Best Regards from Baghdad

My One Year in Iraq

The Rollercoaster R&R

April 25, 2007 - WOW!  I am just now catching my breath after a real rollercoaster of an R&R.  Where to begin?  At the beginning, I suppose...

I left my office in the evening on Tuesday, March 27, and went to the helopad (a/k/a "LZ - for Landing Zone - Washington").  I ran into some colleagues there and as we were chatting and waiting to helo out to the airport, we heard a loud whoosh overhead.  Everyone hit the deck and waited for whatever it was to hit.  We heard the explosion, but didn't know where it was; the "Big Voice" came on and called a "Duck and Cover," and we all prayed everything would be all right.  Unfortunately, it wasn't...

We caught our helo to the Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) and while we were there, we all called back to the Palace asking what had happened.  The sad and terrible news was that one contractor - a woman who worked in billeting - and a military reservist had been killed and there were some wounded.  We shared the information amongst ourselves and looked at each other with disbelief and shock.  What a tragic way to start our R&R!!!  I didn't sleep well that night in spite of the nice accomodations at Sully Compound.

The next day we called in for more information, then boarded the C-130 for Amman.  We waited on the runway for quite some time and then, after everyone was loaded, an ambulance pulled up to the plane and an Iraqi man on a stretcher was loaded into the back of the plane, along with a woman who appeared to be his wife or another relative and a couple of other people.  The man was obviously wounded and although he was awake, he seemed to be in pain.  A casualty of a bombing? What had happened?  All I knew was that he kept reaching for his wife's hand and she would comfort him.  I tried not to stare, but seeing the pathos and humanity of this person touched me.  The war had been slam-dunked right into my world that day and I was humbled by the realities of what the Iraqis face every day.  I later learned that he was a high-ranking government official (and hence the dozens of people waiting for him when we got to Amman!  They whisked him away in another ambulance and I hope that he got the medical treatment he needed there in Jordan.)

I didn't feel my usual elation at leaving Iraq.  I felt drained, sober and anxious.  After passing through immigration and picking up my bag and waving at the customs officials, I found my driver and sank thankfully into the back seat.  He got me to my hotel; I checked in and booked myself a massage and room service.  I tried to relax, but it was difficult.  I paced, watched TV, ate and waited for my car to take me back to the airport to fly home.  Unfortunately, the car never arrived, I tried to call the company and had the wrong number and in the end I took a cab.  I checked in and waited for the midnight flight from Jordan to Paris.

The flight from Amman to Paris was uneventful and uncomfortable.  A large man sat in the middle seat (I was on the aisle) and kept drifting off and falling onto my shoulder.  It seemed like the plane took forever to get to Charles de Gaulle.  When we got there, I did the typical bus ride to the terminal, walked through the terminal, caught another bus, got to another terminal, etc., etc.  Luckily I had a long lay-over, so once I found my gate, I relaxed and watched a DVD, cruised the internet, etc.

When my flight was called, I got in line and when I got to the check-in counter, there was something wrong with my boarding pass.  "Oh, no!" I thought.  But instead, I got a pleasant surprise: I had been bumped to Business Class.  I don't know why - I didn't ask!  I was just thankful.  Of course, my elation was short-lived when I got a personal invitation for a "special" security check at the gate.  You know how they pick out every 10th person or so for a random check?  It was my turn.  The security checker was rude and immediately seized upon my mag light and said "This no!" and I had to argue with her.  I mean, really! a mag light!  In the end, her supervisor came by, took out my batteries (HUH!?) and said (I kid you not) "Voila!"  I bit back a few choice words along the lines of "Voila my XXX" and boarded the bus (which would take us to the plane), shaken and angry.

