Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Me & Prince Sultan

On this day 8 years ago I was deployed to Prince Sultan Airbase (also known as P-SAB) in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with the United States Air Force. I had just turned 20 a few months prior and I had been in the Air Force for a few months over 2 years at this point.

This being my first time in Saudi Arabia I, much like most people first visiting, never know what to expect. I thought to myself things like, 'It's winter but it's Saudi! How cold can it really be?' And, 'What facilities will they have on base?' Fortunately I was the 2ND leg of the 6 month window our squadron was due to deploy and had some information from colleagues about certain things going on.

Upon landing at P-SAB we disembarked off the military jumbo jet and then had to find our luggage that had been taken off the plane and placed on the concrete for us to sort through. After finding my bags I found my way to a line consisting of the other people that were on the flight with me. At the head of this line was a man is traditional Arab dress checking through the luggage of all the people who had just arrived. It was his job to confiscate any contraband that was deemed prohibited under the agreement that had been signed between the two governments. I remember that a few VHS tapes were confiscated off of one individual to be reviewed and then returned to him once they had checked out. A few people had a particular CD by the rap duo,Outkast confiscated. Not because of the musical content on the CD but the artwork of a naked woman on the CD itself.

Once everyone had been past the customs guy we were in-processed and put on some school buses painted tan and driven to the location where we would be sleeping for the next 3 months. The accommodations were excellent. I was assigned to a room with another guy from my shop and in the room there was 2 bunk beds, 4 large closets and a small refrigerator. The room was within a larger building that had perhaps 14 other rooms just like mine and a large communal living room with American cable television and a full kitchen setup on one wall. There was a 2 communal bathrooms with maybe 4 private stalls and 4 private showers as well as a laundry room with a handful of washers and dryers.

The overall living conditions were excellent but that as because it was not easy to live in the desert for 3 to 6 months and they had to do everything they could from to prevent people from going insane. There was an outdoor swimming pool, tennis courts, basketball courts and a very well equipped gym.

The chow hall food was not the best that I had ever tasted but they did try. There were some trailers that held a Burger King, a Baskin Robbins, a pizza place and a Chinese restaurant as well.

Financially P-SAB was a great place to be. First off all there was not too much one could spend their money on. Secondly, being is a 'hostile' area we were entitled to tax-free income as well as certain hazard pay bonuses. One could easily walk away from a 3 month stint in the desert with $5 grand in his pocket if he was so inclined.

The work was very manotonous for us in Saudi as typically jets would take off and come back with generally a minimal amount of problems. In fact we spent most our time sitting in a trailer playing PlayStation, playing basketball in combat boots when the weather was not too bad or sitting in the back of a 'bread truck' waiting for work to develop.

Overall the weather was perfect for the 3 months I was there. I think we saw rain drops once or twice but they never amounted to anything more than a spectacle and the Saudi in March and April is actually quite lovely. There were a few sandstorms while we were there and one in particular was so severe that when I fully extended my arm out in front of me I could not see my finger tips.

In fact that sandstorm cost me a small chunk of money. While I was deployed I was taking an English course towards my degree and had all my assignments on a 3.5" floppy disk that I had to print out and send in the mail to my instructor. During that terrible sandstorm sand got into everything and everywhere that a grain of sand has the ability to fit into including my backpack that contained my floppy disk. Grains of sand managed to get into the disk and scratch the film inside making it so a computer could not read the files on the disk. And I failed the class.

Days tend to blend together in situation like these. Only remarkable events separate ordinary 'Groundhog' like days. Days where there is a mind blowing sandstorm. Or the day a French Mirage crashed not to far from the base on a training mission killing the pilot. The day that Chief Master Sergeant Thompson yelled at me for moving a porta potty with a forklift like machine because I needlessly drove to close to a jet.

And the day I was able to get an R&R trip to the capital city of Riyaadh a couple weeks before we went back home to Germany. P-SAB was about 2 hours south of Riyaadh and only a handful of people go to go every week. I was selected by my first Sergeant to go and really looked forward to it after being stuck on the base for the past 2 and a half months. I remember driving in a big Chevrolet Suburban with 3 other men, one woman and our two military chaperons. We were told to wear dress pants, a button up shirt and dress shoes while the woman had to dress in a traditional Muslim woman's dress. She didn't have to wear the face veil but chose to to get the full experience of the culture we were about to experience.

In Riyaadh we had the option to go for lunch at a traditional Arab restaurant or Fuddruckers, a classic American burger restaurant. I was outnumbered 3 to 2 and we ended up at Fuddruckers having burgers and fried chicken which was not so bad after 2 and a half months of P-SAB chow hall but... You know.

We were taken to a traditional Arab market in Riyaadh and went shopping for gold and mink blankets. I had a beautiful experience in the market when the Arabic call to prayer came over the loudspeakers. The man chanting in Arabic was very beautiful in itself but the speakers around me seemed to be a split second apart and it was kind of like 'surround sound' echo all around the area.

We flew out of P-SAB in early April and when we landed in Germany everything was a new green. Germany is an incredibly green place to begin with but after being in the desert for a few months even the military camouflaged uniforms looked greener.

After returning we were entitled to 2 weeks vacation to unwind and get back into the swing of things.

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