Monday, May 29, 2006

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Early Birds May 29, 2006

Early Birds
May 29, 2006

Waking up before sunrise has always been difficult for me, but for the soldiers of the 101st it is routine. Much of what they do here in Kirkuk takes place in the hours where most of us would be sleeping or hitting the snooze button. But I knew if I wanted to roll with the soldiers, I would have to roll out of bed when they did, and that is how I came to be standing outside my CHU (Containerized Housing Unit) at 4:00 AM one Wednesday morning.
Specialist Linsay Burnett and I were accompanying soldiers from Charlie Company, 1-327 Infantry Regiment, and 2-17 Cavalry on a “Cordon and Knock” mission in a small village called Saras Swais. We were traveling by helicopter and had to be at the airfield by 4:30. We waited in the dark for the helicopters to arrive. There were four helicopters, so we were divided into four groups. We took off at 6:00. After a hard landing in a field on the outskirts of the village, we ran clear of the helicopters so they could take off quickly and monitor the action from above.
Meanwhile, a convoy of Humvees had headed out to Saras Swais to set the stage for the mission. The village was cordoned off, and the villagers were advised in Arabic over a megaphone to place any weapons outside of their homes. Once we had made it to the village, which had been divided into four sections for our four teams, the knock part of the Cordon and Knock began, with each house visited and searched.
The purpose of a Cordon and Knock is to make contact with every household, to establish a line of communication that the soldiers hope will bear fruit. Saras Swais has seen its share of insurgent activity, particularly on one of the main roads, where car-jackings are on the rise and IED discoveries are not uncommon. Ideally, residents would volunteer any information they had to help put a stop to these acts of violence, but it was still early and some people are slow to warm up.
Each household is allowed one gun, and many houses had their one gun on display by the time we arrived, but otherwise no one was very forthcoming. The head of the household, always male, was questioned outside, while the search of the home took place. The adults were resentful of the presence of soldiers on their property, and were not very generous with their smiles. The soldiers tried to explain that their objective was to make Saras Swais a safer place, but who among us wants to be awakened by a sky buzzing with helicopters and a yard full of soldiers? I don’t even like the sound of an alarm clock.
The children, on the other hand, were often friendly and curious, and they were very happy to pose for pictures. This was an opportunity for them to broaden their world, just as every trip outside the wire broadens mine. They served as a reminder that there is always hope, always the possibility for change.
If the children were warm, the day was downright hot. The temperature quickly moved into the high nineties, and I did not envy the soldiers, who had to wear heavy protective gear, in addition to the weight of their weapons and ammunition. One soldier added up the weight of his gear for me, and the total was over seventy pounds. My flak jacket is fairly light, but it was enough to make me very hot and even slower than usual. The soldiers did not let the heat get in the way of their mission, nor did they let it affect their mood. We walked up and down the streets to every house in our section, and talked about a trip to the pool back at the base as our reward.
Every house in the village had been searched by 9:30 AM. A full day, I thought. An eye-opening day. I had watched a soldier named Paul (who didn’t want his full name revealed because that might make his work more risky) work with an interpreter named John, going from one house to another, carefully questioning men who were reluctant to cooperate, trying to exchange information and make a difference. Some of the soldiers tried to connect with the kids, and it seemed as though that was the best way to approach the situation. It may take some time, but if the children have positive interactions with Americans, they will help forge a more constructive relationship with us down the road.
It was time to head out of Saras Swais, and to an area where the helicopters would drop from the sky to pick us up. My group was the last to leave the village (I swear this wasn’t my fault), and a soldier named Jose Torres led the way. These soldiers are a clever lot, and Sergeant Torres knew we were all very hot, all anxious to get to the pool. Somehow he managed to choose a path that led us right to a stream. Though it was a bit unexpected--wading through the waist-deep water, the mud below pulling at our boots-- the cool water was refreshing, and we arrived in plenty of time to catch our bird.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Not Enough Time May 20, 2006

