This is the third installment in a series of posts about the life of an embedded journalist in Iraq.
BAGHDAD, IRAQ — Camp Stryker is a place where travel plans go to die.
After waking in the late afternoon to the thunder of a steady downpour on the roof of my tent, I decided that heading out in the rain was preferable to hanging out in the heavy, dank air created by 15 guys napping in a confined space. I couldn’t think of anything better to do, so I hopped the bus back to Camp Sather to see if someone couldn’t tell me a little more about getting on a chopper to the International Zone the next day.
Waiting for the bus back to The Stables, I started talking to Spc. Dave Seymour, who was having the same bad luck getting out, though he was more excited about heading out for two weeks R&R in Brazil than he was disappointed in having to wait around. Like many of the soldiers I met, Seymour was a big, friendly kid with some great stories about his tour in Iraq, and it was good to talk to someone I wasn’t trying to get to do something for me. We were heading to the same place, so we took the bus back and grabbed some Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) in the travel tent. (The beef ravioli is superb; the chocolate chip cookie, not so much.)
With a few hours to kill before trying to board the Rhino into Baghdad, I grabbed some couch space and settled in for a couple hours of Fox News Channel, which seems to be the only thing carried on military televisions here. The takeaway? Watching from a soggy tent in a war zone doesn’t make Neil Cavuto’s show any better.
After a few hours, the announcement came to line up to get on the Rhino list. When I handed my identification over to the Army officer in charge and told him I was a journalist, he actually made it a point to stop, look up and scoff. Maybe he had been watching Fox, too. (For the record, all the soldiers I spoke to up to this point were uniformly good guys, and were more than happy to speak to a reporter.)
Stung by my second official rebuff of the day, I found solace in another MRE. Turns out the beefsteak with mushrooms is just as delightful as the ravioli.
Well after midnight, word came down that the evening’s Rhino was cancelled, because “some shit is going down out there.” While lining up for my new tent assignment for the evening, I saw a couple guys off to the side, determinedly dialing a phone, so I inched over to see what was up. Someone had actually gotten through to the helicopter manifest, and the guy on the line was taking names for the next day. After some frantic hand gesturing, I managed to get myself on the list for the next evening.
Of course that left me with another day to kill at Camp Stryker. Suffice it to say, I did.
The next night (after a total of 37 hours stuck at the airport, trying to make it the 10 or so miles to the International Zone in downtown Baghdad), I made it back over to Camp Sather for my chopper — but just barely. I got there an hour before liftoff, and was told by a contractor I recognized from the night before that the flight had been cancelled. A few minutes later, dejected, I began to gear up to head back over to the Rhino when I saw the same guy running to the flight deck. Apparently I had missed the announcement that the flight was back on, and, throwing on my Kevlar helmet and flak vest, I squeezed onto the chopper just before liftoff.
Flying over a darkened, nighttime Baghdad was a humbling experience. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I have to admit that I had a kind of “Yossarian moment” — I couldn’t help but take very personally the fact that there were probably people down there who would very much like to see me, and everyone in my helicopter, dead. While we sped over the empty streets, glowing a dull orange under streetlights, I became acutely aware that the entire ride was designed to avoid just that.