News From Kennedy
Well, I finally made it to my duty assignment in Iraq. After living in a tent in Baghdad with 50 other officers from all over the United States for a few weeks, several of us were interviewed by the director of the Al Asad Police Academy, a marine corps reserves chief warrant officer who is an FBI agent in Virginia. I was one of two officers selected to teach at the academy. That is where the adventure began.
After being told that I was selected, in true military fashion, I was told to "Be ready to bug out at a moments notice," which meant that, for security reasons, they could not tell me when that would be. The wait began. I sat around the tent for 2 more days when I was finally told at about 6pm to have my gear and be waiting at the designated pick-up point at 9pm that same evening. Standing in the dark with the other officer selected, we waited patiently for our ride. At about 9:30 a heavily armored vehicle arrived at our position and loaded us, and all the gear. As we were driving away from the Adnon Palace, we were told that we were being taken to another position within the green zone to be further transported. We arrived within a few minutes and drug our gear and laid it out on the ground in lines, at the direction of army personnel.
After a roll-call, we were told to board one of several strange looking contraptions called a "rhino." These are specially made heavy armored busses that resemble small Foretravels used to transport personnel. I knew from past trips on these vehicles that they move people from the green zone to Baghdad International Airport (BIOP) at times that I cannot say for security reasons. It doesn't take a well-versed person to realize the certain danger when you are told that ballistic vests and helmets are required during the trip.
I finally arrived at BIOP in the middle of the night and secured a seat on a military aircraft. I wish that I could say that I boarded a nice plane with flight attendants serving us for the short 20 minute flight from Baghdad to Al Asad, but that would not be my luck. Oh no. After many hours waiting at BIOP, we finally walked out onto the tarmac of the airfield which reeked with fumes from numerous c130 cargo planes and blackhawk helicopters idling in wait of takeoff. We walked, dragging all our gear, to a c130 that waited about 1/4 mile down the tarmac.
We boarded the huge military plane through a large opening in the rear of the aircraft as the sounds of the propellers roared. These planes are the type that paratroopers jump out of which was apparent by the cables overhead to hook the static cords from parachutes to and the green jump lights on the roof. There were bright orange cargo net seats that set on the sides of the plane facing each other. That way if the guy in front of you got sick, you were lucky enough to see it. We were told that in order to get to Al Asad, we would have to fly to Kuwait and then catch another flight to al asad. A 20 minute flight just turned into, what later would be, days.
Our flight was crammed full of people. I and 2 other people were the only non military people on board. Let me just say that taking off and landing in a combat zone is an experience that everyone should try. For safety, planes do not take off and land like they do normally when you go on vacation. Oh no. The plane shoots down the runway at top speed then lifts straight up into the air; banking hard to the left and the right in a zigzag motion to divert any possible enemy fire. This makes for a roller-coaster plane ride. I have to admit, though--it was fun. You have to wear earplugs to protect from the deafening sounds of the 4 engines. It was so hot on this particular flight.
As is always the case in a warm environment you must keep hydrated. As we were flying along to Kuwait, I saw several soldiers trying to soak up as much sleep as they could. It was a sight to see all those soldiers sleeping with their heads down-- still clutching onto their rifles. I saw one small framed army sgt. Apparently get sick on the row of seats behind the ones in front of me (there are 4 rows total.) some of the people around him were asking him if he was alright, but he was non-responsive. Then he stood up and passed smooth out! he looked like an East Texas pine tree falling after being cut down. I jumped up and climbed over all the sleeping soldiers and web seats to help. I got to him and helped the 2 flight crew members carry his limp body to the rear of the plane. This is where training comes into play. I noticed that he was feeling cold and clammy but was not sweating. We were able to wake him and I asked if he was diabetic, to which he replied "No." I asked him if he had eaten or drank anything that day and, of course, he said "no." He was dehydrated. The crew had given him water to drink and I had them elevate his feet and told 2 soldiers to get some wet rags. One soldier asked me where to get rags on a military cargo plane? I told him to get some t-shirts and soak them in water. I placed one behind his neck on the other on the top of his head and forehead in attempts to lower his body temperature. The crew then gave him oxygen and we had to make an emergency landing in an unspecified location in Iraq. As the rear doors opened to the plane an ambulance was backing up to it. Fortunately, he had regained himself and got the color back in his face. I helped the crew carry him to the ambulance then climbed back to my seat. An old sgt-major was looking at me grinning and shaking his head. I asked him if that was one of his troops and he said "No sir, my troops know better."
After that we were off again on another roller-coaster take-off. We finally made it to Kuwait and had to drag all of our crap another hundred miles to a tent. By this time it is noon and fat boy was sweating. Once at the tent, we were told it would be 3 or 4 hours till the next flight. I laid my tired body down on a cot and slept until they woke me to board the next flight. This roller-coaster was even better.
There were only 5 passengers on board and after a while, I decided I was going to look around and take some cool pictures. I eventually made my way up to the cockpit and said "How y'all?" Some how they pilot and crew knew I was from Texas. The invited me in and showed me some cool things. I rode the rest of the flight in the cockpit and even videoed the landing. This is not easy to do on a roller-coaster. I will neither confirm nor deny that I ever piloted the aircraft or was shown anything marked "Top Secret." (wink)
After, I lost count of how many days, I was finally there. Al Asad Marine Air Station. Located 150 km northwest of Baghdad right smack in the middle of the desert. I just thought we had hot summers in Nacogdoches! Today was in the 90s and its just March. They say it gets up to 150 in the summer here.
Our police academy is located on an oasis with palm trees and ancient ruins of buildings from long ago. Local legend has it that Abraham stopped there to water his camel on his way to Canaan.
To me the extraordinary thing is evidence of Saddam's defiance of peace treaties. After the desert storm, he was forbidden to maintain an air force. Typical defiant Saddam, though, hid mig fighter jets all along this base amongst the palms. You can be driving along and see a wing or tail with the iraqi flag sticking out from a group of trees and low and behold there is a fighter jet. Some of them are in really good shape too.
One story has it that a colonel ordered an enlisted man to climb in one and get him a souvenir from the cockpit. The soldier accidentily hit the ejection seat lever, which still worked. After a broken shoulder, supposedly the colonel was relieved of duty. I do not know if that is true or not, but it makes for interesting story telling.
I recently attended the graduation of the last academy class. The base commander, a marine general from Texas I might add, spoke and summed it all up for me. He told the class that "A free america was formed amid the chaos of war 229 years ago and today Iraq is emerging as a free and independent nation.
As a child I was often told stories about the brave and heroic men who risked their lives and fought for America's freedom. In the future, Iraqi children will hear stories about the brave and heroic men who fought for their freedom." The more of these policemen that we train means that more of our American fighting men and women can come home and that is what makes it all worth while for me to train them here away from my beloved Texas.
I have enclosed some photos and will send more when I can. Salom alaikem, which means "Peace be with you."