Not Enough Time
May 20, 2006

Recently a soldier named Benjamin Zieske was killed by a roadside bomb in Kirkuk. He was twenty years old. Certain traditions are observed following the death of a soldier, but at the same time work must continue. The soldiers must stay focused on the job they came to do, even as they are being reminded how dangerous this job is.
The people at home, the wives, the husbands, the parents, the grandparents, the children, the friends, spend a lot of time waiting and worrying. Any day they hear from their soldiers is a day they can breathe a little easier. The expression “No news is good news” doesn’t really apply.
The Internet cafes set up around the base are meant to provide soldiers with a form of recreation and a way to stay in touch with the people at home. When a soldier dies, the Internet cafes fall under a “Gag Order,” and are closed for anywhere from two to five days, or as long as it takes for the family of the soldier to be notified of his death. Thousands of people at home spent the days following Benjamin Zieske’s death waiting to hear from their soldiers here in Iraq. These were long days for them, days when many imagined the worst and hoped for just a word, a brief message to let them know all was well. All of these people were affected by the death of Benjamin Zieske, though they didn’t know it at the time. They felt some of what his family and friends felt, and they, better than anyone, understood what his people were going through.
There was a RAMP Ceremony for Benjamin Zieske. In this case, RAMP is not one of the Army’s acronyms; it refers to the ramp that the casket is carried up so it can be placed inside an airplane and flown home. Attendance is not mandatory, but every soldier who can attend is there. The ceremony took place after dark. All of the soldiers waited patiently for the airplane to arrive. It was a solemn occasion and a necessary reminder of how quickly a life can come to an end.
Benjamin Zieske had been a Private First Class (PFC) based at FOB McHenry, just a short trip from FOB Warrior, but often a dangerous trip. The memorial service was held at FOB McHenry and officers from the surrounding bases flew to McHenry to pay their respects.
It was a very bright, hot day, the sun directly above. The birds were making such a racket, it was difficult at times to hear the words of those called to speak. One of the first speakers was another young soldier. “PFC Zieske was my best friend,” he said, as he struggled to keep back tears, to speak from his heart. He said Benjamin Zieske had been known as “Z” among his friends, and he brought Z to life again with his recollections and his love for him. Z became a kid any of us might have known, a kid we would not want to have to say goodbye to.
Z was probably always the last one on a class list, but let’s put him first today. Let’s hope he knew he was special. Let’s hope he got to laugh a lot and never doubted that he was loved. Clearly he will be missed by his friends at McHenry. They are carrying grief and sorrow along with their weapons and their flak jackets and everything else they need to get through a day, and that is a lot of weight.
We take so much for granted. For those of us who don’t know any soldiers serving in Iraq, or any of the other places in the world where they are called to serve, it is possible to look at Memorial Day as a day of bargains, a day off from work or school. But for anyone who has lost a soldier to a war, Memorial Day is a reminder of the sacrifices some have made so that the rest of us may live in a world where we can sit outside with our family and friends and enjoy a picnic or a parade. It may seem as though we have not lost a great many soldiers to this war. Many of us have been lucky enough not to know anyone who was killed in Iraq, but we all know what it is like to have a best friend, and should be grateful for the time we have with our friends and our families. We should be grateful to our soldiers who have to do without, and to their people at home who wait and worry.

