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Laura's Iraq Journal
Day 6: Feb. 10th, 2006
We arrived via "RHINO" (a.k.a. armored Winnebago with military escorts) back at Camp Victory at 0300--actually, at a waiting area on Camp Stryker. Our ride finally picked us up for the short ride to our trailers where we had left all our stuff two days earlier. Given how many of our troops live on some of the more remove FOBs (forward operating bases), I felt fortunate to be temporary "trailer trash" in Iraq. Having a bathroom inside the trailer was a luxury--but no one told me I needed to bring a towel too. I'll remember next time. At 0400 I was still tossing and turning in my sleeping bag, thinking of the week so far, trying to file away my thoughts and impressions.

I thought about the thousands of soldiers, Marines, Air Force, Navy, National Guardsmen and reservists who were fanned out across this small country, each with his or her own story. I thought of the young men and women on the late shifts--maintaining vehicles, checking flight gear, manning check points. I thought about the families back home who also spent sleepless nights worrying or mourning. I thought about the wounded--physically and emotionally. God please comfort them.

Finally the week had caught up with me--we blew off the early part of the morning schedule and were picked up for our visit with the 1st Brigade Combat Team/10th Mtn Division. They pride themselves on being "the most deployed" group in the Army. If you ever go to Vail, Colorado, you'll see the cool statue downtown honoring the 10th Mtn, which was started there (on wooden skis, of course). The 10th is also part of the group training Iraqi forces. Lt. Col. Mark Samson, 3rd Brigade Military Training Team Chief and Lt. Col. Brian Drinkwine (Dep Commander 10th Mtn and West Point '86) gave us great briefings on the progress so far. Iraqi forces are gradually taking over the battle space from American forces--moving west across Iraq. Two sectors out of give in country are now operated by Iraqi forces. They are getting their own up-armored Humvees, better equipment, and already have great new uniforms (important for morale).

I met and interviewed one man--Rockwell--nicknamed "Rocky", who at 60 years old came back to the 10th Mtn in a civilian capacity. He was a Vietnam vet--a lot are in Iraq, btw--and totally passionate about the mission. Rocky (whom I insisted on calling "Woody") is also very funny--the kind of guy you want to have a beer with. I just knew he had great war stories to tell. Then there was Master Sgt Thomas Sanchez, another star, who showed me the progress that had been made on everything from sleeping quarters for Iraqi soldiers to their working relationship with the U.S. Army.

It was off to the range to shoot some great guns--the AK-47 (full auto of course), the Berretta M9 and the M4. I actually went to see that the paper target was hit several times--chest and stomach mostly, with a few dead stones from my dirt shots. I am right-handed but shoot left-handed. TMI!

Then it was off to lunch with the Iraqi Army's 3rd Brigade Dep Commander Abdul Nassar and his other top officers. Kebabs and pizza! Another light meal. Nassar is about 6'2, strong build, shaved head with moustache and penetrating blue eyes. Half of the Iraqi soldiers looked like they were out of central casting--handsome, rugged, determined. Nassar and his brother were both members of Saddam's Special Forces. "Patience--I ask the American people for patience," Nassar said, expressing gratitude to the American people and military families. It was obvious from the interaction with Lt Col Drinkwine and other American soldiers that this was a tight-knit group. The "lunch room" was still decorated with Christmas and New Years decorations--the Iraqi military had thrown a Christmas party (no, they didn't use the word "holiday") for their American friends. "We are brothers," Nassar said. "When one of my American friends dies, we all weep--because we are family." This was not manufactured. The Iraqi soldiers write to the Americans' families and vice-versa. It was touching. I walked away seeing the great hurdles that exist--attrition, threats, limited NCO corps, pay that is still not regular for all Iraqi units--but also believing that there is the will to succeed. But Col. Nassar is certainly right--patience will be required. Do we have it?

Back to Media Operations Center for show prep and then we pulled off two live hours of broadcasting in front of the rowdy band of troops gathered. T-shirts were tossed out to the crowd and I think I made a bunch of new fans out of young men and women who don't normally listen to the radio. "Your stories should be known by all Americans," I remarked. "Yours should be household names epitomizing bravery, courage and grit."

