Aaron Harber of KBDI-TV Channel 12 is traveling to Iraq with his television camera crew at the Invitation of General David Petraeus He is submitting daily reports of his trip and sometimes can be reached via e-mail Aaron@HarberTV.com His location is 10 hours ahead of Colorado.
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Update from Aaron Harber.
Aaron Harber of KBDI-TV Channel 12 traveled to Iraq with his television camera crew at the Invitation of General David Petraeus. These are daily reports of his trip. Aaron can be reached via e-mail: Email Aaron Harber
TRYING TO LEAVE KUWAIT
Because we were not getting our paperwork back until Tuesday evening, we now would have to wait until Wednesday morning, at the earliest, to fly to Baghdad . And, as sandstorms moved across the region, we knew flights were being delayed and cancelled --- resulting in a building backlog of troops who needed to either depart the region on leave or who were returning from leave.
As journalists, we took second priority to the needs of the troops --- which was the right priority as far as all of us were concerned. The problem for us was our time was limited and we found ourselves in a "hurry-up-and-wait" system which was designed for journalists being embedded in the Military for a few weeks or months. They could afford to "lose" a few days. We couldn't. This system was not designed for anyone who had to be somewhere at a specific time unless he or she left the U.S.A. an extra week in advance --- and even then there were no guarantees.
I wasn't complaining (well, I guess I was to myself) but I was concerned we were one cancelled flight away from making our interview appointment with General David Petraeus. There were not a lot of options at the Kuwaiti base. It wasn't as if we could rent a Hertz car and drive to Baghdad . And, even if we could, we knew that would be beyond stupid --- however scenic the route might be. None of us were desirous of being shot at, kidnapped, or blown up by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device --- the scourge of the War).
OUR GOAL: BAGHDAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
Getting from one side of BIAP to the other was not easy --- even when they were just hundreds of yards apart. The Military had little to do with the commercial side and a traveler needed extensive clearance and paperwork in advance to fly into or out of the military side. It was two separate worlds joined together. And, as we found out, you also need paperwork on the civilian side if you were leaving the country, just as you do almost anywhere else on the planet. Getting that paperwork, however, wasn't always as simple as one might think it should be.
Our goal was to fly into BIAP so we could make our way to see General Petraeus. It now was Wednesday and our interview was scheduled for Thursday morning at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad . I was beginning to worry we would not make it in time and would miss the interview. With the military initiative in Mosul just beginning, I guessed Petraeus --- who was scheduled to travel to Mosul with Iraq's Prime Minister --- would be very occupied and likely would have scheduling problems if we failed to see him as now planned.
AN EARLY START
Danny Marinelli (our ace videographer) and Chris Rojas (the still photographer for the trip) were good at getting sleep in our tents on the desert so that is what they did. Our 16-person tent was full that night as more and more people in transit began piling up at the camp due to flight cancellations.
I went to sleep at midnight and got up at 2:00 am. Ahhhhh, there is nothing like getting a solid two hours of sleep following two nights with only slightly more rest. I figured that, at this rate, I would be worthless for the primary part of the trip. Maybe it was time to start drinking coffee...
TIME TO GO… AND STOP
We had to be at one of the large tent structures (known formerly by the grandiose name "Tent 1") by 4:30 am to check in. We had packed up all our gear and had left our little tent --- affectionately known as Tent P-5. Tent P-5 had been our home for three days and we already were growing fond of the canvas flaps after the plywood door (sized for midgets ---making it look like large dog door) which kept the flow of wind and sand to a minimum.
In Tent 1, there was a large crowd watching two screens simultaneously. We had been here last night so we knew the routine. First, we had signed up to go to BIAP. Then we looked at the screen which detailed all the flights coming into our air base as well as those leaving. The objective was to find the flights to Baghdad and see how many seats were available. If there were 20 seats and only 15 people had signed up, the odds were good we would get on that flight. If there were 20 seats and 40 people had signed up, however, that was not good news. And, right now, we discovered all the flights were full.
We learned the challenge of flying was even more complex. Unlike a commercial, scheduled airline, flight schedules were constantly changing. If a plane suddenly needed to take on a different mission (remember, there is a war going on), it simply would be removed from the schedule. And sometimes flights were added at the last minute as well. Equipment was changed all the time, too, so a flight which might originally have 50 seats could easily end up with 20.
Exacerbating the problem was the fact the transport flights were cargo planes. If the cargo load was expanded, the tradeoff was seating. This often meant an increased cargo load could eliminate almost all of the available seats --- bumping everyone to the next flight.
These factors could easily snowball and, as we talked with a number of the troops, we found everyone had a horror story of their own or one they knew from people who waited for days to leave the airbase. Some waited so long they thought they were assigned to the base. All this new information was very reassuring.
THE INTERMINABLE DEPARTURE PROCESS
We also found out space can be reserved on flights but it was too late for us to do much now. One had to have a high rank or "connections" to do this, however. We didn't have the former and I was loathe to ask for any special favors from the Central Press Information Center facility staff in Baghdad or from General Petraeus' staff. They already had done so much for us, it seemed inappropriate to me to ask for their assistance. More importantly, it would mean bumping soldiers and I did not want to do that. Plus, we should have researched this more thoroughly. Had we done that, we would not have had expectations which, in retrospect, were not accurate.
Once we were registered to fly to Baghdad , we proceeded to speak with everyone at the transportation counter we could find. We were verifying what the person next to each one of them said. In that manner we were assured repeatedly we would get on a flight… eventually.
We then waited for the list of those who made a flight to have their names called out and I was confident we all would be on the same flight to BIAP because the flight we targeted had 37 available seats and we were numbers 21 through 24 on the list. We talked about a contingency plan if everyone did not make the flight and decided we would stay together no matter what happened. Being separated could be a big mistake -- what if some of us arrived in Baghdad and others had to wait another day or two to make it? -- so we reaffirmed we would wait until we could get a flight on which everyone was seated.
One of the officers began reading the list of those who made the flight. The roll-call practice seemed to be to call out a person's last name or the last four digits of his or her Social Security number. This time it was by last name.