If Bombs Smelled Like Bacon May 20, 2006

If Bombs Smelled Like Bacon
May 20, 2006

If bombs smelled like bacon, it would be much easier to catch the bad guys. But most bombs, until they’ve detonated, have no smell at all, at least not that a human nose can detect. When soldiers search a house or a vacant lot, a car or a person, they rely on sight and touch to determine whether or not any harmful or illegal substances are present. In old movies, bombs were ticking packages that gave themselves away. In a modern war zone, bombs are silent and often well concealed, but they do have a smell, if you are a dog.
Rex and Lion are two very important residents here at FOB Warrior. SGT David Yepsen is Rex’s handler, and SGT Jonathan Curl is Lion’s. David and Jonathan are members of the United States Air Force, and they have undergone special training to work with these dogs. The dogs have also undergone a very specialized training program. They have been trained to search and attack, and their training is ongoing. David and Jonathan must reinforce the dogs’ skills every day to keep them sharp and prepared.
Explosives are a constant threat to the safety of our soldiers, Iraqi soldiers and police, and innocent civilians. Most Americans don’t worry too much about being blown up. Even if we don’t know our neighbors, we assume they are not insurgents. They may put up too many lights at Christmastime, but they are not stockpiling rocket-propelled grenades or improvised explosive devices.
In Iraq, most people are good, decent people, good neighbors, but there are a few who ruin it for everybody. Coalition forces, together with Iraqi forces, are looking for the deadly few. Every day homes are searched, cars are stopped at checkpoints, and tips are investigated. A team of soldiers may turn a house upside down, but often it is not until Rex or Lion is brought in that they find what they are looking for. The dogs can pick up the scent of six substances, any one of which is present in all explosives. Not only does this ability make it possible to prevent future casualties, but it enables the soldiers on the scene to stay on guard, to pay attention to the people in the area. If they had to get involved in time-consuming or involved searches, they would become more vulnerable and increase the chance of being harmed. Instead, the dogs can locate the explosives, and then soldiers trained to handle such devices can safely remove them. Any search is more effective and complete when Rex or Lion is present with his handler.
David and Jonathan work with SFC John Vicars, the Army’s MP coordinator at Warrior. A training session can be pretty intense. In the safety of the military base, it is easy to relax and believe the whole exercise of finding a bomb is really just a game. It is tempting to treat the dogs as pets, to let them off their leashes so they can run around and chase squirrels, or the Kirkuk equivalent of a squirrel (a gecko?). But the dogs have a job to do, and though they are well taken care of, they are not treated as pets. After all, it would be difficult to go from barking at the UPS man until he produces a dog biscuit to sniffing every package in his truck for explosives and possibly attacking him if he doesn’t cooperate. Most dogs could be bought with a biscuit.
The training sessions are a workout for the handlers and the dogs. Under the relentless Iraq sun the handlers must always watch the dogs to make sure they do not overheat, and the dogs are wearing protective equipment which is necessary, but also heavy and hot. The dogs search areas staged to resemble real-life scenarios. On the day I visited the dog training operation, David and Jonathan were hiding actual explosives and propellants in cars and in an open field on the base. The dogs took turns scouring the area, and the nose always prevailed. They made it look easy, though without their help it would be anything but. Every successful discovery resulted in a reward of praise accompanied by a toy, but they quickly returned to the job.
The dogs also took turns attacking us. SFC Vicars thought it would be a good idea if I participated in this part of the training. I must have said something that offended him. But I trusted Jonathan and his ability to control Lion, and it was kind of fun to see what it would take to remove my right arm from its socket. Of course, I was wearing a heavily padded cover to protect my arm from his teeth, and Jonathan made sure I was never in any danger. It is impressive to see how well the dogs respond to commands. They will attack, but they can be trained to restrain a suspect without doing any real harm, or they might just hover around a suspect to insure he does not try to escape.
Fighting a war is a complicated business. It is necessary to acknowledge the many forms the enemy may take, the many ways he will try to do harm. It is necessary to employ every method we have available to us to neutralize the enemy and his weapons. At home, we take for granted that we are safe, and our dogs are often pets more than protectors. Here in Iraq, the dogs working with our soldiers add a level of security that is hard to measure. They don’t demand recognition for their efforts, but we should be grateful to them, and their dedicated handlers, for helping to keep the peace.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Our Friends, the Interpreters May 13, 2006

