Jake sets sail

11 03 2012

A very good friend of mine, let’s call him Jake, will be leaving his family soon on a seven-month journey that will take him to the other side of the planet.

He is doing this not completely voluntarily, because it’s part of his job. Jake is an officer in the U.S. Navy, and his ship is about to depart on a long military deployment.

I met Jake almost ten years ago, on a different Navy ship, just off the coast of Kuwait, its iconic city skyline on the horizon on the starboard side. Back then, he was a member of the crew and I was a journalist, and we watched the politics of the region heat up from front-row seats. The ground war in Iraq was a few months away but the conflict had claimed its first lives already.

Kuwaiti sunset, October 8, 2002

Jake and I kept in touch and we became really good friends. I got to know and love his parents, his wife and their two cool daughters, too. We visited each other – I traveled to both coasts of the United States to see them, they came to Europe to see us. They played a very important role at my wedding.

On a hot night in 2003, Jake, living in San Diego at the time, was my last link to the outside world as I sat in the back of an SUV, speeding through the darkness to Iraq from Amman, Jordan. We carried on a conversation by SMS until I got a few kilometers inside the border. Our chatting across 11 time zones ended abruptly as the sun began to rise, and I slipped out from under Jordanian cell phone coverage.

Iraqi sunrise, August 8, 2003

Nine years ago this month, the world saw a superpower and a dictator posturing for the public. The dictator lost on the first night of hellfire in Baghdad. Woe to those who try to tangle with the biggest military might in the world.

The politics of the region are, once again, in turmoil. The names of the places and the actors are different, but the anger behind it is similar. This new (and still verbal) conflict has very sinister undertones – there is talk of nuclear weapons for the first time since the Cold War ended. And Jake and his shipmates are sailing into the thick of it again.

It’s his fourth or fifth multi-month cruise in something like 12 years, and while I do understand his commitment and service to his country, I wonder how much more of this he and his family will be forced to endure. His father passed away recently, and he will miss his oldest daughter’s high school graduation this Spring. Last year she turned 18 without him… because he was underway.

I wish Jake – and the thousands of military personnel he sails with – Godspeed; that they return home physically and psychologically unscathed.  For the families and friends they leave behind, the wait will be a long one.

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Welcome to… a different world.

11 09 2011

The second Tuesday in September started innocuous enough. I was in the British countryside, west of London, along with about 20 colleagues, attending a course on working in hostile environments and battlefield first aid. Too many newspeople had perished while covering wars past, and the company I worked for thought it a wise investment to train its journalists in basic survival so that in the future more would come home from those environments unscathed.

Just in case.

Because the next war was bound to break out, sometime, somewhere.

An excerpt from the list of topics to be covered.

We learned things like: What kind of damage automatic weapons can do to cars, oil drums and humans; How to spot a sniper, and a tripwire; How to make a water filter using only materials found in nature; What an armed ambush feels like, and how to survive a kidnapping; Why a camera lens can sometimes look like a shoulder-held rocket-propelled-grenade at distance.

The course was a week long and I had decided to tack on a vacation to New York City and points north immediately thereafter. So I booked my flight from Heathrow to JFK on United Airlines for the following Saturday.

On that week’s Tuesday afternoon we were out in the woods, standing in mud up to our ankles. The assigned task was to practice negotiation skills. Our teachers had dressed up as hostile natives hell-bent on hindering our work at least, or murdering us for our expensive equipment. The overcast sky broke to a fine English drizzle and during a pause in the action a few of us took shelter in one of the vehicles. That was when the first SMS came from New York.

It was so absurd that we thought it was some kind of joke.

“What a brilliant idea,” one of my colleagues said. “But impossible.”

Four filthy, cynical journalists sitting in a Land Rover in the middle of a field in the middle of nowhere, 3,000 miles from New York City, could not believe the audacity of flying a plane into the World Trade Center.

While calmly picking clumps of mud out of the treads of my hiking boots with a twig, I scoffed that no aviation routes even go anywhere near Manhattan… so that must have been some dumb pilot. Or just a tragic accident.

We turned on the car’s radio to see if the BBC had the story, and heard that a second airliner had just slammed into the second building.

Ah. No accident. No dumb pilot.

And suddenly our hostile environment training did not seem so theoretical anymore.

Four days later, I sat in one of the first aircraft permitted to re-enter U.S. airspace from abroad. Upon landing at JFK, a flight attendant announced our arrival over the intercom. Ten years later, I still get a lump in throat and my eyes tear up when I think of it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to….. The United States of America.”

The entire cabin erupted in cheers and tears. We were on home soil, and we were safe.

As the plane taxied off the runway to its parking position, a white plume of smoke continued to rise from Ground Zero into the cobalt blue sky. Lower Manhattan was still burning.

It was September 15th, 2001 –  and the world as we knew it was history.

**********

A cloud of smoke where the towers used to be.

A piece of a steel skeleton.

The destruction through the window of a city bus.