Michael Yon's name was called ahead of mine so I knew we were in good shape because I followed him and he was #20 on the list. Next we heard my name and then Chris Rojas 's name. Suddenly there was silence. Not only were Don Souza and Daniel Marinelli not named but there were no more names being announced. For some reason, they were only taking 22 people rather than the 37 they had listed the entire time. Another unexpected change had occurred and suddenly we found our group was evenly split into two sections.
THE NEED FOR A LUCKY BREAK
We discussed the situation once more and considered reversing our position. It was decided we would void our decision to all travel together. Instead, Chris and I would go ahead to Baghdad and would wait for Don and Danny. After all, we figured, it could be much easier for two people (Don and Danny) to find another flight as opposed to continuing to try and get four seats on the same flight. And I was beginning to get highly motivated to grab any available seat by the thought of the four of us still being in Kuwait when I was supposed to be interviewing General Petraeus. We decided Chris and I simply would have to wait at the Airport in Baghdad until Don and Danny were able to join us. And, by this time, the act of waiting was becoming an art form anyway.
It was now past 5:00 am and everyone except Chris and I headed to the Dining Facility for a hot breakfast. The latest announcement said to report back at about 8:00 am, so there seemed to be plenty of time for to eat. I stayed because I wanted to keep trying to get Don and Danny on our flight.
After Michael, Don, and Danny had left, and Chris and I stayed behind only a few minutes, a Warrant Officer came up to me and said, "We found two extra spaces for your crew so you all can go together." It was obvious the staff in Tent 1 had communicated with those involved with the flight and had made the case in our behalf for two extra places on the plane. It was just one of many examples of how the Military went the extra mile to assist us and other journalists coming to Iraq .
I thanked the Warrant Officer profusely but then realized half my production crew was gone. I asked how soon they needed to return and she informed me they needed to be with us immediately. She also explained how, once anyone had registered to go on a flight, they were restricted to stay in the building and could only go to adjacent facilities (such as the latrine). We had been ignorant of all this.
Now I understood why everyone was asked to stay in the area --- i.e., because the seat allocation could change for any number of reasons. This could mean people who thought they were not going actually could go. It also meant people who thought they were leaving might have to stay.
I told Chris to run and get the guys so he sprinted to the Dining Facility to drag them back (actually, although Chris was by far the youngest one on the team, he also was the most laid-back one on the trip; I had to admit I never have seen him run so his speed was only supposition). It turned out we all needed to be there but two members of my team (and now three, because Chris had left to get them) were missing and Michael wasn't in the tent either.
THE PHANTOM ROLL-CALL
Then the officer in charge told everyone he would first complete a roll-call and make sure everyone was present. He then explained that anyone who was not heard as being present would be stricken from the manifest and replaced by the next person on the waiting list. I gulped as I realized everyone else in my group was missing. I knew there was no way they would be back in time to respond to the roll-call.
The roll call began and the nightmare worsened. Instead of calling out names, the officer in charge was calling out the last four digits of everyone's Social Security number. Heck, I barely knew my own numbers. I certainly didn't know anyone else's last four digits.
As I listened to people responding, I noticed every name was greeted with a "Here" or a "Present" or an emphatic "Yes, sir." I counted the number of names as each number was announced. When we were close to 20 names down the list, a number was announced and no one responded. I quickly bowed my head and mumbled "Yes, sir." Evidently it was accepted because I then heard my number announced. I lifted my head and loudly said "Present." At this point, I knew I had saved Michael's spot on the plane.
As the list progressed, I wasn't certain where Don and Danny were on it so I ended up saying "Yes, sir" or something similar a few times. I needed to keep the team together and we needed to make this flight. If we failed to all get onboard, the entire trip was at risk. And I wasn't going to do make another trip to do this again if I could help it. The result of my affirmations was they all were kept on the manifest.
I was concerned I had spoken up for someone who truly wasn't there so I went to the flight information counter (actually, one long counter was for getting onto a flight and there was a completely different counter for those who had gotten on a flight manifest and needed to be processed onto the flight). At the counter, I confessed my sins. I apologized and said I didn't want anyone to not be able to go because I may have reserved a place for someone who was not there. I was thanked for my belated honesty and assured every seat would be taken no matter what I did. I felt much better.
Next was a detailed briefing about the procedure for luggage, getting to the plane, and boarding. As I listened, I took mental notes so I could report back. After this, there was a new and unexpected paperwork requirement. Fortunately, at that moment, Chris arrived back with Mike, Don, and Danny. They were surprised at the confusing instructions we had received (i.e., "You don't have to report back for two hours" followed minutes later by "Everyone needs to be in the briefing area in five minutes"). They all were very thankful I had spoken up in their behalf. Michael was especially appreciative because he knew, had I not stood in for him, he may have had to wait another day. All was well and we then began to tackle the last round of paperwork together.
THE FLIGHT PROCESS
We were chomping at the bit and suddenly the flight was delayed. It had been continuing from Baghdad to Erbil -- ultimately another destination we wanted to reach ourselves -- but that part of the flight had just been cancelled. It meant everyone's luggage needed to be removed and the Baghdad luggage, alone, needed to be re-palletized once the luggage for the four persons trying to travel to Erbil had their luggage removed. This delayed us further.
Eventually, we boarded the bus and drove on the base, through the desert, to the plane. The aircraft was an ancient C-130. I had never flown on a C-130 so all of this was a new experience for me. And I was getting my first taste of U.S. Military travel. It didn't take me long to know how much I preferred the flight to Kuwait on UNITED Airlines.
The rear of the C-130 plane had a large approximately twelve-foot wide ramp which had been lowered. We entered in a four-column formation, walked to the furthest available seat, and suddenly all of the seating space was filled.
Before I entered the plane's belly through its rear end, I looked inside and didn't exactly see First Class seating. Instead, there was a hard bench along each side of the fuselage and a bench in the middle, running the length of the plane. The bench was similar to what you would expect at a baseball field --- nothing fancy.
The seating bench design was similar to drawing four lines from the front of the aircraft to the back and putting four long benches on top of the lines. So, what this meant was there were no typical "rows" such as the ones you would find in commercial aircraft. Rather, there were four long rows (or columns) with each beginning at the front of the plane and ending towards the back.
The configuration meant each set of rows had everyone facing each other. There was so little space between the two rows on each side that, once we boarded and sat down, everyone's knees intertwined. It definitely was a "close quarters" experience. No, there was no First Class, Business Class, or Economy Plus. It was very utilitarian and quite egalitarian.