Our Friends, the Interpreters
May 13, 2006

Life on FOB Warrior is always interesting, but it is the trips off the base that bring the 101st Airborne Division’s work here into focus. I wanted to go back outside the wire, back to the Kirkuk Government Building, because I knew I would see things I missed the first time.
My second trip to the KGB took place on a Monday. There was a larger group this time, so the convoy was six humvees long. I was driven by Tom Dulak and Ben Lord, two very nice young fellows. There was no gunner, which was fine with me—one less person to worry about. My sense of direction is quite poor, but after about ten minutes of driving in and out of several Kirkuk neighborhoods, I sensed perhaps we had taken a different route this time. We went through crowded city streets where people were shopping in open markets; children waved as we passed by. Cattle grazed in unlikely places. So did sheep and goats. I enjoyed all of the sights the new route brought with it. Of course, the change in route was deliberate. If one route was used all the time, insurgents would know where to focus their efforts.
Once at the KGB, I headed back to the Claims Office to see how Fondow was doing this week. He said the woman who had brought in the shell last week had returned. He had to explain to her that we had not been responsible for the damage done to her house, so we could not pay her claim. He said she had taken the news pretty well, but I’m sure it had not been easy for him to deliver, as it was in his nature to want to help.
Moments later another of last week’s visitors returned to the office. The man with the scar around his shoulder was back, and even friendlier this time around, shaking hands (substituting his left for right, which was still in a sling), and offering to show his scar to anyone who was interested. There were no takers.
It is rare that a claimant understands English. Some Iraqis speak a little English, but most do not. As hard as Fondow tries to do a good job, he could not do it nearly as well without the help of the interpreters, or “terps,” as they are called by the soldiers. There are three working in the Claims Office: Amer, YaYa, and Sarkis. They are intelligent and very personable. They are very good at what they do, though before the war they were all doing something else. The terps truly bridge the gap between the coalition forces and the Iraqi people. Without them, we would be unable to communicate with Iraqis and unable to understand their culture and history except on a superficial level. We would not be able to work toward a common goal because, let’s face it, people on both sides need to feel their voice is being heard. And not just heard but understood.
For as vital a role as they play, the interpreters are easy to overlook. They almost become invisible as they turn English into Arabic, and Arabic into English. There are two terps who work with the Public Affairs Office here at Warrior. Darth and Karso. They spend five days a week on the base, and return to their homes on weekends. Much of their day is spent reviewing local news stories. They let the PAO know what is being discussed, what information is being put forward by the Iraqi media, and they help the 101st translate any information it wants to get out to the Iraqis. They also work outside the wire when required, but they cannot come and go as they please. During the work week, Darth and Karso sacrifice a great many freedoms in order to help us. In the long run, of course, we hope they will enjoy these freedoms again, and many more.
All five of the interpreters I have become acquainted with are people with the same goals, the same desires, as you and me. They want to live peacefully and productively, and they want their families to be safe and happy. By working with us, they are putting themselves at risk. The insurgents are always looking for new targets, and anyone who is trying to make our job easier becomes a target. The terps cannot tell anyone what they do for a living. They might trust their neighbors, but they don’t want to share information that might put them at risk too. Imagine having to keep your job a secret. You wouldn’t be able to complain about your boss. You couldn’t brag about a job well done.
I have been thinking about the terps a lot. I tried to learn some Arabic before I left the States, but I gave up pretty quickly. I admire their ability to speak English so well, and I appreciate their enthusiasm when it comes to sharing stories with me. They are very open and curious, and love to discuss ideas and issues. Their commitment to learning a language other than their own is evidence that they are open to cultures other than their own. Amer saw the movie “The Horse Whisperer,” and talked about his dreams of living in a land like that pictured in the movie. YaYa thought perhaps if they wrote Oprah a letter, she would help them buy the home of their dreams. How many of us have had the same idea?
Darth and Karso were at the KGB on Monday too. I saw them at the end of the day while we were waiting for the convoy to come back for us. They joked with the soldiers, and it was good to see them laugh. They can wear the same uniform as the soldiers if they want to, or they can wear blue jeans and t-shirts (one freedom they have that the soldiers do not). Whether they are in uniform or not, they are soldiers in a sense, risking their lives as the soldiers do, in order to make a difference.
I drove back to the FOB with three soldiers: Bobby Milholland, Patrick Hansen, and Richard Gilbert. Once again, all nice boys. The list of people to care about and worry about in Kirkuk continues to grow. The list of people I admire and respect here grows just as fast.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Outside the Wire May 6, 2006

