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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.