Monthly Archives: March 2013

Grand questions

Outside the courthouse Friday.  Photo by Millie.  Thanks Millie!

Outside the courthouse Friday. Photo by Millie. Thanks Millie!

I spent much of the last week producing stories about the Fulton County grand jury’s pending indictment of Atlanta Public Schools employees connected with the cheating scandal.  It was exhilarating, maddening and — like most stakeouts– unproductive most of the time.  I came away with many questions that I can’t really properly answer.

Was a daily drumbeat of coverage really necessary?  Once you report that the grand jury is considering indictments, is it necessary to stake out the lobby of the district attorney’s office for three straight days to see who walks by?

Enterprise stories on the scandal are always a good thing; done in conjunction with the grand jury activity, such stories are timely.  But the stakeout — of a secret proceeding, wherein most of the players are whisked in and out via secure and unseen entrances and exits — gives the audience the appearance of covering news, rather than actually covering it.

In the DA's lobby.  Luis, the WSB photog, shot pool for all the Atlanta stations.

In the DA’s lobby. Luis, the WSB photog, shot pool for all the Atlanta stations.

Does it really take nine reporters to cover the details of an indictment?  WSB tweeted its staffing Friday afternoon.  WXIA had an even larger proportion of its staff covering the story.  It was great fun to see everybody, by the way.  But really.  Really?

Isn’t it time somebody called WSB on its frequent assertions that it breaks certain stories when they are, in fact, broken elsewhere? “All the stations do it,” suggested a WSB employee, as the topic arose during the tedium of the three-day stakeout.  Maybe, but WSB is easily the market leader in casually assuming, incorrectly, that they’ve broken a story.

Must there be so much social media?   If you follow commercial news media folk, you can expect your Twitter feed to be clogged with trivialities–  though every now and then, you may actually learn something.

WXIA's Blayne Alexander explains the finer points of the Insta-Grahams to her granddad

WXIA’s Blayne Alexander explains the finer points of the Insta-Grahams to her granddad

 

Is a court order really necessary just to get a TV camera into the Fulton County courthouse?  To shoot pictures in the DA’s lobby?  To shoot a news conference?  Obviously, a court may issue an order on a courtroom camera providing pool coverage of court proceedings.  But it’s ridiculous that the sheriff has instructed courthouse deputies to bar cameras in this public building without a court order.

What about Brian Nichols? I hear you asking.  Nichols, a criminal defendant, shot and killed three employees in the Fulton County courthouse.  Perhaps the sheriff has ramped up security surrounding defendants in custody.  One certainly hopes so.

But the metal detector security at the main entrances is exactly the same as it was pre-Nichols.  The only noticeable procedural difference in security, to me, is the hard line taken against TV cameras.  Which seems to me not one bit related to any real security issue at this courthouse.

AJC photo

AJC photo

If you’ve known for days that you were planning to ask a grand jury to make high-profile indictments, wouldn’t you have a plan in place to actually announce the indictments to the news media?  And wouldn’t you share that plan, as a professional courtesy,  just so that the media can handle deadline logistics?

In other words:  If you’re a big time DA’s office, why is the answer “I don’t know” to three days worth of questions about how the completed indictment will actually be disseminated?  And why are the photogs covering the newser told to move, in thirty minutes time, from the third floor, to the seventh floor, then back to the third floor, then back to the seventh floor?

Lastly:  Is there any question now that grand juries are merely rubber stamps to the desires of prosecutors?  How far in advance of the grand jury’s blessing did the DA have two giant graphics produced for the news conference — one of which read “one indictment, 65 counts, 35 defendants”?

These are my questions.  Thank you.

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Two final nights

Last installment!  From emails sent to family and friends shortly after Eddie Cortes and I got home from the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

March 26. The Chinook helicopter that took us out of Iraq lands at Camp Udairi in Kuwait at 1am.  We are dropped onto the tarmac.  We haul our gear to a nearby building.  The people in the building want nothing to do with us. They advise that we find the “mayor’s tent.”  It’s a half-mile that-a-way.

Scott, who works for Newsweek, and I start walking.  Yves, who works for LeMonde and Eddie stay behind.  MPs escort the four suspected spies out of there.

Camp Udairi

Camp Udairi

We find the mayor’s tent, and ask for Specialist Boyer.  Never heard of him, they say.  I note that the alleged spies are there, too.

It’s 2am.  I call the station on the sat phone.  I tell the managing editor we’re out of Iraq.  She repeats the news to co-workers nearby.  I hear a collective whoop over the phone.

There’s confusion in the tent because the army guys think that I’m among the spies.  They were expecting four civilians on the Chinook flight.  I explain that I’m with a group of four civilians, two of whom are still waiting a half-mile away.  Well– who are these guys?  the army guys ask, double-taking me and the alleged spies.

Finally, a Sergeant named Butch comes to my aid. What?  You got dumped on the tarmac?  Nobody met you? What the hell kind of shit is that?  he asks sympathetically.

He gets a car.  He takes Scott and me back to the hangar where Eddie and Yves are still waiting. We load the stuff.  The whole time, Butch is going off on the army:  I’m so sick of this goddam army.  This is the kind of shit the drives me fuckin crazy.  I can’t wait to retire from this.

I’m loving Butch at this point.  He takes us to an empty tent.  He gives us four cots, four bottles of water and four MREs.  We bid each other goodnight.

Dawn breaks on camp Udairi.  I wake up freezing, having slept sans sleeping bag.  But the camp has an actual chow hall, Butch informed us.  It’s across the way from our tent.  Because they’re in sleeping bags, everybody else is still asleep.  I head out for the mayor’s tent.  I detour thru the chow hall.  Breakfast is very strange– white rice, hot dogs and boiled eggs.  Soldiers are scarfing it down. I see some cereal– cereal!  First cereal I’ve seen in a month.  I drink some coffee.  So far, so good.