At 0800 it was off to the chow hall where I ate too much once again. Afterward, I was escorted over to the "Cigar Club" at 10th Mtn. Let's just say it had that "outdoors" feeling. Hung out with the boys (and a few gals) and had a few laughs. The stories and the teasing could have gone on all night. They were enormously gracious and kind to me--and I was sad to say goodbye. It was a great way to end my last night in Iraq. Col. Jeffrey Snow, whom I hadn't yet me, walked out to say hi and gave me the most coveted coin of the 10th Mtn--I will cherish it. Collapsed in bed to get ready for the long trip back to Kuwait.

Day 5: Feb. 9th, 2006
International Zone. Shi'a holiday of AlShura where men self-flagellate to commemorate the day that the grandson of the prophet Mohammed was martyred. Sandstorm continues to keep us grounded which means we missed our short flight north to Camp Balad. The fine dust in the air clogs the turbines in helicopters and makes their systems wear out much more quickly. Only "mission critical" fly in these conditions we are told. Instead of hanging out with the Air Force guys at Balad, I had to be content with crawling up Saddam's hand (part of the famous crossed sabers monument) in what may have been the most unsettling part of the trip for me thus far. Try crawling up a jagged metal ladder over several iron platforms-and all in the dark with an Iraqi man continuously saying "Come, come! Hurry!" (The monument wasn't going anywhere last time I checked.)

At the garish Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (honoring those Iraqis who died in the Iran-Iraq War), I met a wonderful Iraqi military man named Janez. Tall and beaming in his maroon beret, he told me he was really happy that Saddam is gone and glad to have a job in the Army. Even though his $300/month salary is paltry given the high cost of basic necessities in Iraq, Janez told me that he believed his life would be better because he could now vote. "Politicians they pay themself (sp) and people nothing," he said, shaking his head. I joked that it was not much different in the U.S. and he laughed. What would happen in Iraq if U.S. forces did a Murtha and pulled out immediately? "Disaster! Total big bad everything. Disaster!" he insisted, waving around his finger in the air. By the way, he learned English by watching television through his new satellite dish. "And Oprah!" he laughed. "Everybody watch Oprah here!"

To get back south of Baghdad to Camp Victory, we had to hop armored "Rhinos" (basically armored Winnebagos) with other personnel and military escorts for a dark, bumpy, uncomfortable ride. There had been an attempted suicide bomb on one of the main gates into the IZ zone earlier in the day. I asked our Rhino driver-a heavily tattooed heavy metal-listening contractor-when he thought people could travel between cities in Greyhounds, not Rhinos, he answered deadpan, "200 or 300 years." To travel 8 miles on the ground has taken us 5 hours-so far. Life in the military means danger, sacrifice, commitment and-waiting around a lot.
Day 4: Feb. 8th, 2006
We left Camp Victory at 0530 in a very formidable-looking 4 Humvee convoy up to the International Zone in Baghdad . Army policy required us to wear full body armor--chest, abdomen, neck, deltoid kevlar. So of course I flubbed our first "fire in the Humvee" clear out drill--those armored door latches are hard to open wearing an extra 40 lbs. After a short, safe ride north to the Green Zone we met up with a very impressive young man--MAJ John Hudson, who manages $250 million of current construction projects in central Baghdad . If I were to approve cloning, John would be tops on the list. He has it all- engineering acumen, diplomatic skills, and compassion. Tucked away in his ID badge holder is a photo of his wife and two sons--close to his heart. To visit the Iraqi orphanage he has "adopted," we had to leave the (relatively) safe Green Zone with a 20-person security detail, including an advance team (some AEGIS Security Services personnel), all in fully armored vehicles (of course we were armored too!). At all hours of the day in Baghdad it is commonplace to see traffic backed up for long stretches because of added checkpoints or recent car bombs. I felt both awkward and on edge as we snaked our way through cement barriers, past dilapidated shops and garbage-strewn streets. Not to be too dramatic, but I found myself constantly scanning the sidewalks for men on cell phones (possible bomb detonation device) or cars parked on the side of the road (potentially packed with timed explosives). I tried to put myself in their shoes but it's hard. Most are just walking to work, or looking for jobs, trying to get by. It is undeniable that the security situation is pretty terrible. The terrorists can't engage our troops directly- they'd be decimated. So they hit infrastructure in attempt to foment a civil uprising. Electrical towers are easy targets because they are very hard to guard. Two car bombs exploded not too far away from our convoy route- I was told that at least seven Iraqis killed and two dozen injured. We drove by a 10 x 10 foot crater that had been blown out by a bomb that detonated the night before. Yet Iraqis walked nearby, on their way to work. Just another day in Baghdad .