As I stood on the bus fuming, I started to think "Heh, Anne.  You're safely out of Iraq.  You're heading home.  You've just got bumped to Business Class.  Just hang in there, get a glass of champagne and enjoy the flight."  And you know what?  That's exactly what I did!  I enjoyed the service of Air France (including champagne, wine, cheese, everything the French are famous for) and before I knew it, I was landing in Dulles.  I breezed through Immigration ("Welcome home, ma'am") and Customs and I was in my husband's arms and smelling the roses he had brought with him.

We went home, unpacked and soon my oldest son was home from school and surprised to see me (I didn't tell the kids the exact date I would be home) and he hugged me long and hard.  Then I went to pick up my youngest son from school and when he came around the corner, there was a brief moment of disbelief ("Is that my mom? It looks like my mom, but she's in Iraq!" and "Is that my son? He looks like my son, but he's taller and his hair is so long!") and then a long, Kodak moment as we hugged and hugged.  I was home again.

The Trip from Hell Via Balad

April 27, 2006 - My R&R was great.  I went to my sister Kathy's surprise birthday party (a very important milestone birthday, I might add) and it was great - she was totally surprised by people from all around the country and all around the world!  We had dinner another evening with my sister and brother-in-law, had some friends over for brunch and I made a trip into the Department for one day.  (Yes, I am a glutton for punishment.)  I ate, slept, read, worked out on the rowing machine (erg) that my husband bought for the family for Valentine's Day, and just gloried in being with my family.  The weather was cold and it even snowed the day before Easter (!), but I didn't care.  I was home. 

The last weekend, my son David's boat took first place in their category in a regatta (crew/rowing competition) and my son James' lacrosse team won an exciting game 5-3.  I left Monday April 16th in the evening, fairly rested and recuperated, ready for the last push in Iraq.  It was much easier to leave, knowing that I would be home in three months.

The flight from Dulles to Paris was exhausting, as I cannot sleep on plans and the transfer was tight.  The security lines were backed up in Paris and I had to get assistance to move to the front of the line and barely made the plan from Paris to Amman.  But I did make it, and was lucky enough to sit next to an older French couple who were so inspiring.  They snuggled, held hands, kissed each other and were so romantic.  When the meal came, they ordered a glass of champagne and toasted each other, then slowly enjoyed the airplane food as if it were a gourmet meal.  They each had a book on Jordan (in French) and were highlighting various passages in preparation for their trip.  I could only assume they were on their 25th anniversary trip - or beyond.  (Of course, one wag at the Embassy commented "Yes, but were they married to each OTHER?" when I told them the story!!!)  Anyhow, they made me smile.

When I got to Jordan, the car was waiting for me and whisked me away to the hotel, where I ordered room service, checked my e-mails, took a long, hot bath and fell asleep.  The following morning I had breakfast with a colleague from the Iraq Support Unit in the Embassy in Amman.  (We off-shore a lot of our work to the Unit.)  Then off to the military airport for the beginning of the long journey into the next night. . .

At the airport, there were the usual cries of "Heh, you're back!" to the colleagues that were on the same flight.  Next the comparison of "How was your R&R?" and catching up on the latest.  The flight was packed and it was late, but finally we left Amman in the early afternoon.  The trip went downhill from there.  The ride was bumpy and although I had heard about the "corkscrew" landings in Baghdad, I had always had very smooth flights in and out.  This time, however, the pilot was trying to prove the effects of gravity, or demonstrate what a G-force feels like or something, because I left my stomach hanging in mid-air on more than a few occasions.  Even the most seasoned travelers were exchanging nervous looks.  But we finally landed.

Then came the surprise: "Oh, guess what? You're not in Baghdad.  There is a sandstorm there, so we had to land in Balad."  The crew promised we would take off as soon as the sandstorm abatted in Baghdad.  We got off, visited the pot-a-potties and then stood around for a while.  Then we were asked to cross the tarmac and stand on the other side, nearer to the "Duck and Cover" bunkers.  We waited for well over an hour, until someone brought us bottles of water and later some buses.