I head to the mayor’s tent.  I meet the colonel who calls himself the mayor of camp Udairi, a friendly guy.  I ask for suggestions on how to get out of there.  I need to go to Kuwait City, eighty miles south.  He says, you need somebody to pick you up. Great.  I got nobody.

I’ve got a phone number to call at Camp Doha, which is the US army post in Kuwait City.  I try the number. Mostly, it won’t even ring.  When somebody finally answers, it’s the wrong number.  This does not surprise me in the least.  And “Specialist Boyer,” the purported Army PIO who was to meet us at Udairi, is clearly a phantom at this point.

The colonel makes a suggestion:  Let us drop you off at Udairi’s gate.  Hitch a ride with somebody leaving the camp.

I return to the tent.  My tent-mates are rising.  I tell them about the phone calls, and the colonel’s suggestion.  Debate ensues.  We agree to take our chances hitchhiking.

The colonel puts us in an SUV with a private.  He drives us to the gate.  Among the four of us, we have a ton of stuff, which gets piled onto a curb.  We discharge and wait.  The guards at the gate don’t appear alarmed; apparently, they’ve seen this act before.

While Eddie, Yves and Scott hang back, I start approaching vehicles.  It is a lesson in humility, something to which I’m well accustomed as a local TV reporter.  Finally, an American contractor in an empty SUV says — sure.  Get in.  We load our stuff.  We all get in.  He’s going to Doha.

He drives across the desert like a madman.  Since I secured the ride, I scored the front seat.  I’m enjoying it.  The three guys stuffed in the back seat have gear falling on them.  But they don’t complain too much.  The contractor, a Bush supporter who sees the war as a moneymaker, drops us at the front gate at Doha.  Scott calls his co-worker in Kuwait City and asks him to pick us up.  Bring a big vehicle, says Scott.  We have four men and a ton of stuff.

The wired-up trunk of the mid-sized sedan at Camp Doha

The wired-up trunk of the mid-sized sedan at Camp Doha

Scott’s coworker shows up in a midsize four-door sedan.  And he’s got a passenger.  That means six of us have to pile into this vehicle, plus all our stuff. I’m crestfallen.  This can’t possibly work.

But Scott’s coworker, a cheerful guy with a British accent, insists it’ll work.  He finds some wire laying by the side of the road.  He starts wiring our stuff into the gaping car trunk.  We pile into the back.  I end up on Yves’s lap.

4pm, he drops us off at the Sheraton, downtown.  We purchase the French Suite, “the only room left” according to the slippery guy at the front desk. Over the phone at WAGA, Leslie informs us we’re leaving at 11am the next day.  I head to the gym, shower, then a real bed at 9pm.

March 27.  1am– Lilly, the news director’s assistant, calls from the station to update our flight info.

2am– Leslie calls from the station, informs me that an explosion is being reported “at the Sheraton.” Fox and CNN are geeked about it– what do I know?

I’m asleep in the Sheraton.  There’s no evidence of an explosion.  Find out, she says.  I switch on the tube. She’s right.  Fox and CNN are fully geeked.  Sure enough, the lower-third graphic says “explosion near Sheraton in Kuwait City.” Leslie calls again– do a phoner in five minutes (6p eastern).  I put on clothes, go downstairs, talk to the bellman, talk to a cop, hear sirens and do a phoner of some sort.  She calls again– we want another phoner.

I go upstairs to wake Eddie. Leslie already awakened him.  We get a cab. We head to the mall, two miles away, where an apparent Iraqi missile struck.  We get there almost– they want another phoner.  I’m not there yet– a protest ignored.  I do another phone report while exiting a taxicab.

We walk to the scene. Seems they want another phoner. I see mobs of folks heading to site.  I get there, almost– they want the phoner now.  I’m not there yet– oh,whatever.  I do another phoner as I’m walking up to the scene for the first time. No clue what’s going on.  I say something like “as crime scenes go, this one is unremarkable.”

Vickie, the managing editor, calls to give me an ass-chewing for playing down the importance of the big story.  Valid criticism,  but phone goes dead in mid-chewing.  Regrettable.

Now I’m up to stay.  They want another phoner and an actual live shot at 6am / 10pm.  I realize I haven’t shaved in a week, two and a half hours to kill.  We return to room.  I fill the jacuzzi in the french suite, settle in for a bath and a shave at 4am.  We cab to live shot location at the Kuwait City Fox bureau.

Sleep deprived in Kuwait City

Sleep deprived in Kuwait City

At this point, the Fox News Channel was just beginning to cement its reputation as — quoting somebody at the Fox bureau — “the Al Jazeera of the US.”  But the bureau is a news bureau and seems mostly uninfluenced by Roger Ailes.  I put on an earpiece.  I hear the voice of associate producer Mark Hannah.  “Great to see you, Doug” he says with more emotion than I’d expect from a voice in an earpiece.  “You look a bit thin.”  Mark eventually left the news biz to become a Christian missionary.

Live shot complete, we scram to the airport.

Kuwait Airways has a “little problem” with our ticket.  It takes them 30 minutes to decide that we’ve each underpaid $250 for our tickets (we haven’t paid anything- the station paid it all up front last night).  They tell us they can work it out if we want to wait 24 hours.

It smells like a shakedown.  We agree to pay $250. They check again– twenty more minutes.  Oh, wait. You only owe us 12KD ($30) each.  Cash only.  Between us, Eddie and I have only eleven and a half KD.  Good enough, they say.

