Outside the Al Faw Palace, Camp Victory the HQ of US Forces and Former Haunt of Saddam Hussein, the Palace was Named after the Victory of the Iraqis over the Iranians on the Al Faw Peninsula toward the end of the Iran-Iraq War. The Palace sits in the middle of a lake
We made the trip from Camp Virginia to the Ali Al Salim airbase to catch our flight to Baghdad. As usual there was the seabag drag to the waiting baggage trucks, an accountability formation in the blazing sun and the shuffle, this time in full protective gear to our buses. Riding in a foreign tour bus in full “battle rattle” is even more uncomfortable than the regular ride. Packed tightly into the buses the air conditioning of which did little to help after coming in out of the heat, we took our places jammed into the bus and once again with armed personnel in the bus and convoy escorts as we pulled out of the high security entry control point at Camp Virginia and drove to Ali Al Salim. The trip was uneventful and rather boring as there is not much to see between the two bases except sand and occasional nondescript buildings.
Ali Al Salim is a large Kuwaiti and American air base and logistics hub for air movement operations in the Arabian Gulf. We arrived there and once again formed up, went through a staging area where were we were able to pick up some water from one of the ubiquitous pallets of bottled water and waited inside the terminal. Some folks grounded their packs and used them as pillows or recliners, others found seats in the waiting area and others looked around to see how the Air Force lived. A couple of TVs set to AFN played as we chatted, wandered or dozed. It was not long before we were moved to yet another staging area and began to get our aircraft briefing and manifested for the flight. Our group that had began the trip at Fort Jackson was a lot smaller now as the sailors who had gone on to the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan and those assigned to Kuwait were no longer with us. As we trundled down the tarmac we were guided into position directly behind the aircraft. We filed into a waiting C-17 Globemaster and sat down in airline style passenger seats which can be added or subtracted by in 10 passenger pallets as needed for the particular mission. Additional permanent seats lined the bulkhead. Our gear was loaded at the aft end of the aircraft as we took our seats. We pretty much filled the seating which at maximum load is 134 passengers and we waited for the aircraft to load. A loadmaster came through to check that we all were wearing our personal protective gear and had our seat belt fastened. The C-17 unlike many military aircraft has at least an asthmatic air conditioning capability once the cargo door is closed. Unfortunately when the door is open it is pretty much like whatever conditions are outside, in our case 130 degree heat with the exception that the sun was not beating down on our heads and that there was no air movement. It was just a tad hot inside the aircraft. Eventually the cargo ramp and door were closed and the aircraft prepared for takeoff. With the door closed we began to feel a little bit of relief from the air conditioning.
For a large cargo aircraft the C-17 has a pretty smooth take off, the four Pratt and Whitney PW2040 engines producing 40,400 pounds of thrust each pushing the hug aircraft which is capable of transporting an M1A2 Abrams Main Battle Tank or 3 Bradley Fighting vehicles into the blue Kuwaiti sky. In a few minutes the pilot announced that we had crossed into Iraqi Airspace and that it would take us about 45 minutes to arrive in Baghdad. When the announcement was made there was an almost collective deep breath knowing that we were now going into the war, this was no longer in our future we were there. I could feel the adrenalin being released into my body and can remember how quickly I became instantly aware of every noise or movement on the aircraft.
Arriving in the skies above Baghdad International Airport our aircraft circled and received permission to land. Due to the possibility of enemy fire the approach to airports in Iraq is not like you would experience at a commercial airport in the United States, Europe or most other parts of the world. Unlike most airports where there is a long and slow approach to the runway the descent is a steep spiral as the aircraft comes down from altitude to land. If the airfield is under fire the aircraft will not land. Once we were down we had been briefed to be able to move at a brisk pace in case the airfield came under fire, something that was happening on a relatively frequent basis in 2007.
The tail ramp and door opened as if they were a gigantic rearward facing mouth, or maybe like one of those weird fish that have teeth in their ass. I think I remember some weird science show that talked about such a creature, if there isn’t one there should be. As soon as the ass-backward maw opened a rush of hot air killed any semblance of what had been an almost bearable air conditioned compartment. Gear in hand we filed out of the aircraft heading for the ramp. Just for your information, it is easy to slip on these ramps; I came close to such an event but caught myself just in time so I didn’t go ass over tip down the ramp. Nelson certainly would have made me pay for such a breach of protocol. As we left the aircraft a ground crewman directed us out of the jet blast area and another led us to the terminal. At the terminal we were greeted by Staff Sergeant Assi, the Chaplain assistant for the Iraq Assistance Group and an RP assigned to the Multi-National Corps Iraq Chaplain Office. Sergeant Assi was a mobilized reservist originally from Nigeria. At least here our gear was palletized and was brought to a gear staging area. Once it arrived we gathered a total of 4 EOD Issue super-seabags, two regular seabags, our packs, Nelson’s rifle case and my computer bag. We were assisted by Sergeant Assi and the RP who helped load our stuff into the back of the white Chevy SUV that they were driving. One thing about military vehicles in Iraq that are not tactical vehicles is that there is a strong chance that they are the color white. The white paint contractor at GM must be making a killing on vehicles destined for the Middle East. Once we were checked off the manifest as having a ride were able to depart walking out through rows of Califonia and Jersey barriers.
