Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Survivor Baghdad: I've finally made it to the Big City!

  • (Photos are of me, all up-armored and standing in front of a Bradley tank at Camp Falcon, and a street scene in Al Racheed)

Once our C-130 actually flew into Baghdad and my feet were actually on the ground, I suddenly realized that I had left my book back on the plane! And it wasn't just any book, no. It was a special galley copy of "Exit Music" (Ian Rankin's latest murder mystery) which I had picked up at the 2008 Book Expo last June -- and the hard-bound edition wasn't gonna come out until September. Now I'll have to wait for months for the Berkeley Public Library to get a copy for me to read. Mr. Rankin, if you are out there somewhere and reading this now, PLEEZE send me another copy! I gotta find out who killed the Russian.

After landing in Baghdad, I then was faced with two alternatives. My first option was that I could take a bus to Camp Stryker, wait there until 3:00 am, get a ride into the Green Zone on an up-armored Rhino convoy, take a Humvee to LZ Washington and then get a helicopter out to Camp Falcon. Or I could chose my second option, which is what I actually did -- bum a ride from the head of an MRAP platoon who I accidentally ran into at BIAP and who was heading directly across town to Camp Falcon. Boy did I luck out!

So we zipped across Baghdad in our MRAP. And nobody shot at us. "We are actually starting to see indicators that we've reached a point of no return regarding violence reduction," said the MRAP guy. "Violence is down 67%. Our command outposts used to get attacked on an average of 18 times a day. Now it's down to less than once a day." That's amazing. "Plus we're getting tips constantly about weapons caches, insurgents and small group criminals."

Small group criminals?

"Initially it was a euphemism for rogue militias but now it's just a catch-all handle for small groups of thugs who are driven to violence by money as compared to ideology."

The soldiers who had rescued me from having to endure at least two days on the BART (Baghdad Area non-Rapid Transit) system all lived in a small command outpost in the Doura district, so going off to one of the larger FOBS was like a night in the Big City for them. So we stopped at Camp Stryker before they dropped me off at Falcon and we "did" its DFAC and the PX up in style. Stryker is HUGE.

At around 8:00 pm our MRAP drove into Camp Falcon, which had become an internet legend when it allegedly got blown up by insurgents back in 2004 -- but so far I've been hesitant to ask if that legend is actually true. I think it would be more tasteful of me to settle in a bit more before asking.

The public affairs officer gave me a quick base orientation -- but I still managed to get lost several times before bedtime -- and introduced me to my new roommate. She is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. She's a war correspondent, a mother of two pre-teens and looks like she might still be in high school (a sophomore at most).

"Have you ever been to Iraq before?" I naively asked. She had. And also to Somalia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, etc.

"I was working for a major metropolitan newspaper when, after 9-11, they suddenly became short of reporters -- so they sent me off to Afghanistan and I've been covering wars ever since." Awesome! I'm so jealous. I want to cover wars!

"And people actually pay you to do this?" Yes. "Who watches your kids?" Family.

Then we got to talking about shoes. "I've had these ones for years," I said, pointing to a pair of battered old formerly-red-patent-leather Espirit mary-janes. "They look like hell but they're stronger than combat boots." And to prove my point, I pulled on the strap -- and it broke. Not to worry. My new roommate pulled out a roll of masking tape, we patched the strap back on and I was once again good to go.

"That reminds me of an old pair of Doc Martins I used to wear everywhere for almost ten years," said the reporter. "But when I got to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina, they turned a strange shade of blue and started to stink. I still have them. But I can't wear them anywhere. They smell too bad." I felt her pain.

"Katrina? You were there for Katrina?"

"Yes." Wow. "The only thing wrong with this life," she added, "is the PTSD. Sometimes I'm just not in complete control of my behavior. That's why I'm not voting for John McCain. After seven years in a prison camp, he's bound to have PTSD -- and occasionally slip out of control." That's a sobering thought -- especially since McCain would be having his finger on the red button if he won.