Deja Vu All Over Again
December 15, 2008 - They say you can't go home again. But you can return to the scene of the crime. I was lucky enough to return to Baghdad for a TDY (Temporary Duty) of about two weeks as part of a team doing a staffing review of one section of the Embassy. It was a very nostalgic time for me to see the Palace one last time (the US Government will return the Palace to the Government of Iraq the end of this month). I walked the halls where I spent so much of my time from July 2006 until July 2007. I even ran into some people who were still there - some had extended; some had returned on TDY like me; some had left and returned for another tour. Not much had changed, but the overall atmosphere was different - less frantic. The New Embassy Compound (NEC) was finished; offices were moving into their new "digs" during the time I was there and most people had moved to the Staff Diplomatic Apartments (SDA) on the NEC. The Commissary/Shopette opened, with a huge variety of frozen, canned and packaged foods, liquor, wine and beer and many other items. Things were much more "normal."
When I was posted in Baghdad, my boss (Steven White) said that there were three phases of opening a new embassy. First come the "explorers." They live in tents, eat MREs and fly by the seat of their pants. I figured this is what the CPA days were like. Next come the "pioneers." They have a more stable living environment (hootches/trailers), still work long, crazy hours, but life is a bit easier (DFAC meals, for example). That is the group I was part of. Last come the "settlers." They expect a much more "normal" lifestyle and working conditions. They are more of an 8-5 (or 6) crowd, living in more luxurious surroundings, etc. That is the group there now. Indeed, the atmosphere in the NEC was much less "frantic" and much more like a regular Embassy. It's not so much of the 24/7/365 workaholics who are there now, but people who assume they will actually have a personal life and weekends to themselves. While the work is still intense, the employees seem much more relaxed. And, luckily, the security situation has improved somewhat so that when I was there, a duck and cover "drill" was set up so people would know what to do in the case of a real duck and cover. I have to admit, it's a different group with a different mindset.
Many things remain the same - it's a tough place to get into/out of (although I must say the C-17 we flew in and out on was positively luxurious in comparison to the C-130). there are a LOT of people crammed into a very small area with not much to do. So that leads to challenges in using one's personal time. I understand the new DFAC is open; the American Club is open and things should get more normal as time goes on.
January 12, 2009 - We've moved out of the Palace and returned it to the Government of Iraq. They have raised their flag there. We have raised the American flag at the New Embassy Compound. The end/beginning of an era. I was glad that I was able to see the old Palace one last time, to tour the halls where I spent so many hours and to look up to see the ornate crystal chandeliers and the intricately carved ceilings, to walk on the marble floors and check out the malachite walls in the ladies' room. Life goes on...