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.

This entry was posted in WAGA on by .

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Doug Richards is a reporter at WXIA-TV. This is his personal blog. WXIA-TV has nothing whatsoever to do with this blog, under any circumstances, in any form. For anything written herein, Doug accepts sole credit and full blame. Follow him on Twitter: @richardsdoug. All rights reserved. Thanks for visiting.

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