By Amanda Kim Stairrett
Fort Hood Herald
4:45 p.m. Tuesday, Baghdad
The group of Central Texas reporters finally arrived in Baghdad late Tuesday afternoon. We flew in a large Air Force cargo plane from Kuwait. It was then that I discovered my knack of being able to nap when needed in almost any Army vehicle extended to the U.S. Air Force. We and a handful of troops strapped into the cargo area, and a pallet of our luggage was loaded in behind us. We were in helmets and body armor, a requirement when riding in any military vehicle.
If we needed to throw up, yelled an airman, we would be given a manila envelope with a bag inside. Don't throw up in the envelope, he instructed, "it doesn't hold much."
It was clear who had made this flight before. The seasoned military travelers propped their feet up on their assault packs and leaned back to rest. I did the same until one of the airmen extended the seat in front of me and laid down across it for a nap.
The next thing I remember, the reporter to my right was nudging me. I looked up to see one of our public affairs escorts quickly exiting the rear of the plane. He was quite a bit ahead of me and I panicked, grabbed my assault pack, camera bag and camera and ran after him. We followed one of the airmen, who directed us safely away from the screaming engines.
We were finally in Baghdad. It took me a good 15 minutes to orient myself after the whirlwind. I was quite out of it.
The winding, bumpy road from the airport gave us our first good look at Iraq. I've never seen so much concrete. The landscape seemed to be filled with a few sagging trees, concertina wire, vehicles and T-walls. It was as if the area was a giant, abandoned industrial park, but if you looked closer, you could see people working in each of the areas we passed.
T-walls lined everything, many of them elaborately painted by units who previously lived or worked behind those walls. There were unit mascots and emblems and tributes to fallen battle buddies. As the United States military leaves Iraq, I wonder what will happen to these works of art.
We creep toward Camp Victory and signs of life begin to appear. A sand volleyball pit cordoned off by blue and white tires catches me eye. A few joggers in PT uniforms and reflective belts pass. We pass a body of water and the sinking sun shines off the surface. For a brief moment, the bleak area we passed through is forgotten.
We approach Al Faw palace and we reporters get out our notebooks and pens and cameras. I've seen photos of this place, but never thought the area surrounding it would look like this. Rows and rows of T-walls hide living quarters for the men and women who work in this area. The palace overlooks a lake and at intervals around the water, smaller, but stately buildings sit on the shoreline. A soldier later tells us these were homes for Saddam Hussein's generals.
We're told that after dropping off our luggage in our rooms (At last, my very own hooch!), we'll meet with Lt. Gen. Robert Cone, who commands Fort Hood's III Corps, and have dinner with him, Command Sgt. Maj. Arthur Coleman and a few others.
The reporters were speechless as we entered the palace's front door. It's beautiful and the military's additions, such as, sandbags and cubicles, briefly disappear. A giant chandelier hangs in the rotunda a rotunda, I've seen in many photos of official ceremonies. Cone later tells us this was Saddam Hussein's "hunting lodge."
After dinner, the print folks (me, a reporter and a photographer) will be rushed to the airfield where we will catch a Black Hawk bound for Balad. There would be no sleeping in my newly acquired hooch. Instead, I caught my second nap of the day in my second aircraft of the day.
After a night at Balad (under the care of the 36th Engineer Brigade's public affairs officer), we'll buzz once again toward Mosul and the 1st Cavalry Division's 4th Advise and Assist Brigade. I look forward to seeing my 1st Cav friends, but I also hope to speak with a few of the engineers at breakfast.
But, before any interviews with Fort Hood soldiers, it's time to get a little sleep in an actual bed - my first -since Saturday night.
Midnight Wednesday, Balad
Soldiers, airmen and contractors filled the USO at Balad, sitting at round, picnic-like tables and long wood benches. Most were on their laptops, talking and laughing at the screens.
Each person was in his or her own world, sharing time with a friend or family member on the other side of the world. The nine-hour time difference can make it hard to communicate with those back home, and often someone has to sacrifice sleep.
I smiled, walked out and enjoyed my first shower since Saturday morning. I came back after the best shower ever. I needed to send photos and video to the Herald. I took my place at one of the round picnic tables in the back corner of the room. Next to me was a soldier, a Spc. Pabon, and a civilian contractor. Both were talking to women on their laptop screens. Pabon was speaking in Spanish and smiled and laughed often. I could understand the English-speaking contractor and immediately felt uncomfortable. It was a conversation between two people who have obviously been married a while. He was talking about farts with his wife.
I shouldn't have been listening in, but it was impossible not to given our proximity. I looked around at the others video chatting and enjoying private moments very publicly.
I discover that a friend at work in Killeen is online and I can video chat with her. This isn't a new technology, but we act like it is. We giggle and wave at each other like we've just discovered a new toy. She brings two other co-workers/friends in and we talk as if we're in the same room instead of nine time zones away. I show them the USO and point out the soldiers and airmen. We laugh at inside jokes way too loud. No one around me seems to mind, even though I'm a bit embarrassed when we finally disconnect and go back to work.