Much to my chagrin, there were no actual individual seats. What you did was squeeze in and sit down on the bench. There was red or black safety rubber netting behind the bench and everyone did his or her best to be comfortable. Given how hard the bench was, I knew this wouldn't be my most pleasant flight.
My lack of comfort (OK, I wasn't on this trip for comfort but that doesn't mean I don't like the concept) was exacerbated by the fact I was on the very end of the bench and it ended in a triangular section. That meant I was barely supported by the bench and a third of it was missing. Hence, my body was only partially supported. Plus, whenever we accelerated, I was the one to slide off the end while everyone else could brace themselves against the body to their right (on my side).
I had to laugh at how I had naively positioned myself. It reminded me of the time I was on a rollercoaster and my seatbelt came off early in the ride. Everyone else was screaming for fun while I was screaming for dear life. This time I knew the worse case scenario is I would end up on my butt while my comrades laughed.
MY FIRST MILITARY FLIGHT
Once the cargo was loaded, the back of the plane was completely filled. The ramp was raised and we waited for the plane to taxi and take off. It seemed an eternity before we began to taxi but I would later learn the reason was the flight crew had an extensive flight check-off list prior to departure and they took it very seriously. That was fine with me.
The engines started up and I realized I was right behind them. The noise was incredible. Everyone was offered earplugs earlier and I had a set in but it was like fighting a fire with a toy water pistol --- hopeless. I just accepted the fact I would be deaf by the time we arrived in Baghdad .
Throughout the flight, the ambient noise level was so high from the whine of the turboprops you had to scream to be heard. As a result, there was very little conversation. And there was no meal service either…
The flight was uneventful which, in retrospect, was a good thing. There were no windows; rather, our seating and the internal space in the plane was similar to what one sees in movies when someone is going on a parachute drop. That was the best analogy and imagery I could think of at the time.
I was just excited to finally be heading to Iraq . It was Wednesday and the trip had started in Colorado early Sunday morning. Once the C-130 took off, we gave each other a "thumbs up" to the extent we could because we knew we now would make our date with General Petraeus --- unless something else delayed us.
ARRIVING AT BAGHDAD INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT
The steep descent was intentional because it allowed the aircraft to maintain a high (and, hence, safer) altitude for as long as possible. Anyone targeting the aircraft would have a shorter period of time and a tougher target thanks to the rapid descent. I was quite happy to not hear any weapons' fire.
I had felt ill the entire flight but wasn't certain to what factors I could attribute it. Dehydration, over-eating, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, a bug from the flights I already had been on, or any number of factors could easily have contributed to my malaise. All I knew was I could not afford to be sick on this trip. The guys looked at me and were a little worried but I told them I would be fine --- no matter what. After all, "the show must go on" and our show had barely started. I didn't mention my physical state to anyone for the business remainder of the trip.
Our plane was expertly landed. The Captain made sure it was very smooth. We then realized the entire flight had not even taken 1˝ hours of our time. We arrived at about 11:00 am or so and deplaned out of the rear of the aircraft. I was so excited to be in Iraq and to be getting closer to my journalistic goals of doing the full-length interview with General Petraeus. Having finally made it from Kuwait to Iraq was far more exciting an accomplishment than it should have been but I was happy as a clam. After all, what could go wrong which would prevent me from doing the interview?
Next, we walked in line on the tarmac to part of the Military's BIAP facility. Similar to everything else we had seen so far, the facilities were simple and stark. The color schemes were all either beige/tan, as they were in Kuwait , or gray, as they all were at BIAP. Even the use of white would have been revolutionary.
The Military side of the Airport was barren. Roads and paths were dirt and gravel. Buildings served very limited functions and were sparsely furnished, if at all. Walls typically were blank and buildings were surrounded by looming gray, concrete barriers. "Spartan" would have been a magnanimous description. The facility could not have been more plain, more boring, or more visually unaesthetic. However, they seemed to fully serve their functions and that is what counted.
When we landed, we could see the commercial side of the Airport. It seemed a world away. As we walked into one of the flight buildings, we found our way to get information on Catfish Air. Catfish was supposed to transport us, along with other passengers, via helicopter to a location not far from the Central Press Information Center in Baghdad . It was the most direct and safest way to get to the International Zone (previously known as the "Green Zone").
We were scheduled to get going after 3:00 pm so we had time to "relax" (a military euphemism for "wait"). We picked up our gear off the pallet which had been unloaded in a dirt and gravel area. Everything looked like it was under construction. There were concrete structures everywhere --- especially large barriers, some as high as ten feet. Almost everything looked temporary in nature, from a construction perspective. At the minimum, it all could be razed quickly, if need be.
SPENDING THE DAY AT THE AIRPORT
It remained cool outside (about 45oF or so) but the Sun was breaking through the clouds right now. We put all our gear on a concrete table outside in an area surrounded by large concrete barriers and camouflage netting. The day wasn't half over for us but we were tired.
I found Internet access in a nearby building and did some work while the guys scouted the area. Getting decent Internet access was difficult and it usually was very slow. For much of the trip, I was incommunicado. After working just a short time, I couldn't keep my eyes open. Nearby, I found the "Waiting Room" for those in transit and noticed it was well-heated. I grabbed a chair and fell asleep for 15 minutes. That actually helped a lot.
One advantage to all the waiting was, no matter where we were, it gave me an opportunity to talk with troops. Almost everyone was willing to talk and I found all of them open and honest. Because we were in transit areas, the sampling of troops continued to be good and highly varied. I was able to talk to members of all branches of the military with a complete range of ranks. It was a great way to assess how we were doing and what those on the ground felt were our greatest challenges. Each conversation added to my store of knowledge and the impressions I was forming.
We went back to check on our flight and found it had been delayed for an hour. The weather now was changing for the worse. The sun was gone and a sandstorm had developed. Visibility was getting progressively lower. When we looked outside, we could see the sandstorm charging hard across the horizon and enveloping much of the distant big city.
I was told visibility needed to be two miles for the helicopters to operate and it was down to only a mile. We started to get worried when we were first told we would not leave until 5:00 pm. It would be ironic to have made it to Baghdad and still miss Petraeus.
