This week, we indulge the writer of this blog as he marks his one-year anniversary of his first LAF post.
No doubt, the craziest story I ever covered was the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Embedded with the 3rd Infantry Division, the coverage was a combination of weird intensity and a comedy of errors. My best souvenir is the newspaper to the right. The photo misidentified (in French) photog Eddie Cortes and me as soldiers. The man in the middle is Yves Eudes, whom we’d befriended and writer of the piece (but not the caption). Six vignettes from that adventure:
1. Prior to departure, Eddie and I got our anthrax and smallpox shots at Ft. Gordon GA and shot a story on it. Afterward, as Eddie drove back to Atlanta, I viewed the video via laptop on a newfangled program that did something called “non-linear editing.” When I looked up 90 minutes later, I saw road signs that said “Columbia, next four exits.” Eddie had driven the wrong way on I-20.
2. While in Kuwait, a day or two before the invasion, I caught a bug and lost my voice. On its worst day, I wrote a nat sound package and scripted material for Eddie so he could handle live phoners. The Army medics quaintly gave me penecillin, the only antibiotic they had. Ten tablets constituted a dose. They didn’t help. I subsequently did most of the phoners in a faint rasp and sounded pitiful.
3. Eddie edited our pieces on I-movie. We sent them to Atlanta as e-mail files. It often took our satellite phone equipment an hour or longer to send the files. If a glitch broke the connection, as often happened, we’d have to start over from scratch. We spent many hours watching a green light blinking, indicating our connection was good, and dreading the red light that appeared when it wasn’t.
4. At Ft. Stewart, the Army issued us chemical suits and gas masks. They said we’d get Kevlar in Kuwait. When we got to Kuwait, there was no Kevlar for us. We couldn’t find any at the Army surplus stores in Kuwait City. We rode “over the berm” in a Humvee with cloth doors, and were clearly less protected than the soldiers. For that reason, we departed about a week after the invasion began. When we did so, it was aboard a Chinook helicopter with a gunner seated on the open back loading door. We sat on the floor. Some of our fellow travelers were detainees suspected of spying. They had seats. The two-hour ride was so cold and windy, Eddie and I spooned to stay warm. Neither of us had showered in a week.
5. When the Chinook dropped us at Camp Udairi in Kuwait at midnight, MPs took away the suspected spies. We were left standing at the airstrip. A Newsweek guy and I wandered the base looking for somebody in charge. After finding him, that Colonel told me that he couldn’t provide a ride back to Kuwait City. He suggested we hitchhike. The next morning, we dragged our gear to the gate and did exactly that. An American contractor obliged us with a lift in his SUV.
6. After arriving at the Kuwait City Sheraton, we cleaned up and went to bed early. An hour after I crashed — my first sleep in a real bed in nearly a month — a WAGA manager called me to tell me that my hotel was under attack. “Turn on Fox News,” she said, and I did. Sure enough, Fox News was reporting that a missile had exploded “near the Sheraton” in Kuwait City. It had actually impacted at a mall a mile away, causing moderate damage and no serious injuries. But Eddie and I stayed up the rest of the night, doing phoners and a live shot at the Kuwait city Fox studio for the 10pm news / 6am Kuwait time. We caught a plane home at 10am.
I lost ten pounds during that story. I re-gained my voice almost the moment I landed on US soil. WAGA insisted I take a week off, a rare humane gesture which I still appreciate. Eddie Cortes now works at CNN Español. Our wives think it’s funny that we spooned in a helicopter in Iraq.