At 4:24 a.m. Wednesday, Iraq time, Spc. Pabon is still at the table. The contractor is gone, long replaced with an airman who has a pleasant voice. He's in his Air Force PTs and, disappointingly, I can't see a rank or name. I do know, however, that he recently arrived in Iraq and is still trying to adjust to a sleep cycle. He sets up communications networks for the Air Force. He's trying to get a job as an engineer once this deployment is over. Hes says "soda." His girlfriend is wearing a T-shirt he left behind. I can't see his screen and we didn't have a conversation, but this airman has told me a lot.
This is just another thing that comes with the military life. Private moments are few and far between during a deployment, so when people want to enjoy them, they do. Others let them be because they, too, are there or have been there. These men and women improvise when they can't be with their loved ones, and tonight, a big, dusty room with noisy TVs and constant traffic is the most private place in Iraq.
12:59 p.m. Wednesday, Balad
BALAD - We were warned about the rain. Not so much the rain, but the unique concoction of mud it produces. It's thick like clay. It's messy. It's everywhere. It will EAT US ALIVE.
It started raining almost 12 hours ago at Balad Air Base. It's like someone turned on the shower and then walked away. It's steady and cold. It WON'T STOP.
The three Central Texas print journalists on this trip are at the PAX terminal at Balad, awaiting a cargo plane that will take us to Mosul and the waiting 4th Advise and Assist Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. The flight was set to take off this morning about 10 a.m. (1 a.m. Wednesday, Central Texas time), but there was a delay. I blame this cursed mud and rain. Our public affairs escort here at Balad, the 36th Engineer Brigade's 1st Lt. Edwin Melendez, took us to his office instead and we spent the rest of the morning with the Rugged Brigade's soldiers.
We watched them show soldiers from the 20th Engineer Brigade how to perform maintenance checks on their MRAPs. The 36th is preparing to return to Fort Hood and will hand over its mission of leading engineering operations in Iraq to the 20th, of Fort Bragg, N.C.
This training was conducted in the rain. If it ain't raining, then we ain't trainin', Melendez joked, invoking a popular Army saying. Spc. Jade Hill said she'd take the rain over the blinding heat any day.
Each of the six MRAPs that formed two rows in front of the motor pool had a woman's name stenciled on the rear. There was Jayda, Lauren, Carson, Maggie, Eliza Jane and Rhonda. We were standing next to Rhonda when I asked about the names. Rhonda was special, said Hill and Sgt. Jeff Lumpkin. The MRAP was named in honor of Command Sgt. Maj. Terrence Murphy's late wife, who passed away a few years ago.
The soldiers are part of Murphy's and Col. Kent Savre's personal security detachment. They escort and protect the brigade's senior leaders at all times. I met Murphy at Fort Hood three or four years ago when he was the 20th Engineer Battalion's senior noncommissioned officer. I was introduced to him by the wife of another NCO in the battalion. I could tell back then Murphy was well respected by his soldiers, and I was pleased to hear a few soldiers on the personal security detachment revered him in the same way.
They call him "Pops," he said later. He seemed proud of the nickname.
3:30 p.m. Thursday, Mosul
I have to walk out of my container housing unit here at Marez in a few minutes, but wanted to get a quick post sent back home.
Our time here at Marez with the 1st Cav's 4th Advise and Assist Brigade has been amazing. Amazing may be a weird word to use in regards to our time at this place, but we've gotten to meet some pretty
outstanding leaders, soldiers and Iraqi and Kurdish soldiers. We had a chance this morning to interview the soldiers from Alpha
Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Cavalry Regiment, who were involved in the tragic incident a few weeks ago when an Iraqi soldier opened fire and killed two from the squadron. The three cav scouts we
interviewed took down the shooter, provided cover and positioned a Humvee between the shooter and one of those he killed. You will appreciate soldiers like them when you read their story and what they had to say about their fallen friend.
We also visited a checkpoint on the outskirts of Mosul on Route Santa Fe and spent a little time with Pfc. Andres Guerrero, of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment, as he pulled guard in one of the towers. His spot overlooks a dirt road and a neighborhood. .
Guerrero talked about life back home in New Jersey and his job as children walked to school and chickens pecked at the ground across the street from the tower. Sometimes children yell and ask him for Pepsi and Cokes, he said.
He sees a lot from that tower and he told me all about a family who lives in one of the houses nearby.
He chuckled as he talked about them because he realized he has kind of gotten to know them from behind his sandbags, wood and wire enclosure and M240B.
As we've visited different sites around Marez, I've come upon soldiers and leaders I've met in the field or events at Fort Hood. It should come as no surprise that I am seeing people I know or have worked with before here in Iraq, but it's still weird. Still, it's good to see them, wish them well and tell them I'll see them back home.
1 p.m. Friday, Iskandariya, Iraq
It'd been too long since I heard "ai-yee-ah!"
I arrived at the Contingency Operating Site Kalsu on Friday morning. I actually didn't know it was Friday until I asked Command Sgt. Maj. Jonathan Hunt what day it was a few hours later. He is the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's senior noncommissioned officer and serves alongside its commander, Col. Reginald Allen.