The departure time kept getting pushed off but the flight actually was never formally announced as having been cancelled. I decided to call Catfish Air directly myself and the woman who answered was very helpful. She explained the sandstorm was only worsening and they would not be flying until the next day. The information we were getting on-site as passengers was similar to what some airlines in the States did --- i.e., kept you hanging on. She was definitive and quickly made me understand there would be no helicopters taking off today.
BACK TO THE WAR
Shortly after the warning, we heard announcements stating bags were about to be exploded. No one had claimed any of the luggage. Then we heard the "bang" as each set of bags was blown up nearby. It was one way to avoid maintaining a Lost-and-Found.
While we were waiting for our flight, we had lunch at the BIAP Dining Facility. It was the same, decent fare we already had experienced and which had already added 10 pounds to my frame. Fortunately, my height hid most of it as did the body armor outfit.
Top-notch Iraq War blogger Michael Yon joined us for lunch and brought Lt. Colonel Jim Crider with him. Crider was a Battalion Commander with the 1-4 Cavalry. He was very impressive. His commitment to the Iraqi neighborhood in which he operated was palpable. Crider talked at length about his Battalion's work assisting Iraqi citizens. He clearly was proud of his mission and its positive, constructive nature.
Crider was a perfect example of what General Petraeus' counterinsurgency strategy was all about. While the Military was constructed to "break things and kill people," Crider was operating in the Petraeus mold of "building things and helping people." I wanted to ask Petraeus if he knew about Crider's work, leadership, and savvy.
Crider was completely forthright and talked just as much about failures as he did about successes. I found that consistent with all of the U.S. Military members with whom I spoke. They had not been instructed to deceive us or to "spin" anything; rather, they had been told to be open and honest. None of them seemed to withhold anything when questioned.
One of Crider's stories was about the desire to promote trash hauling contracts for Iraqi workers. This was a great opportunity for economic development, business investment, and good jobs.
The problem was the garbage trucks were expensive and no one wanted to pay for them. Iraqis would have to mortgage their homes to pay for a garbage truck. They wouldn't do this, however, because they could lose everything if someone blew up their truck. This wasn't the kind of business challenge one found in the United States .
I imagined a Business School case study which started with the statement, "Trash collection in your city offers a highly profitable business opportunity but the cost of entry is expensive (you must purchase your own garbage trucks outright) and you run the risk of losing your business if someone blows up your garbage trucks or shoots and kills your employees. Design a business model to address these challenges."
Crider was taking on this exact challenge and I could tell it was not easy. That did not stop him, however, from trying to assemble a team to do the trash collection. If this initiative were successful, it would have a positive impact on his neighborhood.
Crider then talked about how he had been in a photograph with someone who later was found out to be planting IED's (Improvised Explosive Devices --- currently the country's greatest threat to killing and injuring American troops). We were told by one source Al Qaeda was paying as much as $500 for those persons willing to plant IED's. In Iraq , that was a lot of money. Al Qaeda increased the payment further, depending on what was accomplished. The threat of IED's forced troops to be careful wherever they went.
Crider explained the Iraqi men with whom he spoke had acted friendly but ended up being suspects. He also talked about the process of releasing detainees at the Cropper Jail as well as the plan to reduce troops in Iraq . He gave a historical overview of the neighborhood in which his outpost operated and how he had personally observed shifts of political power which had many positive implications.
When talking with Crider, one could not help but be impressed with his intelligence, knowledge, articulateness, and candor. He was exactly the kind of officer who should be front and center in all respects.
Before we parted, Crider invited us to join his battalion via embedding. I told him we would take a raincheck but would seriously consider it. My sense was he would have a lot to say and show us if we could find a way to spend several days on the ground with him and his troops.
At first we were told we had to wait until tomorrow morning to leave on any form of transportation. Staying overnight at BIAP wasn't my idea of a fun time. And, because the interview was only 17 hours away, I needed to get more assertive. We had wanted to fly into the city but the Military did offer a ground option known as a "Rhino." These were armored buses which actually looked a little in color and size like rhinoceroses. I had visions of buses with a large horn at the front but eventually would be disappointed once I saw the vehicle.
I called Captain Michael Signori at the CPIC and he told me we had been listed for the Rhino as a back-up to our flight so we were assured of getting into the International Zone tomorrow. The idea of traveling four days with little sleep and arriving in Baghdad only hours before interviewing Petraeus did not seem ideal to me but I had to work with what I had --- and that was what I had.The reality was Signori and his team were doing all they could to help us and I appreciated it. I had to admit I expected Baghdad to be pleasant, sunny, and warm for our trip. If it got to +120oF in the summer, I figured winter temperatures had to be in the 70's and 80's. I didn't know I would be off by as much as 50oF. I also wasn't aware of the sandstorms or the havoc they wrought. Now I knew.
Driving into Baghdad from the Airport was considered dangerous so the Military used the Rhinos. They were escorted by armed vehicles for additional security. And, on top of this, the schedule was constantly varied so no one knew until the last minute when the Rhino convoy would leave. The idea was to make it difficult for any terrorists seeking to attack the convoy.
I thought the route from the Airport to Baghdad should have been fully secured by now but I was wrong. As I spoke with people, most felt it was passable but many expressed concern something could go wrong --- and it took only one time. They all said having this level of security made good sense.
The gentleman we had been depending on for information said there were no more Rhinos scheduled to leave BIAP until mid-day tomorrow. I called to verify this and found out he was wrong because there was one scheduled for late tonight. I made certain all four of us were on the manifest.
Now we had to get to the location at which the Rhinos loaded. To do this, we had to run to catch a bus to Camp Striker . Striker was adjacent to the Airport so it would be a long ride. We just didn't want to have to wait for another bus. We barely made it, stuffed our gear on the bus, and settled in for the ride to Camp Striker . It was not far away and we arrived while it still was light out. The sandstorm had expanded significantly, however, and had darkened the skies. The wind, sand, and cool temperatures combined for an Unpleasantness Index which was getting higher with each passing minute.
The gentleman at the small counter inside the waiting-room type of building registered us for the Rhino by confirming we already were on the manifest thanks to Captain Signori and his team. By this time, all of us were hungry.
