Sailor's Story: R & R
Feb. 27, 2009
It has been almost two months since my last write-up and while I do apologize for the long break, my two week R & R leave period that occurred since my last entry was a much needed break from my tour here in Afghanistan. Tax-free pay and combat zone incentive pays are great benefits to serving here, but I’d have to say that the two week mid tour leave is the most beneficial perk the military provides to all service members who spend up to a year or more serving in a combat zone. I’m sure everyone who works in my office would agree as even I noticed a complete change in my attitude from the time I left back in late January to the time I returned last week. At times it’s hard to realize the mental strain this environment puts on us. There is no doubt I was mentally exhausted and frustrated prior to my trip to Australia. However, upon my return, I now feel completely reenergized and ready to complete the last 5 months of my tour here.
I began chronicling my year long tour in Afghanistan as a way to provide the local community a first hand account of the military’s role here and how it affects the people actually rebuilding this country, but it would be wrong of me if I did not take a few moments to tell a little about my trip to the great country of Australia. The national tourism bureau of Australia owes me for this one.
In late January, LT Ben Blank (a fellow Navy Supply Corps Officer) and I began our trip down under. I will never complain about delays and issues with commercial travel in the states again! While we were just happy to be leaving Camp Phoenix for a few weeks, the 6 total days of travel consisting of a total of five different flights was enough to wear anyone out (this was just getting there). We flew out of Kabul International Airport just down the road from Phoenix and stopped off at a military base in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). After dropping off one passenger we continued on to an Air Force base in Qatar where we spent about 10 hours on the ground, about 5 of those hours were spent in a transient housing building trying to catch a few hours of rest. The next morning we boarded a flight from Qatar to Kuwait where we spent about 4 days waiting for a commercial flight to be booked for Australia. Our commercial flight took us from Kuwait International Airport to our second stop in the UAE for a short layover at Abu Dhabi International Airport. The final leg of our trip was a direct flight from Abu Dhabi to Sydney. That final leg was around 15 hours and by far the longest plane ride I had ever been on. I have to give a lot of credit to Etihad Airlines which provided a great flight with top notch accommodations even for us guys sitting in the rear traveling on the government’s dime. That concludes the week long trek of simply getting to our final destination. My advice to everyone back home, just remember this story the next time you get frustrated about the 7 hour layover when waiting for a connecting flight in the states.
As for Australia, where do I begin? First off, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Australia or are even thinking it is a place you might want to visit, DO IT! I would have loved to spend my two weeks with my family and I know they would have wanted to see me as well, but the opportunity to take a trip like this and have the airfare covered was impossible to pass up. February in Australia is considered to be late in their summer season. We spent the first five days of our trip in Sydney. We stayed only a few blocks away from the area known as Darling Harbour. This area is absolutely beautiful and filled with more nightlife than even two sailors could handle. As most reading this can imagine, Ben and I were focused on relaxing, great food, some cocktails, nightlife, and meeting the locals, not in that order necessarily. Sydney and the entire country has so much to see and do that I could probably visit another 5 times and still not do everything I would have liked. We did visit the world famous Opera house and just about every other tourist area in the city during our five day visit. As I told my parents on the phone recently, we definitely did our part to help stimulate the Australian economy.
After our stay in Sydney ended, we made plans to rent a car (it was a sweet Hyundai) and drive up the Eastern coast to an area called Surfer’s Paradise located on the Gold Coast. Being able to drive for an entire day through the country and see a lot of areas most tourists would not go through was an added bonus during our travels. Our 13 hour drive on the left hand side of the road was not without some excitement as I spent roughly 20 seconds cruising along on the wrong side until I saw a pair of headlights coming at me from a distance that quickly reminded me to switch lanes. We made it to Surfer’s Paradise with all limbs intact and got settled into our hotel only a 5 minute walk from the beach. This was a nine day visit that consisted of a lot of time by the pool and on the beach, plenty of great food, some nightlife (by some I mean a lot), and of course meeting the locals and being the great U.S. Naval ambassadors of goodwill that we are.
This trip was filled with plenty of memories and a few very interesting observations that I thought were worth mentioning. First, if you are a member of the U.S. military and you visit Australia (and I’m sure it’s similar for most international destinations) you have to be prepared to field any and all questions regarding George W. Bush. This was not something I had thought about prior to our trip, and in my estimation, I would say almost half the people I met during our trip were ready to discuss the former President within 5 minutes of being introduced. Needless to say, regardless of political affiliation, this was the last topic Ben and I wanted to discuss while we were on vacation (or “holiday” as they call it overseas). Another interesting observation was the overwhelming population of Asians in Sydney. A lot of Asians spend time there to study English and view it as the best alternative to the more difficult visa requirements and distance from home when visiting the U.S. I mentioned this to some of the guys here at Phoenix when I returned and they were very surprised to hear that was the case as they had visited 5 or 10 years ago and did not remember it being the same then. The last observation I wanted to mention was the very scarce number of Americans in the country. I don’t remember meeting a single American over the course of our two week stay. Most people we met immediately asked us if we were Canadians because they have seen so few Americans recently. I would have to assume the economy plays a huge role in this recent change. All in all, it was a once in a lifetime experience and something I would recommend to anyone given the opportunity. Not only did we get to see so many great areas, but we also met great people from all over Australia and the rest of the world. Our trip to Australia, along with the travel time, lasted a little over three weeks and by the time we returned earlier this week felt like we were only gone about 4 days. As I mentioned earlier it was a much needed break and now puts us on the downhill portion of our year long tour.
I was quickly brought back to reality upon my return to Camp Phoenix. Within my first 24 hours back I was informed of a complex attack conducted on a number of targets throughout downtown Kabul that occurred while we were gone. Luckily, Camp Phoenix has not been directly targeted in quite some time. I’d like to think it’s because the terrorists are scared of Rambo, but let’s be real, the terrorists would never think of attacking a secured military installation. They only resort to soft targets that are least prepared to defend themselves. Along with the attacks in Kabul, we also conducted a fallen soldier ceremony a couple weeks ago for two members of the 33rd Brigade Combat Team. Additionally, two days after returning, we received word that another roadside bomb had killed two more members of the 33rd BCT. This was the harsh reality of my return to a war zone. I started this series to give an honest and fair account of the situation here and I have to say that the level of violence and the complexity to the attacks here is on the rise. Everyone knows we need more troops and the help is on the way. A lot of planning has taken place here at Camp Phoenix recently in regard to two new brigade combat teams that will be arriving in the coming months to provide much needed security and support throughout the country. We will continue to do our job, and the men and women serving downrange in the more dangerous areas need the continued support from home that has kept them motivated throughout Operation Enduring Freedom. Thank you again for everything you do back home to help support the military. I can’t say it enough and will always remember the huge role that support plays in making these tours bearable.
Australia was an absolutely beautiful country filled with nothing but the nicest people, but I can say without a doubt that returning here to work alongside my fellow members of the U.S. military quickly reminded me that no country compares to the United States of America. Hope you enjoy this month’s entry and look forward to writing again next month!
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