Further Adventures in (Attempted) Embedding

"I hate how the media is covering this war," a Kellogg Brown & Root contractor at the Kuwait airport snarled when he found out I was a journalist.

This is part two of a series reporting from Iraq on how the press is doing its job.

KUWAIT CITY, KUWAIT — “I hate how the media is covering this war,” a Kellogg Brown & Root contractor at the Kuwait airport snarled when he found out I was a journalist.

That isn’t exactly the way you want to start a conversation when dawn is still a chilly hour or two away and you’re stuck outside drinking coffee from a Styrofoam cup, waiting to board a C-130 cargo plane bound for Baghdad. I mumbled something like “Well, it’s complicated …” before just letting the issue drop. Jetlag and lack of sleep had taken the fight out of me.

The C-130 ferrying me, along with a number of aid workers and contractors, to Iraq wouldn’t leave for at least an hour, and we had been waiting in the cold since 3:30 a.m., passing our identification around to KBR employees to ensure ourselves a spot on the flight. After the bus from the Hilton had disgorged us into the desert, we lined up our bags, had roll call and found out that everyone with a Department of Defense card was entitled to a free, hot breakfast at the mess tent. Journalists, unsurprisingly, weren’t included on that list. (I didn’t identify any other journalists on the flight. By and large, this is no longer a freelancers’ war, and many of the larger news outlets now drop their people in from Amman, Jordan, where many of them keep apartments. But the Kuwait route is often cheaper for smaller publications.)

After the breakfast bus mockingly lurched away, I was left with a few USAid workers sitting on picnic benches next to a shipping container that serves as KBR’s office at the Kuwait air base, trying to keep warm. Finally, the anointed DoD contractors came back from breakfast, and the buses were loaded up to head out to the airstrip. In the meantime, a few of the USAid workers and I managed to convince one of the KBR guys to take us to the plane in his heated SUV — where we waited another half-hour to board the plane as the sun slowly began to creep up on the horizon.

Warm or not, though, I soon discovered that any time not spent aboard a C-130 is hardly time wasted.

I had a seat against the outside of the plane, jammed in next to my new buddies and bumping knees with the guy in the row facing mine. It was one of the few moments in my life I was grateful to stand only 5’8 — any taller, the ride would have been exponentially more uncomfortable. As it was, we were packed in so tight I couldn’t move any part of my body for the duration of the flight, but at that point it hardly mattered. I was out of the cold, and on my way. Next stop: Baghdad International Airport.

While I knew we came in hard, and were making sharp banking maneuvers on the way down, I didn’t fully appreciate the angle and speed of our approach into Baghdad until I later saw some other planes come in for a landing. On the way in, the plane banks sharply several times (in order to avoid possible fire from the ground), coming in fast and hard — nose down — until it’s a few hundred feet off the ground, before finally leveling out to hit the tarmac. Once down, we limped out of the back cargo hatch into a cloudy, drizzly morning, and walked single file to pick up our gear.

Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) — or more precisely Camp Sather, where the military flights land — is not a place built for comfort. It sits on a large swath of grayish-brown mud (rain had drenched the city shortly before I arrived), with several “tent cities” set up inside blast walls for soldiers, contractors, journalists and whoever else might have some business in Iraq to sleep in while awaiting transport. There are two ways out of the base: One is by road; the other is by air. I tried both, and initially failed at both.

My contact at the Coalition Press Information Center (CPIC) — which coordinates the travel of embedded journalists once in Iraq — had told me that I needed to try and get a helicopter to the International Zone in downtown Baghdad (where I would check in with the CPIC and catch my chopper ride to my embed unit). Barring that, I’d have to take the “Rhino” armored bus into the city, which only runs late at night. This would entail rumbling down the infamous “Route Irish,” which due to the roadside bombs and small arms fire which frequently harass convoys along the route is one of the most dangerous stretches of road in the world.

But I hadn’t even made it that far. No one at BIAP seemed to have any idea what I was talking about when I enquired about where to find information about the chopper or Rhino. By process of elimination, I eventually managed to wander into a building that seemed to promise some help, though each desk I enquired at shuffled me off to another desk. The “Contractor” desk sent me to the Air Force, which sent me to the Army, which tried to send me back to the Contractor desk, but by that time I had decided to make my stand. After some pressing, I found that there was a number you had to call to get on the manifest for the chopper.

Unsurprisingly, no one answered at the number, so I left a message (naively hoping someone might call me back) and headed over to “Main Street” — a muddy little group of trailers that houses a PX, a Subway franchise, a coffee shop and, for whatever reason, a jewelry shop. After an anemic “Italian BMT” sub and a coffee, I got on the little, mud-covered shuttle bus that headed over to “The Stables” at Camp Stryker to try and manifest for the Rhino in case the chopper fell though. Part of the same complex at BIAP, Stryker is where the sleeping area for troops and passers through is located, and is a bumpy 10-minute shuttle bus ride away.

The Stables (which is really nothing more than rows of tents and temporary structures featuring a gym, a small movie theater and a room with Internet access) was even more desolate and muddy than Sather, but after some poking around I found the travel tent, where I was told that one couldn’t even try to get on the Rhino list until late that evening. I also received the bad news — from a civilian — that all helicopter flights for the day were cancelled. Considering it was only 9 a.m., it looked like I had some time to kill, so I got a tent assignment, trudged through the mud to my bunk in a row of large, 25-cot tents, unrolled my sleeping bag on my cot, and passed out until dinner time.

I had no idea that I had just settled into my new home.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.