We got a briefing on what the regiment is up to here in the Babil Province. Allen and Hunt talked about everything from whether sending the troopers here was worth it to whether the Iraqis will succeed after the Americans leave to whether technology is good or bad for deployed soldiers. Technology certainly has changed deployments, Hunt said.
"The days of a 'Dear John' letter are over," he said. "It's a 'Dear John' Skype now."
It's been rainy here at Kalsu and the infamous Iraq moon dust has turned into a substance that can only be described as soupy chocolate pudding.
The containerized housing units here at Kalsu are surrounded by t-walls, as they are at every base we've visited. To make the soldiers feel more at home, Hunt had the housing areas named after seven communities that surround Fort Hood. Doing that also serves as a navigational tool for the soldiers because it all looks the same around here.
While here at Kalsu, I live in Killeen. Allen and Hunt live in Salado. The signs identifying the neighborhoods were the first thing the other reporters and I noticed when arriving. Hunt was right. I felt a little more at home.
10:49 p.m. Friday, Iskandariya
I carried a Nikon D2X, 120mm film camera, one green ballpoint pen, one yellow tube of lip balm and one notebook. They wanted it all.
I rolled out of Kalsu late this afternoon with some soldiers from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's Bandit Troop, Tiger Squadron. They, led by 1st Lt. Tom Westphal, were going to a rural residential area near the base to talk to Iraqis and hand out bags filled with food like rice and flour.
On the way, a soldier told me that if there were any explosions or shot, I was to run to the closest MRAP, get inside and "just stay put."
Children started gathering at the first stop as soon as they saw the line of MRAPs halt. Visiting American soldiers could mean candy or pencils or other goodies. I became a target as soon as they saw the big camera.
As Westphal talked to the patriarch of the large extended family, the children tried to make eye contact with me.
If they were successful, they'd gesture for me to take their photos. There's no quicker way to make friends with an Iraqi child than by taking his photo and showing him the image.
A boy asked my name and after that, "Madame! Madame!" became "'Manda! 'Manda!'"
The patriarch was the environmental minister of the province, Westphal leaned over and told me as his translator spoke. We later learned that the rural neighborhood we were in was home to several police, Army and provincial officials. That wasn't apparent looking at the garbage that littered the area and the mud-caked bare feet of the children who followed us everywhere we went.
The boys were the aggressive ones as the little girls quietly kept their distance. They stood nearby to get my attention and smiled wide when I took their photos, but they didn't demand either. A few of the boys tried to charm me.
"Good! Good!" one said with a thumbs up, pointing to my ponytail.
They boldly asked for the pen hooked on my vest. And the lip balm. Pretty much everything that was visible was fair game, a soldier told me. By the children's logic, since I had two cameras, I should at least give them one. The film camera attached to my vest would suffice, they indicated.
A boy asked for "chocolata." I said I didn't have any and asked him for some. The crowd laughed. This audience was good.
A few of the soldiers were targeted, too. A riot almost broke out when one produced a handful of candy from inside the MRAP. Another soldier monitored the distribution.
"He already got one!" he said, pointing and smiling at a little con artist who snuck back into the melee for a second piece.
6:30 p.m. Monday, Baghdad
As I visit units across Iraq, I keep an eye out for interesting patches. The best ones are National Guard units because they typically say something about the state or region they represent. This is one of my favorites so far.
It represents the Idaho National Guard. Soldiers from its 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team are in Iraq and I've seen this patch all over Camp Victory. I met the NCO this patch belongs to in a shop not too far from Al Faw palace.
The snake in the river is symbolic of the Snake River, the major river that flows through Idaho.
6:53 p.m. Monday, Baghdad
I arrived back at Camp Victory late yesterday afternoon. I enjoyed my time at Kalsu with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, but a TV crew and I had to get back to Baghdad and rejoin the rest of the Central Texas reporters.
We're covering the big transfer of authority ceremony tomorrow between III Corps and the XVIII Airborne Corps.
I spent the last week on the road and in the sky, traveling from Kuwait to Baghdad to Balad to Mosul to Iskandariya and back to Baghdad.
My favorite spots were Marez with the 1st Cavalry Division's 4th Advise and Assist Brigade and Kalsu with the regiment.
After spending time there and coming back to Camp Victory, I'm not a fan of this big base. There's just ... too much. While the other sites were more remote and bare bones, they were manageable and, dare I say, homier.
An Army friend who's deployed several times called Camp Victory "super FOB."
Had I not already stopped at Camp Victory briefing at the beginning of the trip, I would've stared up at Al Faw palace, open-mouthed, like many visitors who live on other bases.
We were treated to a tour of Al Faw palace today, which was given by Lt. Col. Les' Malnyk, U.S. Forces-Iraq's command historian. We learned about everything from the hastily built part of the palace to Hussein's involvement in the plans to the creepy, giant fish that live in the man made lake that surrounds the palace.
While we were waiting for the tour, a captain was tossing handfuls of Cocoa Puffs into the water. The fish, which were several feet long, and birds battled it out for bites. The captain said Cocoa Puffs seemed to be their favorite so far.
He often feeds the fish and birds to de-stress between meetings, he said.