Erzurum, Turkey 1984-1985

Jim Partica

© 2003-2011 by Author

What I can say about my tour of duty is that it was an interesting journey from the day I learned I was PCS-ing. I recall the only thing overly stressed to me from my unit PAC was to not wear a uniform in transit. I didn’t know why, but I had seen the movie "Midnight Express" and figured I wouldn’t question it. As I was on the Pan AM jet getting ready to land in Istanbul, I noticed an Army Major in his uniform and thought he must not have gotten the memo of no uniforms.

When we landed at the airport, the aircraft was surrounded by armed Turkish soldiers. Four of them entered the aircraft and escorted the Major off. I’m not sure where they took him but I sensed this country and tour was going to be unlike any other.

Once I had my bags, I looked for someone with a sign or for an American to escort me to the Çinar Hotel. That never happened, so I crossed my fingers that I could find an honest cab driver to get me there. I had no Turkish currency, didn’t speak the language and had no clue where the hotel was, but when I arrived at the hotel I found it to be better than expected. It overlooked the Marmara Sea and even had a piano bar. It was the first time I ever heard “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the old Oak Tree” sung with a Turkish accent! I couldn’t help thinking that I was living above my pay grade at this hotel. Across the street from the hotel was a small doner-kebab stand and an outdoor beer garden which was frequented everytime I stayed there.

While at the hotel I found another American soldier who told me I had to wait until Monday to sign in at Çakmakli. He said there would be a bus at the hotel that would take me there in the morning. Since I had all weekend to hang out, I spent much of it in the Grand Bazaar and touring Istanbul.

On Monday, I think I was the first one on the bus for Çakmakli. The trip to Çakmakli felt like I was going into the countryside and I remember fields of poppies along the way. When I arrived at the detachment, I went through the typical in-processing before being assigned to a USAFAD [United States Army Field Artillery Detachment]. I went through Turkish Headstart and won’t forget our instructor: Her name was Ms. Çiçek (it means flower in Turkish). I used to think she was either a dandelion or a rose, but couldn’t determine which one.

When I arrived at S-1, a clerk informed me that one of the detachments was considered the most remote army site in the world. I was intrigued by that and asked if that was where I was going. They said, "no," and that I was slated for Çorlu. I recall them jokingly saying they’d put me in Erzurum if I’d like, but that no-one wanted to go there. Because of that comment I asked if they would, and with shocked looks on their faces, they did just that!

Having no concept of where Erzurum was, I slowly figured it out when I saw the plane ticket with a stop-off in Ankara (another interesting place). During my layover I watched a lot of women and men go into the restroom with western style clothing on, but coming out in drab, ultra conservative garb. It was then I saw them boarding an Aeroflot aircraft headed for Moscow and realized they were going behind the iron curtain to a country far different in culture than I was accustomed to. I almost felt sorry for them. As I boarded the THY (Turk Hava Yolari) aircraft (we thought the acronym should have stood for “They Hate You” airlines), I knew I was heading toward the Russian boarder and wondered if the people in Erzurum dressed like the Soviets. Though similar in conservatism, the difference was that women dressed in traditional muslim burkas, mostly made of brown burlap. Upon my arrival in Erzurum I was told a Turk by the name of Salame would pick me up at the airport.

Landing in Erzurum was like landing on the moon to me. Everything seemed drab and depressing. No color whatsoever except for occasional buildings painted blue or red; and they stood out like a sore thumb. The mountains looked like solid rock, no trees, no greenery anywhere; a huge contrast to Istanbul. Taxiing to the terminal I saw soldiers on the roof of the airport and more surrounding the plane. I was walking right into a military state with no lifeline! I only hoped I got on the right plane and wasn’t in the USSR or Iran! I remember thinking that Uncle Sam wouldn’t just send his soldiers to far off places without some type of logistics in place, but it wasn’t feeling that way.

Fortunately, Salame was there to greet me and take me to the Detachment. The trip from the airport to the detachment was about 15 minutes. I remember leaving town and wondering what my unit was going to look like. It didn’t take long to see that I was being driven into a military zone; sandbagged and camouflaged artillery was everywhere. When we made the left turn to go up the hill to the unit, I noticed a cemetery on the corner of the main road just before the gate which was manned by Turkish soldiers. It was then I realized I would be living on a Turkish army base and not an American one. I remember walking into the First Sergeant's office and him asking me who I was. When I spoke, he said not to bother because he called everyone Dick. The company clerk asked me for my stamped copy of orders. (No passport was required, they just stamped our military orders). Once I got the tour of the detachment, I found that the Army must really like these guys, or pitied them, because there was a racquet ball court, a baseball diamond, an NCO club, PX, library and movie room. I was also introduced to our houseboy. I think it cost $25 a month and he did a lot. I chuckled when I first saw him because he looked like Charles Bronson. In my three years of the army, I never saw that much catering to such a small unit. I think it was the army’s way of making up for the isolation.

