Mood: not sure
Now Playing: Nothing - darn it
Topic: Gin&Tonics on the Tigris
I needed to visit Jordan to examine some documents and then fly out to Italy for a short regional rest break, a one-week vacation given to every foreign service officer working in Iraq. I had grown sick of taking the Rhino bus run out of the airport and had gotten into the habit of securing space available (Space A) helicopter reservations on the same evening as the Rhino Run. If I caught the helicopter, I felt lucky and avoided the bus. If I couldn’t get on the helicopter, I would take the Rhino as a backup plan.
Earlier that morning, I had eaten a questionable burger prepared by the so-called French chef in my compound. He had an uncanny ability to prepare unpleasant food, but I was trying to recover from a hangover, which negated my usual ability to reject questionable food. Three hours after I had finished the burger, I was lying down on the ground waiting to vomit.
I lay on the ground for perhaps an hour before the Iraqi driver who had been selected to take me to the helicopter pad swung by my house to see why I hadn’t met him at the plaza, the normal meeting point for people who were going to take a shuttle ride. The driver, L looked at me and quickly decided that I had to make myself vomit to get the food out of my system. I agreed with him, but said I couldn’t do it. Realizing that I had to throw up if I had any hope of catching the helicopter and avoiding the Rhino Bus, L concocted another plan. He told me that he knew an old-fashioned cure-all that had always worked when he was a child: he would give me a little bit of milk, which he promised would make everything okay. By okay, he meant that it would force me to vomit, and it did. I had never learned that home remedy; I wondered if I had somehow missed out on this trick as a child or if it had never left Iraq.
In that post-vomit bounce, I felt energy streaming through my body once again and was certain that I could take the helicopter. I jumped up, despite the slight woozy feeling in my stomach, and took off for my helicopter ride. L joked at how foolish and pathetic I had looked lying down on the ground waiting to vomit. He also found it curious that one of my friends who passed by my house decided to wait and see me vomit. L thought that a good friend would have given me the milk immediately.
By the time we got through all the checkpoints and arrived at the helicopter pad, I had lost all my strength. I could no longer stand up. I couldn’t carry my large book bag that had all the clothing I needed for the official and unofficial portions of my trip, and I definitely couldn’t carry the heavy body armor I needed to get onto the helicopter. I asked L to take me back to the compound, but he didn’t want to do it. He pleaded with me to wait down near the flight line until the last bit of food poisoning had worked its way through my system. I told him that I couldn’t make it. He was disappointed, but he agreed to my wishes.
On the drive back to the compound, L decided to take me to his house and introduce me to his children. He had somehow found a small house inside the Green Zone that could be rented at a reasonable rate. Because the rest of Iraq had become too dangerous, L had given up his old apartment for the luxury of living inside the Zone. Despite their close proximity to so many Americans, L’s children had rarely interacted with an American. They were shy around me, yet L was clearly very proud. He talked about his children on a regular basis, and even though I was very sick, he wanted me to meet them. I tried to be polite, but I couldn’t leave the car and interact with them; I was too sick. I also felt very odd. The children looked at me as if I were some type of alien. I didn’t belong in Iraq, and they knew it, even if they could explain it to me. I was a yellow apple surrounded by red apples. I felt uncomfortable, like a human placed behind a cage at a zoo.
Thankfully, the stopover at L’s house was short. He took me home, where I crashed and rested for a few hours. Later that evening, he stopped by to see if I had recovered enough to make the Rhino Run. I hadn’t fully recovered, but I forced myself to get up. Getting in and out of Iraq was incredibly difficult, and rescheduling activities in Jordan and Italy would have been nearly impossible. I had to get up and start moving. I had to take the Rhino.
Every night, the U.S. military organized an armored land convoy that we called the Rhino Run to shuttle civilians back and forth from the airport to the Green Zone,. To make it as safe as possible, they made the run at night, which gave the Humvees supporting the convoy free authority to shoot any car or person who tried to approach the convoy. Anything moving on the road to the airport at night was violating the law and therefore could be shot. To help keep the bad guys guessing, the military also varied the departure time; if the convoy went on a set schedule, the bad guys would quickly figure out when to set up an ambush.
That night, I had the luxury of catching an early Rhino bus run. I left my compound at 10:30 P.M. and arrived at the staging area by 10:40 P.M. The staging area was nothing more than a large parking lot with a handful of picnic benches and overhead lights that shone down on the parking lot. By the end of my tour, the military had installed a small enclosed waiting area to protect people from the elements, but during most of my tour, I had to stand outside waiting for someone to take my name so I could sign up for the Rhino Run.
By 11:00 P.M. an Air Force sergeant, who for some reason was responsible for organizing a land movement, showed up with a clipboard. He jumped up on top of a picnic table and gave his short explanation of what would happen that night. The Rhino Run would leave the staging area in approximately 30 minutes. Each person would be given a seat in one of the three armored buses based on a certain priority. Wounded soldiers had top priority, followed by all other soldiers, Department of State employees, United Nations officials, and finally contractors. Although I worked for USAID, the military viewed my agency as an extension of the State Department, so I was always able to secure a seat, although they often turned away at least a handful of lowly contractors.