The ride was interesting as we wove our way around the ever present California and Jersey Barriers as well as “HESCO’s,” which are large wire and canvas containers standing anywhere from5 to 8 feet tall filled with dirt, rock and sand. All of these are designed to minimze the effects of incoming ordnace by preventing the explosive force of them and teh associated shrapnel from spreading outward. We transitioned through a number of checkpoints where armed soldiers kept a wary eye out on our way to Camp Victory. Victory which is the home of Multi-National Force and Multi-National Corps Iraq lies next to Camp Liberty. They are on the north side of Baghdad International Airport. As we looked across the runway the only aircraft visible were military transports and contracted cargo carriers. Unlike a major airport its size anywhere else in the world Baghdad did not have regularly scheduled airline service from any major carrier yet. We wound our way around the compounds which blended together almost as one, much like the suburbs of the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. Passing palaces and villas that ringed a lake in the center of the compound we continued on. In the center of the lake connected by a causeway sat the massive Al Faw Palace, built by Saddam Hussein to commemorate Iraq’s victory in retaking the Al Faw Peninsula at the close of the Iran-Iraq War, a victory that resulted in Iran deciding to cut a peace deal with the Iraqis. Despite a Shi’te majority in Iraq there is no love lost between Iraqis and Iranians. Iraqi Arabs refer to the Iranians almost contemptuously as the Persians. This goes back centuries to the times when Persian occupied parts of Iraq and treated the Arabs badly.
We turned down an asphalt road which quickly became a packed clay and gravel road over which a tanker truck sprayed water to keep the dust down. into a pulled up to a wooden building near a tent city where personnel coming in and out of theater were billeted at Camp Victory. Row upon row of tents, each surrounded by a HESCO barriers were to our right. The ground was a mixture of hardened clay and rock which when driven over or walked upon emitted a cloud of dust which Sergeant Assi told us turned to a sticky goo which is almost impossible to get off of boot when it rains. Overhead helicopter gunships patrolled the skies occasionally flying quickly to the sounds of gunfire just off the base not far from where we were. In the background we could hear the sound of heavy machine guns and automatic weapons. Not far from our billeting area sat a Navy Manned CWIS, or as we call tehm Sea Whiz. This is a 20mm gatling gun which directed by radar is designed to shoot down incoming missiles or rockets. Nelson and I looked at each other and almost on cue he said, “Chaps I think there might be a war going on out there.” I looked back and said, “Don’t you know it partner.” The area to the east of the tent city was bordered by a line or shower trailers and heads, all protected by the large 15 foot high California barriers. To the north of the tents lay a large Dining facility or as the Army calls them, a DFAC. After getting signed in we drew an odd mixture of linen for our beds. I ended up with a couple of sheets, pillow cases and a multi-colored comforter. If I recall Nelson got some superhero on his blanket, which suits him fine as he is a big comic fan and can tell you more than you can imagine about all the different super-heroes. Instead of being together Nelson was assigned to a tent for NCOs and I ended up further away in a tent for field grade officers.
Once we had secured our stuff we met back together and walked to the DFAC for dinner. This DFAC was not as large as it appeared as it had a large protective roof designed to keep mortar shells and rockets from impacting the building itself. Two Ugandan soldiers working for security on the base checked our ID’s after which we washed our hands as we entered the building.
Upon entry we were almost overwhelmed by the amount of food present. These DFAC’s were definitely feeders and the number of soldiers that should have been wearing wide-load signs across their asses was amazing. But then who could blame them, many were on a second or third trip to Iraq of 12-15 months each. Maybe for the first time they were not in some isolated FOB with a poor quality of life, in a place which all things considered safe except for the occasional incoming rockets and mortars. The quality of the food was better than in Kuwait as was the dinning area.
As I was finishing stuffing my gear underneath my bed a young Army Major came into the tent. He looked at me and I looked at him as if we had met before and we greeted on another politely. I saw his shoulder patch which identified him as a member of the Maryland Army National Guard. We struck up a conversation and I asked to what unit he was assigned. He replied that he worked at the National Guard Bureau and had been attached to the Maryland unit as an operations officer for the deployment. He remarked that I looked somewhat familiar and I asked if he had ever served in the Virginia National Guard. He replied that he had and I asked what unit. His response about floored me “1st Battalion 170th Infantry” located at Fort Belvoir, Virginia just south of D.C. I told him that I too had been in the battalion and then he figured out where he knew me from. With a look of near amazement on his face he replied “You were our Chaplain back in 1995!” I patently acknowledged this fact while he continued saying that he had been the TOW Anti-Tank Missile Platoon Leader in our Headquarters Company. Our conversation meandered through old times at AP. Hill Virginia, talking about our careers, people that we knew and life in general. After a couple of hours we both realized that we needed to take care of a few personal things to settle in for the night. Eventually my old lieutenant fell asleep and I began what was to become a persistent pattern of insomnia which plagues me to this day. Since I couldn’t get to sleep I walked through the darkness to the DFAC which had a late meal. I was standing in line amid a few Americans, some British soldiers and contractors when Nelson appeared beside me. He said “Hey boss, can’t you sleep?” I said “nope” he said “me too, so I thought I would get some chow in this place.” We had our meal together and when we were done picked our way through the darkness over the rough ground to our tents aided by our red lens flashlights. After looking for about 5 minutes we found Nelson’s place and I headed off to my hooch only becoming disoriented once. Patently the Deity Herself must have kept me from tripping on a tent rope or some hole in the ground and I arrived back in my place at about 0145 and finally got to sleep.