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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!