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Double Tap Blog » A week in Baghdad

Here’s rather lengthy dissertation on my week in Baghdad. Usually, I don’t write this much, but I thought some of you may find it interesting. Some photos are also attached.

I’m just back from a week at Victory Base Complex (VBC) in Baghdad. I went down there to take a class on Security Engineering. Basically, that’s designing buildings, walls, and barriers to reinforce them so they are less susceptible to terrorist attacks through explosions and indirect fire. Also, we did some work on entry control point (ECP) design.

VBC surrounds and incorporates the Baghdad International Airport, the Saddam Hussein palace complexes to the north and west, and another military airfield to the west. It’s huge and it’s actually broken into several smaller pieces. For the army, that’s Camp Liberty, Camp Slayer and Camp Victory. It’s got huge lakes that are fed by the Tigris River and many of the Saddam-era buildings, homes, and palaces sit right on the side of the lake or in the middle of it.

The flight to VBC was a bit of an experience. Flying in Iraq via military aircraft is nothing like flying in the U.S. on commercial airlines. First, you almost always have to plan for 24-hours of travel time – no matter where you are going. That’s because even though you thought you were reserved on a flight, the flight gets cancelled or bumped forward or back. On the flight out, I thought I was going to be leaving at 1100 at night. Instead, at midnight the night prior, I get a knock on my door to tell me that my flight has been moved forward 17 hours to that morning. So, all my plans about getting all my stuff ready that day went out the window and I had to pack hurriedly – which is why I ended up forgetting my digital camera, lap top, and a sleeping bag.

Then when you do get on the aircraft, you never fly straight in to where you want to go. The helicopters do a circular transit of several bases, dropping people off and picking people up. Sometimes, you get bumped off your aircraft at the wrong base – which is exactly what happened to me on the flight out. Then, even if you had a reservation all the way to your final destination, you often find that your reservation was really only good until the first spot you landed at – and has magically disappeared for the rest of the flight. Then, you are forced to try to find a space-available spot that no one has a reservation for. Sometimes, you get one that day. Other times, you are stuck at what ever base you are at until the next day.

Part of the confusion when flying helicopters is that they are so friggin’ loud. You have to wear earplugs because the jet turbine engine is right about your head. It’s not like in the war movies where you see soldiers have long conversations while flying in the back of a helicopter. The only people really able to talk are those who have the intercom headphones.

You land on a base and you’ve got the crew chief telling you to get off through sign language. None of the bases have big signs saying anything like “Welcome to _______”, so you don’t know really where you are. You are yelling in people’s ears trying to ascertain where you are at. It’s a nightmare. So, you really don’t want to get off, because you are afraid you are going to end up someplace you don’t want to be. Then, it turns out, they are only stopping to get fuel and they want you to get off while they are refueling.

Most of the time, you fly at night – safer that way. But, you don’t see much of Iraq that way. Luckily, I was on a day flight, so I got to watch Iraq roll by out the window of the UH-60. You are only flying at a couple hundred feet, so you see a lot. Except for around the larger cities, Iraq is predominately arid and a desert. Not even a good desert like my home state of Arizona – where there’s still plants growing and animals moving around. Nope, in Iraq, it’s very flat and very dusty. Except for areas near the rivers, there’s almost nothing to look at as far as the landscape. The people living out in these areas live in mud brick homes with flat roofs. Near water, there is actual irrigation and farming. Not like the big farms in the U.S. – mostly small plots of a couple of acres. I’ve seen wheat, dates, grapes, vegetables, and the like. The date palm trees are lined up in sometimes huge plots.

