Navy officer Ryan Haag writes about his trip to Bahrain, with illuminating details of day-to-day life in the military, Arab culture, and seeing the “Big Navy” picture.
It’s 1:45 in the morning and I’m plopped on the floor of Bahrain International Airport,
trying to stay awake and not suffocate in the cigarette smoke rolling past me. It’s been a long three months in Bahrain, but I’m finally headed home; that is, if I don’t fall asleep and miss my flight.
I arrived in Bahrain three months earlier in about the same status: tired, smelling of cigarette smoke, and just a bit dazed. After navigating the maze of hallways to get to my bags (only to find them discarded on the floor to make room on the conveyor belt), I finally managed to find my sponsor, get my rental car, and then, in the dead of night, attempt to navigate my way to our hotel. My fatigue quickly vaporized when I learned the first couple rules of driving in this part of the world:
1. Every lane is a turn lane.
2. If you go fast enough, you have the right of way.
I was given two days to adjust to the new time zone before I started working. My new boss, the Joint Fires Officer at Fifth Fleets headquarters, needed people to plan Tomahawk missile missions, and I was one of the few officers who had gone through the course. Since I was on shore duty at Second Fleet in Norfolk, I was picked to spend 3 months in Bahrain to support Fifth Fleet until they brought in more full-time mission planners.
The Tomahawk is a $600K GPS missile, launched from a ship that can fly through a window over 800 miles away. Its accuracy, and the fact that it doesn’t need a pilot, make it a great weapon to fight terrorists where we don’t have a lot of planes, as well as allowing us to knock out risky targets (like air defenses) without risking pilots’ lives. Although I can’t provide a lot of details, it is very demanding work; I spent most days working 10-13 hours, 6 days a week.
In the time I did have off, I was determined to hit up the town. Bahrain is a VERY small island, but I resolved to explore as much as possible, and learn as much as I could. Most of my previous liberty ports had been too short to see much, and in many cases I never got to leave the base. I wouldn’t make the same mistake on this three-month trip.
The first stop was the Al-Fateh Mosque, one of the few mosques in the Arab world open to visitors. I went my second weekend there with three other guys from the office. We were met by an armed security guard at the entrance, who said we couldn’t enter. We began arguing (after all, he was standing in front of a sign that said “Open to tourists”), but he insisted that we had to be part of an official tour group. After about 10 minutes of arguing, a tour group of 6th graders walked up, led by an older Muslim woman in a hijab (the black robe that covers everything but the face and hands), and she allowed us to hitch along with her group.
The mosque was surprisingly bare. There aren’t any pews, chairs, or much of anything on the inside. It’s like a big square gymnasium, except there is carpet and Arabic writing everywhere. A small microphone stand is used by a man to sing parts of the Koran five times a day to call all Muslims to prayer. Looking straight up, you could see the inside of a 60-ton pure fiberglass dome, the largest in the world.
By the microphone stand, our guide took questions. One of the 6th-grade girls asked why she wore the hijab. After about two minutes of attempting to delicately answer, she finally blurted out, “Our dress code says that women should cover themselves. If you wear very revealing clothing, it attracts attention. When you attract attention from men, you become, err, a sex object.” I couldn’t help but snicker with the 6th-grade boys.
After the kids left, we followed our guide into the adjoining library for some more questions. We asked if the hijab was uncomfortable. She showed us that it was rather thin, and made of silk. Apparently, they use black so that you can’t see through it since (her words) “…I don’t wear much below it.” With too much information, we finished our questions and headed out for swarmas.
Swarmas are the hot dogs of the Middle East. Some ingenious Arab decided to take vegetables and strips of goat, wrap them in a pita, and call it tasty. And it is! Enjoying the 90-degree heat (it would be 110 in another month), sipping fresh pomegranate juice (I had watched the gal in the kitchen beat it fresh from the fruit), and munching on goat pitas, we almost fit into the Arab crowd–except we were obviously American service members (the short hair cuts gave us away). Which brings up another point: I expected to be spit on, or get some dirty looks. I was surprised to have none of it. People didn’t really glance our way, and most were happy to see us, if only to try and sell us their goods.
The next few weeks were spent mostly at work, with the occasional trip out for dinner or groceries. Then, a bunch of pirates grabbed the American-crewed Maersk Alabama and held it for ransom. Suddenly, we weren’t at work enough. Although we had been preparing for our site’s computer upgrades, Fifth Fleet was suddenly the center of attention as the USS BAINBRIDGE and others raced to the scene to get our citizens back. Being able to see a bigger snippet of the high-level decisions that are made, and the kind of preparations, planning, thinking, and re-planning was a real eye-opener. When I was stationed on the USS HAMPTON, I didn’t see the “Big Navy” picture. I did what I was told, drove the ship to where it needed to be, and carried out orders. Seeing it from the inside gave me a new appreciation for what we had to do, and a downright chill when I realized that if we failed, someone’s wife would be wearing black in a few days…