An Emirates airlines flight crew.

An Emirates airlines flight crew.

The plane is almost empty, yet they’ve wedged Eddie and me into two seats in the last row.

We fly out.  Nobody shoots at the plane.  We land in Dubai for our twelve-hour layover.  Yves told us the airport is like Disneyland.  I’d say it’s more like Perimeter Mall.  But guess what–?

It has a hotel.

Uncle Rupert buys us a room.  I’d grown so accustomed to Eddie’s snoring that we agree to share one room.

Eddie and I find a bar.  We toast our departure with brown liquor, chased by beer.  We retire to the room.  I nearly oversleep.  Eddie drags my semi-comatose ass to the gate, where we get on an Emirates Air flight to London.  In London, we change to Delta and go direct to Atlanta.  I’ll be home in time for my wedding anniversary.

I get home, shower and step on a scale.  I’ve lost nearly 20 pounds in a month.

The statehouse photog

I’m on TV, in short bursts on the evening news.  Because I’m on TV, talking in a manner that conveys knowledge of the subject matter, people often assume I have a measure of expertise.  Sometimes, there’s truth to that.  Oftentimes, I’m merely a quick study on a story where my expertise is limited to the 90 seconds of information I’m conveying.

If you want to find the real experts on local news, find the photographers.

Ira Spradlin, WAGA

Ira Spradlin, WAGA

Photographers tend to have greater staying power in a local market.  They lack the ladder-climbing ambition that reporters and anchors frequently have.  They’re also more under-the-radar, less vulnerable to the whims of regime change in newsrooms.  And regimes, old and new, tend to value their technical and journalistic expertise.  Or at least, they should.

This brings us to a guy named Ira Spradlin, the WAGA photographer who has covered the Georgia legislature longer than any of the other reporters or photographers in the press room.

The first time I got thrown into legislative coverage– an intimidating assignment, where the process of lawmaking is byzantine, and the players are numerous and often cagey — the assignment editor told me I needn’t worry.  I’d be working with Ira.

Ira didn’t schmooze legislators.  But he was around them so much, over a career that spanned four decades, that he became as familiar to them as the doormen to the House and Senate chambers.

It doesn’t hurt that Ira, who grew up on a dairy farm in rural Meriwether County (just north of Warm Springs), has a soft rural Georgia accent that can easily disarm the uninitiated.  He sounds like the good ol’ boys who often still dominate the legislature.  They were comfortable around him.

Like those old timey pols, Ira is easy to underestimate.  Under that southern accent, he can be as fierce as any photographer in town.

He’d be the first to tell you he’s not an artsy NPPA type photographer.  Ira’s value is his knowledge and his work ethic.  Nobody worked harder, or shot more video on a story.  I’m pretty sure Ira never missed a key shot in his life.

I’ll take that gristly newsman anytime.

This year, Ira Spradlin retires.  The legislature honored him this week, and I’m sure Ira took it with a grain of salt.  But I wish I’d been there.  He deserved the applause.

March 2003 invasion diary

When WAGA sent Eddie Cortes and me to the Middle East in March 2003, there was never a full discussion of what would happen if / when the 3rd Infantry Division, with whom we were embedded, would invade Iraq.  When the Army issued us chemical protection suits at Ft. Stewart, they told us we’d get Kevlar vests and headgear in Kuwait.  That didn’t happen.  For the March 19 invasion, Eddie and I were assigned to a Humvee  with cloth doors, commanded by an Army lawyer.  As I described our conditions to Leslie Duffield, our contact at WAGA, she and news director Budd McEntee concluded we should abort our assignment.  We didn’t argue much.

What follows are excerpts from an email I sent to friends and family a few days after we returned, written in diary form.

No legroom:  Our ride into Iraq.

No legroom: Our ride into Iraq.

March 17, 2003.  An utterly miserable day, with a sandstorm that began at breakfast and persisted until after dinner.  Naturally, this was the day the Army chose to break camp.  We media types cowered in our tent while soldiers tore down the rest of the camp.

At one point, while standing in the sandstorm, I felt something in my chest.  Within an hour, I was joking that I was coming down with a touch of Gulf War Syndrome.  By the end of the day, I’d lost my voice completely.  Not a good thing for a broadcaster about to cover a war.

By nightfall, with camp virtually gone, many of the female soldiers spent the evening passing out candy.  Bush had given his 48-hour deadline the previous morning.  These folks were ready to get their war on– if only because it meant they had a purpose in life and a way out of the desert.

Starting at 1am (why 1am?  who knows?), we convoyed north, only about ten miles.  With a hundred vehicles, it took forever.  We arrived at another spot in the desert.  I put up a cot and spent the first of seven consecutive nights sleeping under the stars, or whatever else was in the atmosphere.

March 18.    We were told to wear our army-issued chemical protection suits for the first time.  A glorified rainsuit in desert camo, I wore it every day hence. Four times during the day, there were gas alerts– soldiers running around hollering “gas gas gas.”  We are supposed to put on our gas masks within nine seconds.  I succeeded nearly every time.  Each time, an all-clear sounded within a couple of minutes.

Bush’s 48-hour deadline was past by now, so anticipation was high.  We would cross the border within a day.  At dusk, we broke camp again and lined up in a convoy.  There, we sat for the night.  We watched twenty or thirty US missiles launch from the west.  At one point, we looked overhead and saw one coming from the wrong direction.  We’d learned later that a scud had hit harmlessly a few miles behind us.

At this point, I began doing live phone reports for our five, six and ten oclock news– which was 1am, 2am and 6am kuwait time.  Except, with my voice gone, Eddie did the first couple.  After the missile launches, I rasped out what must have been some awful-sounding phoners.

