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.
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.
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 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.