The other day I was having a conversation with a German-Italian friend of mine who began telling me a story of how she had encountered a snag in cell phone service while she was at a Turkish airport awaiting a flight to Cyprus. The problem, it seems, stemmed from a misunderstanding by the Turkish representative of her cell phone company. And although she had double –checked that the charges would be from use in Turkish Cyprus, they seem to have got it wrong and her cell phone charges were from Turkey, which cost much more because she wasn’t in Turkey. Of course, she didn’t realize this until she got back to Italy.
It reminded me of the only time I’ve ever been in Turkey.
It was September of 1998 and I’d been assigned to the Intelligence Watch at Dal Molin, the NATO air base in Vicenza, Italy. It was clear that NATO was about to enter the war in Kosovo against Serbia. The war would be prosecuted from Dal Molin, so we on the Intelligence Watch would be a big part of it.
I’d only arrived at Dal Molin a few months earlier and was just getting used to working shifts, alternating between days and nights on a weekly basis. It was difficult work, but I hoped it would turn out to be a long assignment because I was finding that I liked Italy very much.
One morning, or perhaps it was afternoon since I don’t remember which shift I was on at the time, I woke to find that my left hand was completely numb. I must have fallen asleep with my arm under me. It had happened before and I waited for the pins and needles to start and my hand to wake up. But it didn’t. As I showered and tried to get dressed, my hand just wouldn’t wake up! Our uniforms were BDUs (Battle Dress Uniforms or Cammies) and buttoning the shirt and pants proved to be a major job, as the buttons were quite large and the material quite heavy and I was able to use only one hand. Thank God it was my right hand! As difficult as the buttons were, lacing my combat boots proved to be all but impossible with one hand. I did the best I could and got in my car to drive to work, which presented another challenge. I managed to drive by using the crook of my left elbow to hold the steering wheel while I shifted with my right hand. Thank God it was a short drive to the base.
Nobody commented on the state of my uniform or the fact that my boots seemed to be very loosely tied and I made it through the shift OK. But my hand wouldn’t wake up! I was reluctant to tell my Commander that I was having a problem, since I thought they might send me back to the States, so I said nothing. I was able to hide the fact that I couldn’t use my left hand. Everything was typed into the computer and I could handle that with just my right hand. I made it home driving with my left elbow and right hand. It didn’t take long to get used to driving that way. The shifts were 12 hours and so unless I had a day off, my routine was to go home after work, have a bite to eat and then try to sleep until it was time to get up and go back to work.
After one full day and night, there was no change in my hand. It was completely useless. I couldn’t make a fist, or touch my fingers together as there was almost no sensation. I had to get up a couple of hours earlier than normal to give myself time to shower and dress. This situation went on for the next 3 or 4 days and then I had a day off, which I spent going to the clinic.
The doctor at the Army Clinic was flummoxed. I wasn’t surprised since I’ve often presented doctors with flummox-worthy symptoms of one sort or another. His only solution was to send me to the American Military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany to see if surgery was needed.
So, now I had to tell my Commander what the situation was. After almost a week of hoping it would just get better, it was clear that something had to be done. I wasn’t willing to go through the rest of my life without the use of my left hand. And if they decided to send me home, so be it. As it turned out, we were a bit over-staffed in preparation for the Kosovo war and the Deputy Commander volunteered to take my shifts for a couple of days and they let me go up to Landstuhl.
I know, you’re asking, “So what’s this got to do with Turkey?” Don’t worry, I’m getting there.
Of course, this is the military, so I had to get orders to go to Landstuhl. The orders included a two-night stay at the Patients Inn (my name for the facility), which was located right beside the hospital. I was to show up at 0630 the next morning at the clinic where I would be taken by van to Aviano Air Base and then by Medevac (a military air ambulance) to Landstuhl. There were three other people in the van. Two Italian women, one who was married to an American retired soldier and the other who was married to an Italian Officer who worked at the American base, and a young soldier who had injured his hand training to jump out of airplanes. I became friends with the Italian women and I lent the young soldier some money so he could go out to dinner with us after we’d all seen our doctors and set appointments for our various procedures. We all checked into the Patients Inn. I optimistically booked my room for two nights.
After getting settled into my room, I met with a surgeon who, lucky for me, was actually a specialist in hand surgery. He was an Air Force Major in his mid-thirties and was clearly excited about his work, which inspired my confidence in him. He told me that he had recently operated on an African man who was wounded in the August 1998 attack on the American Embassy in Tanzania and they were able to re-attach his hand, which was nearly blown off. He thought my problem, although unusual, would be a piece of cake. He had seen symptoms like mine before, but only on people who had fallen off motorcycles, scraping the underside of their arms as they slid on the pavement thereby damaging the ulnar nerve. I told him that I was not injured and had no pain, but that I had just woken up with a numb hand. I suggested that perhaps I’d fallen off my broom while riding in the night. He laughed at my joke, and that, along with the fact that he was very handsome, made the decision to trust him very easy.
After enduring a test that used electric shocks administered to my fingers to determine the amount of time it took for the shock to travel up to the ulnar nerve, it was determined that the only solution was surgery to transpose the nerve. This is actually the nerve which we call the “funny bone”. Not a bone at all. I was told the nerve was “all scrunched up” and by moving it to a less exposed place, behind a bit of fatty tissue, I should regain about 80% of the use of my left hand. 80% didn’t sound too bad after being told that if I did nothing, the hand would atrophy (a really horrible word!) and I’d lose all use of it. Plus, one of my biggest passions is playing the piano and I intended to do a lot of that when I retired. The 80% might have put a cramp in my Carnegie Hall debut, but it probably wouldn’t have a great impact on my playing. Decision made. They would operate the next day and I could be back at work in 2 days.