Eddie observes Sgt. Phillips calling home with the WAGA sat phone.

Eddie observes Sgt. Phillips calling home with the WAGA sat phone.

March 19 — Invasion day.  We crossed a 15-foot sand berm into the demilitarized zone at 6am.  Within a couple of miles, we crossed another berm– followed by a metal fence, concertina wire, another fence, another berm and a ditch.  Welcome to Iraq.  Drive carefully.  Can we stop at the welcome center?  Some coffee would be nice.

The invasion is tedious affair with Eddie and me bouncing around in the back of a humvee.  We’re crossing desert, of course.  A gazillion vehicles have kicked up clouds of dust ahead of us, so we spend the day eating copious quantities of it.  We ride from 6am to about 4pm.  The only Iraqis we see are beduoin farmers with herds of sheep and camels. They wave all friendly-like and run toward us, apparently hoping for handouts.  We wonder if these folks even know there are hostilities between the US and Iraq.

We stop at 4pm.  We’re still with a command-and-communications group, so they set up their antennae and form a makeshift command post.  Within a couple of hours, they break it down again and move forward some more.  By midnight, we’ve stopped again at a bridge off highway one.  As we settle onto our cots, we see US artillery firing a short distance away.  There’s lots of it.  It’s very loud.  We see explosions in the distance.  A while later we hear some rat-tat-tat of gunfire.

Oddly, I doze off while hearing this.  Eddie gets up and shoots it.  The next morning, I learn there was a firefight about a mile from our campsite.  Headline:  Doug sleeps through the war, except to do phone reports at 1am, 2am and 6am.

Eddie edits a piece under a piece of cloth following the first day of the invasion.  An extension cord is strung from the Tactical Operations Center to his laptop.

Eddie edits a TV story under a piece of cloth following the first day of the invasion. An extension cord is strung from the Tactical Operations Center to his laptop.

March 20.    I awaken on my cot and get a snootful of a rare rainshower.  We pack up, move forward only a couple of miles.  They set up their command post again.  They stay here all day.  They’ve set up at another bridge over highway one.  There’s a war going on somewhere, but it’s not here– at least not anymore.

The bridge is a lovely waste of Saddam’s cash: Highway One is a six-lane, limited access highway. Our bridge crosses it.  But there’s no road on either side.  It’s a bridge to nowhere.

On the top, there’s a homemade mud-and-brick structure overlooking the highway.  It has three rooms.  There are three cots in one of them.  There are windows. The ceiling is less than six feet high. We find a couple of helmets inside.  There are remains of a two-way radio.  There’s a chart inside showing all kinds of US military aircraft.  It’s an iraqi military observation post.  Very ghetto.

Below and away from the highway, there are three Iraqi artillery setups (I’m still not sure what to call them– they’re basically guns on a trailer.  There’s a seat for the gunner).  Anyway– two of them have been blowed up real good by the US.  One of them is still smoldering.  There’s ammo everywhere– bullet-looking things about as long as my forearm.

A third one is intact, however.  It’s also loaded with ammo.  The Army guys say it’s US-made, circa 1975. The army has a demolition squad, naturally.  They come over and haul it away.

Scariest moment of the war:  There’s a pack of Iraqi dogs living in another brick-and-mud building near the bridge.  I approach the building.  One of the dogs was apparently hurt by the attack the night before.  Very unfriendly.  His iraqi aggression sends me in the opposite direction.

March 21.   My supervisor, Leslie, informs me she wants us to start retreating out of Iraq.  I take it under advisement.  Good idea actually- but the war just started and the stories are getting better.

Instead of retreating, Eddie and I decide to accept an invitation from the commander of our brigade to roll with him.  He likes his war hot.  He goes where the bad guys are, but because he’s in charge, he’s well protected.  That’s what we keep telling ourselves as we take off with him.

Shortly after we take off, we hear that a sniper has taken a potshot at our convoy.  Army guys spot a motorcycle in the distance- the driver, gone.  The third shot from a tank destroys the bike.

Moments later, we see three guys in the desert. They’re giving themselves up.  We see four more guys. They’re giving themselves up too.  They all have great haircuts.  Our convoy isn’t equipped to handle prisoners.  My humvee stops to tend to them.  Eddie’s in another humvee- he drives on.

Doug denies porn to some Iraqi detainees.

Doug denies porn to some Iraqi detainees.

The prisoners keep saying “sheep,” indicating they’re shepherds.  They utter the word “water.”  The army guys give them some.  They point to their mouths.  The army guys throw them some MREs.  They appear puzzled as we stand in the desert watching.

I volunteer to show them how to heat the food in the MRE.  They watch.  They eat.  The Army guys are happy to have me as their liaison.  The Sergaent-Major I’m riding with retreats to the humvee and browses thru a copy of Georgia Outdoorsman.

The prisoners use hand gestures to ask me for cigarettes.  Can’t help ya, pal, I says.  Another begins making strange hand gestures– two hands, like a book.  He’s pointing at “words”.  I’m baffled.  More hand gestures.  He points to the sergaent-major, engrossed in his magazine.  Then he forms a circle with his thumb and forefinger on one hand, and pokes the circle with the forefinger of his other hand.

It’s the international sign for copulation.  The Iraqi wants porn.

He thinks the Sergaent major is looking at porn.  He wants to look too.  Sorry pal, I says.  The prisoners are taken away.  We move on.

The driver of the humvee is a 20 year old named adam. He reveals later that he’s dating an Oakland Raiders cheerleader– via e-mail mostly. “She’s crazy about me,” he keeps telling me.  But he’s trying to play it cool. Right.