Outside the Wire
May 6, 2006

It is amazing how quickly a place becomes home. I can find my way from my CHU (Containerized Housing Unit) to the latrine in the dark. And the base is dark at night—no point making it easier for the enemy to find his target. The Giant Voice has not spoken for a few days, although the sound of gunfire is part of daily life.
After allowing me a week to get settled, Sergeant Schultz, from the Public Affairs Office here at FOB Warrior, arranged my first interview, with Major Greg Ford. As I had never interviewed anyone before, I hoped Major Ford would be accommodating. He was. Serving as a Staff Officer for Intelligence, Major Ford said his concerns can be summed up with the acronym “WET,” which stands for: Weather, Enemy, and Terrain, all of which require constant monitoring.
Also on Major Ford’s mind are the soldiers of the 1st Brigade. “Our soldiers are the finest representation of our nation there is,” he said. Every day our soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division work to make Kirkuk a safer and more self-sufficient province. When asked to describe the mood of the Iraqi people, he said, “The historical sense of being wronged still lingers.” But he feels our soldiers are making progress in helping the Iraqis overcome their “lack of knowledge and awareness.” “They don’t know how good it can be,” he added.
Very often the good work of our troops goes unreported, possibly because it happens over time, each day bringing a small amount of progress. This sort of work requires patience and courage because the insurgents would like to see that no good deed goes unpunished.
Just one day after my interview with Major Ford, I took my first trip outside the wire—off the base, and I got to meet several examples of the fine soldiers he talked about. Three soldiers were responsible for transporting me and another passenger to the KGB (Kirkuk Government Building). We were part of a small convoy of Humvees. Everyone was required to wear flak jackets and helmets, and of course the soldiers carried their weapons.
On the inside of the windshield, I noticed someone had written the steps that should be followed in the event of an attack on the vehicle resulting in injuries to its passengers. I thought about the enormous responsibilities these boys are given, in this case putting themselves in harm’s way to protect us and get us to our destination. I felt very protective of Valero, Hart, and Elfer. Valero was the gunner, Hart the driver, and Elfer rode shotgun. I wondered if they resented us for requiring their services, but I don’t think they did; transporting us was just part of their job. They were very friendly and welcomed us to their vehicle.
After a short and, thankfully, uneventful trip, we arrived at the KGB. I wasn’t sure what to do once I got there, but I was not supposed to wander off on my own. Following my roommate’s suggestion, I decided to see what a day in the Claims Office looked like. Jonathan Fondow, a soldier from Minnesota, graciously invited me follow him. Fondow works with the JAG (Judge Advocate General) branch of the 101st, and it is one of his responsibilities to spend time at the KGB, processing claims filed by Iraqi citizens who feel they have suffered damages due to the actions of Coalition Forces.
Fondow is twenty-four years old. He is poised and intelligent--another exemplary soldier. He said he had recently signed up for five more years, and I thought how lucky the Army was to have him. Fondow works with local interpreters to make sure people who want to file a claim get the paperwork filled out properly. He never forgets that many of these people have suffered terrible losses, and he, together with the Army, wants to be sure they get the help they deserve.
Each person who entered the office came with a story. The day began with the examination of a shell, all that remained of an explosive that a local woman claimed had destroyed her home. It was up to Fondow to determine whether or not it could have been one of ours. He sought the opinion of artillery experts, consulted schedules to see if there had been activity on that day, and ultimately it looked like the shell did not belong to us. He knew the woman’s home truly had been destroyed and felt badly that when she returned to learn the outcome of her claim, he would not be able to help her.
In another case, a fifty-one year old man arrived with a relative, who helped him remove his shirt, revealing a massive scar running almost entirely around his shoulder and under his arm. He had been shot by Coalition Forces after stopping his truck. When they realized he did not pose a threat, the soldiers took him to one of our hospitals. In this case, the fault was ours, and the man will be paid damages. In spite of having lost the use of his arm, the man was friendly and seemed to hold no grudge. And the amount of money he is seeking is very small by American standards.
In just a short amount of time, I have had the privilege to see many fine soldiers at work. I look forward to following up with Fondow and some of the claims that were filed that day. Maybe I will get to ride with Valero, Elfer and Hart again, or maybe I will meet three more soldiers doing their best here in Iraq.