I called my Commander and told him the situation. The Kosovo situation hadn’t kicked off yet, so a few days without me would be alright.
The next morning I was back at the hospital at 0600 hours being prepped for surgery. As I was being hooked up for an EKG, the fire alarm sounded and we had to evacuate the building. This messed up everyone’s schedule and non-urgent surgeries were put off to the next morning. So, another call to my Commander explaining that I’d probably be a day later than planned. And I had to book another night at the Patients Inn.
The surgery did go off the next morning and all went well. I was kept in the hospital overnight, but released at the crack of dawn so that I could go back to Aviano on the Medevac flight the next morning. Up again at the crack of dawn to take the shuttle bus from Landstuhl to Ramstein Air Base for the Medevac flight. There were three or four of us waiting for the shuttle when we were told that the flight had been cancelled and to come back tomorrow morning at the same time. Another call to the Commander. I think he was beginning to think I was malingering. But he was career army so he understood. Just another SNAFU. And another night at the Patients Inn.
The next morning we were able to actually get on the Medevac plane at Ramstein. After speaking with some of my plane mates, I understood that the Medevac flight would have many stops to pick up and discharge patients. Now, Aviano Air Base in Italy is only just over an hour’s flight time away from Ramstein, and so I thought that would be our first stop. But I learned that, in fact, it would be the last stop. Our route was to make two stops in Turkey (see, I told you we’d get to Turkey) at Incirlik and Izmir. Then down to Sicily before turning north to Pisa and finally Aviano. Total time: between 10-12 hours. More than flying from Boston to Europe!
The first problem came at the first stop. Incirlik is a Turkish Air Base on loan to NATO. Even though Turkey is a NATO partner, relations between Turkey and the United States have had their ups and downs over the years and the Medevac crew informed us that the Turks sometimes give them a hard time for reasons the crew are never made aware of. We were told that normally, a Turkish soldier would board the airplane and check our documents then let any other people board. Often there is space available on the flights so that if some serviceman or woman has leave, they might take the flight to Italy for a little vacation. There was, in fact, a couple who were heading to Pisa on our flight. This time, however, the Turks had some problems with our flight and we all had to de-plane. The Captain warned us to keep silent and cooperate with the Turkish officials. We were all ambulatory, but we must have looked quite a sight with our diverse bandages, casts, and whatnot, some of us having to be helped off the airplane. We were told to form a line while our documents were scrutinized. There were probably 12 of us in all including the crew but for some reason, the Turkish officials seemed to be confused about our number and we were counted numerous times while standing in line. I can tell you that nobody was smiling and none of us were talking. It was quite tense. I wracked my brain for what might have been going on in Turkey at the moment, but I couldn’t come up with anything. I knew that Turkey was solidly on the side of the Muslim population in Kosovo, as was NATO, so that should not have been an issue. Imagine that! Less than 20 years ago, NATO, and naturally the USA, intervening on the behalf of Muslims! Anyway, we never found out what the problem was, but it took us over an hour to get back on the plane. This was a big problem for the crew because they had to be back in Ramstein before a certain hour and a delay of more than an hour in Turkey meant that they would have to skip landing in Izmir and go directly to Sicily, which we did.
We left Sicily and headed for Pisa. Just as we were landing in Pisa, the Captain was told to turn back to Sicily to pick up a mother and her new-born twins who were all in distress, and then to return directly to Ramstein. As we had to refuel in Pisa to return to Sicily, I asked if I could just get off the plane. I knew my way back to Vicenza from Pisa and I was desperate not to have to call my Commander with another delay. Plus, I wasn’t in any pain so I didn’t think I needed any more medical attention. But I was told that without the doctor’s orders, I would be released only in Aviano. So, back to Sicily we went. The mother and twins were all adorable but clearly needed to get to Landstuhl as quickly as possible. So back to Germany we went, and yes, another call to my Commander. And yet another check-in at the Patients Inn.
Another early morning shuttle to Ramstein and back on the Medevac flight once again. I don’t really remember the route we took this time, whether or not we stopped in Turkey, but if we did, there was no problem. But I remember that we went to Mildenhall in England as the last stop before Aviano. We landed around 10 pm in Aviano only to find that the airport was closing and we had no transport back to Vicenza. With all the delays, we sort of fell through the cracks in terms of coordinating transportation. There were four of us and we were told to take rooms at the Inn and return to Vicenza the next morning. But I wasn’t the only one who was desperate to get home.
One of the soldiers called his wife in Vicenza and asked her to come up to Aviano and bring us all back. She arrived In Aviano around 12:30 am and brought us back. I asked her to leave me off at Dal Molin and I walked into work just a little late for the 2 am turnover. Of course, I was out of uniform and had my arm in a sling but my relief was really happy to see me.
In the next few days, my hand began to regain sensation. I was given dispensation to wear civilian clothes to work for the next week, given that it was so difficult to get my uniform on.
The flight that I thought would take just a little over an hour turned out to take about 40 hours. But the Kosovo War didn’t kick off for us until mid-October and I was well back at my post by then.