As we drive, Adam paractices Arabic as translated in an army handout:  “if you cooperate, you will not be harmed” and other such phrases.

Our convoy stops.  Our radio chatter indicates a firefight ahead.  I hear lots of artillery and see many plumes of smoke a couple of miles away.  I see an A-10 Warthog plane drop glowing, slow-moving globs in the sky.  Seconds later, I see explosions on the ground.  Suddenly, I hear our colonel holler into the radio “clear the net clear the net. I need a medevac.” I get a chill.  I haven’t seen Eddie for two hours.

“Are those your mortars?” somebody asks on the radio. “That’s not my mortars,” comes the answer.

Meantime, the convoy moves past us.  One cluster of humvees and trucks has soldiers lounging on the back, wearing soft hats, no kevlar, no chemical suits, listening to their walkmans.  My sergaent-major goes nuts, informing them that they’re driving into a hot zone.

Eddie and I finally reunite at about midnight.  He’s already on a cot.  I set one up nearby.  He informs me that an incoming mortar round missed him by fifty yards– the same strike that required the medevac for two soldiers.  Eddie tells me he’s ready to go home.

March 22.    At 2am, I wake up to do a live phone report.  As soon as they toss to me, a nearby Bradley opens fire on something-or-other in the distance. Our anchor asks if she’s, in fact, hearing artillery fire. Trying to sound badass, I casually inform her that “we get that a lot around here.”

After daybreak, a soldier decides that Eddie and I need to know how to fire an M-16.  We have no weapons ourselves (and it wouldn’t be allowed under the military’s rules for embedded journalists).  But the soldier thinks we need to know “if you two are the last ones standing.”  Not likely.

There’s a single shot setting, and there’s a burst setting.  “If you guys are actually firing this gun, you definitely want it on burst,” he says helpfully. “If you need to reload, pull a magazine off of one of our bodies.  Click it in here.”  We never actually shoot the weapon during the demonstration.

That morning I inform the colonel that we’re ready to go home.  By nightfall, he tells me that our ride will arrive the following morning to take us to another location, where we can catch a convoy home.

Leslie calls later in the day.  I want you guys out of there now, she says with authority.  I tell her we’ve already made the request.  It’s impossible to overstate the amount of worry I heard in Leslie’s voice every day.  She’s vastly relieved that we’re withdrawing.  Our unit stays put during the day, a very unexciting day  compared to the previous one. Fine with us.

March 23.    A sandstorm begins about 9am.  We get in a humvee with a public affairs guy with the rank of major.  We have a military police escort.  And we start driving– toward Baghdad. The major explains that the supply station is about 50k in the direction opposite of Kuwait.  I realize that, with the Army in charge, departing iraq will probably be slow and painful.

4pm in Iraq during a sandstorm

4pm in Iraq during a sandstorm

Hours later, we arrive at a place called D-Main, the HQ of the third infantry division.  They’d set up this place two days earlier.  We look at the sky– and an orange glow is churning on the horizon.  It gets larger.  And our garden-variety sandstorm evolves into something utterly weird.  The sky turns a dark, burnt-orange color.  Everything around us turns the same color.  And it starts getting very dark.  I hear thunder, but there’s no rain.  At 4:30pm, our spot in the desert becomes nighttime-dark.  It is very, very strange.

Meantime, our Major is trying to find out what to do with us.  We’re told to drive to a location a mile away.  It’s dark– and white lights are prohibited. So the drivers are using GPSs to navigate across sand, in the dark, in a sandstorm.  It takes an hour– an hour to drive one mile.  We arrive to learn that there is no place for us to sleep.  We see guys asleep on the sand, in their sleeping bags.  The storm is still raging.  It’s miserable.

I see a tent. It’s large. It’s empty.  There’s one cot inside, and a rope around the tent to discourage visitors.  I look inside.  I consider entering.  I conclude that this is the tent of a general or some other big shot.  But it’s 2 in the morning, and nobody’s inside.  Eddie is in a sleeping bag on the roof of a humvee.  I’m considering crashing in the general’s tent.

Before making what could have been a very bad decision, my Major offers me a cot. He’s had it in his car the whole time.  I accept.  I go to sleep in the sandstorm, pulling the sleeping bag over my head. It’s a good night.

March 24.   We’ve been handed off to a captain — we’ll call him Jones. Jones says if there’s a helicopter back to Kuwait, we’re on it. He invites us to wait in his humvee, parked outside the d-main compound. He disappears.  The sandstorm, which had abated briefly, reappears.  We realize there will be no helicopter today.

Eddie and I spend the entire morning in the humvee. At noon, I enter the compound to search for Jones. As soon as i go in, I hear cries of “gas gas gas.” They’re all diving for their gas masks.  I’ve left mine outside in the humvee.

Embarrassed and slightly anxious, i exit the compound. I return to the sandstorm, and quickly realize that no gas attack could possibly be effective in this wind.  I stop worrying.  Meantime, as I walk back to the humvee, the cry of “gas gas gas” follows me, and soldiers outside are putting on their masks.  I get to the humvee, wake up eddie and tell him there’s a gas alert.  Seconds later, an “all clear” is sounding.

This is easily the most unhappy day of my stint in the middle east.  We’re stuck in a humvee all day.  A sandstorm is raging outside.  There’s zero chance of a helicopter flying us out.  We’ve heard the sandstorm could go for a couple more days.  Jones, who’s supposed to be helping us, is ignoring us.  Night is approaching.  We have no place to stay, except in the same damned humvee.  And I’m no longer covering the war, but the station still wants phone reports.