Week One at Warrior May 1, 2006

Week One at Warrior
May 1, 2006

FOB (Forward Operating Base) Warrior, like any good military base, relies heavily on acronyms and abbreviations to expedite communications and keep civilians in the dark. It was dark when I arrived at Warrior and was taken to my temporary CHU (Containerized Housing Unit) in Pod 11. I’ve since moved to my permanent CHU in Pod 10, which I share with Sergeant Toussaint. There are many pods scattered throughout the base, which covers a vast area, too vast to cover on foot. A bus runs every fifteen minutes or so, making it fairly easy to get from one’s pod to the pool. Yes, the pool.
Today’s military base is a far cry from the base of even three years ago. Here at Warrior, in addition to the fairly wide selection offered by the DFAC (dining facility), soldiers can choose to grab a meal at Pizza Hut, Burger King, or Taco Bell. Coffee, smoothies, and sweet snacks are available at Green Beans, which is open twenty-four hours. It is possible, even easy, to gain weight here. Fortunately, there are gyms on both sides of the base, and, of course, there is the pool.
There are Internet cafes where soldiers can communicate with friends and family, or just surf the Net. The laptops in these cafes get so much use, the letters have often been worn away, and some keys are gone altogether. Movies are shown at night in the gym, and many soldiers have TVs in their living quarters. There is a library, a Laundromat, and the PX, where soldiers can buy supplies.
It is a scene reminiscent of a college campus or an athletic camp, but though it may seem as if these soldiers have it easy, there are a few significant differences. Here, everyone carries a gun. Instead of going off the grounds for fun, as any college student would be free to do, everybody stays on the base. A “Giant Voice,” which issues an alert over a loudspeaker of an attack on the base, is not the same as the sound of a routine fire drill in a dorm. These soldiers can take nothing for granted. They work long hours and must always be poised for a crisis. Their lives are always at risk. Why shouldn’t they enjoy some of the comforts of home? But even with all of the amenities that make life a little more pleasant here, just about everyone has a number in his or her head. The number of days until leave, the number of months until this deployment is over. Even if the pizza in Kirkuk is pretty good, it will always be better at home. And the computers at the Internet cafes wouldn’t be so battered if these soldiers weren’t missing somebody.
I can wander all over the base unescorted, so it is easy to believe this is a safe place. I’ve already become used to certain sights and sounds. The guns are just another accessory, like a backpack. The uniforms seem like a good idea; no more having to decide what to wear. The Humvees blend into the landscape. The landscape includes trees, birds, geckoes, and even some flowers in unexpected places. Evidence of the past exists right alongside evidence of the future. An overgrown cemetery, perhaps hundreds of years old, sits between a parking lot full of Humvees and a road lined with bunkers. Sure, there are rows of cannons where you might expect to see rows of bushes, but the place has a certain charm. It is only when the sound of gunfire just outside the base interrupts a conversation, or the “Giant Voice” shuts down the DFAC for an hour, as it did today, that I realize I have taken so much for granted. When I finally sat down to lunch, I treated myself to a bowl of ice cream for dessert. Well, it is over ninety degrees outside. It was Baskin-Robbins ice cream, and it was good. But I know it would have been better at home, where I would have shared it with my dog Sassy while I watched ESPN with my brother Charlie.