Confronting us near the counter at Camp Striker were hundreds of MRE's --- Meals Ready to Eat --- which were available to us. The guys were hungry and started in on a few packages. I opened one up and was unenthusiastic. With a mess hall nearby, I didn't see any need to open any more of the MRE's. The guys were curious, however, and tried a couple of them before agreeing it was time to go for hot food. The MRE's had a heating component which I didn't use. We were later told heating the food made it much more palatable. I decided I would file that for future reference only if I were drafted.
We walked to the Dining Facility and I continued to be amazed at how everything was dirt and mud as far as roads were concerned. Gravel seemed to be used sparsely at times and I saw no concrete or asphalt roads. I had been told the heavy equipment moving around would tear up any road unless it was built to military specifications and that would be far too expensive.
Nevertheless, with the U.S. Military already having been here for almost five years and another 10 or 20 more years likely, it seemed paving the roadways with concrete would be a good investment to me. With the cost of maintenance and the impact on troops --- who were constantly covered with a fine, desert dust and also were mired in intractable mud during the rainy portions of the winter season --- I sure would want to see some paved roads if I were at any of these facilities.
It was dark out but Camp Striker was as busy as ever. We walked to the Dining Facility and loaded up as if it were the Last Supper. The stress of the trip was growing and, being a major league Comfort Food person, I didn't let anything slip by. And I had to admit, the Military and/or its contractors did a consistently good job of providing wholesome, healthy, well-prepared meals --- along with lots of fun junk food (I can only imagine how much ice cream and related products I already consumed during this trip).
GETTING SHUT-EYE AT CAMP STRIKER
We made our way in the darkness to Tent K-4. It was even more minimal than what we had experienced at the Air Base in Kuwait . The bunk-beds there included mattresses. At Camp Striker , there were no bunk-beds and no mattresses --- just two rows of plain cots on a concrete floor. That was it --- no bed, no cover, no sheets, no comforter. I had to admit, I had told the Military we were willing to "rough it" and wanted no special treatment. I decided to remember to make a change if I did this again.
The cots were about six feet long. That didn't work too well for my 6'5" frame. I slept diagonally --- a position which was becoming the norm on this trip --- and let my feet hang off the edge. It already was 9:30 pm and we had to report back at 12:00 am so we all knew we weren't going to get a lot of sleep. I attempted to sleep for two hours on the bare cot (the fact I didn't have a sleeping bag was solely my fault). I got up once to use the facilities so I probably got a solid 90 minutes of rest.
The biggest challenge was the noise created by the generators in the area. The ambient noise level was absolutely incredible and reverberated throughout the entire Camp. I was amazed anyone could sleep at all but I did manage to do so anyway. If you're tired enough, you can sleep under any conditions. I guessed that was how it worked for everyone.
I passed the time visiting with several troops and drinking hot chocolate. That reminded me of my addiction to hot cocoa at home. I now was excited about going into Baghdad but wasn't certain if the excitement was coming from the sugar-laden beverage I was drinking.
At about 12:30 am, the gentleman in charge of transportation announced the next Rhino would be leaving in an hour. That was good because --- if all went well --- it meant we should arrive in Baghdad about 2:15 am.
I was tired but was getting totally psyched for the ride. All that stood between me and my interview with General Petraeus was a ride in a Rhino. I figured, "This should be easy…"
THE REAL IRAQ --- TRIP DAY 3
WAITING IN KUWAIT
After trying to get to sleep at about 3:00 am local time (5:00 pm Colorado time), I was only able to rest fitfully. The delays in getting us from Kuwait to Iraq seemed innumerable and interminable. I knew the Army had rules but this was my first extended experience with Military bureaucracy. I would later learn many members of the Press had complained about the Department of Defense's procedures. Ironically, because the DOD was not customer-driven, it forfeited opportunities for better Press coverage --- which the DOD sought --- by unnecessarily making it so cumbersome and time-consuming to visit the troops. Even DOD personnel (whose names will be protected here) admitted the system often made no sense. Anyone with experience in the Military, however, probably is laughing at my experience as he or she reads this.
Chris and I arose at 7:00 am and all of us quickly got ready and headed to the Mess Hall. I had slept in my clothes and had neither a sleeping bag nor a blanket (both oversights being my fault). I looked at the experience as if I were camping. It was no big deal. I had enough layers to stay warm anyway. The experience did remind me of why I don't camp anymore and why I was partial to Marriott and Westin Hotels. I hadn't showered since leaving Colorado but, as long as no one complained, I wasn't worried. I was looking a bit different than my normal suit-and-tie presence on my television show but I figured everyone would forgive me. Maybe being a bit raggedy would be the "new" me…
Mike also told us about how the Army had stolen a photo from him which became famous. Another photograph for which he won an award showed an American soldier holding a child after a car bomb had exploded. The photo used by the Army was distributed without his permission (he said that was a felony) and refused to compensate him until he eventually brought public and political pressure to bear on them. Then they settled. The episode showed Yon's determination and perseverance but also explained why some higher officials did not like him.
The plan was for us to go to Camp Victory for the night so I could join the General on his run Friday morning. After that, I would not see him again. Boylan said he would try and arrange a battlefield circulation with another General. With a War going on and plenty of Generals around, I couldn't complain.
We spent much of the remainder of the day trying to communicate with the outside world and talking with soldiers, contractors, and others at the Base. I also continued my assault on the Mess Hall and knew I was gaining far too much weight. The food was good for cafeteria-style cuisine and unlimited --- the ultimate combination for me --- and I was getting no exercise. We all know what those conditions lead to…
Yon was not initially given a lot of respect because he was a blogger --- and an unsponsored one, at that. His military background and willingness to tackle any story along with his keen insight, however, quickly earned him respect in and out of the military. He had served as a Sergeant in the Special Forces. His Army career began in 1982 and ended in 1987. He was now a subject matter expert when it came to Iraq.
We were set up outside our tent and Public Affairs Officer Sgt. Douglas Demaio accompanied us to make sure the interview wasn't interrupted. Taping of the Camp and its occupants generally was prohibited. What we were doing was OK because Yon wasn't a member of the Military.
