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The waiting game

Traveling with the US military in Iraq? Best pack a good book.

Earlier this summer, it took me a full seven-day week to travel about 60 miles from Baghdad to Baquba. I got bumped from my first flight when they overbooked, which is often the prelude to a long wait. Once you lose your status as a manifested passenger, you’re not allowed to manifest yourself for several more days, so you either have to wait or take your chances flying space A.

As my luck had it, within hours of getting bumped from my first flight, a multiday sandstorm blew in, grounding flights all over the country. Just like a blizzard in the U.S., a dust storm in Iraq creates hordes of stranded travelers.

This means most passengers are not going anywhere for days while the military works through the backlog. For those with clout, however, there’s often a way out. While I was sleeping on benches at the airport, battling for a flight, a senior colleague with serious connections decided that it was time to call in a favor. A few phone calls scored her a ride on a general’s private plane. But without the right phone numbers, there’s nothing to do but wait. If you wait long enough, eventually you’ll make it on a helicopter or a plane.

When my flight finally came to the tiny base in the north of Diyala, 20 hours into the three-hour mission, I was about to climb aboard the Black Hawk when the crew chief pulled me aside, pointed at my bare arms, and pantomimed slitting this throat to inform me that this flight was dead to me. It’s a rule that all passengers wear long sleeves on helicopter flights. For some reason, no one had stopped me on the way out, but now it appeared my luck had run out.

My seven-day delay still fresh in my mind, failure to board the flight was not an option. I motioned for the crew chief to wait as I undid my boots, yanked my socks off, and then pulled them over my arms. He looked at me and gave me a smile that said, “If you want it this bad, who am I to stop you?” He waved me on, sparing me from another lost day at a helicopter terminal somewhere in Iraq.