Welcome to Warrior April 24, 2006

Welcome to Warrior
April 24, 2006

After a very long journey, I have arrived at my new home in Iraq, where I will be spending 101 days embedded with the 101st Airborne Division. I will be reporting on the day-to-day life of the troops in the 1st Brigade, who are stationed in Kirkuk at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Warrior.
My trip began with a flight from New York to Kuwait. Once in Kuwait, I waited for a shuttle to my hotel. And waited. The pace is different than New York. There isn’t one. This is where I began my education in learning to wait. My hotel was well-appointed, with a friendly staff and all of the modern conveniences, and I knew I should enjoy these comforts while they lasted.
As soon as I arrived at my hotel I had to check in with Captain Paul Edwards, who processes many journalists into Kuwait and through to Iraq. He had told me processing my visa would take at least a day, so I knew I would be in Kuwait for at least one night. I met Captain Edwards at the Starbucks (that’s right, they are everywhere) on the hotel grounds, and he briefed me on our operations in the region, the Area of Responsibility (AOR), which stretches well beyond Kuwait and Iraq. Our soldiers are always coming and going through Kuwait, where newly arriving troops also receive up-to-date training based on what Coalition Forces are encountering in Iraq today.
Once Captain Edwards had my visa processed, I was to get on a military flight from Kuwait to Baghdad. This sounds simple, but every step of the journey came with its own conditions. In this case, for security reasons, I wouldn’t know the actual time of departure until around the time of departure. All I knew was I had to get on a bus to the military base at 4:00 am.
Once at the base, there was some waiting, but also breakfast at the mess hall. I sat with two men working with the Corps of Engineers, who told me about the work they were doing to get water treatment plants up and running. They were making a difference and were happy for the opportunity to share their successes. They were also very helpful in describing what to expect after our arrival in Baghdad. Our flight was on a C-130, a cargo plane. The seating was tight and the landing a bit rough, but overall it was no worse than the average commercial flight, and no crying babies. We landed at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) in the afternoon. And waited.
Our next stop was the other side of Baghdad. Unfortunately, this cannot be accomplished with a quick cab ride. Even a New York cab driver wouldn’t make that trip. We were waiting for a helicopter, which was a safer way to travel. Hours went by. Also waiting were many soldiers, some returning from leave, some heading out on leave, and most were tired from long journeys of their own. Many slept on the sandy ground.
The highlight of this stage of the journey was the arrival of country music legend Charlie Daniels. He was in Iraq entertaining the troops, and plans had been made for him to stop at the airport and sign autographs, along with Dave Price, a New York television weather man. The soldiers lined up and Charlie Daniels graciously chatted and shook hands and posed for pictures. When I mentioned I was there representing the Milan Mirror-Exchange, Mr. Daniels said, “Tell Milan their people are doing a great job over here, and you can quote me on that.” It was wonderful to see someone so committed to the soldiers and appreciative of the work they do.
Finally the helicopter arrived and it was my first chance to see what Baghdad looked like. There were signs of life: laundry hanging out to dry, lights on in houses, even traffic on some streets. Suddenly Baghdad didn’t seem like a city full of insurgents, but a city full of people like you and me who are trying to build a life, but who have a small group of people trying to get in the way. I was so absorbed in taking in the sights; it wasn’t until I noticed two soldiers on the flight had guns aimed out either side of the helicopter that I remembered we were at war.
On the other side of Baghdad I was met by one of the soldiers who work in the International Zone of the city, in the Combined Press Information Center (CPIC). He took me to dinner at one of Saddam Hussein’s old palaces, which is now home to many offices and a mess hall. I had never eaten in a palace before and could barely taste my food because, well it didn’t have a lot of flavor, but also because I had to try to imagine what it was like in Baghdad when Saddam lived in this palace, a structure so much more substantial than the houses I had just flown over, houses that looked like the cardboard type used in architectural models.
I spent two nights in Baghdad, in a trailer reserved for journalists. During the day, I became acquainted with reporters from slightly bigger outfits: CBS, NBC, The Wall Street Journal, AP and World Picture News. I saw Parliament attempt to convene then decide not to. I met members of the Iraqi media and Iraqi police. I learned photographers called themselves “shooters,” and I learned getting to Kirkuk isn’t easy.
After my enlightening stay at CPIC, I was finally booked on a flight to Tikrit. This was not exactly welcome news. That I had already grown used to scheduling changes and prolonged periods of waiting without even thinking about complaining means the military had trained me well. I took a helicopter to Tikrit. It landed at 3:00 am Thursday. Tikrit doesn’t look very good at 3:00 am, or 6:30, when a young soldier named Hutch arrived at “Tent City” to take me and a nice fellow from the Wall Street Journal to breakfast. I finally got a flight out of Tikrit at about 9:00 pm, and even though everyone there at the base had been very kind and accommodating, I was happy to put some distance between me and Tent City.
Finally, somewhere around 10:30 pm Saturday, I landed in Kirkuk and was met by Major Bishop and Sergeant Schultz, soldiers from the Public Affairs Office at FOB Warrior who had been and would continue to be very helpful in helping me do the job I came to do, which is to try to learn about our hard-working troops by living among them. It is a privilege to be here. I look forward to each of my 101 days. I look forward to sharing my experiences with the people of Milan. –