Friday, April 20, 2007

Trip to Baghdad

16 Apr 07
Got back from Baghdad tonight. What a great experience though my security senses were heightened for the first 24 hrs. Once we landed, the acft parked some ½ mile from the passenger terminal. We grabbed our gear and walked into the open darkness of the flightline led by a UK Army corporal. We walked past what seemed like dozens of US helicopters all with motors running and taking off from all over. There were several more passing overhead. With their navigation lights turned off I strained to see them in the night sky but one attracted attention as the aircraft dispensed flares and banked hard from what seemed like only 1000 feet in the air. I’m not certain what had triggered the defensive system but I had never seen an aircraft pop flares in a real world situation.

Chet and DC were already up in Baghdad. They picked me up at the terminal and we headed to the tent. Our tent was on Sather Air Base which is a mid-sized air base and is connected to a string of larger bases including the Army camps Victory and Liberty all of which combined form a contingency operating base (COB). The bases combination of bases are massive. Our tent was just 300 yards off the flightline. No one wants to live too close to an airport. Now imagine living 300 yards from the runway…in a tent! The helicopters ran throughout the night interrupted only by heavier aircraft taking off and landing.

The next morning I got up and headed to the shower tent. There were dozens of people milling about and no one had on their body armor or helmets. As I got halfway there I heard machine gun fire that sounded within 500 yards and from several different directions. I couldn’t believe attacks were so close and everyone within the wire was just moving back and forth like they didn’t hear it. When I got back to the tent the guys told me the Iraqi Army has an enormous firing range behind us and their Special Forces use the range at all hours of the day and night. The sounds of that first night and morning were eerie but I quickly got accustomed to moving around without the armor.

I went up to Baghdad to take a test but our headquarters is up there too so I thought about stopping by to see our maintenance reps on the staff. I contacted them and they told me how to get there. It involved either taking a Blackhawk helicopter or a Rhino armored vehicle into the International Zone (“IZ”…formerly known as “the Green Zone”). The Rhino looks like a fully armored RV (Google: rhino armored vehicle pics) and the route to the IZ included several unprotected kilometers of Route Irish—at one point Route Irish was the single most dangerous road in the world. I told the staff guys I’d catch them some other time.

We went to the chow hall for lunch. I couldn’t believe how nice it was…literally, it was the nicest chow hall I’ve ever seen in my life. Unlike ordinary chow halls, the Army has contracted these chow halls out to KBR/Haliburton who operates and manages them. I had to walk around the place to see all the options before committing. I had heard the British spend about 1/3 on their food/chow halls than we do on ours. That said, their food is still nicer than anything I ate at during the first Gulf War. I have no idea what the Iraqi food budget is but it can’t be 1/30th of a U.S. chow hall. There are no options in the IqAF restaurant and not enough for seconds. Despite that they would share their last bite with you.

The chow hall at Sather was over the top and the guys said it’s the smallest on the COB. They had two main food lines, a potato bar, a salad bar, a snack bar, a specialties bar, a Mongolian BBQ line, two dessert bars and more canned/bottled drinks than you could shake a stick at. Coming from the Brit/Iraqi camps at Basrah, initially I was in awe at the magnitude of the place but then I began to feel embarrassed. It really fit the stereotype that the U.S. does everything in excess. I’ve never seen anything like it. I cringed when the guys said the chow hall serves steak and lobster every Friday.

I took my test in the afternoon then we made a run over to Camp Liberty’s BX. Like everything else on the base, it was enormous. Standing in the check out line I spoke to a young E-4 from Chicago. He was in the infantry and had been in Iraq 7 months. The focus of President Bush’s troop surge is on counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. One of the guiding principles of COIN ops is that for it to be successful the troops must live in the neighborhoods which they are defending. This kid lived at a forward operating base (FOB) which he said was nothing more than a house in the neighborhood which they have reinforced with sandbags. They are attacked incessantly by snipers. Every eight days they are allowed to come back to Liberty for a few hours to eat in the chow hall, shower, and go to the BX to buy supplies. He was a nice enough kid but he was tired of the field, tired of Iraq and tired of the Army. He didn’t hold the Iraqis in the same regard I do but I'm not certain I would given the circumstances. It sounded rough at his FOB and needless to say, steak and lobster wasn’t on the weekly menu.

After Liberty we made a run through one of Saddam’s palace villages just to the east of the airport. The village was designed to look like Venice. There were some 10-12 palaces around a lake. Several of the palaces had bomb holes in the top but none worse than Saddam’s “Victory Over America” Palace. Most of the palaces were actively being used as dorms or office complexes by Coalition forces.

The palaces surrounded a pretty lake and several canals fed out from the lake. At one canal there was a bottled water factory. The Coalition brought in a military unit that specializes in reverse osmosis water purification to produce bottled water for the forces. There were acres of bottled water.

There are checkpoints all over the COB when passing between one camp and another as well as to go off base. To depart the base you must be in a fully armored vehicle. Most of the gates were manned by soldiers from the Ugandan Army. At one checkpoint we asked the guys how they were doing. Both guy’s face erupted into huge smiles happy that we bothered to talk to them. We asked where they were from and they were proud to say Uganda and asked us if we had heard of Uganda or knew where it was. They were excited to know we had heard of it though none of us knew that Ugandans were risking their lives in Iraq with us.

I mentioned Route Irish. We passed under Route Irish at a point which it was still on the base and well within the fortified gates. There are several main and alternate supply routes (M/ASR) around the country. Each route is named after some sports team or college. There is a Route Tampa, Route Pittsburgh, Route Irish, Route Buckeye, etc. I imagined the logistical planners in a room figuring out what to name the roads and someone in the room calling out their favorite team followed by a barrage of everyone’s favorite teams. There was no Route Cougar or Gamecock but it did this proud Sandlapper’s heart good to see Route Clemson running from Tikrit to Mosul.

On return to Basrah our plane couldn’t land because the base had been rocketed. Two rockets landed in the ammo dump but failed to explode.

When we finally landed I went to the Iraqi restaurant to see who was in town. The Iraqis have a general here visiting and they were throwing a big feast for him but they invited me in anyway. I had a bowl of something like a garbonzo bean soup though the Iraqis assured me it was not a bean. Anyway, it was good to see all of them. Some I hadn’t seen in more than a month like Nader and Habeeb.

Pooh called in the middle of our visit so I went outside to talk with her. Just a few seconds into our conversation I heard an explosion in the distance followed a second later by a really loud explosion very close. I hit the dirt, told Pooh I’d call her back, and hung up. After a few seconds I jumped up to run to the bunker but stopped after a few steps because I couldn’t see in front of me and knew there was a wall close by. I put my hand out and hit the concrete wall just 12 inches in front of me. I would have knocked myself out! There were two salvos back to back. The first was about 5 rockets and another 5 in the second salvo. One landed in the Danish camp behind us and the other landed in Trafalgar where Mike used to live…that’s the second time in a few weeks that Trafalgar has caught rockets. Twelve rockets throughout the day. Four injuries but the only serious injury was an Iraqi at Trafalgar that failed to respond to the first round or to take cover. I called Pooh as soon as I could…I knew she would be worried sick and she was. I hate worrying her.

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