March 25.   We wake up.  The sandstorm is gone.  Some water tanks have arrived in camp, easing what had been a water shortage.  I see soldiers washing clothes and hair.  I fill a bottle from the water tank.  The unhelpful Capt. Jones shows up just as I’m pouring water on my hair, overlooking the soldiers who’d done the same thing.  Jones, loudly and angrily, points at me:  “hey hey HEY!  water is for drinking and brushing teeth ONLY.  NO hair washing.”  Very embarrassing.

After a month with the Army, Jones is the first drop-dead idiot I’ve encountered.  And he’s the guy I’m depending on to get me out of Iraq.

An hour later, he apologizes profusely.  He actually appears interested in our plight.  With the sun shining and no breeze, he assures us we’ll get out this day.

An hour later, one of Jones’s underlings tells us to move all our bags and gear to a spot in front of the d-main compound.  We move at 10am.  An hour passes.

At 11am, I strike up a conversation with a photographer from People magazine.  We’d talked earlier.  He revealed that he arrived without a sleeping bag.  He wants to purchase mine.  Though I like my sleeping bag, I feel sorry for this guy.  And while I’m naturally pessimistic about leaving Iraq this day, I decide to become an optimist.  The guy gets my sleeping bag.  We continue to wait in front of d-main.

Hours pass.  Eddie naps.  I read.  Cars pass.  Dust flies.  At one point, a desert phenomenon called a dust-devil envelops us.  A dust devil is a mini-tornado, without the malevolence.  A soldier says it’s “like god farted on you.”  We’ve grown accustomed to the taste of dust, however, and it passes with little acknowledgement or comment.

By 4pm, soldiers walking past start to offer us handouts.

By 5pm, Yves appears out of nowhere.  We’d left the LeMonde reporter  two days earlier, assuming we’d never see him again.  He’s delivered there by the same major who delivered us there two days earlier.  The major sees us sitting there and does a double-take.  What are you still doing here?  He doesn’t wait for the answer, since he’s more familiar with the ways of the Army than we are.

A few minutes later, a reporter for Newsweek shows up. Turns out all four of us now want out of Iraq.  My optimism grows, slightly.

As it begins to get dark, Jones appears:  “There’s four chinooks sitting over there right now.  If you can get a ride over there, you’re gone.”  He disappears again.  I’m wondering if he’s expecting us to arrange our own transportation to the helicopter pad.  We stand and wait.

A Chinook helicopter

A Chinook helicopter

Jones reappears.  I ask if the helicopter guys are expecting us.  He says no– that’s why we gotta get over there RIGHT NOW.  He’s arranged for one humvee. He needs another for all our stuff.

We finally pile into two humvees.  We drive to another gate.  Jones asks, where are the helicopters?  The guard says, they usually land over there, pointing a hundred yards west.

Moments later, Jones says– follow this guy.  We follow a guy in an SUV- not army issue.  He knows where the choppers are, Jones says.  We follow this guy.  And follow.  And follow.  It’s getting dark fast.  We’re going deep into a hilly portion of the desert.  The trip is longer than we expect.  Even Jones is getting nervous.

I suggest that we’re following an Iraqi collaborator who’s taking us into the arms of the Republican Guard. Jones’s nervousness increases.  Serves him right.

Just as Jones is about to order his driver to stop following this guy, we turn onto a paved road.  Ahead of us, there are four chinook helicopters on the ground.  Amazing.  (chinooks are the ‘copters with two horizontal rotors, one in front and one in back).

We see four other civilians near the helicopters.  We learn they too, are journalists– except they’re being escorted out of Iraq by military police.  They’re suspected of spying.

We also see a dozen soldiers.  All of us are due to board one of the helicopters and fly to camp Udari. Udari is in the Kuwaiti desert, close by to our original camp.  Udari has an airfield and is more developed than our camp was.

Jones starts to leave.  I ask, what happens when we get to camp Udari?  Jones says:  “uh, well, a public affairs officer will contact you.  Uh- specialist Boyer.  He’ll contact you.”  Does Boyer know this?  “no– but I’m gonna call him right now.”

Fine with me.  Anything to get me the hell out of Iraq and away from this dimwit.

After Jones leaves, the chinook pilot asks me who’s meeting us.  I tell him.  He says– sounds like you’re on your own when we get to Udari.  I agree.

We crowd into the helicopter.  The civilians have to sit on the floor, Indian style, with each passenger in front of the other.  It’s amazingly uncomfortable.  To add to the fun, the chinook’s cargo door doesn’t close.  We fly with the back of the aircraft open, stirring a stiff cold breeze, a gunner seated in its maw.  Flight time is one hour, forty-five minutes.  Eddie and I plot some manly spooning to stay warm.

Moments before we board the helicopter, we see a volley of Cruise missiles headed northeast toward Baghdad.

Congratulations!  You made it all the way to the end of this post!  There’s one more installment.  Our final 36 hours in the Middle East were some of the weirdest moments of my professional life.  Stay tuned!

Under the media tent

Eddie Cortes and I spent five days in Kuwait City before the Army put us on buses and hauled us Camp Maine on March 11, 2003.  Its commander, Col. Dan Allyn insisted on calling it “Camp Sledgehammer.”  Allyn located us adjacent to his tactical command center, and was always accessible.  He’s now a three-star General commanding the 18th Airborne Corps at Ft. Bragg.  Here are excerpts from two emails I sent to family and friends during that week.

Doug and Eddie enjoy a sandstorm.

Doug and Eddie enjoy a sandstorm.

We arrived  Tuesday night on Kuwaiti buses led by an Army convoy.  We are about 20 miles from the Iraqi border.

Eddie and I are in a tent with eleven soldiers– mostly privates and specialists.