When the sergeant said State Department employees could sign in, I quickly grabbed my bag and walked over to the soldier who took my name and Social Security number. After that, I moved over to the large semi trailer that would carry our luggage to the airport. The armored bus didn’t have enough space for both people and gear, and I think the military didn’t want people trying to protect their baggage if an insurgent attacked the convoy. Most of the time, I volunteered to help load the trailer. I leaped up and stood inside the trailer, and when people would toss their bags up to me, I would slide them to the back to make room for the additional gear that would come. The task wasn’t fun, but it was more enjoyable than standing around waiting for permission to enter one of the Rhino buses.
By the time the trailer was loaded, the Rhino buses arrived. The military had ordered these custom-made armored buses specifically for ferrying people up and down the road between the airport and the Green Zone. By the summer of 2004, this road, sometimes referred to as Route Irish, had become one of the most dangerous roads in the world. The bad guys took daily potshots at the SUVs ferrying Westerners back and forth between the airport and the Zone. When the Americans started upgrading to heavily armored vehicles, the bad guys started using IEDs, RPGs, and car bombs. Eventually, the military ordered the Rhino buses—massive heavily armored shuttle buses that could supposedly survive a car bomb. Sadly, even they weren’t strong enough to offer the protection needed for embassy employees. The road had gotten too deadly. Thus, the military shifted all personnel transportation activities to the dead of night, when they could completely control the road and use their technology advantage to quickly spot and kill anyone approaching the convoy.
I climbed into the bus where I’d been assigned and signed another check-in sheet, presumably because having my name on multiple sheets would help the military verify that I had been on a bus if it was hit. I donned my body armor and then waited. We had to sit on the bus until everyone with permission to take the bus had properly signed in and put on their armor. We also had to wait for the State Department RSO to come on board and explain what would happen during the trip.
Eventually, a RSO decked out with an M-4 and Oakley shades leaped up into the bus to give his standard speech. For the rest of the trip, we had to turn off our cell phones because the baddies could tap into cell phone calls to identify where we were on the road. Everyone had to wear their body armor at all times. If someone didn’t have their armor, they couldn’t ride the Rhino. If the bad guys attacked the Rhino, only soldiers could use their weapons to defend the bus, but only after receiving permission from the RSO. Additionally, if the bad guys damaged the Rhino, we had to stay inside the vehicle, because it would be the safest place to be during a firefight. We would only leave the Rhino if the RSO swung by and opened up the door. If he did that, we would likely be jumping into another Rhino bus.
After his speech, we sat and waited for the Humvees and air support to arrive. When they arrived, we began our trip. We moved from the familiar roads of the Green Zone near the Palace and PX to the outer edges of the Zone, then zipped past the last checkpoint, past the last Army tank, past the last soldier, and entered into the Red Zone. I always knew that the Red Zone was the most dangerous place in the world for a Westerner like me. I knew that out there, my life meant little, and the protection provided by the U.S. was far less than what I would receive in the Green Zone. Everyone on the bus thought the same thing. That was why most people didn’t talk on the bus: there was this ominous sense that we were taking a risk. I, on the other hand, would talk to anyone who wanted to chat, or take a nap if no one wanted to talk. I wasn’t indifferent to the risk, but I knew that the odds of dying were very low, and if something did happen, I couldn’t do anything about it.
The trip from the Green Zone to the airport took roughly 30 minutes. When we arrived at Camp Stryker, an Army base near the airport, the Rhino dropped us off at the Stables, a support center for people moving through the airport. The minute we arrived, someone from the State Department entered our bus and instructed us to get off the bus, unload the semi truck, and then get a bunk assignment. In the dark, people pulled their gear off the truck and slowly shuffled into the barren tent where they would get their bunking assignments.
In the early days of my tour, everyone had to sleep on simple cots in a large canvas tent. In the winter, we were given toilet-paper-thin wool blankets that provided no warmth against the cold desert nights. Most of the time, the heaters and air conditioners in those tents didn’t work either. Thankfully, by the end of my tour, high-grade foreign service officers slept in four- to six-person trailers, and those who were still forced to stay in a large tent were given two blankets, a foam pad, and a pillow each. These were small changes, but they meant the difference between sleeping for four hours or tossing and turning for four hours with little hope of going to sleep.
The tent assigned to State Department employees was approximately a quarter-mile from the Stables. Because I didn’t want to lug my gear out to the tent, I left my large backpack in the Stables and then took a small book bag with my valuables to my assigned tent. People often got lost on the way to the tent because the State Department tent looked just like the thousand other tents in the camp: 60 to 80 feet long, surrounded by sandbags, and filled with cots. In truth, as long as you didn’t go into a tent with a bunch of soldiers, no one cared where you slept.
The next morning, I had a slight cough and felt like the four hours of rest hadn’t helped a bit. A dust storm had pushed in during the night and interrupted my sleep. When I stepped out of the tent, I could see less than a quarter-mile. With questionable visibility, I knew there was a chance that the military or Iraqi flight traffic controllers could close the airport. Nevertheless, I went ahead with the hope that the airport would remain open. I went to the bathroom in a port-a-john covered with combative graffiti written by soldiers and Marines that questioned everything from the other branches of the military to homosexuals to the President’s intelligence. I took a shower in a small trailer that lacked towel racks or shelving. I walked roughly three-quarters of a mile to a large cafeteria where I could eat greasy, yet filling high-calorie food. Then I rounded up a driver to take me to the airport.