The cities are interesting too. Nearly all the buildings have flat roofs. People without AC will often sleep on their roofs at night because it is cooler up there. Naturally, because they are nearly all flat, they make great fighting positions. Of course, the tenants down below don’t like that, but it works nonetheless. TV antennas and satellite dishes dot the roof-tops as you fly over. The other thing you really notice in the cities is the squalor. There is trash literally everywhere. Many times, it’s being burned on the street corner and there are plumes of smoke rising up throughout the city. Even the houses that look like they could be more expensive don’t look that promising. The bigger homes have walls and gates around them. I think that is a Middle Eastern thing, rather than necessarily a security thing. I saw the same thing in Qatar around many homes there. However, it probably helps with the security. But, the squalor and poverty is the most noticeable. At least in Qatar, I saw both wealthy and poor sections of town. While flying around Baghdad, all I saw were areas I certainly wouldn’t want to live in.

While at VBC, I hooked up with a friend of mine from the Arizona National Guard, Sergeant Major Brad Morse. Morse was with HHB, 1-180FA who are stationed at VBC. Although they are an artillery unit, they are performing military police duties in Baghdad. They run convoys out into the city every day, moving prisoners, escorting convoys, performing personal security details, and the like. From what I saw, they were doing a great job in a dangerous area. Of the little over 100 people they have, more than 50 have been awarded the Combat Action Badge.

Morse took me around to see some of the palaces. The palaces at VBC are most impressive when you look at them from a distance. When you get up close, they tend to look tackier. And, if you look underneath the facade, you’ll find the Iraqi construction standards are really sub-par. I noticed, even when in the very impressive looking Al-Faw palace, that in areas where the marble blocks were gone, the underlying masonry was a hodge-podge of materials kind of stuffed into the wall to fill up the space. Nevertheless, it was obvious that Saddam and his boys had lived damn good compared to his subjects just outside the gates.

Sitting in one of Saddam’s chairs, in the Al Faw Palace.

While there, I mentioned to the Morse that I rarely got off my own base. He suggested I go out with one of his unit’s convoys and see another part of Iraq. I agreed, especially when I heard it was going to Abu Ghraib. Abu G, as it is usually referred to, is the same prison everyone saw on the news were U.S. soldiers were taking Iraqi prisoners and stacking them up naked, making them do sexually perverse things, etc., – all while taking photos of it.

Me at Abu G

It was also the primary prison for Saddam and his boys, where they did some of their nastier work. There is a story about how the prison was so over-crowded, that all the cells were crammed full and the prisoners were actually standing in a long hallway, shackled to a long chain connected to the walls. Saddam had heard about the overcrowding and this was his solution. He showed up one night, with his two sons in tow, and proceeded to walk down that hallway with the shackled prisoners, shooting each of them with a pistol, reloading as he went along.

According to the story, hundred of prisoners were executed that way in a single night. Now, the Iraqi soldiers refuse to go into that hallway at night, for fear of the ghosts that haunt it.
Unfortunately, the world will more likely remember the stupid things that American soldiers did there that were more embarrassing for the prisoners than anything else, rather than the murders of hundreds of prisoners by Saddam Hussein. Oh well.

Anyway, I went on the convoy and got to ride in the first gun truck HMMWV. That’s significant, because the first and last vehicles are usually the ones that get shot at or deal with IEDs. The convoy was made up of the 1-180’s four gun trucks and a bunch of supply trucks bound for Abu G. Nothing significant happened on the way up, but we did have what’s called an “escalation of force” on the way back. Escalation of Force is when you encounter someone approaching you or your vehicle who won’t stop. That’s important, because suicide bombers are likely to drive their vehicles straight into a US vehicle before setting themselves off. There are several techniques that soldiers use to warn them off, before they actually fire on them.

In this case, a truck, which had been pulled over, began to pull back out onto the road and head straight for our vehicle. The gunner on top the vehicle was forced to shoot some warning shots with tracers right in front of the on-coming truck to get him to stop. You should have seen the expression of shock on the guy’s face when we rolled past him. If the guy hadn’t stopped then, the gunner would have opened up on him with the HMMWV’s .50-cal machinegun. That would have been very bad for the driver, I can assure you, as .50-cal bullets will go straight through an engine block – let alone a person.

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