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Part 1: Operation Iraqi Freedom vacation - in Europe!Author: Ben Shakman (More Trip Reviews by Ben Shakman)
Date of Trip: March 2006
This is afour part trip report that covers our drive from Illinois to Dover, some missteps with flights, our trip around Europe (Germany, France, Switzerland, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland), and our return travel. Of note: I traveled both ways with our daughters (age 5 & 7) while my wife made her way to Germany from Iraq in order to join us for this adventure. There are morepictures from this trip on our website at smugmug.com.
March 17th (Day 0)
I finished off the very last of the packing for the trip in the morning and loaded all of our stuff into the back of our pickup truck in preparation for the 1000-mile trip out to the East Coast. I went to work with the intention of leaving a little early to do some last-minute personal business, but it was not to be. I am currently serving as a brigade adjutant and this happened to be the day of the Hail & Farewell in recognition of the pending change of command ceremony being held the next day. As a result, I barely managed to get out for lunch and spent that time at the bookstore loading up on maps and guidebooks for the trip. We had an F-2 tornado come through town the Sunday before and it knocked out power to thousands of homes and businesses -- some places (including the only decent bookstore in town) were still without electricity almost a week later. Fortunately, the bookstore reopened mid-morning and I was able to pick up my resources for the journey. The Hail & Farewell went very well and the local VFW (Post 755 in Springfield, Illinois) was simply fantastic. I even made it home in time to get a good night's rest before setting out the next morning.
March 18th (Day 1)
I called Dover shortly after leaving home to get their projections on outbound flights for the trip across the Atlantic. They had a Sunday flight with a 1640 show time that I thought we could make as long as we didn't lollygag too much en-route. Nothing too exciting happened this day with the exception of the fact that I was able to drive 760 miles with nary a comment from my 5 & 7 year old daughters. I credit this to two facts: first, I don't let them watch TV at home; second, I installed a portable DVD player with twin 8' LCD screens for them to watch movies. As we neared the DC area, I decided that we would contact my aunt who lives in Potomac and hopefully join her for a late dinner at one of our favorite sushi restaurants that just happens to be very near her house. Unfortunately, she was out of town and the restaurant would be closed before we arrive. I decided to let the kids pick a restaurant in Hagerstown, Maryland where we stopped for dinner. We wound up at Fazoli's and then stayed at the Holiday Inn Express -- once of their nicer properties.
March 19th (Day 2)
We woke up a little on the early side and proceeded to spend about 90-minutes in the swimming pool. After a quick breakfast (where I discovered that the kids like hard-boiled eggs -- who knew?) we hit the road. I called Dover every hour for updates on flights learned that they had 1430 and 1750 flights to Ramstein. We made good time on our short drive. The kids were very well behaved in the back seat and we arrived at Dover in time for a late lunch. My persistent calls reveled that the 1430 show time had disappeared so that left us with the 1750. Based on my calculations, I figured that flight would put us into Ramstein around mid-morning on Monday.
We arrived at the PAX terminal and a very nice member of the Air Force Reserve on his Annual Training from Arkansas gave us a ride back from the long-term parking (wouldn't it be great if there was a better way when one flies out of Dover?) so that we could drop off our vehicle. With the truck in long-term parking, our baggage in the terminal, and a minor sign-up glitch fixed -- we were all set to fly. I had a little bit of time before our show time so I contacted Ramstein lodging to get a TLF room and also called Hertz to move up our pickup by two days. The space-a gods were certainly smiling on us!
I had everything locked in with only two exceptions: we were not yet manifest and I hadn't heard from my wife since she left her base in Ad Diwiniyah. I was very nervous about the idea of getting on a plane and going to Germany with only a rudimentary plan for conducting our link-up. The basics of our plan were as follows:
-- we would provide all known flight information to each other via email
-- she expected that she would fly into Frankfurt while I was planning to arrive at Ramstein
-- we would immediately check our email accounts for information on each other's whereabouts
-- we would buy cheap cell phones, email each other the numbers, and then wait for a call
-- It looked like I would arrive first and drive to Frankfurt, find a hotel, and play it by ear
-- I had lined up several friends in Germany who would serve as a clearinghouse for information in the event that nothing else worked .
It wasn't much of a plan, but it was the best we could manage given the circumstances.
We had been planning this trip since before she deployed in August 2005 and I had managed to keep it a secret from the kids. I was unsure that I would be able to work things out so that we could meet up with her and I was simultaneously concerned about the likelihood of being able to drag them around Germany for a couple of days while surreptitiously trying to locate my wife.
I was at the PAX counter (they knew about the surprise) and the customer service personnel were trying to help me by looking in their system to see if my wife had been manifest anywhere. They certainly put forth a yeoman's effort and it was during one of our conversations that the phone rang -- "our" flight was pushed back 24-hours due to a maintenance delay and a subsequent crew rest issue. The Space-A gods may have been smiling on us, but the C-5 demons clearly had other plans. There was another flight with a 0030 show time and I decided that we would wait to see if that one might come true for us instead.
My cell phone rang shortly after I got the news on the cancellation. It was Charleen calling to tell me that she was in the PAX terminal in Baghdad and that her C-130 to Kuwait had been delayed. I told her that she had narrowly missed me. She let me know that she anticipated arriving in Kuwait the next day and was hoping that someone there would have some information for her at that point.
March 20th (Day 3)
The 0030 show time finally rolled around and we were manifest on the flight. All signs indicated that we were going to make it to Germany before Charleen. The ride out to the plane was eventful only for the fact that the young airman insisted that the heater on the bus was broken right up until the time that another passenger stood up and showed him how to switch it on. We waited for a while until they summoned us to board. We strapped in and were ready to go when the aircrew decided to screw around with the cabin lights. They said that there was a problem with the circuit breaker and that maintenance was going to come on board to try to fix it as we couldn't fly without cabin lights that would remain lit. I doubt that it would have made a difference to any of us given the scarcity of passengers and our overall level of fatigue at 0200. Eventually, we were told that they needed to remove us and our baggage from the flight but that they would try to get it fixed for another hour before canceling the flight altogether. We loaded back onto the bus and they put our baggage onto a truck. We were hauling our bags back into the PAX terminal when the plane took off without us. I settled the kids into a crib in the family room and then called Ramstein billeting to push our reservations back 24 hours.
Our next possibility was the mission that had rolled over from the previous evening. I vowed not to leave the terminal so long as there was a possibility of us getting on the flight, but nothing popped up over the course of the day. Charleen managed to email me over the course of our wait and I learned that she had arrived in Kuwait and was booked on a Lufthansa commercial flight that would get her into Frankfurt at about 0600. Her plan was to take a train to Landsthul and look for me at the station at 1100. If she did not see me, she was going to take a cab to Building 305 and then find us in our room. This all sounded solid to me, but I regretted the fact that it would be virtually impossible to get through customs, into our room, pick up the rental car, and meet her when she got off the train.
At one point when her computer allocation in Kuwait had expired, I walked out to chat with the PAX folks. I asked them to please let the flight crew know in advance that there was "no room at the inn" and that if they had maintenance problems that kept them from flying that they would be billeted at the approach end of the runway in a GP Medium.
We got on the plane and had an uneventful (and very restful) flight to Ramstein.
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