The sun was getting ready to set when we started the interview. Halfway through it, the light had dimmed and the wind had kicked up --- blowing dust and sand in my face which, in turn, caused my eyes to tear. I continued doing the interview because we were trying to get a full half-hour show from it and I knew we would not get another chance.
The crew had Mike stand on top of his luggage box, which elevated him about 1¼ feet off the ground. We were doing this as a stand-up interview so he and I ended up being fairly evenly matched height-wise despite the one-foot height difference between us. The problem was being elevated was quite unnatural and made him a little nervous although he seemed to overcome the jitters this understandably created.
Mike clearly was not accustomed to a long-form interview; rather, most of his interviews were short segments of one to five minutes. He was accustomed to having only 10- and 20-second sound-bites used. Having the opportunity to express himself at length was well-suited given his encyclopedic knowledge of Iraq but it took him several minutes into the interview to become accustomed to being able to "keep going" when answering a question. He even asked, before the interview started, if we were going to use more than 60 seconds of the session. He expressed surprise when I told him we were planning to use the entire show.
The interview with Mike went well. We talked about the errors military and political leaders made at the beginning of the War and analyzed the performance of top brass such as Generals Tommy Franks, Ricardo Sanchez, and George Casey. Mike was highly critical of Franks and Sanchez. He believed Franks had agreed to a plan for political reasons which included too few troops and Sanchez simply was too inexperienced to command all of the Multi-National Forces in Iraq.
We also discussed the success of the Surge and how General Petraeus' strategy of getting the troops out into neighborhoods made such a difference. Yon was very complimentary about Petraeus and talked about the likelihood the General would leave his job in Iraq this year. (The complete program we did with Mike Yon should be available on our Website soon. Go to www.HarberTV.com for more information.)
Yon described Petraeus as "being born to lead this War." Yon confirmed my perspective that Petraeus' understanding of counterinsurgency, his unflinching candor with politicians inside and outside the Pentagon, and his willingness to get to know the Iraqi people set him apart from his predecessors. And Yon was one of many who reconfirmed the respect Petraeus commanded from his troops.
Due to my height (and now, thanks to the Mess Hall, my even larger size), I was outfitted with an extra large configuration of Interceptor Body Armor (IBA) with Small Arms Protection Inserts (SAPI) and an Army Combat Helmet. I also found I was financially responsible for the $8,000 worth of equipment being loaned to the four of us. That made me almost as nervous as the requirement to wear the armor.
The IBA package I had, including my helmet, weighed about 35 pounds --- the same as what my daughter lugged to school every day in her backpack --- so, although it seemed heavy and cumbersome, I couldn't complain. Plus, as I heard more stories about incoming bullets almost anywhere in Iraq, I began to appreciate the danger our troops constantly faced.
I confess, however, I did skip using the special crotch plates as none of us could imagine walking comfortably to any degree with those in place, flapping around. I ended up using it for extra body protection by inserting it into a sleeve which was part of the IBA outfit.
The helmet wasn't well-configured for me. It turns our experienced users wear a skull-cap, beanie, or similar head covering. This provided an extra layer of protection and warmth but most importantly provided the padding necessary to keep the helmet on comfortably. There were adjustable pads in the Kevlar helmet but their configuration and the sharp edges of the straps and buckles resulted in the helmet constantly cutting into my head. I learned another lesson for next time --- if a "next time" occurred.
When I wore the IBA outfit, I also usually wore a lightweight but warm gray and black light shell. This zipper jacket was a great windbreaker and rain protector and was super-lightweight. When placed over the IBA, I looked like the Michelin Man or the Pillsbury Dough Boy --- and walked the same way. I must have appeared to weigh about 300 pounds when fully outfitted. Sometimes I felt as if that was my real weight but, again, I was glad to have the protection at times.
Throughout the day, there were many names on the list to go to Baghdad but very few available seats on the few aircraft coming into Ali Al Salem Air Base. The good news was we found there would be a flight to Baghdad (Baghdad International Airport, known here as "BIAP") the next morning so we had to come back at 4:00 am to get the details. The result was, once again, I got only a few hours of sleep. And it was more of the restless sleep one experiences when in a place temporarily with nominal quarters. My cumulative sleep deficit was growing. I knew that did not portend well for my interviews or my run with the General.
After a very brief rest, I headed to the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) tent to get on the Internet and write my daily report. At 2:36 am, I called home and spoke to my daughter, Holly, for the first time since leaving Colorado. It was only 4:36 pm the previous day (Monday) in Colorado so she was home from school. It always amused me that I could place a call on a Tuesday and speak with someone >on Monday. It was as close to going back in time as I would get.
Talking with Holly was the highlight of my day. She didn't have much to say but she seemed well. That was all I cared about as far as she was concerned. After we ended the conversation, that one call made me realize how eager I already was to return home even though I had not even arrived at my primary destination.
As I reflected on my feelings, I couldn't believe how our troops were able to be away from their families for months and years at a time. What an extraordinary sacrifice these people were making to be in the Middle East far away from their loved ones and in a Time Zone which made communication especially difficult. Later, in the trip, I would learn how this is a major issue related to troop strength levels, morale, and our entire ability to fight the War.
The morale situation was an argument for rewarding our troops and being more appreciative. It also was a reason to find ways to shorten their deployments and bring them home as soon as possible. To me, it was another example of the United States bearing a disproportionate burden of the responsibility for trying to bring stability to the Middle East. Of course, I had to admit, that begged the question of our role in destabilizing it at times, too. It was late once again and I needed to call it a day here out in the desert of Kuwai.
© 2008 by USA Talk Network, Inc. and Aaron Harber. All rights reserved. Use by written permission only.
Friday, February 1st, at 7:26 am
IRAQ TRIP --- DAY 2
EASY AIR TRAVEL
We left at 10:00 pm and were scheduled to arrive at 6:00 pm the next day The loss of 10 hours due to Time Zone changes changed the day considerably It meant we left while it was dark and arrived when it was dark While I remained somewhat reticent about entering a War Zone, the ease of the two-flight segment travel on UNITED from Denver to Washington to Kuwait made the trip quite palatable
I continued to be amazed at how easy UNITED made it to travel to the Mid-East Although I once was one of UNITED's most frequent travelers years ago, and cumulatively had amassed over 8 million awards miles and points from airlines and hotels, I continued to be amazed at the concept of air travel To get on a plane and take off to land in a foreign country with a different culture always excited me It was such a great concept and I felt fortunate to be able to have such opportunities.