The following night, there was a sandstorm.  Winds gusted to 57mph.  The army told us it was the worst sandstorm of the season.  The damned sand  blew inside our tent– swirling constantly for the entire night.  Guys in our tent slept with handkerchiefs over their mouths.  I made the mistake of leaving my bags open.  The next day, my clean clothes were covered with sand.  The only thing clean in my bag:  my dirty clothes, which I’d put in a plastic bag.

The whole concept of cleanliness and personal hygiene is completely re-written in a place like this.

Hey Eddie-- Lemme take a picture of you in front of the latrine fires!

Hey Eddie– Lemme take a picture of you in front of the latrine fires!

Y’know how they always joked about the latrines in MASH?  They do it here too, for good reason.  There are eight or so old-school outhouses.  The contents drop into large sawed-off steel barrels.  Every morning, some unfortunate group of soldiers has to grab each barrel with tongs, pull it to the rear, douse the contents with diesel fuel and let fly with a match.  The raging fires and plumes of black smoke are a source of much dark humor here.

Hey Eddie -- take a picture of me shaving!

Hey Eddie — take a picture of me shaving!

The army set up a “media tent” for the three of us our first day.  The reporter from the Columbus (GA) Enquirer brought a radio.  He’s keeping it on, tuned to a Kuwaiti station playing Arab pop music.  It’s quite the mood-setter.

There’s this giant Sergeant from Florida, a self-described redneck, who good-naturedly torments us whenever he can.  “Cmon, Fox, get y’ass up!” he said at 6:30 this morning.  A few minutes ago, he poked his head in our media tent, heard the music and said “what is this, some kind of Akbar shit?”  (That guy, Sgt. Phillips, turned out to be Eddie and my best buddy on the assignment and had our backs the whole time.)

I had a long argument with him a few days ago.  He was going off about how he don’t want no goddamn women, don’t want no goddamn faggots in the army.  I told him that the tents would at least smell and look better if there were gays in the army.  He couldn’t believe I actually have gay friends, coworkers and family members.  He now introduces me as “this faggot-sympathizing reporter.”  At one point, I started to get on him about his own questionable sexual orientation.  I quickly backed away from that line of abuse.  Everybody here is armed.

Feb. 2003 issue

Feb. 2003 issue

To re-affirm the manly heterosexuality of us all, he’s provided us with copies of Maxim and FHM magazine. Sadly, I’ve read every word of FHM.

He also thinks George Bush is “full of shit.”  So do a lot of people here.  The overarching theme of my conversations– and my coverage so far– has been about how jerked-around these poor suckers have been.  They’ve all been here at least three months.  Many have also been here most of 2002.  What a life.

Eddie in the media tent, trying to keep dust off the laptop and out of the camera.  Riiiight....

Eddie in the media tent.

Next door to the media tent is the psychological operations (psyops) tent.  They deal with prisoners-of-war, handle propaganda and such.  At night we often hear evil laughter emanating from their tent.

Ted Koppel showed up here day-before-yesterday.  I didn’t see him, but I saw his canary-yellow Humvee  equipped with leather seats and a dome-like  omnidirectional satellite phone transmitter.  I hear he was complaining that his satellite stuff wasn’t working.  The Sergeant’s take on it: “(screw) Ted Koppel.”

Did I mention that the people here are basically miserable?  I can certainly see why.  These poor SOBs want to go to war with Iraq only because it’ll be their ticket home.

Our five days have not been miserable.  It’s actually been a pretty amazing, rather freaky learning experience.  Only a couple of people I’ve found halfway annoying — but I can usually escape them.  By far, the soldiers here are cool to be around, and seem to like having us around them.

It appears we may get to see Baghdad.  The group I’m with will be among the first crossing the border.  That said, there’ll be tens of thousands of soldiers in our group, and thousands of vehicles.  I’ll be with the command folks of the third brigade– and they will be surrounded on each side by a division of five thousand troops.  I’ve already met the driver of the humvee eddie and I will be riding in.  He stays in my tent.  A Captain Goodrich will be riding shotgun (“I’m a lawyer,” Goodrich said helpfully when he met us.  Me, I’d prefer riding with the redneck sergeant.)  I will be a speck in a windstorm.  Though I recognize the risks, I’m feeling pretty secure right  now.  And if I bailed out now, I’d always second-guess myself.

There’s so much stuff out here– not just a gazillion tanks, but bulldozers, cranes.  there are even a dozen boats out here– boats in the desert!

They’ve told us we will break camp here Thursday, unless the army changes its mind– and they change their mind more often than tv producers.  We’ll move closer to the border, and wait– but probably not for long.  they tell us we should plan to sleep under the stars while en route north.

The Frenchman and the NBC reporter

Eddie Cortes at Kuwait Hilton

Eddie Cortes at Kuwait Hilton

In part two of our serial, we examine the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and the adventures of WAGA’s two-man crew sent to cover it.  Ten years ago, Eddie Cortes and I found ourselves in Kuwait City, trying to get to the front lines of Operation Enduring Freedom.  If you missed part one, it’s here.

The Kuwait Hilton had a lovely view of the Persian Gulf and was lousy with reporters. Some of them were wearing hilariously serious custom-made camo gear with their names embroidered on their chests in English and Arabic.  Many of them talked excitedly about the upcoming invasion as if it was a fait accompli.  I still naively hoped otherwise.  My parents, Quaker pacifists, were horrified by my assignment.

