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Goodbye, Starbucks

Editor's note: The following is Capt. Dan Sukman's first entry for his Soldier's Diary. Dan's plane out of Atlanta was delayed at least once; he is now in Kuwait and plans to file his next entry from there.

March 6, 2006

Today is the end of my two-week, mid-tour leave. Right now I am in Atlanta International Airport sipping a Starbucks coffee — my last Starbucks for the next seven months. Two days from now when I'm back in Iraq it will be the same crappy cup of coffee every morning and Green Bean Café Mocha once a week.

My parents dropped me off at LaGuardia Airport this morning at about 6 a.m. The Transportation Safety Administration allows one relative to accompany soldiers to the gate prior to takeoff; it is a privilege soldiers get. So my mother walked with me through the terminal. Mothers always win that coin toss.

As tough as it was to say goodbye to my parents, the toughest goodbye was to my dog before I left the house. I can only assume it is due to all the affection a dog gives its owner.

Being home and seeing friends and relatives and then leaving again for Iraq — I don’t understand how soldiers who are married and have children get through the two weeks' leave. It's almost enough time to go back to normal life, but not quite enough.

The link-up time for soldiers to report in Atlanta International is 1300 hours. I am assuming the flight will not depart for Kuwait until sometime late tonight, but that is expected in our line of work: get to where you're going, then wait around for a while. Atlanta International is filled with soldiers, a lot I recognize from the flight more than two weeks ago from Baghdad and Kuwait.

After about an hour-and-a-half of sitting and listening to my iPod, a representative from the USO approaches me and tells me that I can store my bags with them until the flight. The USO is small and about 30 soldiers are inside waiting with me. It is staffed by members of the VFW — I am guessing they served in WWII or the Korean War. As if they have not already done enough in their lifetime for the country, they continue to serve by helping out soldiers in the current war.

While waiting, we mostly sit around discussing our leave, and take our best guess on when we will get back to Baghdad.

I put in for my leave almost three months ago. Each soldier who is deployed for a year to Iraq is offered the chance for 15 days leave. Add in travel days and it comes out to about three weeks away from work.

The timing for the most part was up to me. We are allowed to take leave anywhere from the second month to the 10th month in theater, so at any given time most units in Iraq are operating with 10 percent of their soldiers on leave.

Getting to New York from Baghdad was a two-day process. Early on the morning of Feb. 16, about 40 soldiers from my brigade met up at Baghdad International Airport for a flight to Kuwait. After turning in our body armor and helmet for storage there, we were taken to the Sato travel agency, which specifically works with military personnel, and were issued our tickets.

Soldiers are offered tickets anywhere in the United States or overseas. I live in Fort Campbell, Ky., but chose to fly to New York, where my family lives. Most soldiers fly home to see their wives, kids and families, and then there are soldiers who go to places like Germany or Hawaii instead.

Once tickets were distributed, we were given our report time for the next morning and a tent to stay in for the night. The next day, we reported at 1300 hours in order to go through customs before the flight at 2230 hours.

When going through customs, all bags are searched and x-rayed. It’s a little frustrating having all our bags searched like that, but they wouldn't be searching bags if no one had ever tried to carry weapons or other illegal items out of Iraq before. Once the searches were over, it was just a matter of waiting for the flight out.

The plane left on time — seven hours to Shannon, Ireland, a two-hour layover, then eight hours to Atlanta. It was a chartered fight with civilian flight attendants but only servicemembers as passengers, so unfortunately no alcohol was served. No drinking in uniform is the policy, and we were all still in uniform and would be until getting home.

Atlanta International Airport is the gateway for all soldiers going on leave, and is where they fly out to their final destination. I had about a 3-hour layover there. While waiting in a restaurant, a family invited me over and paid for my breakfast. It was a very nice gesture and a great way to start leave.

Finally getting to New York was great. My parents met me at the airport and even brought my dog, which my mother has been looking after.

The first week of leave was relaxing, and the best part was just not being in Iraq. It was a little strange because life moves a lot slower over here. Just waking up in the morning and not having to get a slide ready for a briefing or not having 15 e-mails in my inbox was a nice break. But I knew that by the end of the week, I would be ready to get back to work.

E-mail Dan at soldiersdiary@gmail.com. Click here to read his bio.