Another requirement upon arrival at the 27th USAFAD was a command tour of Erzurum, which included the local Kirihani. Though I was never a patron (yes, it’s true) I never understood why they would take us there only to tell us not to frequent the place!

I found camaraderie was a must if you wanted to make the most of your tour. Without it, one would struggle mentally due to the isolation, and a few did. It certainly wasn’t for the weak as everyone was expected to perform above expectations. I saw a few soldiers take their mid-tour leave and not come back. They opted to try for “hardship reassignments”. “The Rock” as we so intimately referred to it was our home for at least a year and in my case fifteen months. What I found so unique and intriguing was no matter what your MOS or classification was, you learned a little bit about everyones’ jobs. As a radio man, I learned more about explosive ordnance disposal and artillery than I ever expected. For me, I think the hardest part of anything at the detachment was when the alert sounded. Being a smoker, running was never my favorite thing to do, but when that alarm sounded and you had to run up that steep hill to the guard house between the double fences, it was a killer! Speaking of guard duty, I remember having to be in formation in front of the orderly room for inspection before guard duty began. The Officer of the Day would inspect our weapons and uniforms and quiz us on the rules of engagement and other Standard Operating Procedures we had to learn. Having to learn the SOP’s was pretty simple, but when I thought about the ramification of any actions I may have to take, it became real. Duress codes, separation techniques, SAT, BAF, AF, etc. had real meaning and I knew I was going to be living a different lifestyle for the next fifteen months.

It took me nearly a month to really settle into my new life. It actually became easier with time and I developed friendships. I kept telling myself that I asked for this. I could have been in a comfortable setting where I could go out in the evenings and have a beer, but no, I was young and stupid and wanted to test my resolve! Maybe I was just trying to stay out of trouble for my final tour of duty in the Army. Who knows, but I had no one to blame.

I remember being assigned to a four-man room for a while before being placed in the NCO barracks - a two man room. The two man room was much better as there was more room and less noise.

A couple of months into the tour, my commander MAJ John Walsh assigned me as the Company Clerk, which in retrospect caused me to work a lot more hours. I got along well with him as he was from Scranton, Pennsylvania and I was from Middletown, New York which were just hours from each other.

Another memory of mine was R&R at İncirlik AFB. It was where everyone wanted to go. Hell, I was jealous of the Air Force! They had a Baskin Robins there. And it was on the Mediterranean! Prior to anyone taking R&R, they were always reminded not to sell anything on the black market due to Turkish law. If we didn’t believe our leaders, we only had to look at one of the soldiers in our unit who was our Liaison in İncirlik. Getting busted for black marketing cigarettes landed him in Turkish prison for a while where he was found guilty when put on trial. Uncle Sam had to pay to get him out and then he wasn’t allowed to leave the country. I never knew what happened with him. He was in country for about a year or so before me and was still there when I left.

Making calls back to the states was challenging to say the least: I would speak with my wife and it was like being on a party line. I could hear Turkish conversations on the line, but learned to block them out. Making a call back home meant getting up really early in the morning or late at night to sit in the orderly to have some privacy while talking.

Shopping in Erzurum was awesome! Gold was cheap and the quality of the craftsmanship was exquisite. I was constantly buying and shipping things home. Rugs, jewelry, towels, and Shepherd’s lamps were items Erzurum was noted for. Being a textile city, you could get anything you wanted at reasonable prices. Though that depended on how much tea you were willing to sit and drink with the merchant!

There is so much more to my time in Turkey, but I think this basically sums it up. I found my friends in Turkey, such as Rick Moore and Tim McCormack made the tour that much easier for me. I also found that if you didn’t rely on your buddies, “The Rock” would be a cold lonely place. It was always a bummer when you watched one of your friends go back to the states. You were happy they were PCSing, but in the same breath you were sad to see them go because they had become your surrogate family and you’d never know if you would see them again. I’m fortunate, as Rick, Tim and I still stay in touch and can share an experiences no one can begin to understand. No other military assignment I had came close to my time on “The Rock”. The bonds made in Erzurum are truly lifetime bonds and a great trip down memory lane.

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