Yves Eudes (right) of Le Monde

Yves Eudes (right) of Le Monde, in our villa

The hotel had one room left, a wildly expensive villa that slept eight.  We’d traveled with a reporter and photographer from the Savannah Morning News who also needed lodging.  At the front desk, we met a French reporter from Le Monde.  “Want to share the villa?” he asked, an introductory line that took me aback.  The five of us grabbed the room.  Yves Eudes became the one guy we saw from the start to finish of our adventure.

We spent three or four nights at the hotel, a curious transition to life in the Middle East.  Kuwait is a dry country, so there was no booze.  I developed a taste for the stringy beef bacon served at breakfast.  I wore running gear and did laps around the hotel property, and grew accustomed to seeing guys in camo uniforms carrying automatic weapons.

“It was not uncommon to be in the elevator with Dan Rather or to have breakfast at the table next to Ted Koppel” at the hotel, Eddie writes now.  “I remember gas mask training on the tennis courts and evacuation drills. I remember how discussions about chemical weapons and scud missiles felt ominous.

Eddie Cortes in Kuwait City

Eddie Cortes in Kuwait City

“There is one memory from my time at the Kuwait Hilton that has stuck with me, replaying in my head for years as either an homage to a good man or penance of missed opportunity. I remember seeing David Bloom in the lobby of the Kuwait Hilton.

“Fifteen years earlier, as a young photographer in Miami Florida, I worked briefly with David Bloom. When I say ‘I worked with him’ I mean I shot one stand up for him while his photographer ran to get a battery. I gave him the tape and he said thanks and that was that. His talent was clear even then, NBC’s golden boy destined for great things.davidbloom

“When I saw him in Kuwait, I knew he wouldn’t remember me. But we knew the same people back in Miami and I wanted to chew the fat with David Bloom. I walked over to him.  He looked at me and nodded, and as I was about to speak to him his producer came over with something that needed his attention. Rather than waiting, I decided he’s busy I’ll catch up to him later and that was it.

“Then the war started and we all went to play in the sand. David Bloom died a few days later of a pulmonary embolism. I have always regretted not talking to him that day in the lobby of Kuwait Hilton.”

Destination: Downrange

Ten years ago — March 2003 — I spent a month in the Middle East, covering the invasion of Iraq.  The “covering the war” part was an interesting adventure.  The logistics, however, still stand out in hindsight.  For all of you who’ve already heard these stories, please forgive me….

If you have time to spare, fly Army Air.

Go Army! Doug and Eddie

Go Army! Doug and Eddie

I suppose it makes perfect sense that the US Army has its own airborne component.  Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, for the record, is not an Air Force base.  It’s an Army post.  It’s where Eddie Cortes and I went to board a plane ostensibly headed to Kuwait.

It wasn’t supposed to be my trip.  WAGA reporter Dan Ronan had pitched it to management, contacted the Army and arranged the logistics.  The TV station assigned Eddie and Dan to be embedded with the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, based at Ft. Stewart, mustering in the desert south of the Iraqi border.  I was Ronan’s untroubled understudy.  Ronan craved travel and adventure.  My odds of replacing him were almost nonexistent.

Shortly before departure, Dan’s wife took ill and required hospitalization.  I was told to pack a bag, raising the question:  How does one pack a bag for such an assignment?

After getting immunizations at Ft. Gordon in Augusta — anthrax and smallpox stand out — and after picking up a gas mask and desert camo chemical-repellent clothing at Ft. Stewart, Eddie and I headed to Hunter.

Doug in transit

In transit

The C-141 Starlifter, a Vietnam-era cargo plane, took off with a few dozen soldiers, a couple of Humvees, and us.  We were strapped into a row of seats that hugged the length of the fuselage.  Some of the soldiers immediately took sleeping pills.

90 minutes later, we landed at Wright-Patterson AFB in Dayton Ohio.  “Got a little issue with the plane,” somebody said.  As we had already gleaned, the heat inside the plane was a bit faulty.  They herded the sedated passengers off the plane, and we spent an unexpected night in Air Force housing in Ohio.

When we took off the next day, the heat still wasn’t working.

We’d all packed sleeping bags.  As the plane made its frigid ascent over the Atlantic, we all wormed our way into them.  We headed to RAF Mindenhall in England, where the plane refueled and we spent a night in Royal Air Force housing.  The next night, the creaky and chilly old plane took us to Kuwait.  Three years later, the military retired the C-141.

I’d begun reading the excellent David McCullough bio of John Adams during that trip.  Adams took his life in his hands by crossing the Atlantic several times during the 18th century in the runup to American independence.  Compared to the danger he faced, I figured I could handle a little overseas saber rattling.

Surely, Saddam Hussein and George Bush will work this out, I reckoned.

Our ride

Our ride

“Our next stop — downrange!” an Army Air voice said over the loudspeaker in the plane as we took off.  Mike Daly had already schooled me on the term, which refers to the target-rich part of a shooting range.  If the announcement was meant to chill me further, it worked.

When we landed in Kuwait City, there was a bit of a sandstorm.  We schlepped our stuff off the plane and didn’t know where to go next.  There was no Public Affairs contingent to greet us, only military types who regarded us as another chore added to an already-full list.

As the sandstorm swirled, it toppled  a bunch of nearby portajohns.  A very unhappy female British soldier emerged from one, her blue uniform now accented with other unpleasant colors.

Eddie and I got shown to a large empty tent and were told to make ourselves at home.

We snoozed.  In the middle of the night, a planeload of troops arrived.  I opened an eye and saw the tent quickly fill with identically-dressed men and women.  There were the sounds of a hundred or more boots shuffling and rucksacks opening, accompanied by muffled voices, mechanically seeking empty space. It happened without warning, of course.  Soon, every bit of floor space in our once-empty tent was filled.

We were covering the Borg invasion.