Ten years ago today I was sent with my Air Force squadron to a super secret squirrel base in the middle of the Israeli desert for the majority of the month of August and it was the single most life changing trip of my life. I saw and heard a lot of things that reminded me of very unsavory parts of my life prior to that while also seeing and hearing things that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
Before leaving Germany we had to attend a mandatory briefing in which the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations ( OSI ) told us to take the batteries out of our cell phones and place them on the desk in front of us. The briefer then went on to talk to give us a briefing telling us of the hazards in the area. The strangest part of what he relayed to us was that we had to be extremely careful about where we discussed any information that was sensitive in nature because the Israelis are the forefront at collecting intelligence. We were told to never speak about sensitive information in our quarters or any other place other than a huge 10' X 8' vault that we flew in with us.
I left Germany towards the end of the first week of August 1999 flying on a military C-5 cargo plane and arrived on an airstrip in a desolate looking surroundings. My flight was the second of two flights so we were met on the tarmac by our comrades who had arrived the day prior in old Chevy pick-ups painted light brown. We loaded our bags up into the bed of the pick-ups and then jumped into the beds ourselves and headed off to our accommodation.
Our accommodations were large aluminium cans that held 6 of us in 3 bunk-beds if I remember correctly. I don't remember them having AC and it was very difficult to fall asleep at night because it was so hot. The flight training we did with the Israeli Air Force ( IAF )was pretty mundane. It was actually so easy compared to the amount of flight training we did in Germany that I don't remember too much about it.
The life-changing events on this trip took place away from work but not necessarily away from the base we were deployed to. Because the work was not time consuming we had a lot of time to mingle with the IAF members around a small mini-mall type of building that had a bakery, a small convenience store and a arcade/pool hall type place.
The Israelis were very keen to speak with us but for the most part the Americans didn't want to hang out and talk to the Israelis. Not sure if the OSI briefing before we left had put them off or if it is just a normal American tendency but I would say that there were only about 5 of us that really hung out and spoke with them in great depths.
I can't say I had any special feeling for or against the Israelis at that point in my life. I really didn't understand why they were fighting with the Palestinians nor did I really care. But that was soon to change.
I remember a few of the conversations I had with some of the IAF members and it is was very strange. I felt like I had been transported from the year 1999 back to the Alabama or Georgia of the 1950's. The outright racism and hatred for the Arabs as an ethnicity is/was no different to what some white Americans in the south of America felt about black Americans. I had experienced some racist speech from my paternal grandmother who was born in 1921 and lived in Florida. I remember when she had to have an operation done and they were telling her about a blood transfusion she made a point to tell them that she didn't want any coon blood.
I got the same types of speech from the Israelis I spoke with. In fact, I put the the blood transfusion question to them and one told me fiercely that he would 'rather die than take the blood of an Arab.'
We were allowed off of the base a few times while we were there. A couple times we were allowed to drive the 20 or so kilometers to a nearby town that had a McDonald's and another time to the small city nearby named Be'er Sheva that had a large mall.
We also has the opportunity to go to Jerusalem one Saturday which was a really special moment for me. It was such a wonderful experience being able to explore Jerusalem and Bethlehem (after making it through the Israeli checkpoints) as an 18 year old. To crouch down to enter the manger turned church where Jesus Christ was purportedly born. To see the Mount of Olives, the Wailing wall and the golden domed mosque in the skyline of the city was inspiring.
And on the following weekend while the majority of the squadron went to party in Tel-Aviv to part in the discos and on the beaches myself and a small group of maybe 9 others went on a trip to the Dead Sea. We drove down some winding type roads with markers on the side telling us how far below sea level we were with each drop.
We drove along the coast of the Dead Sea and pulled into a parking lot where we got out and trooped up the side of Mount Masada. We walked around for about an hour and half exploring the mountain top before descending sown in some sort of cable car for a small fee.
After we had all loaded up into the van our guide drove us a short distance to a Dead Sea spa. I remember going into the Dead Sea and as I had slid down a small drop off up on Masada I had a series of scratches down the side of my shin that stung like you wouldn't believe upon entering the water. They were actually scabbed by the time we left the spa.
Walking out into the Dead Sea is a very special experience. You get to a point where your feet our no longer touching the sea bottom but you are still standing up right. The water is that dense because of the salt content.
Most of the squadron had left by the last week in August but I was due to leave on the last flight out and for some reason to which my mind cannot recall now our airlift was diverted for some reason so I ended up being bored out of my mind stuck on this base in the middle of the desert with no one except an officer and a handful of Senior NCO's.
Upon returning to Germany I started to research about Israel and Palestine and the problems surrounding them. I found out that most of the Israelis were not from the 12 tribes of Judea but were Europeans who had migrated to that part of the world. That is why I saw some Israeli Air Force members who were extremely Arab looking and others who were as pale as a pearl and said that they were originally Russian or Lithuanian.
I guess I was very fortunate to go when I did because a year later the sister squadron at Spangdahlem went to the same location and never got to step foot off base because the second intifada had started up.