When I arrived at the airport at 10:00 A.M., I quickly passed through the first security checkpoint outside the building, entered the building, and slid into purgatory. Unlike most other airports in the world, BIAP didn’t have any signs telling travelers if their flights had arrived or were delayed. Passengers sat in uncomfortable plastic chairs in the outer area, waiting for a person to come up to the inner security checkpoint and shout out the name of the flight that was ready to depart. At that point, everyone got confused and started to ask the people sitting next to them if they had heard the announcement. If they missed the announcement, they missed their flight. If a traveler went up to the security guard or tried to find an airport employee to ask for information about a flight, no one could provide any information. Passengers simply had to wait.
The minute hand on my watch slowly crept toward my scheduled departure time, and for some miraculous reason, the dust storm began to break. It looked as if I would actually be able to leave, but for some reason, no one was calling my flight number. I kept calling my agency’s travel specialist inside the Green Zone. Could she confirm that my flight had left Amman and was en route? Did she know if the flight would land? If the flight wasn’t going to arrive, could I get on a military flight to Amman? The transportation office couldn’t answer any of my questions. As each minute ticked away, my chances of bolting and making it to the military terminal in time to catch a seat on a C-130 cargo plane to Jordan diminished.
Eventually, I decided to give up on my commercial flight and take my chance with the military. When I arrived at the military terminal, the dust storm had begun to pick up once again, but the pilots were optimistic that they would still fly. I checked in my bags, which were placed on a pallet to be brought onto the plane with the other gear. I received a confirmed space on the flight and was told to stand in a waiting area because I would get onto the plane within minutes. After I had waited in this holding area for 20 minutes, the military canceled the flight. The dust storm had gotten too bad.
The dust storm continued on and off for three more days. Each day, all flights were canceled in the morning. Although the weather always improved by the afternoon, my carrier refused to fly to Baghdad in the afternoon because of the risk that their plane could get stuck on the runway. They didn’t have any insurance to spend the night in Iraq, so they refused to take the risk. On the fourth day, the weather was perfect, but my carrier didn’t fly, and I couldn’t catch a military flight to Jordan. Thankfully, on the fifth day, I finally caught a commercial flight out of Baghdad.
For each of those days that I remained trapped in Baghdad, I had to entertain myself with the limited options at Camp Stryker. There was nowhere else to go. I couldn’t get a flight out of Iraq, and because the dust storms interfered with helicopter support for the Rhino Runs, I couldn’t get back into the Green Zone. Each day, I tried to get on a flight out, but each day I failed and then struggled to reschedule my reservations out of Iraq and then out of Jordan.
Thankfully, on the second night, one of my colleagues from USAID arrived. James and I could help entertain each other in this purgatory. Each morning, we would get up to see if we could catch a flight. If a dust storm was blowing, which it normally was, we went right to the Internet café tent and began to rejuggle our travel reservations. If our flight didn’t get canceled until later in the day, we began the process of getting ready to go to the airport, only to give up later in the day.
Much like prison life, our time at Camp Stryker quickly broke down into routines. Each morning, we got breakfast at the military DFAC at the far end of the base. After breakfast, we spent some time in the military Internet café. After that, we went to the morale and welfare tent, where we could watch movies, read books, and play foosball, ping-pong, or video games. Most of the time, we decided to play video games. Our personal favorite was Simpsons Hit and Run. The game worked like Grand Theft Auto: you could drive around the city, push cars out of the way, run over mailboxes, and crash through thin fences and other obstacles. However, the game designers had interspersed jokes from The Simpsons and had developed loose storylines that added focus to the game. It wasn’t high art, but it filled the morning.
After lunch, we played more video games. From time to time, I would play a sports game or perhaps take a break to check my personal email in the Internet café. Most of the time, I kept returning to Simpsons Hit and Run. I had grown so addicted to the game that shortly after I left Iraq, a friend gave me a copy of it. I played in a vain hope of reliving the empty fun that I had passing the time with James, but it wasn’t the same. I quickly gave up.
After dinner, James and I would normally go over to the movie tent. For the first few evenings, we merely watched the scheduled film. Most of the films centered on tough men in heroic situations, such as Kurt Russell in Backdraft. Usually, no one joined us in the movie room, so on the fourth night, James and I decided to make a request and watch Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Watching a movie mocking military thinking to pass time in the middle of a war zone because I couldn’t catch a flight somehow seemed very appropriate.
After four days and five nights of living at the camp, the weather cleared. On a beautiful sunny day, James, myself, and the other people trapped inside the dusty concrete blast walls of Camp Stryker made our way to the airport. I waited at the airport for four hours before climbing into the plane, then waited for another hour on the runway because the military had temporarily closed the airspace above the airport. Eventually, the plane took off and made its way to Jordan. My vacation had finally begun.