DIWANIYAH, Iraq—The lead truck was loaded, and the cab was outfitted with MREs, water bottles and a .50-caliber machine gun—all the necessary ingredients for a four-hour, dust-choked drive across south central Iraq.
"You know how to use this, sir?" the gunner asked, pointing to the rocket-propelled grenade leaning across what, in a sport utility vehicle, would be a cup holder and a Big Gulp. No need to worry. The instructions, it seems, are written right on the side.
There is no glamorous way to leave a war before it's officially declared over, but this convoy was my last opportunity to get back to the air base at Talil to catch a cargo plane to Kuwait. The 82nd Airborne Division's mission is winding down, and exhaustion had long ago set in. Maj. Matt Anderson, a logistics guru with the 82nd, said the supply line was going to shift, and he didn't know when there would be another ride, so this convoy was the only spot to be.
I got in a hefty cargo truck with a machine gun mounted on top of the roofless cab, the Army long-haul version of a convertible. All it lacked was a tape deck blaring Eagles' tunes: "It's a girl, my Lord, in a flatbed Ford..."
From Diwaniyah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, down to Samawah, our convoy cut through what has become 82nd territory in Iraq, after the paratroopers weeded out pro-Saddam Hussein militia, killing dozens in Samawah and occupying three other towns without hardly firing a shot. The paratrooper division owns the road, and local residents are getting accustomed to the noisy, monstrous military vehicles streaming by.
They wave from sidewalks and farm fields, from donkey carts and the ubiquitous white taxis with orange quarter-panels. The desolate countryside, on the other hand, is indifferent to the invaders and spits back with hot winds and pelting sands.
At Talil, the convoy went its way on the next leg of the journey to resupply in Kuwait. I was now dependent on the kindness of the U.S. Air Force officers at the former Iraqi airfield. They took pity and lined me up on a seat on, as a friend says, the next plane smokin'.
The "lounge" tent next door to our hangar included a DVD player and a couple boxes of snack foods.
"It must be nice to be in the Air Force," said Army Spc. Jose Chapa, 25, waiting for the same plane.
Spc. Randall Hocker, 27, a combat hospital staff member based in San Antonio, was also on the flight manifest. It was incomprehensible how he mustered any patience. The Red Cross had delivered a message that his wife, Rebecca, was in critical condition, suffering complications from diabetes and epilepsy.
"She took this deployment pretty hard," Hocker said. He opened a plastic baggie with family photos from South Padre Island, showing the couple's 2-year-old daughter and 11-month-old son. The youngsters are in the care of their grandmother, who is in a wheelchair.
With the outgoing cargo cleared, the half-dozen passengers loaded in the cavernous aircraft on a darkened runway. Earplugs did little to mitigate the noise of four propellers churning through the air.
The chubby plane touched down at a military base outside Kuwait City about midnight, at the same time as hundreds of soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division arrived for their turn in the war. This location still seemed a world away from the occasional explosions, the poverty and the start-from-scratch efforts at self-government on the other side of the border.
With the help of a friendly major, a taxicab waited down the road at the main gate. It was a brief drive to a hotel and, for the first time in weeks, a shower and real food.
I was nearly home.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.