A Year in the Desert

July 14th 2002 — already searing hot in the desert of Kuwait as I took command of an Air Force civil engineer squadron at Ahmed Al Jaber Air Base. After having spent a year here, I think I have some insight into why Jesus and others went into the desert to pray.

Hurry Up and Wait

The awesome responsibility of command in a combat zone was weighing on my mind: I would have 319 engineers under my command by the time Operation Iraqi Freedom would begin in March. Standing on the podium to address my troops for the first time I prayed, “Lord be with me, please don’t let me fail them.”

We all knew war was coming, and there was a lot of work to do to get two fighter squadrons and 1,200 airmen prepared to conduct combat operations and our base ready for a population that would swell by nine times. My journal entry for August 1st read in part, “We’ll need more of everything: engineers, equipment, time.”

Over the next seven months we worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to expand the airbase — building fuel storage and pipelines, living quarters, aircraft parking areas, and bomb storage — an enormous and very stressful effort. Through it all, there was one constant in my life: daily Mass. Each day at 6 pm I broke free from the constant construction and manic pace of our “preparatory tasks” to be in the presence of Our Lord. This was a great comfort — I sometimes caught myself not wanting to leave the chapel. The chapel “shelter” is not what many would recognize as a church. It’s a steel walled structure the Air Force calls “Shelter, General Purpose, Harvest Falcon,” but to those of us who worship there, it’s our church. The fact that our chapel has “shelter” and “harvest” in it’s Air Force name is simply an irony of military life, but wonderful nonetheless!

Fall meant Thanksgiving and the beginning of Advent, and we were waiting for the Savior. Watching the news, it seemed that the operation could begin at any time. Anticipation for the word from the Commander in Chief was hanging in the air around the base. U.S. and British forces began to pour into the Gulf and we all played “armchair general.” What would we do if we were Saddam? Could we execute the plan? We even began to speculate on the “go” day — when would we cross the line?

By now there were more engineers on the base than aircrew — almost a thousand airmen, soldiers, Seabees, and marines building feverishly to expand the base to accept the “maneuver” units that would follow. As the international political game played out in Washington, New York, Riyadh, and London, we had to remain focused on being ready when and if the President called on us. FoxNews, CNN, and SkyNews could be seen nonstop on almost every TV on the base.

Christmas was a welcome respite from the long days, but still a work day. Our Catholic Chaplain, (Major) Father Gary Breig, had organized an ecumenical Christmas choir, and we practiced for Christmas “concerts” in the Mess Hall. It was joyful to share Christmas with our fellow Christians. On Christmas Eve, we celebrated an ecumenical candlelight service with a full church. Then we traveled by bus around the base, caroling, reminding folks of the holiday. We finished at the Chapel just prior to Midnight Mass. Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters even stayed for Midnight Mass — it was good to be “one flock” for a change.

Against the backdrop of forces pouring into Kuwait, the airmen of our air wing were flying combat missions daily into southern Iraq to enforce the Southern No-Fly Zone. We had been executing Operation Southern Watch for years, but as Iraqi air defense troops began challenging Allied patrols, Allied airmen found themselves in combat on virtually every patrol. By December, our aircrews were fired on every time they crossed into Iraq and were returning fire often. This was on my mind on Christmas Eve as I saw my fellow Catholics in Baghdad on TV receiving the Eucharist “alongside” me just a few hundred miles to the north.

Winter gave way to spring and war loomed. By February we were working feverishly to complete thirty some-odd construction projects while simultaneously readying ourselves for combat. Our base population swelled from 1,200 to over 8,000 from all four Services and three countries. We were consuming almost a half million gallons of water daily, not to mention operating a multitude of heavy equipment and tactical vehicles on a base designed for one-eighth the number of people. As the numbers of troops swelled, we found ourselves focusing more effort on the basic “city services” to sustain the large population. Imagine any town in the USA of 8,000 people — with only one place to eat, 50 people per bathroom, one gym, and one convenience store! By late February, we’d gotten as comfortable as we were going to get. We’d opened another four mess halls and had the city services running smoothly.

The Pope was calling on all parties not to rush to war and his call for peace stirred a lot of discussion between us all. How did we feel about it as Catholics? Most of us prayed for peace, hoping Saddam would take the same way out that Raoul Cedras had taken just before the Haiti operation: just leave. All of us hoped that the regime change could be accomplished peacefully, and we prayed alongside the Holy Father toward this hope. As it became clear that Saddam would not “just leave,” we wondered about the “go” date &#0151. We became experts in lunar illumination and Gulf climatology, all of us trying to discern when the “best” time would be and predict when the order would come.

Support From Above and Back Home

Mail, both electronic and regular, was tremendously important to us. I received many encouraging letters from friends and family, it was a link to familiar things back home. To those who’ve never experienced deployment, it’s difficult to explain. Living away from everything familiar, it’s easy to feel like you’re on another planet. We were blessed to have email and many corresponded with their spouses daily. Getting to a computer in the morning and seeing mail from my wife or family and friends was a great joy; it really eased the loneliness I felt being so far from home. I can only imagine what it must have been like for service members in previous wars who waited weeks or months for a single letter.

The outpouring of affection from the States was humbling. So many people sent care packages and prayers that we literally spent weeks sending thank you notes. There were so many prayers offered for us that I’m sure we must have had a prayer shield a mile thick!

