July 30, 2007 - Well, I finally made it home for good. I decided to switch things around a bit for my final trip out of Baghdad. I travelled via Kuwait instead of Amman. In spite of taking a direct flight from Kuwait to DC (United), it was still a long trip. In my final week, I packed my air freight, mailed boxes, packed up my office supplies, briefed my replacement and continued to look around and say "Wow, this is the last time I will see this place." Some friends put together a lunch with "typical" food; my girlfriends took me out for a final dinner at D'Faccio's and before I knew it, I was wearing my PPE and hauling my bags to catch the Rhino.
I arrived at the Rhino stop at 11:00 p.m. as instructed. There was enough time to watch one movie (a comedy) and around 1:00 a.m., they were loading us on to the buses for my last journey down Route Irish - the most dangerous street in the world. The whole trip took about 45 minutes from the time we left the Palace until the time we pulled up at Camp Stryker. Only about 15 minutes was actually on the road; the rest of the time we were in the IZ or in the protected area around BIAP (the Baghdad International Airport). Buses took us from Stryker to Camp Sully, where I spent the night. By the time we got all settled, it was about 3:00 a.m.
The next morning, an old friend knocked on my door and woke me up. He and I had arranged to spent part of the day together, so we hung out and had lunch, and I checked in for my flight. Here's one tip: You can go to Tent 4 and ask to go on stand-by with the military. Sometimes the Embassy flights are delayed or break down. First you have to get your orders stamped by the Civilian check-in counter (second counter on the left as you walk in the door). Then you take the stamped orders down to the very last counter directly across from the door where you enter. They will put you on "Space-A" (meaning space available). And if you get called before the Embassy flight goes, you can just hop on with the military.
In the end, I stayed on the Embassy flight - it was on time and was boarding more or less at the same time as the military flight. It was a long, hot wait, which I spent with my friend until he had to head back to work. Finally we boarded the C-130 and then sat on the runway in the un-air conditioned plane for at least 30 minutes. Everyone was sweating like we were in a sauna - which, with 120 degree weather - wasn't far from the truth. At last we took off; the flight to Kuwait was short and easy.
When we got to Kuwait, there were air conditioned buses waiting on the tarmac/runway to take us to check-in. Someone from KBR came onto the bus and explained everything to us. They showed us where to check-in (immigration) and then they took us to another Tent to wait until we had enough people to go to the commercial airport. Luckily, since I know people in the Iraq Support Unit in Kuwait, I got VIP treatment and an immediate ride to the airport (along with another Department of State employee). At the airport, we were whisked through security and into the airport proper, where I had dinner with my friend from the ISU and then headed to the Business Class Lounge, where I relaxed, and took a shower and changed clothes.
The trip on United from Kuwait to Dulles was a long trip, but Business Class was comfortable. Two meals, two movies, a few catnaps and 13 hours later, I was walking through a doorway that said "Welcome to the USA" as I entered the Customs and Immigration areas of Dulles Airport. I don't think I was every so glad to see those words in my life. The plane arrived early, and there were no other flights at that hour, so I was through Immigration and Customs in no time. My husband finally caught up with me (the plane arrived an hour before the scheduled time) and after lots of hugs and kisses, we headed home.
Homecoming was sweet. I woke my boys up by kissing and hugging them and they were surprised to see me home so early in the day. I was exhausted, but happy. That night I went to my son's lacrosse camp and when a mother picked up a stray ball and called out "Incoming" as she tossed the ball back onto the field.I didn't even flinch. It was hard to believe that 48 hours before, I had been in Baghdad. And now, I was sitting in a camp chair, like a true Northern Virginia mom, reading the latest Harry Potter book while my son ran about, smashing other little boys with long sticks and wearing his "armor" as he played lacrosse. There were green trees and grass and the evening was pleasantly warm. Not a palm tree or bit of sand to be seen; no one was wearing a gun; no "duck and covers" were announced; no alarms. It was peaceful and beautiful.
I crashed into bed that night and haven't stopped sleeping and relaxing and hugging and kissing my family since then. I'm home; it's over. I'm back. I have three weeks off at home, then two weeks in Costa Rica. We'll see how I feel in a few weeks. For now, I am simply relieved to be home.