 hours before we were set to fly out. I finished my deployment processing, as the last person on my team, on August 27th and the next day, I was on a plane to Okinawa and then to Thailand and then to Qatar. Having arrived in Qatar on September 1, we spent a couple of days waiting for our transport to Iraq. It’s also where we geared up. The morning of September 4th came and we took off for Iraq and just like that, I was in a combat zone.

What it meant to me then? Don’t let the look on my face behind those shades fool you. I wasn’t thrilled to be in the sandbox at all. I had just started graduate school, which was made harder by the suspect communications in Iraq that made distance learning that much more difficult. Even more than that was the guarantee that, for the first time ever, I would not be in Birmingham for either of the back-end major holidays: (1) my birthday, (2) Thanksgiving Day, or (3) Christmas Day. 2007 started a run of 4 years I missed all 3 in celebration at home. The deployment also cost me valuable time getting to know Greater Tokyo in its marquee time of the year: the autumn season. After a summer of learning the train system and some semblance of the native language, I had intended to really immerse myself into the lure of the giant city during the late parts of the year but instead I was spending those days braving temperatures that reached as much as 126°F. Oh yeah, there was that whole not being able to leave the base thing too. From the moment I got on the plane at the Yokota Passenger Terminal on August 28, 2007 until the day I returned on January 23, 2008, I didn’t know what life outside the fences of a military installation looked like. It was the only time in my life where I literally felt like a prisoner.

What it means to me now? The beauty of hindsight is that I can look back and examine that time through a different lens. That deployment ended up being one of my greatest blessings. On that particular day in Qatar, I sat on that bench as a relatively unproven Senior Airman…somewhat of an outcast amongst the team (I was the newest person). I also had like $30K in debt at the time. But now that I look back on it, that moment on the bench in Qatar was my last moment of obscurity within the 374th Civil Engineer Squadron and that was the beginning of the last days of debt for me.

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