We boarded the buses and were taken to the "Passenger Terminal."  The instructions were to stay close and we'd be taking off momentarily, but that we could go to get a pizza for dinner.  Turns out the pizza place was closed and then bingo! we were told to get back on the buses, because we were going to leave.  We hurried up and got on the buses, which zipped us out back to the tarmac and then we sat on the bus on the tarmac for an hour and 45 minutes.  The natives were getting restless and I complained to the dispatch agent that came out to the bus, and he said he'd see what he could do.  By this time it was nearly 8:00 p.m. and no one had eaten since breakfast back in Amman, so we asked to be taken to the DFAC. 

We never did make it to the DFAC - we went back to the Passenger Terminal where we were offered MREs.  For those of you who don't know, an MRE is a Meal Ready to Eat, previously known as C-Rations.  What an experience that was!  I had prepared one before (for my kids) and so I gave a quick gonzo lesson on "A Diplomat's Guide to Preparing and eating MREs."  It was ... um ... interesting.  We sat on the ground and tore open the packages and ate.

Next, we were told that we'd get a cot and could lie down for a while. The assignment of cots and tents took a while, but we were finally guided down an area that looked amazingly like Stalag 17 and shown the cots.  Um, no pillows? no bedding?  It was basic, to say the least.  Oh, and by the way, no luggage which had to stay on the pallets, so a couple of us decided to go to the PX to get some toothbrushes and toothpaste.  It's now around 11:00 p.m., by the way.

We made it back from the PX just in time to find out that, once again, we had to board the buses immediately!!!  Then we sat on them in the passenger terminal for 15 minutes.  Then we sat on a road off the tarmac for another 30 minutes.  But we finally boarded the plane and took off around 1:45 a.m.  It was a 20 minute flight with yet another stomach-turning landing, but we were finally in Baghdad.  We trooped into Tent 1 (roughly the Immigration/Customs part of the show), sat on the wooden benches and phoned back to Baghdad looking for a way to get back to the Palace, as we had already missed the rhino and any helo rides that we had arranged.  At about 3:00 p.m. we were told to go to Tent 4 (no benches) and we all stood there while we were checked in, one by one.

When I was checked in, I found my luggage and crossed the street to Sully, where luckily there were beds available.  By the time I showed, brushed my teeth and flopped into bed, it was about 4:30 a.m.  Oh, man, what a trip!

The next morning, I got up and gathered with some other passengers and tried to get a ride back to the Palace.  No luck.  There was a VIP in town and all the land and air assets were tied up, so we decided to make the best of it between noon and the early a.m. Rhino run.  We went to lunch at the DFAC, we read our e-mails and then we took a bus ride to the PX at Camp Victory.  We bought t-shirts, had an iced coffee and then took a bus ride back, enjoying the lakes and other scenery.  A group of us were making jokes about how it would be a great weekend location if they would just add some paddle boats in the lake, a pool and hot tub, a bar, etc.  We were so giddy with exhaustion that everything was amazingly funny and we were all hilarious.

Back to Sully, we watched TV ("Dirty Jobs"), dozed on the La-Z-Boys in the lounge and then headed to Camp Stryker around 11:15 p.m.  Then we checked in there for the Rhino, sat around until 1:30 or so when the Rhino showed up.  Then the ride to the Palace Compound.  The Rhino vehicles were so packed that people were sitting on the floor, but we made it there safely.  And as I got off the Rhino, I was so tired and disoriented by the floodlights that I tripped on a speed bump, fell and ripped my jeans and scraped the heck out of my knee.  It was the final cherry on top.

But I forged on, dragged my luggage back to my hootch and arrived there at about 3:00 a.m.  It had taken me 72 hours from my home to my hootch.  The journey was over; there was a certain relief in being back in my own little room, with my little bed and my stuff.  It wasn't home, but it was better than the alternative! 

Anyhow, this page is dedicated to the "Select Sixty-Six Survivors" of that flight from Amman to Baghdad. . .  And,  now I'm just 12 weeks away from my final return home.  The last push is on!!!