Saturday, August 09, 2008

Stuck in Baghdad freeway rush-hour traffic -- in a Bradley tank: My Iraq embed, Part 6

  • (Photos are of the Al Rasheed district of Baghdad including the open space, places we visited, sacks of UN flour and lots of boys in soccer jerseys; inside a Bradley, dinner at the COP, my bunk at the COP and my daughter Ashley at work at Ciao Bella)
After spending a slow morning at COP Guerro -- playing solitaire, filing stories and sneaking around avoiding angry dogs -- we are now leaving to go out on patrol again in our Bradley tank.

"We'll be going to Cedar Street," said the COP commander. "That location used to be so violent that we tried to avoid it whenever possible. That's where a Bradley was attacked last year and four men burned to death. Special groups criminals," which is what the military calls the local mafia-type gangs, "used to hang out there because they knew that we were hesitant to go in. It's in the same area where you went the day before yesterday."

Really? That place where all the kids were so nice? Go figure.

So we all popped into the rattlely old Bradley and went off to give out some mini-grants again. Heat and dust. Heat and dust -- and camaraderie among the soldiers. The guys at this COP get along really well. And all the guys in our Bradley were dressed to the nines in combat gear and totally locked and loaded.

And just sitting there doing nothing but chatting with the soldiers, I still managed to lose yet another pen.
My friend Aprille had just e-mailed me, giving me good pen-retention advice. "Jane, always keep an extra pen in your bra." You mean the one that is completely inaccessible due to my flak jacket? Oh well. I like to think that, somewhere in Iraq, there are deserving souls out there using my pens.

Then me and the guys all took photos of ourselves jammed inside the Bradley with sweat on our faces. "After about three or four hours in this gear," said one guy, "I start to get a little bit hot." Three or four hours? I wouldn't last inside 100 pounds of gear in this weather for three or four minutes!

Then we stopped on Cedar Street, popped out of the Bradley, talked to one car-repair shop owner and then popped back into the tank. "Didn't he want the mini-grant?" I asked. The soldiers just shrugged.

Now I know why the women in the Middle East wear headscarves. It keeps the sweat out of their eyes.

When we arrived at that first shop, I had just leisurely strolled down the gangplank of the tank. Not so with the soldiers. The second the hatch swung down, they were on total alert -- like me with the dogs back at the COP. Our sharpshooter/lookout specialist instantly went down on one (padded) knee and set up shop with his M-16. The rest of the platoon fanned out.

Speaking of platoons, earlier today I watched a part of that old movie "Platoon" on TV in the storage room back at the COP -- the scene of the firefight in the jungle in Vietnam back before Charlie Sheen became an aging playboy on a popular sit-com. It was an ironic thing to be watching a movie about Vietnam here in Iraq.

"I just found out that the guy back at the last shop already had a grant."

"What are we doing now?"

"Just driving around." Then we got out again and this time I was more in high dog-alert mode. Those dogs had really educated me good.

"This is a bakery," I was told. Brick oven, open fire pit, hot bread, more paperwork. Then back into the Bradley. We cruised around some more in our sardine can. The warning sign next to me read, "Turret movement can crush you."

Actually, I had come to Iraq to see weapons caches. "Got any of those here?" I asked an officer.

"We haven't found any in at least a month," he replied. So it looks like I'm going to have to settle for just seeing lots of poverty-stricken bombed-out neighborhoods instead.

Next we stopped by a female doctor's office and a pastry shop. "See those big white sacks over there? Notice how they are all stamped with the UN logo?" That partially explains where the food is coming from in Baghdad. There were at least 50 sacks, weighing 50 pounds each.

We walked past an outdoor market bazaar and a huge empty space. "Soccer field," said the Iraqi man standing next to me. "Ask the Americans to build us a soccer field." Right now it looked like it was being used as the city dump. Everywhere we went the neighborhoods were shabby, the streets were littered and water that looked suspiciously like sewage pooled in the streets. And almost every single man and boy that we saw wore a soccer jersey.

One of the most incongruous things that has happened to me here in Iraq occurred on the drive from Al Rasheed back to Camp Falcon. Can you believe it? There we all were in our Bradley tank -- stuck on the freeway during rush-hour traffic.

PS: I got an e-mail from my daughter Ashley this evening. Everyone at her job is trying to marry her off. Me too! I wish I could pack up about ten of the really nice soldiers I've met here and bring them back with me so she could pick one out. Project Runway, military style -- or should I say "Batchelorette"? I should write an article about that. "Batchelorette Iraq".

And I just lost yet another pen. What's with these pens?

And I also just got e-mail from some woman named Virginia saying that my reporting about the Beagle Boys was "silly and embarrassing". Sigh. But you don't see many Beagle Boys out here in Iraq. Everyone here has a job to do and does it. The Beagle Boy types to stay back in Washington and spend their time hounding John Edwards and Paris Hilton.