Guard duty at Ground Zero.

The impromptu memorial at Union Square.

NOTE: All photos are my own, taken on September 16th and 17th, 2001.





Goodbye Iraq

19 08 2010

With “Operation Iraqi Freedom” coming to a close after a seven-and-a-half year nightmare, I am reminded of the day I left Iraq, a long time ago. In a different lifetime, it seems. I spent almost six weeks in the war zone in August and September 2003, as a journalist. That was after “Mission Accomplished” but before the real carnage began. Admittedly, a couple of weeks is a joke compared to the many months and years that others, including friends – civilians like journalists and aid workers as well as military personnel – spent there. And of course the Iraqis themselves, who have to face a violent reality every day, and who don’t have the luxury to be able to hop in a car or a plane and start a new life elsewhere.

This is the email I wrote home after I left. My observations may seem superficial, and you might think I don’t have the credibility to pass judgment. On anything about this war. If I would have known what I know now, I might have made different choices back then. But it’s safe to say that my time in Iraq was probably the most intense, enriching and educational experience I have had so far, both professionally and personally, at a time and in a place I will never forget.

*********************

September 10, 2003

My shift in Iraq is over, I have returned to Europe, many experiences, stories and snapshots richer. I arrived there knowing no one and nothing, and when I left, I left friends behind in a hostile environment. Time for you to stop worrying about me, and me to start worrying about them. I hope they will fare well, inshallah.

Thank you for your thoughts, prayers and good wishes. Every email from every familiar voice was welcome – you guys made me smile a lot when the going was tough. I spent a few days in the Baghdad bureau, but office work was never my thing. Most of my time, more than three weeks, was spent on a U.S. Army embed near Baqouba, about 60 kilometers northeast of the capital, near the border to Iran. Camp Boom, a former Republican Guard base, is now home to the soldiers of an Engineer Battalion of the 4th Infantry Division. Baqouba is a hotbed of loyalist activity, the soldiers’ main mission is to search for former regime supporters and their weapons caches. Every so often an informer leads them on a hunt for the big fish himself, the Ace of Spades. But even after 75 such tipoffs across the country since the coalition arrived, Saddam Hussein remains at large.

It was hot, uncomfortable and downright filthy in the desert. With the summer temperature in Baqouba reaching 120 degrees Farenheit – 48 degrees Celcius – or more our living conditions were very basic. No air conditioning, no running water and no privacy. I never knew I could get so sweaty and dirty and disgusting and still be able to live with myself. We slept in the open air, under a perfectly clear starry sky every night, with gunfire in the distance. The local fauna included sand fleas, black scorpions and wild dogs.

An Iraqi and and American

There was also enough tragedy on my watch. On August 17th we lost a friend and colleague, our company’s second fatality of this war. Our cameraman survived years of dangerous unrest in his home, Hebron, only to die on an empty Baghdad street in broad daylight at the hands of a U.S. tank gunner. Two days later, the United Nations was dragged into the ever tightening spiral of violence. Earlier in the month, the Jordanian embassy was bombed. On a peaceful Friday in Najjaf, south of Baghdad, the first shot of a possible civil war was fired. During my time in Iraq, about 20 U.S. and British soldiers lost their lives to ambushes and homemade bombs.

My cameraman and I had some close calls and we were very lucky, narrowly escaping one such bomb. An explosive device, planted at a busy Baqouba traffic circle, went off  as a  military convoy passed. It was intended to kill Americans, instead it killed two Iraqi children. The humvee in which we were traveling had passed that very spot just 15 minutes earlier. Another time, at night, our vehicle swerved to avoid the carcass of a wild dog lying on the side of the road. We found out later that the carcass had been stuffed with explosives.

Baghdad in the afternoon

Was I scared at all? Strangely, no, not really. Looking back, the only real fear I felt was on my way into the country, at night, on an eleven-hour car journey from Amman to Baghdad, into the unknown. Once there, it was futile to be scared or to panic, and somehow, after a few days, I didn’t even think of it. My senses were more acute, I had to trust my instincts and I had to trust those who know the territory much better than I ever will. I only took risks that I could justify and the fear quickly gave way to curiosity, disbelief at times, heightened awareness and determination. Only after I left Baghdad, two days ago, did I realize how mentally exhausting living like that really is. My journal was my release – in those weeks I wrote more than 100 notebook pages.

Tomorrow is September 11th again, the events of that day two years ago brought the world to where it is today, and they brought me to Iraq. After this, I now question, more than I did before, the wisdom of the policy that took us from there and then to here and now. I know some of you disagree. I’m still trying to sort through the conflicting feelings I have about it all.

My next challenge is to return to normalcy: pay bills, do laundry, get a haircut. Six weeks in a war zone was long enough to want to return to creature comforts and my own bed. For the first time in a long time, I am happy to be home. The next opportunity to travel will come, so in the meantime I will enjoy taking a break, knowing I did my best to tell a few of the stories.

Be well, everyone.

Farewell, friends.