The loadmaster in the back of the C-130 in which we were flying came by and yelled over the engine’s roar, "Buckle up, we’re going to land." Then, the lights went out completely: no red no chem lights, only blackness. When beginning an approach on a commercial airliner, the pilot normally cuts back on the throttle and collects the plane for a gradual descent. Ours was a bit different. The engines revved and we banked sharply and continuously until a wing was pointed straight down. We seemed to increase in speed as we dropped in altitude. From our angle and speed, and due to the operational blackout requirements on the ground, there was no way for us to gauge our height. Completely disoriented and ignorant, we sat, trying to keep our chow down, when suddenly, the plane leveled out and we touched down. What a relief.
In the passenger terminal at BIAP, the other officer who tagged along with us paid her way. She called her unit and they picked us all up. As we convoyed in the darkness toward their building, the base came under mortar fire. The rounds impacted a considerable distance from us. The outgoing counter-fire was quick, and maybe even effective, since the mortar attack was short-lived.
Her unit was one of the higher-level headquarters there, so they were housed in one of the few livable hardstand buildings. There were no flights to Balad the following day, but an NCO told us about a convoy of commercial trucks that departed to Balad from the airport every morning with US MP escort vehicles. We walked the half-mile or so to the hose-fed plywood shower, then slept soundly on our borrowed cots. Our hosts drove us to the truck marshalling area at first light. The dispatcher said his boys would be glad to give us a ride. He showed each of us our truck, and we traded introductions with the drivers. Mine was Larry from Texas. He has been working for KBR since the U.S. involvement in Bosnia began. He had just come to Iraq following a year in Afghanistan. We both put on flak vests and moved into our position in the lineup. He lit a smoke and drank from his gallon-size coffee cup until the armored MP armored HMMWV pulled up alongside with their top-mounted 50-cal machine guns. Without much further ado, we moved out.
We passed a huge mosque, children waving and running beside us and open-air roadside butcher shops and long lines of beat up Iraqi vehicles waiting for gasoline. We were all a little tense during the times when we were stuck in traffic, not moving, with all of the other vehicles surrounding us. I was pleased to note that all of this traffic suggested that the commerce was again moving and the economy was on the upswing. The farther north we drove, the greener the countryside became. Balad is blanketed with fertile soil and vegetation: the country’s bread basket. Once through security, we found our way to our contact unit on the base there. The meeting went well. We conducted a reconnaissance of available real estate within the perimeter and found our Dutch friends a suitable site for their Iraq operation. As luck would have it, we secured seats on a C-130 that evening directly back to Kuwait. Mission accomplished.