The orphanage was amazing. The soldiers we were with from the USACE brought toys (as they do regularly) to the kids- most were about six or younger. The orphanage held about 25 kids total- beautiful, mostly boys. They sat in their small little chairs, lining the walls for us when we walked in. They pulled the candy out of Edd Hendee's pockets- bubble gum is their favorite so far. Many of the children did have extended family but they are unable to care for them. The staff told me that foreign adoption is possible- a number of us wanted to take a few of these kids with us. I pretended one of the stuffed animals was attacking me and I got one row of boys to laugh. They even taught me a few words in Arabic.

Later on we headed to the public children's hospital, where we saw just how badly the average Iraqi fared under 40 years of dictatorial rule. Mothers and fathers streamed through dirty halls and stairways waiting to be looked at by one of the hospitals' doctors. They stared at us- again, we were in full body armor, which I hated- and I did my best to say hello in Arabic and smile. But the sense of desperation and weariness of these people was heartbreaking. Twenty infants were lined up in a ward, sometimes two to a bed- all without sheets. At least a quarter looked like they wouldn't make it. The mothers wanted to speak with us but many had tears in their eyes. After seeing one particularly feverish child who would not stop coughing or crying, I just lost it. Had to leave the room. The "neo-natal" room was just as bad- two babies in each incubator, crying mothers. It was just heartbreaking. The doctors do what they can with their limited resources. The good news: they will soon have a new wing neo-natal and pediatric wing thanks to the generosity of the American people and hard work of the USACE and its contractors. The two pediatricians we spoke with were dedicated to helping their people. Many physicians have fled Iraq for security and better pay in other countries. But these men are here for the long haul.

This was an emotionally draining day, capped off by my interview with Gen. George Casey, the four-star in charge of the entire Iraq operation. He had an easy, confident perspective- and he seemed to have the respect of the troops gathered to hear the show. He talked of incremental steps toward victory- a slow, tough road but one that is vital to our security back home. The time frame is still so short, he said, from dictatorship to free elections. We're making progress.

This has been an exhausting day- emotionally and physically. But then again, it's that way for the troops pretty much every day here. Bottom line: Iraq is a complicated, difficult, hard-to-understand place. But we need to make this work. There is hope and success amidst the sadness and suffering here. I smile when I remember the 34 year-old Iraqi businesswoman who ditched her car and took four busses to get to our interview to avoid being noticed by the terrorists. She owns her own engineering company with 14 employees and urged the American people not to leave Iraq . "Please help us defeat these men," she said.

More later.
Day 3: Feb. 7th, 2006
I started the day with a pre-patrol briefing for an 18-soldier Humvee convoy to a local village near Camp Victory. When we arrived at the village, children swarmed around our vehicles, waving and laughing. The kids were absolutely gorgeous-especially the girls with their big, curious, almond-eyes. I became their instant new American friend when they saw I had my helmet filled with Tootsie Pops. (Big mistake to bring only two bags!)

I then observed CPT Mike Tess and LT Emily Siegert in a meeting with the local mayor about ongoing infrasture projects-a new water tower, secondary school, and sewage pipes. This village doesn't look so hot by our standards-shabby buildings and bad drainage-but it it's very liveable by Iraqi standards. Mayor Abdul Hyder told me that the life now, compared to life three years ago, was "like a dream" for most Iraqis. "Yes, there are problems," he said," but there is also freedom." His gratitude for all that Coalition forces have done for Iraq seemed heartfelt. At the same time, he told the patrol leaders that villagers were sometimes afraid when troops they didn't yet know well entered the village on foot patrol, rather than in vehicles. (This particular unit had recently moved from a very dangerous region in Iraq and were still getting to know the locals.) This sort of one-on-one diplomacy is critical to the long-term success of the mission here.