I was aware of U.S. tax law which allowed U.S. citizens to exclude about $80,000 in annual income but the firefighter (whose name I am protecting) told me the total was now up to approximately $85,000 Being based in Kuwait, he received a premium salary (my estimate was that it was around $100,000) and he said other locations, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, could command annual salaries in excess of $120,000 Housing and food were provided at no charge so it was easy for someone in his position to save a substantial amount of money.
We agreed the tax law made no sense but, as a firefighter, he said he could not resist the salary and benefits He was working for several years and then would retire to a stateside job after having saved considerably for his retirement It was a smart financial plan.
We visited a while and then Haj introduced me to a gentleman who knew the Kuwaiti Prime Minister and other officials in Kuwait so we talked about a future interview I also got to meet some of the other UNITED flight attendants, all of whom were based in Washington, DC They all were extremely nice and were interested in our plans It made the almost 14-hour trip go much faster
The visa process was simple but time-consuming As the minutes rolled by, I was worried whoever was meeting us from the Military might think we had made other plans and had left We finally worked our way through the visa process and quickly made it through baggage claim We found the Starbucks next to baggage claim where Sergeant Doug DeMaio still was waiting patiently for us It was approaching 7:00 pm and he had waited for us and one other incoming passenger --- a gentleman named Michael Yon.
When I asked Doug why he and his compatriot, Brooks Taylor (who was even bigger than Doug and looked like someone who could play professional football), were dressed in civilian clothes, Doug explained the schizophrenic nature of the Kuwaiti
Government and its people On the one hand, Kuwait wanted the protection of the United States The U.S. Military's efforts on behalf of Kuwait in 1989-1990 with "Desert Shield" and 1991 with "Desert Storm" saved the country That protection involved the expenditure of billions of dollars by the United States and was a gift the Kuwaitis appreciated.
At the same time, Kuwaitis resented any foreign presence on their soil They insisted all U.S. bases be "temporary" so roads on U.S. Military bases typically were dirt and gravel while structures primarily were tent-like in nature and were easily disassembled
This dichotomy seemed bizarre to me On the one hand, they wanted us there and on the other they wanted us gone The best way to gauge their true desires, in my opinion, was to ask them to pay for our costs If they had to pay for the protection we provided, the Free Market would tell us what their decision would be My guess was, if we told countries they had to pay for our help, most would decline the offer Then we could use those billions of dollars to help our own people in desperate need.
We do have national interests which make having bases and operations in certain locations very valuable so some countries could argue their strategic position offers value to us Even with this caveat, however, it makes sense to ask them to pay a significant portion (e.g., 50%) of our costs After all, we're providing them with security and saving them from incurring the cost if they provided it themselves.
We also discussed the generational gap in public opinion Older Kuwaitis (40 years old or more) remembered the wars and were more likely to appreciated the protection afforded by America. Younger Kuwaitis (under 40) were far less inclined to support our presence Given the inevitable aging of the population, this did not bode well for the U.S.A. if we wanted to maintain our bases.
Porters from the airport had convinced us they needed to help with our luggage Not knowing local customs, I consented to their assistance although everyone wanted to carry his own luggage, especially because most of it was expensive camera and related production equipment Once the van was loaded, I made the mistake of giving the entire tip to one of the porters As he hurried off, the remaining one stuck out his hand He explained via body language and expressions tips were not shared and he needed to be tipped, too I paid him and had to laugh Before even leaving the airport in Kuwait, I already had been hustled That was just one of the many pleasures one gets to experience when in a foreign country The only upside was that, with the fall of the U.S. Dollar, and an almost four-to-one exchange rate (i.e., almost $4 was needed to buy one Kuwaiti Dinar), I didn't lose very much.
We were tooling down the six-lane highway to the Al Ali Salem U.S. Military base on Kuwait when we saw a traffic blockade ahead The authorities were stopping every vehicle and checking the occupants of each car Despite their many years, collectively, in Kuwait, both Doug and Brooks said they had never seen this happen before Speeding traffic, similar to what you would find on any large U.S. Interstate, came to an abrupt halt in all three lanes on our side of the highway We worked our way through th blockade without any problem and resumed our trip.
At the base's entrance, we were confronted by a mass of concrete and several soldiers with automatic weapons We had to get out of the van and show our ID's Then the van was thoroughly inspected while we waited, out of sight, behind a huge concrete barrier Once the search was over, we were allowed to reenter our vehicle.
As we entered the base, I was surprised at how basic everything seemed to be The entry was modest but well-guarded The roads were all unpaved The buildings were usually just one or two stories There were three sections to the base --- an Air Force base, a Kuwaiti Air Force base, and the Army base The latter was a major transfer point for troops and others (such as journalists) going in and out of Iraq
The major news organizations --- such as ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, et al --- had bureaus in Baghdad which serviced their staffs so they flew in and out of Baghdad International Airport without going through the Military They had their own private security companies protecting them from the moment they arrived at the airport Smaller-scale operations, such as ours, typically went through Kuwait City, Kuwait (as we did) or Amman, Jordan, and then went on to Baghdad, usually via a Military flight Next time, I thought, I'll try to find a General leaving the States for Iraq and fly with him!
Doug then tackled our visa work It turned out that, although we had just gotten our Kuwait visas at the airport, because we were headed for Iraq, we now needed to get processed out of the country Unbeknownst to us, this was a very time-consuming proposition.
In a nutshell, we had to submit all the paperwork by 9:00 pm in order to get back our passports by 9:00 pm the next day That meant we had to wait in Kuwait for at least a full day and a half before we were authorized to leave Then we had to wait for a flight to Baghdad And then we found out there were no regularly-scheduled flights from the base We simply had to see when there was a flight and if there were an adequate number of seats on it I had no idea the process would be so complex or so unpredictable Suddenly, a multi-hour stay in Kuwait was turning into a two-day episode.
Once we were officially processed out of Kuwait, we then were on a passport hold and were limited in terms of where we could go and what we could do We also had to report for "roll call" to verify we were present This was only the beginning of an even greater bureaucratic Rubric's Cube.