By early March, we were largely complete with all the airbase expansion. We put the final paint on new taxiways and parking aprons. We watched the news, prayed, and tried to concentrate on the mission ahead, hoping that it wouldn’t happen but knowing that Saddam had a poor track record for putting his people’s needs ahead of his own. When it became clear that the regime in Baghdad would cling to power to the last, we mentally prepared ourselves for the order that we all knew would come. Somehow it seemed serendipitous that we would almost certainly “go” during Lent — we would be the instruments of justice for the Iraqis during the time of penance and conversion.

On March 19th Allied forces went after targets around Baghdad, Operation Iraqi Freedom had begun.

We commanders got word that the order had come and gathered our troops together. For most, this was the first time in combat and no one knew exactly what to expect. On paper, the Iraqi military had weapons that could reach us and hurt us; terrorists and Iraqi Intelligence Service troops also posed a threat. We questioned if they had learned from the first war and changed their tactics. I told my engineers that our cause was just, and that they should trust their leaders, their training, and their God. I assured them we would do our jobs and take care of each other.

As the ground forces crossed the border and began their dash north, airmen from our base were flying around the clock to seize control of the air and clear the way for advancing ground forces. An Iraqi missile flew toward Kuwait on the 20th of March, the first of 14 such attacks over the course of the first two weeks. None of the missiles made it to the base thanks to the skill of the Army Patriot batteries. Of course, we had no way of knowing what type of warhead was on each missile, so each raid meant a scramble into chemical protective gear and a “bunker run.” The missile raids made the first week seem like one long day and no one slept much. We joked that it seemed like the Iraqi missileers were watching us because every time I was able to get into a restful sleep, another air raid siren blared.

Our Chaplain made Mass available as best he could during this stressful time, but for the first time since I’d arrived, I was unable to attend daily Mass and I missed it very much. My copy of Magnificat was a great blessing, and I carried it in the cargo pocket of my chemical warfare protective trousers. Each day, I pulled it out and tried to find time for morning and evening prayer, and to spend a few minutes with the daily Mass readings. God’s Word was a great comfort to me during my “long day” and I relied on Him then more than ever.

After the first week of the war, we moved some of our forces north to a captured Iraqi air base and began to use it to support the fight around Baghdad. By the third week, we were pushing significant numbers of troops and supplies from our air wing into Iraq. The Iraqi Ba’ath party loyalists’ resistance crumbled around Baghdad and heavy combat came to an end.

On the Way Home

Somehow, the darkness of war gave way to the light of Easter and we celebrated our own “resurrection” from wartime operations. The ecumenical Easter Sunrise Service felt like a turning point as we gathered before a large illuminated wooden cross on the flightline to welcome the risen Savior. Easter Mass followed and we welcomed four new Christians into the Church.

The missile threat had also evaporated with the Republican Guard. Chemical suits went back into their bags, working hours gradually returned to “normal,” and we shifted from base defense back into logistically sustaining our base and the new air bases in Iraq. When we got the order to close the base down, we began to break camp. The base population slowly returned to a more reasonable number, and all of the tents went back in their boxes.

My year in the desert is almost over — in a week I’ll be winging my way back to the States to be reunited with my family and move to our new assignment in Washington DC. I’m leaving here with great memories of serving alongside some really fine people. The men and women I served with here will always have a special place in my heart.

During my time here, God has taught me some important life lessons centered around the virtues of service and self-giving. First, I’ve re-learned that “Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff” and “It’s All Small Stuff” is true. Often I would forget to look at the whole and focus on a little piece that wasn’t going the way I wanted. Usually it’s because I wanted ownership of a thing or process, perhaps even with the best of intentions, but that desire for ownership created conflict from time to time. Mother Theresa said it best when she said, “I prefer, in any case, if I make a mistake, to do it out of charity.” The second lesson was that the river of graces that flow from the Sacraments really do change a person. I would never have been able to lead a 300 person squadron in a combat zone without the life-sustaining graces from frequent reception of the Eucharist and Sacrament of Reconciliation. Morning and Evening Prayer and the Rosary, both in private and in community with my fellow Christians, were likewise a source of strength and inspiration through the toughest times. The third lesson of my year in the desert was that God also pours out His strength through His Word in the Scriptures. I can sense the positive difference in myself when I spend time in the Word — He truly speaks to us through the Scriptures; they are a treasure trove of graces.

Finally, this year has reinforced my belief that true freedom only comes through Jesus Christ. So many are in bondage to any number of “things” and “ideas” that keep them from being the beautiful people we were created to be. The Morning Offering is one wonderful way among many I try to stay on the path of daily conversion and surrender my life to Jesus. On the days when I made Jesus my priority by offering my day and my work to Him in prayer, I was a much better leader than I could have ever been on my own — and when I became distracted from my prayers and tried to do it on my own, the results were predictably mediocre.

And now my “forty days” are completed and soon the normal routine of family life in my own country will be mine again. After so long away, I am certain that life back home will seem a little greener, a little more wonderful, a little more delightful in it’s “ordinariness.” Perhaps that’s what the desert journey is all about.

© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange

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Mickey Addison is a career Air Force officer with various assignments in the United States and most recently in Kuwait. He and his wife have been married for 16 years and they have two children.

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