When we returned, I hit the mess hall with more soldiers from 1-320 FAR, and heard about some of their toughest battles when they were deployed at Camp Taji. The unit lost six brave men in their two months, but in that same time period, also found and destroyed the largest amount of munitions by any artillery unit in Iraq. These kids-and some older than I am-are soft-spoken and humble, yet more deserving of praise and acknowledgment than all the celebrities in Hollywood. I capped off a fantastic day with broadcast in front of a group of rowdy soldiers from as far away as Iskandaria. Many of you had the chance to talk to them directly on air. This has never before been done on national radio. I saw up close that they really appreciate the support and prayers. They believe in what they are doing here-and they know how hard it is better than anyone.

(Special thanks to my new friend MAJ Chris Lambesis, who helped me with this post.)
Day 2: Feb. 6th, 2006
This 24-period began with my hitching a late night Blackhawk ride up to Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. After a few hours sleep in former barracks of the Republican Guard, Laura and her team woke up, hit the mess hall to get a briefing by Col. James Pasquarette, who explained the goals and daily ops of his brigade, complete with a Power Point presentation on of satellite maps, IED reports, and overnight terrorist activity. He reiterated that every American soldier who drives off base does so in an up-armored vehicle. And the concern about body armor, he said, is totally misplaced.

All his men and women have advanced body armor. I met up with the fine men and women of the Army's 4th Div. First Brigade, 7th Squadron, 10th U.S. Cavalry. Led by Squadron Cmder David Thompson, the 7/10 Cav has seen some stiff terrorist resistance, losing one of their officers a few days ago in an IED hit. The terrorist responsible has already been apprehended-he was an IED cell leader.

You wouldn't know it by reading the New York Times, but IED attacks are actually down since December. I headed over to the Iraqi side of the base, where I saw the Iraqi troops being trained, with interpreters on site, of course. The men-about 30 of them-were friendly and seemed dedicated. They also risk their lives just by being part of the new Iraqi security forces-so most didn't want their pictures taken. Their American counterparts seem genuinely fond of these men-and not happy that the whole story is not being told by the "major media." More of the battlefield control is being turned over to the Iraqis later in the spring. "When the Iraqis see one of their own on top of a tank, they seem really proud," said one of the military trainers. "We need that to be the norm, as quickly as possible," commented one of the smart young majors riding with us. After checking out the the 4thID Aviation Brigade's helicopter fleet, chatting with the pilots (all of whom are poised and impressive), and seeing the Air Force's digital weather center, I was driven back to the air field for the Blackhawk flight back to Baghdad.

"Thanks for coming here, Laura," Brigade Cmdr. MacWilley said, as he waved goodbye. "How do we get the rest of the country to see the great work these men and women are doing here?" "You just did," I said. The flight over Baghdad gave us a great view of the invasion damage, and of the platform where the old Saddam statue used to be that we pulled down. The road ahead is hard but rest assured we're getting there.
Day 1: Feb. 5th, 2006
First let me repeat what I already knew--the troops serving over here are a stellar, inspiring group. I have been thoroughly impressed from the moment of our first contact with the 4th Infantry Division personnel who helped faciitate our trip into Iraq. In the middle of the night we were whisked off to an undisclosed location, and a few hours later flown to Baghdad by a great Air Force crew out of Alaska and a trusty old C-130. A number of government contractors were on board, all with the requisite body armor and kevlar helmets. The pilot was kind enough to invite me to sit on the flight deck for the flight, so I had the chance to see Baghdad's early morning sky. His co-pilot, navigator and engineer were funny, smart, and very upbeat about their role in the mission. Everyone here at Camp Victory and Camp Liberty are taking good care of us.

The mess hall experience--two meals already--has been a blast. Of course the security situation here is still terrible. The continuing terrorist threat is obvious by the number of cement barricades and checkpoints, the practical limits on where we can go, and the security sweeps even inside military bases. The asymetrical warfare being waged by the Islamo-fascists continues to be a difficult challenge.

The good news is that training of Iraqi forces continues apace and more of the security operations are being turned over to them every month. I will meet some of these brave men on Monday. I wish every American could see even the small part of the operation here that I've seen so far. They'd be more proud of our military and more grateful to be Americans.
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