Once the paperwork was done and submitted, we talked for a while Doug explained their operation and how he regretted they were unable to give us credentials We could only get those in Baghdad at the Central Press Information Center ("CPIC") We already had been warned of that but thought it would be quick and easy based on the paperwork we had submitted in advance I told him I would lobby the folks in Baghdad for him and he smiled He smiled because he was pleased to have an ally and because he knew the odds of taking on the Army bureaucracy Let's just say we all knew they weren't very high.
One would enter the tent through a small wood door built for midgets The door was weighted by a plastic water bottle filled with sand So much for high technology… Then one went through two canvas and plastic flaps to enter the "main room" (and the only room) I was late to the party and ended up with a top bunk Mike Yon was with us and already was asleep by the time I got there Smart move…
Chris Rojas and I decided to check out the all-night McDonalds and the WMR (Welfare, Morale and Recreation) facility The McDonalds was simply a take-out window but had all the wonderfully nutritious food one finds in the United States I noticed the menu was more expensive My usual $1 double-cheeseburger was $2.75 on the base It made me wonder how military people could afford to eat here given their relatively low salaries.
I also wondered why anyone would dine at the McDonalds or the Kentucky Fried Chicken place next to it because they all could eat at the Mess Hall at no charge I guessed that variety and McAddiction drove them to Mickey D's I was tempted myself to have a "taste of home" but we headed to the Mess Hall for my first Military meal.
The Mess Hall was large and could accommodate a few hundred customers at a time We got in using a copy of our Orders and washed our hands at the entrance --- a requirement of most mass dining facilities we later found out.
Inside it was hog heaven for me There were two wide-open lines for a variety hot food and a giant salad bar There were all kinds of beverages and a dessert bar which rivaled any other Everything was unlimited I tossed my diet out the window and chowed down to what would end up being a relatively small 5,000 calorie meal I won't even tell you how many ice cream bars I had but right away I knew I was going gain weight "roughing it" on this trip.
We finished by 2:00 am, when the Mess Hall closed and headed back to our tent The sky was dark and one could see only a handful of planets and stars Although there was some ambient light, the dust from the desert and from human activity obscured what should have been a brilliantly-lit sky.
I hadn't brushed my teeth or changed my clothes since leaving Colorado I contemplated doing both at 2:30 am but then convinced myself to just hop on my top bunk and go to sleep After all, as far as my breath and clothing were concerned, no one had complained Then, again, I wasn't exactly in an office environment!
Despite being warned in advance, I had not brought a sleeping bag I assumed the desert environment would be warm I was wrong The nights were windy and cold (30°F to 45°F) and the days were not as warm as I expected (45°F to 65°F) There almost always was the presence of dust I figured I would adjust and become accustomed to it After all, I was just visiting for less a little more than a week Little did I know that dust would wreck havoc with some of our future travel plans.
I was tired and hopped into my upper bunk I bundled up with some of the clothing I had brought and felt comfortable because the tent was warm enough to keep me happy My bed was a bit short --- having been constructed to fit humans not more than six feet tall Even sleeping diagonally, my feet overshot the bed-frame At this point, I no longer cared I had not gotten any good sleep since leaving Colorado and was happy to be prone for several hours Although I slept fitfully, I knew the next four hours would be good for me And they were.
I'm now in Iraq (it's Friday) after a long, complicated journey here and just completed an almost 6-mile run with General Petraeus. He smoked me. The guy "warms up" at an 8-minutes per mile pace and then goes to a 6-minute per mile pace. He's 55 years old and is incredible.
I'm staying at one of Saddam Hussein's former summer resort "homes" -- which is like a mini-palace. Internet communication has been hobbled for everyone for the past three days because a ship's anchor tore up 4 of 5 main cable lines in the Mediterranean Sea. Even the Military has lost significant capability. People are screaming here but it will take two weeks to fix it.
I'm fine and will have a Day 2 report sent today. After that, I can send one report per day. I'll also be able to send some photos.
Confidentially speaking, I have been asked by the U.S. Military to lag the reports by several days. They saw the first one and contacted me immediately. My contractual agreement with them grants them this right when dealing with anything sensitive. The status and location of the Commanding General of the Multi-National Forces - Iraq are not to be disclosed and I understand that.
I have one more operation with the Military tomorrow and then I begin the long road home. It will begin tomorrow night (Saturday) and not end until Tuesday morning (despite gaining 10 hours en route due to the Time Zone differential).
More later...L I C E N S E G R A N T
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Watch related videos below
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To view a higher quality video choose your preferred format:
GUEST: General David Petraeus
At the personal invitation of General David Petraeus, Aaron traveled to visit the General and the troops of the Multi-National Force -- Iraq.
Aaron interviewed General Petraeus at studios of the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. There were no pre-conditions or restrictions of any kind regarding the subject matter Aaron wanted to discuss or the questions he wanted to ask.
The interview is believed to be one of the longest, if not the longest, on-camera sessions ever granted by General Petraeus.
In Part 1 of the series, the General candidly discusses the state of the War in Iraq and where he believes it is headed. There were no restrictions of any kind regarding the subject matter Aaron wanted to discuss or the questions he wanted to ask.
To view a higher quality video choose your preferred format:
GUEST: General David Petraeus
In his final hour at the Pentagon before beginning his return journey to Iraq, General David Petraeus granted Aaron an exclusive interview with no restrictions on subject matter or questions Please encourage your friends, and colleagues to view the program and send in their reactions for Aaron to consider for future programming on "The Real War In Iraq TM."
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Preview "Report from Israeli Ambassador Meridor."
The new Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Sallai Meridor, joins me to talk about the situation in the Middle East and Israel's perspective. Ambassador Meridor explains the current frustration by all parties trying to find peace in the Middle East due to the internal conflict in Palestine.
Please click on the arrow, above, to start the videoAt any time, you may pause it You also can play back any segment you would like to see again -- all at your convenience Then, after viewing the program, please feel free to send your questions and comments directly to Aaron via email: Aaron@HarberTV.comThank you!
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The Co-Chairman of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study, former Congressman Lee Hamilton, is Aaron's special guest on the program. Congressman Hamilton also was Vice-Chairman of the 9/11 Commission and has been in the center of intelligence and war controversies for many years.
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